Nicholas Papanicolaou’s technical prowess goes way back

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He’d already hacked his school’s network at 14 years old.

TUHF’s IT Executive, Nico Papanicolaou’s passion for IT began at an early age, in primary school. He was fortunate enough to have had access to computers at the primary school he attended. In fact, he had access to computers from as early as Grade 1, which was a rarity at the time.

“We had some generous benefactors who donated some IBM Compatible desktop computers to our school. I believe we were one of the first schools to have a dedicated computer lab,” he says.

“These computers had a very basic programming language installed, designed to teach children how to program, and I really got into it, and so did many of my friends. By the time I had reached Grade 9, we had already formed a mini community of IT geeks in the school. We took it a step further and proposed a penetration test with the head of the computer lab, he laughed us off and told us to go ahead, and we made quick work of the Novell network and managed to secure ‘root’ access with ease."

The fact that a group of 14-year-olds were able to gain access to the school’s network gave the institution quite a fright and revealed how technically proficient we were. “Quite impressed by the level of skill we had, the school gifted us with some licences to some integrated development environments, which further ignited my passion for IT,” says Nico.

He went on to study a BSc in computer science at the Rand Afrikaans University and later pursued a master’s degree at the University of Johannesburg, however his plans were put on hold. “Working full-time while trying to get your master’s degree was challenging, it also didn’t help that my master’s dissertation was part of an international patent that the university was pursuing, limiting my authority to share the program architecture and get published.”

He then got heavily involved in the corporate world and joined SoftAudit Services as a solutions architect, who had just gotten an enquiry from Eskom about an enterprise system when Nico arrived. Faced with the challenge of building a GRC system at Eskom, with a stopgap of five years before SAP could be implemented, Nico and his team needed a flexible, configurable and scalable solution, and they rose to the occasion.

“I managed to design, build and implement a solution that had a significant user base, we were pioneers at the time building a zero-code platform from scratch while this experience taught me a lot about how these large-scale enterprise systems are configured and managed in these organisations, it also helped me climb up the ranks quite quickly at SoftAudit, where I later became their CTO,” he says.

Nico went on to assume several roles as CTO/CIO for other organisations until joining TUHF Limited as IT executive in 2020.

TUHF’s mission statement of uplifting the communities of inner cities in South Africa really resonated with Nico. He’s fully aware of the advantage his early access to computers bestowed, and he’s paying that forward. “We have TUHF Foundation and through this organisation we support early childhood development, have sponsored schools in the inner-city amongst other donations. The idea is to ignite their passion for learning and hopefully even find a passion for IT, just like it was ignited in me.”

“We are also currently brainstorming a programme which we will be kicking off in the beginning of June 2022, with the intention of visiting various schools within the inner-city, to discuss the topics of technology, education and career progression within the Information Technology sector with a specific focus on access to open-source platforms.”

As a problem solver with a foundation in solutions architecture, Nico is also passionate about start-ups which by their very nature are created to solve specific problems. However, he does point out that funding tends to be a roadblock within the start-up landscape.

“I think the major issue with start-ups in South Africa and even some countries abroad is the access to funding, specifically early stage funding which is also aptly named ‘angel funding’.

I’ve even played in that space myself, approached some investors a few years back and their response was to ‘build it, make it work’, and then they would invest. One is faced with a chicken and egg scenario, if development is self-funded there is seldom need for external investment,” he says.

“Local investors are quite conservative compared to international investors, where angel funding is an established norm. Here, they tend to invest in brick-and-mortar projects where they can at least recoup some of their investment if the project fails by selling off the physical assets. Software on the other hand, is a different beast: if it doesn’t work, these investors really don’t know what to do with it.”

Incubation hubs, he notes, are quite popular overseas and that level of incubation ‘seed to actualisation’ would be very beneficial in our country in order to drive an entrepreneurial culture. Nico went on to say that entrepreneurs need to understand that the traditional method of putting together a thousand page business plan has been replaced with a more succinct lean start-up methodology and philosophy: “Before, the ‘thud factor’ of your business plan was important, but now you can put your ideas on a logically organised lean canvas, present it to potential investors and hopefully get the funding you need, that's if you are lucky enough to find an angel investor, because they can at least see that there is a level of organised thought behind it.”

“What I have found to be the biggest hurdle facing new start-ups, is not just the funding of the business, but making sure that your team members are just as invested as you are and that you have a great relationship. You need to treat the process of finding business partners to execute your idea with the same level of prudentialism one might undertake in finding a husband or wife as it’s critical that you are all rowing in the same direction.”

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