Women share their experiences at tech, digital conference

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 11 Jul 2019
Samantha Perry and Lynette Hundermark are co-founders of the Women in Tech and Digital Conference.
Samantha Perry and Lynette Hundermark are co-founders of the Women in Tech and Digital Conference.

Defying the status quo and pursuing careers traditionally considered for “men only” were some of the key themes shared yesterday by speakers at the Johannesburg edition of the “Moving to Mastery: Women in Tech and Digital Conference”.

Pioneered by Lynette Hundermark, co-founder and CPO of Useful & Beautiful, and Samantha Perry, Women in Tech ZA co-founder, both tech enthusiasts and veterans in the industry, the conference gives women a platform to share the great things they are doing and give advice based on lengthy careers in the start-up and tech space.

The inaugural event took place last month at the Belmont Square Conference Centre in Rondebosch, Cape Town, and yesterday it was Johannesburg’s turn to listen to words of wisdom from an all-female speaker line-up.

Recounting her journey to becoming one of the few female CIOs in the country, the Development Bank of Southern Africa’s (DBSA’s) Kholeka Tsotsotso said she got into the IT space by accident.

Tsotsotso described her journey as being wonderful so far, adding she can’t imagine herself behind a desk doing debits and credits as required by the degree she had enrolled for. 

Soweto-born Tsotsotso was enrolled at the University of Limpopo for a bachelor degree in accounting, but in her final year, much to the dismay of her parents, she ditched the accounting studies to pursue a career many defined as traditionally reserved for men.

“Someone told me about an institution in Johannesburg…and I decided to venture out and become a programmer. I completed my COBOL programming in 1987, and that is how my journey started. I cannot imagine looking back because it’s been a wonderful journey.”

In her more than 20 years in the industry, the now-DBSA CIO has not only been a programmer but also a systems analyst, business analyst, project manager, portfolio manager, business IT relationship manager and IT infrastructure head, to name a few.

Discussing why her start was in programming, Tsotsotso said she was very intrigued in understanding how things happen. “People often think a programmer is a person sitting behind a computer screen just coding without understanding what they have to do. For me, I told myself I need to understand why things are the way they are.”  

I decided to venture out and become a programmer. I completed my COBOL programming in 1987, and that is how my journey started.

Kholeka Tsotsotso, CIO of DBSA

She told the audience that everyone’s career starts in a certain way and career development requires one to have a vision for the future. “As people, we need to realise that we really need to work hard and understand where we want to be. You have to step up, step forward and show that you really want to make a success of your career.”

For Tsotsotso, the journey to becoming a C-suite executive in tech was not easy, especially because it is not seen as a space where women can thrive and succeed. However, she has found relief in having solid networks. These are people that can help you and vice versa, she said.

Referencing the leadership lessons she learnt over the years, the DBSA CIO highlighted four key components: experience, networking, learning and authenticity. “You always need to make sure you go out there, seek your own networks – you can’t wait for anyone else to come and mentor you – and that is one of the lessons I’ve learnt in my life.”

Hundermark, who has been involved in the tech space for 22 years, also started off her career in programming. She told the audience she attended a school that offered computer studies as a subject and received encouragement from her father and computer teacher to look at tech as a career option.

“In my day, the only careers reserved for women were to become a doctor, lawyer or an accountant. I didn’t want to become any of those. Computers and problem-solving just made sense for me and that’s how I got into the industry.” 

Over the last 10 years, her focus has shifted to product development, something she is very passionate about. “My company was established from a passion for digital and mobile, which is why its mantra focuses on making memorable mobile experiences.

“Digital apps or even anything tech these days has to be functional and also look good because nobody likes using ugly stuff.”

Hundermark noted she likes creating tech solutions, but the reasoning has to be purpose-driven. “You have to put your feet in the customer’s shoes and understand how they are experiencing it. Everybody’s needs are different.”

"There is something magical when smart women get into a room and share their experiences."

Barbara Mallinson, Obami founder and CEO

Barbara Mallinson, Obami founder and CEO, told the audience that running a business is like having a baby.  

Mallinson said she has two children of her own, but Obami, established 10 years ago, is like a third baby. “It’s constant hustle. There is so much stuff that happens within a business and it takes space in your mind.”

She went on to explain the meaning of the name of Obami, which is a derivation of ‘me’ or ‘mine’, but also means the destiny of humankind.

“Creating a business, giving it a name and registering it with the CIPC is just service-level stuff. Create a connection and establish a narrative for your business and have an anecdote to back it up. People relate so well to stories and it will be more memorable and mean something more.” 

Mallinson shared eight lessons she has learnt in starting and building her business: knowing the narrative, fieldwork, leveraging the new way of work, not being fooled by vanity metrics, thinking outside of the box, investing in the right activities, marketing, and being the most valuable player.

She lauded the Women in Tech and Digital Conference event organisers, saying “there is something magical when smart women get into a room and share their experiences”. 

I don't think it's true that girls are not into maths.

Anna Collard, founder and MD of Popcorn Training

Anna Collard, founder and MD of Popcorn Training, a KnowBe4 company, said she hoped attendees can come up with ideas on how to excite young girls to participate and find joy in STEM areas. “We need those girls for the future. I don’t think it’s true that girls are not into maths; we just need to find interesting ways of getting them motivated to play and have fun with the subject.”  

Collard noted having empathy is a huge advantage for women, and if it can be combined with coding, for example, can be super-enriching and powerful.  

She added that cyber security is an amazing space to be in, especially as a woman.

Impact Hub Johannesburg’s Thandi Dyani said she believes the “future is female” and the many jobs that won’t exist in the future are the men’s jobs.