At OfferZen, we believe that talent is universally distributed but opportunity isn’t. Underserved South Africans often struggle to thrive in the tech workplace, even if they have the correct technical skills, because they are not ready for the challenges that the workplace presents. We asked Baratang Miya, CEO of GirlHype, and Alwyn van Wyk, Chairperson of Younglings Africa, about what it means to be work-ready and how we can collaborate to improve inclusion in the tech space.
Meet the Panel:
Having worked as a developer, agile evangelist, solution designer and project manager for many years, Alwyn van Wyk has a long history in the software development industry. After working on the ABSA Aliens Research and Design Team, he became the Founder of the Younglings Africa programme that supports young, talented, school-leavers through coding apprenticeships.
Social entrepreneur, Baratang Miya, is currently working as the Managing Director of Uhuru Spaces and CEO of GirlHype. Having taught herself to code while at university, Baratang shared her knowledge by persistently helping girls learn the technical skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace. Her inspiration comes from empowering women and girls to close the gender gap in the tech industry.
Non-technical skills required for work-readiness
Despite companies’ dire need for more talent, there are many South Africans who still struggle to find work in the tech industry - even with sufficient skills. Baratang and Alwyn both agreed that this is largely due to differences in culture, life experiences and economic standing: Our Westernised work environments aren’t set up well enough yet to help people from underserved communities thrive.
“We have girls that come from totally different backgrounds, and they’ve learnt how to code in a short space of time, but when they get to the workplace they feel like they can’t code. The environments they go to are so fast, so they need someone to help them adapt.” - Baratang Miya
In order to help their students and interns become more work-ready, the non-technical skills that both Baratang and Alwyn try to continuously focus on are as follows:
“People don’t pay you to write code, they pay you to solve problems,” Baratang said. That’s why both she and Alwyn put a lot of focus on teaching aspiring developers to first understand a problem before they tackle it.
When looking at potential GirlHype students, Baratang highlighted that they don’t test student’s coding abilities, but their logical thinking ability. “If you can’t do that, no matter how much training you get, you aren’t the right person for the tech industry,” she noted.
Even if you’re able to take instructions well and produce a finished product on your own, you need to be a good team player to succeed in your career. Being a good team member means being able to make yourself emotionally vulnerable enough to:
- Communicate expectations and challenges,
- Behave appropriately, as well as
- Give and take feedback without getting irritable.
“African culture teaches us to not do this,” explained Baratang, “our parents don’t have time for complainers - so we internalise it.” This can make it difficult to open up and be vulnerable enough to be a good team member.
In the Younglings internship programme, Alwyn and his team aim to teach the importance of teamwork through mimicking real-world development situations with their students. After 6 months of technical training, the interns are exposed to a ‘pressure cooker’ environment where they work for 6 months to deliver on strict code deadlines, while following agile methodologies with the rest of their team. He noted that this simulated environment triggers a change in his students. They tend to band together to overcome the challenges set for them, which often leads them to “unlock their passion - and then they’re unstoppable!”
Since underserved individuals often come from environments and cultures that are different from those adopted by our still largely Westernised companies, it can be challenging to immediately fit in or understand how to operate within this new environment. For example, if you believe that communicating your challenges will make you sound weak and incompetent, then you’ll be very hesitant to do so - especially if you aren’t used to this being a necessity for useful collaboration.
“They have the capability to adjust and adapt, but we need to give them the opportunity,” explained Baratang. That’s why she and her team carefully pair up students with different world views and experiences. “We need to teach them how to survive in an uncomfortable world,” she pointed out. By putting them in a position where they need to struggle through their differences, they adapt to be able to better solve the problem at hand.
To enter the workforce and win, you also have to feel like you’re capable of doing so, as Alwyn highlighted. “You can’t feel comfortable in an environment if you don’t feel like you’ve earned your stripes”. This is why Alwyn and his team place a lot of emphasis on helping their students unlock their inner obsession for coding.
“We help you find your passion for soft dev, and then, when you ‘click’, that confidence comes naturally.” - Alwyn van Wyk
Additionally, Baratang strongly believes that teaching someone to code can build their self-confidence, regardless of the direction that they take in their tech career. Once they can code, an individual will have far more opportunities to choose from. This can improve their self-confidence because they feel empowered to choose their prospects.
The responsibility of teaching work-readiness
Both Alwyn and Baratang agreed that task of preparing underserved communities for working in the tech industry needs to be approached holistically: There is a need for everyone in the tech community to work together to get people excited about code from a young age, and then continuously foster the skills that those people need throughout their careers.
There are many programmes in South Africa that teach the technical skills and get young people excited about code. In order to make a holistic impact, we need to get involved in preparing aspiring software makers for the work relationship dynamics in the industry.
Here are a few suggestions from Alwyn and Baratang on how other institutions can start making a difference too:
Schools and universities
In their opinion, we are doing our young people a disservice by only emphasising subjects like mathematics and science, because that puts a lot of them off from even thinking about tech as an option. Instead, we should tell people who want to be good software developers, that they need to put a lot of effort into it and teach them what it looks like to learn and grow throughout their lives.
“Schools need to teach you to be disciplined and willing to learn. If you can become a diligent school child, and are willing to invest in yourself, then you can get into software development and find a good job!” - Baratang Miya
Alwyn argued that companies should be the most interested in getting more people into the tech industry because they are in such urgent need of tech talent. To start growing their long-term pipelines, companies “need to take hands with the government and schools, and get them to start investing in people from a younger age,” he suggested.
This might include things like:
- Visit schools: “Take your coolest people to visit grade 9s right now and teach them something - anything!” Alwyn emphasised. Catching their attention right now will reap rewards in four to five years time when they leave school, because they will be able to relate to you better because you’ve been there, shown interest and understand them better.
- Go to institutions, like the ones in this article, who train people to be ready for your industry. “We are trying to get the middle part right, but it is massively expensive,” explained Alwyn, “but if you go to those people, you can help by investing in them.”
- Connect with like-minded people who have come through these programs, and ask them to help you understand this space better.
Once someone from an underserved background enters the working world, there are also things that companies can do now to make the transition easier. Since every company works in a different way, depending on their unique culture, it can be really difficult to fit in if you don’t have those little quirks that everyone else seems to share.
To help someone feel at home in your specific workplace, Alwyn noted that you can:
- Warmly embrace them into your company,
- Understand where they are and what support structures they need, and
- Provide them with what they need in order to succeed.
Often, by diversifying the assistance that you provide for new hires, you can really make a big impact on how prepared they are for your workplace. For example, Baratang explained how GirlHype was approached to help with skills training for graduates, but that this had to be done in partnership with another company who was mentoring the graduates on their emotional IQ. She emphasised that “this partnership helped [them] build trust, and solve all of the issues that prevent graduates from being able to perform in the workplace.”
You can check out the podcast and video taken at the event here: