OPINION: Investing in software development skills is a strategic imperative for all sectors
By Jessica Hawkey, Managing Director of redAcademy
The highest unemployment rate in the world, where almost three in five youth are unemployed, and a crippling skills shortage - especially in the technology industry - exist side by side in South Africa creating a unique vacuum that needs to be filled.
Businesses are often hamstrung by an inability to innovate because they don’t have the skills, while young people are not finding their way into the technology industry in large enough numbers to close the skills gap and make an impact on unemployment levels.
Software development, which is key to driving innovation, is not the preserve of the IT industry. Software development is crucial in all industries. Naturally, people think of the likes of Fintech, Healthtech and Retail-Tech when considering software development. However, it is pervasive across industries, including retail, finance, health, professional services, manufacturing, and more.
Most businesses, in all industries, are looking for new ways to use technology to improve the efficiency of their companies, as well as their customer experiences. Because of this, software development is rapidly evolving and is a strategic investment across business types, and across industries.
Because of this, young people who become software developers become crucial cogs in the wheels of our economy. Yet, the status quo is not doing enough to make this a reality. Currently, most, if not all people, associate classic degrees with a career in software development. Of course degrees are important, but the question needs to be asked: if it is a specific skill set you require, and there is a pressing need to fill positions now - not in four years’ time - then is there another way, as opposed to an academic-only endevour, to enter the market?
Practical skill set
Software development is a practical skillset. Developers need to create solutions using a very specific skill set and critical problem-solving ability.
Imagine one wanted to get into pottery. One can theorise about pottery, for example, and understand various influences and techniques academically, but until you have placed your hands in the clay and learnt how to do it, you cannot make a masterpiece. Similarly, the theory matters, obviously, but a young employable developer needs to have on-the-job experience, understand how teams work, be up to standard on the nuances of the industry they are working in, and know how to make crucial decisions and build solutions that can be used, modified and added to by other teams. This is practical.
If a young person wants to be hireable and wants to make an impact immediately, he or she needs to learn about the industry and its nuances, and become proficient at working in that environment, before they start working.
While the core principles of software development are the same across different industries, the way of designing the actual software solutions will differ. A retailer and a bank will approach developing a solution very differently because of important differences in the respective industries. Essentially, while designing the apps makes use of the same coding fundamentals, the developers in each industry design solutions with different objectives and requirements in mind.
Similarly, while the developer working at a finance institution would need to have a working knowledge and understanding of financial modelling, for example, the developer working in retail must understand stock management, point-of-sale, stores, online stores and apps, darkstore strategies and much more, all directed at improving CX to retain and win customers.
Challenging the status quo
If we appreciate that software development is fundamental to innovation, that there is a shortage of skills, and that industry nuances change the requirements of the type of knowledge and experience required, we come to the conclusion that the status quo in education is either not working, or it is not efficient or fast enough.
Firstly, consider the lag between innovation and academia. Young people have grown up in a world of technology and innovation - they already understand concepts that have not yet made themselves into all existing lecture-hall based qualifications. For instance, Gen Z intuitively understands the need for a friendly interface, almost-instant resolution to queries. They don’t need to learn about what CX is, they’re ruthless in either adopting or rejecting technology precisely because of CX.
In other words, they already use technology daily and will be the driving force behind the urgency to continue innovating in the economy. They’re on the front line, so to speak. Because they expect resolutions on-demand, amplified by their own digital lives, they are unlikely to show interest in three or four years, using pen and paper in a lecture hall, if software development is something that interests them. And they shouldn’t be penalised for this, rather it’s an opportunity to fast track exactly the type of people into the industry that are needed to fill the skills gap.
The software training paradigm needs to shift quickly. Non-traditional learning will help shape the future - of both the youth and business - far quicker. This is especially urgent for a country such as South Africa where unemployment and skills shortages are crippling.
Taking into account everything discussed already, it is clear that the path to developing a sustainable pipeline of employable young developers lies in experiential learning. It lies in immersing young people in the work environment, where they learn the fundamentals of coding, but also crucial business skills such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking. This makes them employable.
As mentioned, key coding principles are universal but practical implementation differs across industries. And so, if a young person is looking at entering a career developing cutting-edge solutions for retail, for example, they absolutely need to work closely with that industry. This will differentiate them from graduates who lack the required level of practical industry experience.
Many South African businesses are engaging in the need for skills development in specialised areas such as software development and coding. Our belief is that the most sustainable road to a future of innovation lies in cutting out the noise and sprinting young people into their careers, where they start on day one with a theoretical background, practical, usable skills, an existing network, and experience in the industry.