She believes that people who are thrust into roles they don’t belong in often fail.
When Neda Smith, City Lodge's IT Director, graduated from the University of Cape Town with a BSc in Computer Science, the internet was a relatively new concept at the time, and the degree itself had a limited scope focusing primarily on programming.
After graduating in 1992, she joined WoolTru as a qualified programmer at the time Woolworths and Truworths were owned by the same group. Neda was recruited as a C++ programmer tasked with developing a network management tool. That is how her journey as a network engineer started.
Neda joined Dimension Data as a network engineer. At that time, there were few women in that space let alone women of colour. “It wasn’t easy at the start,” she says, “but once I started proving my worth, things became easier.”
Neda says several people helped significantly to support her career journey. “Victor Govender, my manager at WoolTru was very supportive and always pointed me in the right direction, and that support continued even when I left the company to join Dimension Data,” she says.
“Being the first female CCIE network engineer on the African continent at the time was a career highlight. This would not have been possible without the support of my former colleagues at Dimension Data who pushed me to get this certification.”
“Managing Dimension Data’s Tanzanian operations for four years is another career highlight I am proud of the turnaround I achieved. There was only one employee when I joined and there were 11 employees when I left as a result of business growth,” she explains.
“Mentoring and paying it forward was the most rewarding part of it all; people with no experience ultimately became business owners later on ─ that’s the most fulfilling part for me. In fact, one of my former mentees now owns an IT company in Tanzania. Having given him his first job, and having been his stepping stone to great things is very fulfilling.”
She describes herself as very approachable, although some perceive her as hard at times. But that's just the nature of the industry, she says. “On one hand, I have the ability to coach and manage people. On the other hand, I’m able to assess and understand each person is unique, how you manage them is different, and how you approach all who report to you should be different,” she says. “Some people need a firm hand, whereas others don’t.”
She’s also an out-of-the-box thinker with a very creative approach to problem-solving. “When people approach me for help on a particularly challenging problem, I like to spend time thinking. I normally have my brainwave at 2am in the morning, when everyone else is fast asleep – that’s when I come up with great solutions,” she jokes.
One of Neda’s most challenging times was during lockdown when most businesses had to shut their doors. The City Lodge team had to come up with creative and innovative solutions to ensure the safety of employees and guests, once guests started returning to hotels. “One of the solutions was to ensure business continuity whilst employees and customers remained safe,” she explains. “Such as launching our online check-in functionality during Covid-19.”
It was when Neda was in charge of Dimension Data’s Tanzanian operations that she realised exactly where her strengths lay and what role suited her personality best. She notes that being the face of the brand was not what she wanted to be.
“I realised that I didn’t want to be the CEO of a company,” she says. “I am much more comfortable being an IT director or operations head than CEO: I can competently manage and direct operations”.
She has also observed that at times, people are promoted beyond their competence and potential. “This is the company’s responsibility to recognise,” she says. “For example, just because you are a brilliant engineer, doesn’t mean you’ll make an excellent engineering manager: these are two different skillsets. Matching skillsets to the role is important. Knowing your own skill set and what you are and are not good at is equally important."