The Great Resignation – reversed

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Kurt Kruger and Stefan Bauer share insights on how IT leaders can retain tech talent.

Since 2020, nearly 60 percent of South African developers changed jobs and despite IT employment opportunities increasing by over 100 percent in Q1 2022, quality tech talent seems to be in short supply.

According to Snapscan’s CTO, Kurt Kruger, there’s more to the tech talent skills shortage than a case of too many jobs and not enough people. Kurt believes that over the last 18 months, engineers have priced themselves out of the market: “It’s not uncommon to see someone with two to four years’ experience asking for almost a million a year,” he says, adding that there's also a disconnect between what companies think they need and what they actually need.

“The legacy thinking is that you need a team of rock stars to build the best products, but what companies really need is just someone who has potential, who is responsible, and who is eager to learn and contribute,” says Kurt. He adds that the interview process, especially in engineering, is still biased in terms of gender, race, and age, and it’s leading people to believe there’s a shortage of good engineers when in reality, the wrong demographic is being focused on, and opportunities to fill these skills gaps are being missed.

Kurt adds that there are more jobs now than three years ago, and he believes this has been driven by three factors: the huge growth in the number of VC-backed companies, especially in Africa, international tech companies opening local headquarters that need a full staff complement, as well as corporates creating in-house innovation hubs.

In relation to the Great Resignation, Kurt says that Snapscan has not emerged unscathed. “I’ve been with Snapscan since 2019 when we only had three devs. Now the dev and product teams are around 30 people – but we would’ve been closer to 40 people if it hadn’t been for the Great Resignation,” he explains. “We’ve also lost people who have joined international tech companies based here, in the hopes of being transferred overseas; I’ve seen that with a few candidates, and within a few months they get relocated to Amsterdam, the UK, or Germany.”

Kurt notes that many of those who’ve left have been junior, with Snapscan being their first job. “They want to find out what else is out there – to explore and see what’s more aligned to their passions.”

‘Just walk it off’

For Kurt, a significant factor for tech talent leaving is often missed, or not even talked about. “Talking about mental health is still taboo,” he says. “IT is still very much male-dominated, and people are encouraged to just ‘walk it off’. There’s also a misconception from some managers that every team member will perform at 100 percent, every single day. But we’re all human and we're not robots.”

Kurt adds that at Snapscan, mental health is something that has been top of mind so that people can feel psychologically safe – and have difficult conversations. “It means that everyone can feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work each day, which builds a culture of trust.”

Location, location, location

Stefan Bauer, CTO at WhereIsMyTransport, believes that South Africa is a hub for tech talent and it has become appealing for countries, especially in Europe, to source remote South African IT skills. “I’m interested to see how remote work will pan out, as there’s increased access for South Africans to work in the US, UK, and Europe – while still staying here,” says Stefan.

He adds that South African tech talent is a little cheaper for many of these companies, which may put pressure on the local job market. But the junior talent pool looks hopeful, thanks to coding schools like Code4CT, which teaches young girls coding skills through an extramural coding programme, or codeX, a one-year, full-time coding programme that trains and places young talent as software developers.

“We’re seeing an increase in coding schools that bring in more young professionals without degrees into IT businesses; that’s all that’s needed in terms of accessibility to build out the talent pool,” he says. “WhereIsMyTransport has someone from Younglings who is a fantastic developer.”

According to Stefan, WhereIsMyTransport has been fortunate by design to have low attrition, especially in engineering, as the company is mission-driven.

“We’re solving a huge problem in emerging markets that involves public transport and informal public transport, and this attracts people who want to give their all and stay,” he explains. In 2019, just before the pandemic, WhereIsMyTransport introduced remote work, which enabled the company to go completely remote in mid-2020. “I’ve also been fortunate to work with the best people-leaders I’ve ever been with, who focus on career growth for individuals. These areas combined have helped us retain and grow our talent.”

Stefan – who is originally from Germany – adds that when he first came to South Africa 10 years ago, Johannesburg was the place to be for tech talent. Now Cape Town has overtaken Johannesburg with salary benchmarks, and many start-up developments are happening in the Western Cape. OfferZen’s research backs this up: according to their 2022 State of the Software Developer Nation report, Capetonian developers have earned the highest average salaries in South Africa for three years in a row. However, Pretoria’s developer salaries have caught up with Johannesburg’s (from six years’ experience, they’re even on par with Cape Town’s).

For Stefan, retaining tech talent could come down to something as simple as location. “Some people are going to Europe, and we should lean into South Africa; it’s a great country with great people, amazing outdoors, and plenty of opportunities,” emphasises Stefan.

“It’s well-worth reminding people in IT,” he adds. “I once successfully brought someone back from the UK to South Africa, by highlighting how great the kitesurfing in Cape Town is!”

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