Tech talent pathways in Africa

Mark Talmage-Rostron
July 20, 2022 · 11 min read

Technology is progressing rapidly across the world and the African continent. This is opening the door to more opportunities for university graduates.

It’s almost monthly now that you turn on the television or read an online article to discover that the technologies industry is exploding across Africa. This is primarily being caused by an influx of tech entrepreneurs bringing fresh new ideas to the table. Jason Williamson, Vice President of Oracle’s start-up division has stated that Africa is now a massive hotbed for tech entrepreneurs. In a recent statement he said that Oracle has witnessed a 91% growth in enrolments from South African start-ups, and 39% growth from over 13 other African countries within the last year.

The tech giant is also putting its money where its mouth is, investing US$1 million dollars to help bring the ideas of these growing numbers of tech entrepreneurs to fruition by granting them access to the latest digital technologies. This it is hoped will ensure that predictions from experts that Africa will be future tech superpower will be realized, rather than just remaining a pipe dream.

But is it achievable? That is the question. In a recent Nexford webinar entitled, ‘Tech talent pathways in Africa’, two leading experts, Lawrence Muthoga, Azure Open Source Business Lead at Microsoft, Middle East & Africa, and, Tobi Lafinhan, Co-Founder, Venture for Africa, as well as Jennifer Bangoura, EdD, Nexford’s Director of Career Innovation analyzed the facts to determine what skills will be required of university graduates looking to enter the tech marketplace, and for those already in it, grow their careers.

Unicorns exist

Africa’s tech ecosystem has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, with 2021 seeing a record number of investments. The continent saw total venture funding exceed two and a half times what it was in 2020. This figure amounted to an impressive $4.77 billion.

The ‘Big Four’ countries, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya, received 81% of the investments. Out of the eight unicorns in Africa, five of them (Flutterwave, Andela, ChipperCash, Opay, and Wave) attained unicorn status in 2021.

The increase in the global start-up space has led to a rise in the demand for young, talented workers. Africa is emerging as a significant source of software engineering talent and is home to the fastest-growing population of developers. Microsoft, in turn, plans to open its first development centres in Africa in 2022 and will hire 100 full-time African developers by 2023.

So, what is causing this boom, how long will it last, and what talent will be required to keep feeding the pipeline? Well first up, it may surprise that people looking to break into the tech space don’t necessarily need to be technical.

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You don’t have to be technical to get into tech companies

Not having to have a tech background to get into a tech company sounds a bit counterintuitive, but Tobi Lafinhan concurs by saying, “I think there’s a narrative that if you’re going to work within a tech start-up, you must have a technical background. If you look at some of the top companies, like Google and Facebook, about 14% of the roles that they hire for are actually non-technical roles. So, if you’re non-technical, but want to work within tech, you shouldn’t have to lose hope as Venture for Arica helps top talent make that transition from traditional industries into tech start-ups on the African continent. We do that through a very interesting fellowship trial to hire model which gives people the chance to check out start-ups for three months, 20 hours a week, and if it makes sense, they can decide to move into it long term.”

This is something that resonates with Lawrence Muthoga as well. He nods his head and says, “I did a computer science degree and after completing it, I worked with a few start-ups writing code for a while, and then I spotted an internship opportunity at Microsoft. I remember the interview very well because my interviewer sought to remind me that it was a sales role and that I struck him more as a developer. I considered it for a second and then thought hey, I’m going to go for it, after all what was the worst that could happen?

That was about nine years ago, and although Lawrence runs a tech company now, he is adamant that learning sales skills got him to where he is at this present moment. He recommends that everybody coming into a company should do at least one year of sales. Learning sales skills is something that he believes will help people to learn how to talk to and interact with people, build relationships, understand their problems, and reframe them in a way that makes sense for them and the business that they’re trying to build. Wise words indeed.

Lawrence reckons that not going into sales would have meant that the critical skills that he now has in his armoury would not have come to the fore had he simply decided to sit behind a computer and write code all day. But that’s not to say that the technical skills didn’t help. As he moved along in his career, he began to look for roles that allowed him to take the best of his tech skills and slowly infuse those together with his business skills as well. So, after the sales role he went into partner management, managing the partner ecosystem across the region, then went into technical presales, and after that into technical evangelism where he educated start-ups about what it takes to launch a successful tech company.

Lawrence smiles and says, “I’d say that one decision in that one interview changed the path of my life completely. But for me, the key lesson there was how do you take multiple skills, bring them together, and transfer them? How do you take your tech skills and skills that you learned and merge them together to create a future-proof worker? I didn’t know so I learned on the job, and I believe that’s a very key part of growth. So, that’s how I left computer science and joined sales, and then moved into marketing. What a journey, and what a change that proved to be a successful departure from my comfort zone. If you can transfer your skills, to quote Frank Sinatra, you can make it anywhere.”

