DataNoble’s Tiaan van Zyl is a musician at heart, but a techie in practice

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Tiaan was conflicted about what career path to take, but finds connections between music and IT.

Tiaan van Zyl, CIO at DataNoble, was exposed to classical music from an early age, which informed his desire to go down the musical path. He even considered studying sound engineering, but ended up at Stellenbosch University’s Conservatorium. Tiaan intended to study a bachelor’s degree in music with classical guitar as his instrument of choice, but it was during his time at Stellenbosch that he started having second thoughts about a career in music.

“Music is a difficult career to get into,” he says. “You either become a music teacher, or if you’re extremely talented, and extremely lucky, you can become a performer, which was what I was more interested in at the time.”

Tiaan took none of those paths. He finished his bachelor’s in social sciences through Unisa, but IT always knew where to find him. “While finishing my degree I was working as a research assistant, and I ended up being invited to a skills development and data analysis workshop run by the Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority (CHIETA). They took us through MS Access, and I learned how databases work and how to run queries in Microsoft Access, something I managed to grasp very quickly.

“None of it was very sophisticated. In fact, it was very introductory, which is a good thing, because you are sometimes thrown into the deep end in IT. I firmly believe that the correct way to get into this field is to first understand data at a very fundamental level, understand how to work with data, understand how to manipulate databases, understand structured query language (SQL),” Tiaan notes.

It was a great foundation for an IT career, he notes, but something was missing. He wanted to learn more. He eventually learned how to build systems, how programming worked, and spent a lot of time studying these areas, reading a lot of books, and even did online courses like those presented on Udemy and Codecademy. As a result, he learnt to code.

“Coding being such a high-demand skill, I never really struggled finding work,” he adds. Following this path of self-tuition, Tiaan completed a BSc in IT cum laude.

Tiaan also draws parallels between music and programming. His focus in IT was largely around software development, digital transformation, and writing business rules into programming structures – simplifying processes in business, and in the projects you work on.

“I always thought of music as the first programming language, because we work within a structure, and within that structure there’s logic. Music must make sense: there’s a flow, and there’s always this kind of play between tension and resolution, especially in classical music.”

He highlights that even during his studies at the Conservatorium there were music technology modules, which went into the computer side of music production, and today almost everything is software-driven.

Tiaan has a very different take on AI. He acknowledges that tools like ChatGPT are great, but are merely good at imitating intelligence at a superficial level. “It is a very clever thing, but we should be wary of calling it or accepting it as artificial intelligence, in my opinion,” he says. “To me, it’s more like very advanced machine learning: large language models are great, and very good at processing language, but that’s basically the only utility they have. Human intelligence encompasses a range of characteristics and phenomena we are not yet able to understand practically, let alone simulate algorithmically.”

Taking a closer look at other forms of AI, Tiaan is very concerned about deepfakes. People are weird creatures, as he puts it. “Some individuals will take the opportunity to do something malicious with the technologies that we’ve got, and for that purpose,” he adds. “I think deepfakes are particularly dangerous because once you see something, it’s very difficult to unsee it, even if it's not real.” He uses recreated images of the Pope and other notable figures that were circulated on social media as examples.

On leadership, Tiaan says that it is very important to be very approachable as a leader. “We are not a large organisation, therefore things like teamwork are super important, and I see myself as IT support, more than I see myself as chief of anything,” he notes.

“It’s very important to me that the people in my team can contact me and ask me questions. I don’t want them to ever be shy – there are no dumb questions. I believe that it’s better to get clarity on things, and that’s the positive environment we’ve created at DataNoble.”

Some time in the great outdoors

Tiaan’s favourite recreational activity is paddling, specifically river marathons and open ocean surf ski racing. “We’ve done races on most of South Africa’s great rivers, like the Vaal, the Orange, the Breede, the Tugela and many more. I’m fortunate to live on the Berg River, so I can train from my own doorstep.”

Tiaan is also into a little-known sport called adventure racing, which is very physically challenging and definitely not a spectator sport. “You go out in the bush, and you get a map and you get a compass and you get a list of checkpoints that you have to reach. There are adventure races that can go up to five days – if you like punishment. I’ve done one-day adventure races where you’re on foot for about 30 kilometres, on the mountain bike for about 90 kilometres, but not on the road – it’s like bushwhacking.” he explains.

It’s quite the adventure, he says – where you battle all sorts of terrain and figure out how to get to the checkpoint as quickly as possible, by identifying markers like trees and rivers. “You’re on foot, you do some swimming, you do some paddling, and you do a lot of biking. About 20 to 30 percent is on foot, 60 to 70 percent on a bicycle, and then the rest usually involves paddling or swimming – it’s pretty intense, but you get some sun and fresh air, and it’s really fun.”

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