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NOW Ep27: Solving SA’s tech talent crisis

In this episode of No Ordinary Wednesday podcast, Jeremy Maggs and guests discuss the critical shortage of tech talent in the South Africa. How did we get here? And what are we doing to address the crisis? 

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As digital transformation continues to reshape industries at breakneck pace, South Africa’s tech-talent shortage is placing enormous pressure on organisations to keep up. A spike in remote working is making it even easier for international companies to poach our best brains, creating an even greater demand for crucial skills.

The landscape

Just why has the demand for tech talent skyrocketed? According to Shabhana Thaver, Chief Information Officer at Investec, we need to factor in a massive shift in systems and structures. She was one of the guests on the No Ordinary Wednesday podcast on Investec Focus Radio.

‘My view is that the pandemic has shocked the system and accelerated the use of technology,’ says Thaver. ‘Organisations have responded by reengineering their internal operations, using technology to create efficiencies for remote working.’

Digital transformation has become one of the leading strategic objectives, not only to adapt to new ways of operating, but to drive new business models and differentiation.’

There’s no denying the great need for tech skills and innovation. Thaver calls out a few key focus areas, including software engineering, software development, data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and cloud-native computing.

And shortages in these areas are a risk for the competitiveness of South African companies.

Shabana Thaver
Shabhana Thaver, Chief Information Officer, Investec SA

If we don't get the technical skills needed to digitally transform, I think organisations would certainly be outpaced by their competitors. They would not be able to meet consumer demands or expectations, and eventually would certainly be disrupted.

The hurdles

With the challenge clear and implications rather severe, exactly why is it so difficult to pin down tech talent? Stephen van der Heijden is VP of Community at OfferZen, a company that specialises in placing developers. He believes that the talent exists. This begs the question: are organisations are missing a trick when it comes to their employment strategies? If talented people are graduating and organisations are hiring, perhaps we need to start broadening the search.

‘Everybody's fishing in the same pool for the same thing,’ says van der Heijden.

It’s fair to wonder if experienced people are being overlooked because they don’t tick certain boxes. Van der Heijden highlights the need to start seeking out potential rather than cookie-cutter CVs, particularly as developers are fast learners. ‘We don't necessarily see the problem as a talent shortage. We spend our time with our teams trying to match opportunities and potential in a better way.’

The opportunities 

It’s useful to swivel the chess board and consider what tech professionals are chasing. Turns out that above all they are simply seeking out room to grow. Says van der Heijden: ‘At the end of the day, software developers are problem solving and you get that through experience.’ He believes the best opportunities exist in ‘places where people can learn new things, solve new problems and grow’.

This makes sense when one considers how challenging it is to keep up and stay relevant. Malcolm Laing, founder of the Academy of Accelerated Technology Education (AATE), regards the rapid advance of technology as one of the major hurdles to addressing the skills shortage.

‘The problem is the tech landscape changes over an 18-month period,’ says Laing. ‘Universities struggle to give us people that can actually hit the ground running… They can never be up to date because their curriculums must be stable for at least a five-year period. The aim is to create a larger pool of qualified people with up-to-date relevant technical skills, and to stay abreast with the ever-changing technical environment.

AATE is a new training initiative that offers a fast-track programme encompassing both rapid skills development and paid work opportunities – everything, in short, that students need to thrive as technology professionals, no matter what degree they happen to hold. The one-year curriculum includes six months of rapid training in the latest applications that are in current use within corporations. Students are also mentored and placed within participating companies where they are mentored and get valuable work experience.

‘If you get a software engineer who becomes employable, it impacts probably 10 people around that person as well,’ says Laing. ‘The impact on the overall society is huge and that's basically what we are chasing.’

Those looking to make it in the tech space also need to find a way to set themselves apart. Says van der Heijden: ‘Where people used to be building websites, we now have tooling that does that. Where we used to have to write tests, there are automations that do that. So tech is actually kind of coding itself out of a job, which is kind of a strange thought… What we are seeing is that people are looking beyond borders for those impactful individuals – those that can change the game.’

In closing, Laing offers some sage words of advice: ‘I think we need to increase the talent pool. I also think there's a talent pool out there, which is not being adequately mined. I think South African corporates need to take the blinkers off and give people a chance.’

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