Technical skills, innovation and business strategy are meaningless without the right leadership

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Wayne Yan believes leaders who have composure and are critical thinkers are the best bet.

Wayne Lester Yan, CTO at Dariel Software, is a third generation Chinese immigrant: both his grandfathers moved to South Africa. “My parents were born here, I was born here and, as such, I speak better Afrikaans than I do Mandarin,” he jokes.

He recalls taking an aptitude test in high school and from the results he scored, his teachers recommended he go into one of two fields: genetic engineering or information technology. “This was an easy decision,” he notes. “We were the first class to receive computer studies as a subject to matric. Even then, I was programming at home as a hobby so I would say that I had an advantage.”

Wayne is one of the founding members of Dariel Software. “Dariel has flown relatively under the radar,” he says. “Our growth has been quite organic and comes from word of mouth. We have avoided using publicity to put ourselves out there,” he explains.

World-class developers

He describes software development as a very broad discipline and says anyone who chooses that path should be prepared for a journey of lifelong learning. “One will be faced with the difficulties of remaining relevant, keeping up-to-date and understanding new developments. How they can be of business value is something one will continually have to evaluate; it is an absolute lifelong discipline that never ceases to teach one something new,” he says.

In addition, Wayne noted that the biggest threat to South Africa when it comes to talent is the versatility of local developers. “A common trend overseas is specialisation, and developers abroad are mostly good at doing one thing very well. In contrast, South African developers are quite versatile. Thus they are highly sought after; that is where the problem lies,” he says. “They end up being easy pickings by overseas firms.”

Furthermore, local developers have the privilege of living in a culturally diverse society and are able to navigate different cultures and communicate in such a way that they can translate people’s needs into systems. “We are extremely hardworking and have a willingness to succeed, which has resulted in many of our professionals taking up offers in Europe, for example,” he says. “International firms are making financial and career promises that local talent simply cannot refuse.”

He points out that while there is a gap that needs to be filled locally, the most difficult part is finding the right people. “We come across several high-potential candidates on a daily basis, all from diverse backgrounds, but the problem is time and experience. You cannot manufacture time or years of exposure to high complexity critical systems, and trying to explain the discipline and accountability that comes with that is difficult,” he notes.

The stakes are very high

Taking a gamble on these promising individuals and setting aside their lack of experience is one thing. However, the stakes are very high, especially if that gamble doesn’t pay off. “We have witnessed recent system failures at major banks, but if they shut down an entire card division for a day because of inexperience, the economic consequences are devastating,” he says. “I can give you a chance, but in the wrong context, that chance would mean billions of rands in the red for the country,” he notes.

These factors, he says, present themselves as a challenge to leaders to put in new controls, new ways of looking at quality and a new approach to oversight. Ultimately a good candidate operating in a void cannot develop the decision-making and critical thinking skills needed to execute a job well: “Playing at a senior level all boils down to how good your decision-making skills are.”

He sums up the process as a very tedious, but necessary one of coaching, mentoring and over-managing at the beginning to ensure safety. Once trust and competency has been established, one can then let the reins go a little. “I would describe this as tempering steel. You can’t temper steel overnight: it’s a long process and the same applies when trying to develop an effective leader.”

The hard path

Wayne says this oversight aspect and mentorship are interlinked, but his own experience was one of being thrown in the deep end and required to take responsibility for a major project from the onset. “Putting someone in such a position,” he says, “allows them to build up an internal resilience that arms them with the tools to deal with high-stakes problems,” he says.

“On the other hand, you have the ‘soft path’, where candidates go through an official graduate or mentorship programme and these individuals are introduced to the company: its structure, culture and how everything works, until they develop the necessary skills.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “I’ve got nothing against it – I just come from a different era. But this approach takes time. The pace at which our economy should be moving is 10 steps behind where it should be, and the time to grow someone in a slow manner is just a luxury we can’t afford.”

He concluded by saying that although the “hard path” seems a little harsh and being given such responsibility at an early stage also means that mistakes will be made, “making those mistakes helps you to build up two important qualities: character and, crucially, composure.

“Composure is your ability to hold it together when things go wrong; if you as the leader display the slightest sign of panic, the business panics, and when the business panics, people stop thinking clearly and make silly mistakes.”

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