South Africa and seemingly the rest of the world is experiencing a shortage of software developers.
Forbes reveals that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that almost 200 000 developer positions will need to be filled annually until the end of 2030.
During a recent visit to Europe the conversations I had with players in academia and industry revealed a similar pattern in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, meaning this is a big challenge.
Software engineers analyse users’ needs, then develop software to satisfy those needs. They design and build the software that powers many businesses, industries and government agencies. Their products can also create new industries.
Not having an increase in software developers could lead to the stagnation of certain industries, thereby increasing the costs of future software. This could also result in low quality software as well as limit the growth of innovation.
There could also be an outflow of capital when software is outsourced to foreign developers, typically in the East.
Looking at the situation locally, over the past five to 10 years, there has been a significant growth of software development companies in Gqeberha. S4 Integration, the biggest employer of our graduates, has been acknowledged more than once as the Exporter of the Year for the software they write for European clients.
However, industry partners such as JAS, Avocado Chocolate, VSC Solutions, and Jendamark acknowledge that employing new developer talent remains a growing challenge.
The solution I propose is to “harvest the pipeline”.
The first format of harvesting is the practice of simply recruiting talent from other companies, resulting in software developers “hopping” from one company to another in pursuit of higher salaries.
This results in increased costs in training new developers with regard to the inhouse system. It does not assist in producing more developers within industry in general.
Another option is companies actively recruiting at higher education institutions, which results in our graduates having little difficulty in finding employment directly after completing their studies, often with very lucrative starting salary packages.
A third practice that falls under the “harvesting” category is when companies provide bursaries to final-year students with the agreement that they work for them after graduation.
There is nothing wrong with harvesting the pipeline, as this is a logical way of doing things. Unfortunately, it does little to address the skills shortage.
Many companies are now practising “nurturing the pipeline”. This involves upskilling staff, who could then be better utilised within the company.
This is not a bad practice and is used with positive effect, but it does imply additional training resources/costs for the company.
Furthermore, there might not be enough staff who can be upskilled, while some could resist change.
However, there is a fundamental way to address this problem. At Nelson Mandela University, we have Tangible Africa, an engagement partnership between the Department of Computing Sciences and the Leva Foundation.
Our objective is to introduce school learners to coding concepts and careers without the use of computers. Since its inception in 2017, as an honours project by Byron Batteson, Tangible Africa’s initial coding app TANKS (followed by RANGERS and BOATS) has been instrumental in educating over 100 000 learners and training 20 000 teachers in tangible coding.
The games entail providing learners with specific challenges related to moving objects around on a grid, using a mobile device.
The commands to move these objects are provided by making use of customised physical tokens, which are uniquely identified by QR Codes (referred to as Top Codes).
When a photo is taken of the tokens, the commands are internalised before being executed, which moves the object on the screen of the device.
While the game has a positive impact on the general problem-solving, strategy and computational thinking skills of all learners, our team also takes on the responsibility of identifying and nurturing individuals who exhibit potential coding skills.
From here, Tangible Africa focuses on “feeding the pipeline”.
The idea is to put programmes in place so that more learners are encouraged (and have adequate matric marks) to register for computing qualifications after school.
By doing so, we aim to develop a sustainable solution to the skills shortage in the tech industry. Tracking the impact of our project on the career choices of 100 000 learners is a daunting task, but we have observed encouraging anecdotal evidence, indicating that our efforts are making a difference.
A Grade 11 learner attended a coding workshop in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, presented by Trudie Didloff, a Tangible Africa master trainer, showed immediate interest in pursuing a coding career. He has since improved his maths marks on average between 10-15%, which would make him eligible to register for a computing degree in 2024.
In Tsomo, Eastern Cape, Lusanda Maqungo, a Tangible Africa regional co-ordinator, identified nine deserving Grade 7 learners from rural schools through her coding workshops.
Every Saturday, they now come into the town of Tsomo, to receive extra maths and English tutoring as part of our Tangible Academy.
Furthermore, Alexander Road High School in Gqeberha is home to three Grade 8 pupils who are privately sponsored by Amazon Web Services vice-president David Brown, an alumnus of the school and Mandela University Computing Sciences.
All three were noticed during and after last year’s Mandela Day Coding Tournament.
Coupled with this, in the Department of Computing Sciences, Young African Women in Computers, led by Professor Brenda Scholtz, targets female learners, getting them interested in careers in computing.
Another initiative, led by Professor Werner Olivier and the Govan Mbeki Maths Development Centre, has reached thousands of learners through their programmes, empowering them to improve their understanding and appreciation of maths.
Tangible Africa’s annual flagship project is the Mandela Day Coding Tournament, which last year saw the participation of 6 000 learners across South Africa.
Excitement is growing rapidly throughout the country and the continent as we approach Mandela Day, as we are planning to host nearly 100 tournaments, involving more than 10 000 learners.
Our main sponsor, AWSInCommunities, is supporting this event, while regional sponsors are joining in, as they realise the potential impact of what could become the largest Mandela Day event in the world.
The tournament theme of “Feeding the pipeline” emphasises our commitment to addressing the skills shortage by identifying and nurturing talent to achieve good matric results.
All tournament hosts, schools and teachers will be sensitised on this issue, and we hope to inspire them to play their part in developing the next generation of skilled workers.
Harvesting the skills pipeline can provide companies with a quick return on investment.
However, by taking a long-term view and investing in identifying and nurturing talent, the impact may be more challenging to measure.
With the support of all our partners, we are confident that we can make a significant impact in addressing the computing skills shortage not only on our continent but beyond.
* Prof Jean Greyling is an associate professor in the Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University Computing Sciences.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.