A home for software developers

Ranka Jovanovic
By Ranka Jovanovic, Editorial Director
Johannesburg, 10 Jul 2019
Jaco van der Merwe, CEO of  DVT
Jaco van der Merwe, CEO of DVT

Software is eating the world, and that’s good news for DVT, a company that’s been in the business of bespoke software development for two decades.

Most business ideas these days are actually built on software, says DVT's CEO Jaco van der Merwe.

About 10 years ago, maybe less, custom software development wasn’t popular and everyone went for packaged solutions, he says. At the time, custom software was expensive and very few of the projects were a success.

“This started changing about four or five years ago. If you ask people about truly innovative business ideas, most of them need an app or some form of disruption that requires software. Every AI and machine learning solution, every bot that you implement, requires custom development to make it work. Even with low code platforms, some degree of coding and development is still required; it’s about having a mind-set where you use logic, you go through certain steps and you build something. All of this is driving towards this massive boom in software development.”

On the flipside, this trend is also highlighting and even exacerbating the dire skills shortage, adds Van der Merwe.

“That’s why we’re experiencing a massive skills shortage. Businesses turn to software development when they want to innovate and disrupt the market - and you can’t differentiate yourself using packaged software. If your idea is so unique, there won’t be a package for it. So, yes, it’s music to my ears that every business needs software development. If only we could find more skilled people.”

A large software solutions group born out of DVT

DVT employs more than 500 people, a big staff complement for a bespoke software development firm. It’s part of the Dynamic Technologies Group, which was established in 2004 and is headed by one of the original DVT founders, Chris Wilkins. The group employs over 1 000 staff among its 12 companies and offers a range of software solutions to global enterprises, small and medium businesses.

DVT’s software testing division was recently spun out into a separate business, called Inspired Testing.

“We made that change to allow DVT to focus on software development solutions to help clients with digital enablement and transformation. We do a lot of mobile apps, Web and cloud apps and UX / UI (user experience / user interface) design services. We also manage projects and do business analysis, DevOps, and run the Agile Academy in our training rooms.”

Companies can completely outsource the deployment to DVT, but there’s also a big demand for agile teams, says Van der Merwe . “We supply the client with a full agile team - a scrum master, a developer, maybe a business analyst, possibly an investor. Where the big corporations always had the idea of, ‘No, we’ll do it ourselves’, they also can’t find skills anymore.”

Home for developers

But how does DVT find them?

“It’s hard work for us, but it’s our business to attract skills. It’s different for a big corporate because they’re doing all their other stuff. We can make DVT a home for not just developers, but people who are passionate about software development.

“We have a two-pronged approach to acquiring skills: we do the best job possible to attract them, and we also develop our own skills,” he says. “Our graduate programme grows every year. This year, we had 24 graduates pass through what I believe is one of the best programmes in South Africa, taking the developer out of university and giving them those extra 6 to 12 months to acquire industry knowledge.”

More should be done to make IT, and specifically software development, a popular career at school level in South Africa.

Jaco van der Merwe, CEO of DVT

The next challenge is to retain those skills. “The only way to keep them is to give them interesting work,” Van der Merwe continues. “Yes, there’s all the other stuff, such as a nice place to work, a good culture, a competitive salary – but ultimately what makes them stay is if they feel they’re growing and learning. And they’re growing and learning if they’re doing interesting work.”

However, even if you do everything right, skilled IT professionals are always in demand and could still leave the business – and even the country. Says Van der Merwe: “We do find that we’re losing staff to emigration, which is why part of our strategy is aimed at having a wider global footprint. At least if we have partners and offices in other countries, we can say, ‘Don’t just resign, work for us overseas’. Naturally, some of our staff are poached by other firms, but there’s little one can do about that.”

Coming from a software development background, Van der Merwe is well positioned to understand the issues from both the client’s perspective and that of the staff. “When I speak to new hires at inductions, I always pick up what it is that attracts them to a company like DVT versus a large bank or other corporate. I always say there’s no right or wrong decision, they’re both equally good careers. But seeing that the CEO has a Ph.D. in computer science and was a software architect and developer shows them that this could well be the career path for them. We speak the same language; I understand what motivates them.”

Expansion plans

Looking to the future, Van der Merwe says: “We want to be the favourite software development-related services company in South Africa, with a global footprint. When I say ‘favourite’, I mean favourite to work for and favourite to work with.”

The global footprint means both more offices offshore as well as more offshore work. “We want to attract more offshore projects that we deliver from our delivery centres in Johannesburg, Centurion and in Cape Town.”

In addition, the group is expanding and adding more companies, all in the software and services space.

The biggest challenge identified by Van der Merwe is clear: access to the necessary skills.

“More should be done to make IT, and specifically software development, a popular career at school level in South Africa. This is where countries like India have made the shift. They made IT a popular career, and have invested in schools and universities to make it accessible.

“This is what we’re missing in South Africa. There’s a lot of talk about empowering people with IT skills but in practice, the execution seems to fall short of delivery. I’d like to see more focus on creating IT jobs instead of government encouraging people to enter labour-intensive industries. It’s the only way to address our high unemployment levels, in my opinion.”