Of the 26.8 million active software developers globally, only 121,000 reside in South Africa. Add to this the fact that 38% of African developers work for at least one organisation outside of the continent and it’s clear why tech talent is hard to come by for South African firms.
The move from monolithic on-premises IT solutions to in-cloud rent-and-assemble models is further exacerbating the unrelenting demand for tech talent locally and globally, says Malcolm Laing, former Investec Group chief information officer and founding member of the Academy of Accelerated Technology Education (AATE).
He cited the latest 2021 ICT Skills Survey which found nearly 10,000 hard-to-fill positions in the South African information and communications technology (ICT) sector. This in a country where 12.5% of graduates are unemployed.
“There are just not enough technical skills in the country to satisfy business demand. That is the crux of the matter,” said Laing.
The AATE is a new initiative by South African corporates that aims to address two prolific challenges that currently afflict South Africa – record unemployment and a persistent skills shortage in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector.
“There’s no lack of intelligence. These graduates are amazing – we find brilliant people coming out of the universities, but their technical skills are not quite what is required on the job, so they can’t hit the ground running,” Laing said.
He believes this is due to university curriculums not keeping up with the pace of technological change. He said that universities need a stable curriculum, while the tech industry is changing its methods and means every 18 months.
That’s not to say that universities don’t have a place in teaching foundational tech skills. “If you are taught the basics of technology properly and you understand the impact of code, then you understand the underlying fundamentals of the tech world.”
Margaret Pekelaar, head of people in DevOps Practice at Altron Systems Integration noted that businesses are competing for a limited pool of IT skills, and the pressure is intensifying as the demand for emerging technologies grows.
“Artificial intelligence and automation are rapidly changing the business landscape, and cyber security and cloud migration are more urgent than ever. In South Africa, IT professionals are able to secure work globally, either through emigration or remote work opportunities, which makes it even harder to secure local talent,” she said.
“South Africa needs to grow its own ICT skills so that local companies can expand their operations, respond to local conditions and meet changing customer expectations.”
Given the shortage of talent, Pekelaar said that employers are also increasingly willing to consider talent with non-traditional backgrounds for IT-related jobs because they recognise that the job market is changing and skills can transfer from one discipline to another.
In particular, finance and engineering professionals are well-placed to make a move into ICT. People with financial services experience, such as accountants or auditors, who work extensively with ICT systems develop a good understanding of these systems and bring valuable business know-how and experience to complement ICT teams.
Also, knowledge diversity in teams can be extremely valuable, she said.
Among the most in-demand skills to plug the ICT gap are:
- Engineers – particularly electronic and industrial engineers who are exposed to ICT systems at university, move from more traditional engineering careers into fully ICT careers.
- Professionals who have developed strong analytical skills – such as financial analysts and lawyers – are well-suited to ICT analyst roles.
- ‘Learn to code‘ – even if the intention is not to move to being a software coder, learning a coding language such as Python is recommended as this gives people hands-on experience of basic IT technology and how it hangs together. Recognised certification courses in the field of interest are a very good idea.
- Anything cloud – this includes cloud engineers who are responsible for managing, planning, architecting and monitoring cloud workloads. It also includes cloud developers, software engineers with a specialisation in cloud computing, and cloud migration engineers with a strong understanding of cloud and infrastructure components.
- Data engineers – this job looks after an organisation’s data and requires technical skills to collect, manage and convert raw data into usable formats for analytical or operational purposes.
- DevOps engineers – particularly those who are responsible for implementing processes and tools to balance needs throughout the software development life cycle from coding to deployment.
- Java developers – Java is a software language used by many larger organisations both in South Africa and abroad. These are software engineers with skills to develop IT applications with either a focus on front-end applications or back-end services.
The talent is there – if you look hard enough
“Talent is universally distributed, but opportunity is not,” said Stephen van der Heijden, vice president of Community at OfferZen.
“In short, there are people that are undiscovered that are not realising their potential. Our mission is to find these undiscovered developers and give them the world’s opportunities.
“Software developers are notoriously bad at packaging themselves and we find that with a little guidance and the right tooling, we can help them better represent themselves in the market and get the jobs they deserve.”
“According to our State of the Developer Nation report, a junior software developer switches employment every few months because they want to learn a new language. Acquiring a new language sometimes necessitates a change of employment. So they’ll be changing employment as often as every 12 months.”
A software company, onboarding and training juniors and then soon losing them, can find this a costly exercise.
“The challenge is to build mentoring programmes and distract your seniors from actually building the software so they can mentor juniors. It’s a very risky and high-intensity exercise,” said Van der Heijden.
The acute junior developer problem, according to Van der Heijden is also that companies are loathe to invest in a junior software developer for the first time. “As a result, they use work experience as a proxy for quality. It’s hard to get hired if you have no work experience, and this is especially true in the software development field.”
According to OfferZen’s State of the Software Developer Nation report for 2022, these are the most popular programming languages in South Africa.