But you can’t just do that and sit back in a job and hope that it will all come to you. Lawrence says that simply won’t do and had he adopted that ‘taking the easy road’ attitude, he maintains that he would not be anywhere near as successful as he is now. He believes that the recipe for success, especially in the tech world, is all about continuous learning, looking at your weaknesses and then taking programs or courses to help course correct. Keep firming up your skills and you’ll continue to succeed. A progressive university like Nexford that has critical and creative problem systems at the centre of its MBA and BBA programs can help its learners thrive.

Success in the tech space is all about continuous learning and problem solving

It was John Lennon who said, “There are no problems, just solutions.” Toby would agree saying that although his background was in civil engineering which was technical, he believes what really carried him through in all facets of his career to now has been his creative approach to problem-solving. He maintains that, as Lawrence intimated, it’s all about having transferable skills that you can use to change tack in business should one need to or want to.

Toby says, “I was looking at everyone in the engineering field and when I saw that people were about 10-15 years ahead of me, I just thought that maybe engineering was not for me. That said, in my engineering background I did dabble in a bit of coding, but I did not want to be stuck in front of a screen for over 12 hours a day. I knew that I wanted to get more into the business side of things. So, bizarrely I ended up in recruitment, bit different to engineering, and as they say in the classics, the rest is history.”

Putting your head above the parapet

So how does one get noticed in the job market, especially in the field that you are looking to make a career in, and get contacted by a recruiter like Toby? He maintains that there are many ways. Get a strong business profile on LinkedIn, network with those who have done it all before, seek out influencers in that industry, and build the skills sets that are in demand both now and in the future.

Toby says, “One of the reasons why I started my company was because I wanted to put myself out there a lot more. So, I’ve gone from not being a salesy person to always just having conversations with random people as well. I guess it goes with the territory.”

On the subject of developing your transferable skills sets, Lawrence maintains that although skills can be taught in a higher learning institute like Nexford, you also just can’t beat gaining skills that can be developed through on the job experiences. He says it’s about the innate skills that you start with, the stuff you experience, and then the stuff that you experiment with. He says that you should also ask constantly for feedback as that will inform you as to what skills are working and which ones you need to improve on.

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It's all about quality not quantity when applying for a job

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when applying for jobs is applying a one size fits all approach. A decent recruiter can spot this a mile away. Nobody would know more about that more than Tobi. He says that when it comes to applying to a tech company, even though your resume is right, it should be tailored to the company you’re applying to and the role that you’re applying for.

Tobi goes on to say, “If you’re applying for a product management role, even if you’ve not been in a product management position before, look at the job description and see how any experiences you’ve had in the past aligns with what they’re asking for. It just shows that you are aware of the skills they are looking for to more than get the job done. So, I would just be thoughtful about your applications, take the time to really map your stories and establish just what you think they’re looking for. Do that and you’ll more often than not get that first interview and first conversation.”

On the subject of applying for a role, Lawrence says, “I’d say even before you get to the application, start building out the skills that you need to get there so that when the opportunity finds you, it will be an easy transition. And so, I’d say more than anything I found that what really helps people who are looking to move quickly into a career is to build the future skills a company will need now.”

As was said before, a sizeable percentage of roles in tech companies are not tech roles and right now one of the top ones people are looking for happens to be product managers. A product manager is responsible for leading the success of a new product and working cross-functionally with several teams such as tech, marketing, and sales. You’ll be responsible for making sure the product is being made as efficiently as possible; listening to the product users to understand what features they want; gathering and analysing customer feedback to make future decisions about the product. But this is not the only non-technical skill that tech companies are after.

Of course, the tech industry would not be able to function without technical people and Lawrence maintains that there is a huge demand for Software Engineers.

He says, “We do need a lot of software engineers, not just at Microsoft, but within the start-up space. You’ll see this is also true across the board. Most top tech companies are right now hiring software engineers, and some of them have set up shop in Africa. At Microsoft we have set up an engineering house in Nigeria and Engineering Centre in Kenya as well. And we are busy hiring and Google is doing the same. We are expecting to see a lot more tech companies come into these regions to try and get local engineers to build more software. However, there’s also a large demand for senior tech engineers. There’s a big gap, and this is true for all companies.”

Last but not least, remember that every tech company is a business, so if you have tech skills, then ask yourself what other skills you can bring to the table. This will open more doors for you to secure a post in the organization. The beauty of tech is that you can mix it with anything and establish a career. Look within yourself, ask what skills you are working on, what you are improving on, and then ask how you intend to bring those skills to bear on a business?

Both Tobi and Lawrence concur that life is a continuous learning journey, and the most important thing you can know about yourself is how you learn, so learn in the best way that’s best for you and also keep learning with say a progressive university like Nexford.

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About the author
Mark Talmage-Rostron
Mark Talmage-Rostron

Mark is a college graduate with Honours in Copywriting. He is the Content Marketing Manager at Nexford, creating engaging, thought-provoking, and action-oriented content.

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