Trust, belief and a little experimentation go a long way, he says.
Stefan Bauer, Chief Technology Officer at WhereIsMyTransport, grew up in Germany near Frankfurt. He studied computer science at Darmstadt University, but wanted to connect with an English-speaking university in the UK or US for more opportunities, so he enrolled at Lancaster University in England.
Stefan applied for a summer internship with Bloomberg during his studies; he recalls it as an enriching experience that taught him about team-building and financial data production. He went on to become a Research & Development team leader in unstructured data acquisition.
Stefan met his wife, a South African citizen, in London, and the couple decided to move to South Africa in 2013. “I left Bloomberg to work as a software development manager for Amazon in South Africa, where our team handled instance health and, later, reserved instances,” he says. “I learned a lot at Amazon about scaling teams and building software at scale; at one point, we released software to hundreds of thousands of machines.” He’s also worked for smaller businesses, such as Prodigy Finance, and spent some time at Takealot.com.
A passion for growing talent
In 2018, while looking for his next role, Stefan met Devin de Vries, co-founder and CEO of WhereIsMyTransport. “One of my biggest passions is growing teams and building an excellent engineering function that brings the business vision forward,” he says.
“I was drawn into the IT space because of the idea of creating things and making automation work for us. However, working as an engineer, I realised that I enjoyed creating through interaction and collaboration with other people rather than developing in isolation.”
South Africa has great universities and talent, but the country is also confronting several challenges, which also exist abroad, particularly the lack of education in schools tailored towards a career in IT, notes Stefan: “The opportunity to experiment with different technologies isn’t there – and it’s even more amplified in South Africa,” he observes. “There are also social challenges which cannot be ignored such as access to data, internet and higher education, a huge learning experience on one hand, but a personal challenge for myself of how I can play my part in finding the very best tech talent in the country.”
South Africa is abundant with brilliant young talented minds, he says: “South Africa is the centre of gravity for our superb tech team, home to 80 percent of our engineering roles. One of our recent engineers, who joined us a few months ago, is a great example; he’s a product of the Younglings youth accelerator programme and one of the best junior engineers I’ve ever worked with, which is fantastic to see.
“Growing our team has been a combination of several factors: past experiences, a comprehensive how-to playbook on data mapping, the structures in WhereIsMyTransport’s scalable model, along with our technology and innovative team, which allowed this to happen,” adds Stefan.
Secrets to retaining talent
WhereIsMyTransport has been successful in bringing in new talent into the IT industry, and Stefan believes that the company's secret to success and talent retention is largely due to its culture of trusting people and giving them autonomy. “This, incidentally, made the transition during the Covid-19 lockdown very easy for us, because we trusted our people to do the right thing: we gave them the tools and got out of their way, and it worked out perfectly,” he says.
Stefan also credits a strategy of investing in professional development. “We have many examples across the business where people took a chance to try something different from their day-to-day role,” he says, of allowing them to shift roles and to positions where they can demonstrate they will have the most impact on the business vision.
“One of our team members tried scripting automation in our data production areas and fell in love with it. By taking on more engineering opportunities, he is now on his way to becoming a senior frontend engineer,” he says.
Milestones reached and where it all began
WhereIsMyTransport was founded by UCT graduates and software engineers Chris King, Devin de Vries and Dave New. They found navigating the public transportation system quite challenging, not just here in South Africa, but in other emerging markets too. They set out to decode the transportation experience in emerging markets, helping people make data-driven decisions based on the public transportation network data, point of interest (POI) data, and real-time alerts they produce.
The technology company started mapping public transport in South Africa in 2016 before expanding globally to become the central source of mobility data for high-growth, emerging markets.
“Gathering data has been the core of our business over the years and this informed how we mapped our cities and did so effectively,” says Stefan. “We went from taking months to map a city to now being able to map a megacity in a matter of weeks, and from mapping megacities in South Africa, we then set our sights on going global, focusing on megacities across several continents,” he says.
A few years later, WhereIsMyTransport reached a major milestone of mapping 50 cities in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Europe, and Asia, becoming the first company to offer high-quality mobility and location data in these markets. Stefan notes that along with achieving this major milestone, the mobility technology company also had to grow its team. “When I joined WhereIsMyTransport, we had 25 employees in our Cape Town office. Now we have 130 employees globally, with a large presence in South Africa. Growing the team, he notes, was a learning experience in itself.
The team has produced over 1.1 million kilometres of public transport network data and millions of other data points. In South Africa, WhereIsMyTransport has produced data for Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Gauteng Province, George, Gqeberha and Mbombela.