In both South Africa and abroad, what was once a looming skills crisis has quickly become an alarming reality. For years, surveys and research reports have revealed that the lack of skills and expertise is a major constraint to business growth – and indeed, to macroeconomic stability. Nowhere is this lack more pronounced than in the fast growing technology sector.
“In South Africa, and particularly in Cape Town, there is a dearth of trained developers, for example, which can be severely limiting for businesses as they look to ride the global wave of digital transformation,” says Bob Hall, executive director at local software development firm redPanda Software. “It is a monstrous challenge that we have looked to tackle through developing and nurturing these critical skills within our own company.”
In 2012, redPanda Software established a formal internship programme that seeks to provide an opportunity for recent graduates to learn the ropes, so to speak, and move into key roles within the company. The interns spend a year working within different teams, and are each assigned a mentor. After the year, interns either leave or are officially employed by redPanda.
According to Hall, of the 25 interns that redPanda has accepted thus far, 20 have become full-time developers within the company which in turn has greatly aided the growth of redPanda.
“My internship experience was hugely valuable, as there was a massive disconnect between what I learned at college, and what the real world of development required of me,” explains Liam Saaiman, a previous intern and now a developer at redPanda. “The things we learned at college were purely theoretical, and were limited to the introductory level. At redPanda, I very quickly had to figure out how to apply this theory to complex business problems, while working within tight deadlines and dealing with clients.”
In addition, Saaiman had to master new technologies, coding languages and platforms while on the job, as the world of enterprise IT is fast changing, dynamic and disruptive. This is in sharp contrast to the static and often outdated systems that college graduates are exposed to in their course curriculum.
“The mentorship aspect was very important, as it was a way for me to seek guidance and direction when I got stuck,” adds Saaiman. “It can be very daunting, diving into the real world of IT, but with the right support and people behind you, you can make huge progress in a very short space of time.”
Over and above the technical skills, Hall notes that the company places emphasis on developing the softer skills, such as communication and collaboration, which he believes are just as critical as having the technical abilities and experience.
“It is so important, in this environment, to be able to communicate effectively with both your colleagues and your clients,” he says. “We encourage our interns to develop these skills, and regularly hold team building events and pizza lunches in order to foster cohesive and supportive teams.”
Hall points out that interns are always working within scrum teams of around eight people, ensuring that each individual not only gets involved and learns, but can also receive much needed feedback and support. The work is deliberately challenging, always stretching the interns to go beyond comfort zones – and increasingly also includes exposure to multinational clients.
“As a company we are growing very quickly, and to fuel this growth our focus is very much on ensuring that we train and develop a talented developers through the internship programme, and that these developers always feel that they are an integral part of redPanda,” adds Hall. “This is not a tick box exercise – it’s very much a part of our business strategy and mission going forward.”