South Africa's Digital Academy - one year on

By Gary Bannatyne

Launched in collaboration with Barclays Africa, The Digital Academy provides young South African’s with year-long software development internships. Managing Director Gary Bannatyne looks back at the Academy’s performance over the past year.

Africans have never done things by the book. This is evident in the way we have leapfrogged existing technologies in the mobile banking and prepaid airtime sector.

However, we were never able to find the necessary skills to complement our vision - to develop our  products and take them to market. To our frustration, we would build products that were stable and scalable, only to be told we would have to look overseas to find the skills we needed.

Through this exasperation, the Digital Academy was born. We started the Academy in August 2015 to address the shortage of technological skills both locally and across the continent.

At The Digital Academy, we source young talent and put them through our rapid development programmes. These programmes are workplace simulations, they give both interns and self-taught individuals a space in a pressured environment to practice and compete against one another. Our programme is not only about developing skills that are appropriate for the corporate environment, but also about developing a culture of productivity and responsibility.

The year in numbers

In the past year we have had 127 aspiring young developers contracted to us, of which 108 individuals graduated from our programme. We were able to place 80 percent of these candidates through placements, both private and with our partners.

Our placement rate with our partners stands at an incredible 50 percent. This is largely due to the fact that partners have the benefit of absorbing the best talent from those who complete our programme. Our graduates stand head-and-shoulders above other young graduates coming into Barclays Africa, driving a demand for us to expand, servicing the digital growth the bank is facing.

Another statistic we are very proud of is the number of female developers that come through our doors. One in every five interns is female, and we are excited about our contribution to stimulating this aspect of the STEM environment.

One of our key focus areas is serving the previously disadvantaged segments of the population, and as such 99 percent of our graduates are black – a percentage which largely reflects the mass market.

Digital Academy South Africa

Challenges and opportunities

The Academy’s first year has taught us all some big lessons. One of our greatest challenges has been fitting our systems and methodologies around the formal learning environment. Our model works very well and solves a number of challenges for large corporations, but they rely on a very formal governance structure.

Luckily we have turned this challenge into an advantage. We’ve accredited our programme to local, modern learning structures without impacting on the integrity of our experiential, practical and work-integrated learning model.

Expansion is another challenge. We are able to effectively replicate our programme as it was designed that way, and we want to have a greater impact for a larger audience and continue to create futures and build products that have commercial intent. We are always on the look-out for new people to partner with.

Despite the challenges, we have had multiple achievements that we are very proud of. Among the most poignant is attending meetings with our partners and seeing former Digital Academy  graduates sitting across the table, working on projects with us. These individuals have matured into young professionals, and it is a source of great happiness that we were able to provide that opportunity. Another feather in our cap is to hear that the majority of the candidates sent to our partners have been permanently placed. This is something that drives us to be better and do more.

One of our greatest lessons was in the creation phases of our product development. Our learners solve problems for our corporate partners in the form of digital solutions, and have to pitch ideas around these challenges in the very first week. We have come to realise that in many cases these guys and girls are looking not only to solve the corporate challenge, but they are also interested in solving problems based on their everyday life experience. This real-life approach is now one of our greatest strengths – and a lesson learned entirely by accident.

Counting the cost

Our country’s legacy means that many people were discouraged from having hopes and dreams, discouraged from having a fire in their belly.  We come to terms with this by believing that we can do what we can do, and hope that some people grow into understanding how important it is to fight for what you want.
I have also discovered that managing large numbers of people is not easy, and it is a skill that cannot always be taught. Developing a culture of honesty and respect has made me revisit my beliefs in what does and doesn't work. I’m happy to report that we are winning.
I could not have made it through the first year without the help and support of fellow directors James Coetzee and Brandon Muller, the expertise of technical manager Ed Wrede, and the hard work of the management team, led by Vuyelwa Mthembu.

The future

We have already seen an appetite from the private sector to use our services in multiple areas across multiple skill-sets. Our model works, and has been very effective for our partners. We see the Digital Acadamy moving into specialised areas such as networking, big data, cyber security, animation, gaming and UX/UI. We are able to cater our programmes toward the development of this talent – something which is very exciting for us.

We are expanding into other major hubs within South Africa, hoping to drive development in cities and provinces that have otherwise been left out of the digital economy. We plan to expand with corporate private sector partners that share our vision of transforming the country. But most importantly, we aim to build products that mean something to someone.

We cannot create solutions that are not locally relevant, but we can’t lose sight of global competitiveness either. Too many organisations are not nurturing our local talent but rather moving opportunities abroad, which does nothing for the development of our country or our continent.

The good news is that there is incredible talent in our country. Our challenge lies in refining the skills and giving people the passion and the platform to change the IT landscape of our country.

Gary Bannatyne is co-founder and Managing Director of The Digital Academy. He has an extensive background in enterprise development and his passions lie in technology for social change.

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