Mathabo Nakene-Mginqi shares the lessons from her career so far

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Unisa’s vice-principal: ICT-CIO Mathabo Nakene-Mginqi explains that what may look like a normal organisation or job on the surface, serves a bigger purpose.

Mathabo Nakene-Mginqi, currently Unisa’s vice-principal: ICT-CIO, has worked in sectors spanning aviation and public service – and says each stint came with its own lessons and added to her skill set.

“I enjoyed my time at the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA),” she says. “I was there for six years. Before joining the company I really didn’t have a full appreciation of how intense an airport business is: I was part of something bigger than myself, a business that connects people with their families and ambitions – it’s a transport business, but really at the heart of it, an infrastructure business.”

Mathabo notes that ACSA was the place where she truly cut her teeth in managing portfolios with multidisciplinary teams and running rolling capital investment.

At ACSA, Mathabo launched automated emigration gates (e-gates), which read identity information from a passenger’s biometric passport and use biometric identification to verify passengers’ identity. Mathabo launched this project in close collaboration with Mthokozisi Mncwabe, CIO at ACSA, her senior at the time.

During her first stint with the Department of Home Affairs, Mathabo formed part of a team that introduced the first travel document reader in preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “I love being part of high-impact projects that not only change business processes, but also change lives for the better,” she says.

Her second time with Home Affairs saw Mathabo help launch smartcard IDs with the big banks in 2014/2015 alongside former minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba. Now, citizens can renew their IDs or passports at 30 bank branches countrywide – with more to be rolled out in future.

An appetite for applications

Today, Mathabo is the vice-principal for ICT at Unisa. She highlights increasing student productivity on Unisa’s learning management system as one of her biggest successes with the university. “We previously had a performance percentage of 97 percent, and the two years I’ve been here, it has gone up to just over 99 percent – reducing lost productivity hours by 40 percent,” she explains.

It’s a significant achievement, especially for when assignment submissions peaks hit, she explains. The university processes more than five million assignments a year.

“My other big role as vice-principal was to ensure omni-channel communication between the students and the university, and I achieved that by way of a mobile app called Unisa Student, which launched at last year’s closing university ceremony,” she says.

Mathabo says the app was benchmarked against Stanford University and UCLA’s applications, which was an eye-opening visit and experience for her.

“Both universities have a number of apps that target audiences within the student community,” she explains. “For example, UCLA is very big on using their infrastructure for sports and have one app dedicated to their sports functions, another for navigating the campus, and another for wellness.”

However, Mathabo points out that trying to consolidate all those functions into one app has its downside – it becomes too bulky and the response time is also affected. You lose your audience, she says, as they become frustrated about how slow the app is. In essence, there’s no such thing as a super app.

From a learning management perspective, the biggest lesson Mathabo has learned is that although there are many learning management systems out there, once you operate at the scale of an institution like Unisa, your capabilities, infrastructure management and understanding of what cloud offers you become critical.

“Cloud drives growth. If you understand the benefits of cloud as a business, you are then empowered, to say, with all the digital transformation that’s happening, how does cloud help you transform the business and generate revenue?” she notes.

A designer life

Mathabo calls Dube in Soweto home. She had the pleasure of experiencing life and education in both the township and in the suburbs, a stint at a local school and one at a private school, where a casual class in computers unintentionally inspired what Mathabo would study later on in life.

After matric, she went off to UCT to study a BSc in computer science. She also holds an MSc in project management, which came in very handy in helping her see through some of her biggest projects in her career.

However, there’s a very important part in Mathabo’s journey outside of IT: a time when she took a sabbatical in 2012 and started her own interior design business.

“The biggest lesson taking this step taught me is that I really enjoy the problem-solving journey and design aspect,” she says. “In interior design, we often talk about balancing spaces, colours and getting lights and textures to work for us, all in the effort of enjoying the space – I’ve never worked so hard in my life!!”

“Those three-and-a-half years of running my own interior design business gave me a newfound respect for anyone who says they run their own small business. It was also a humbling experience, because in the small business world, your fancy qualification means absolutely nothing. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting the job done,” Mathabo concludes.

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