Coding for tomorrow’s history books

Read time 7min 10sec
Tiyani Nghonyama
Tiyani Nghonyama

For the winner of the 2019 IT Personality Award, Tiyani Nghonyama is incredibly quiet and unassuming.

In fact, he’s so softly spoken that I struggle to hear him across a table in a café, and when the music starts, we need to have it turned down so I can catch his words.

He obviously won the accolade for his head-spinning string of achievements and socially uplifting ventures rather than for the confident exuberance that has made previous winners stand out.

He’s also remarkably young, turning 27 the week after the award was presented by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

When I ask him to speak a little louder, Nghonyama explains that he’s barely functioning after only two hours of sleep the previous night because he was running a round-the-clock hackathon. Then, as we talk more about the numerous schemes he’s involved in, I’m surprised that he ever gets more than two hours of sleep with so much to juggle.

“Waking up every day knowing we have an opportunity to create new things is what matters.”

Nghonyama is the co-founder and director of Geekulcha, which has grown into a support network for young and aspiring geeks as much as an official business. It does have a business side, earning money by consulting to large corporations like IBM SA, Microsoft SA and the British Council when they want to develop new offerings for young, tech-savvy consumers or test their reaction. It also earns money by running hackathons for other companies, devising implementable solutions around security or improved services.

But it’s the projects to create a broader base of tech-savvy youngsters that have become his main focus. Listing all the ventures would turn this article into a catalogue, but we skim through a few, with Nghonyama jotting down relevant words in a notebook, and circling them, or drawing lines between them as he speaks.

He’s justifiably proud of the work he’s done, but uncomfortable with the intense focus of an interview. The result is an unnerving ability to talk about projects that excite him without portraying any excitement whatsoever.

While he’s a computer systems engineer by training, he’s a developer of people by nature. In a nutshell, Geekulcha is a platform to expose young people to technology and to develop their careers as they transition from being a high school learner to a university student to entering the jobs market or becoming an entrepreneur, equipped with appropriate skills for the ICT industry.

Key initiatives include the programmes Geekulcha runs for school-leavers before they head to university; programmes for university students; hackathons to devise new solutions to improve government service delivery; and setting up a support system for young developers in the Northern Cape.

Talent pool

Geekulcha’s database now lists 14 000 members in a talent pool that companies or the government can dip into when they need to hire an IT specialist. That database will continue to expand, because Geekulcha Student Societies are now running at 18 university campuses in six provinces, to build the IT capacity of the students.

Nghonyama also serves on the Advisory Committee Boards of Tshwane University of Technology and Vaal University of Technology for Computer Science. But he declined a request to sit on the President’s Fourth Industrial Revolution committee, doubting that the outcome would be worth the effort involved.

At one stage, I ask him if he’s having fun with all his projects, and his eyes light up. “I am having fun. It can get really tiring, but waking up every day knowing we have an opportunity to create new things is what matters. Getting people hired so their careers are taking off, seeing government change its thinking and way of doing things, and being able to reach young people in the rural areas. And, of course, it gets exciting when you meet Prince Harry,” he says. I didn’t have him down as a royalist, but he met the prince when he was displaying his work at a British Council event in Johannesburg.

Lots of youngsters first come into contact with Geekulcha through its VacWork programme, where high school learners spend a week in a simulated working environment learning how to code and tackling real-life problems. “They work in teams as startup companies with their own CIO and, by the end, they have a mobile app or a website, an Internet of Things system or a graphic design solution and it all has to make business sense. Quality is one thing we don’t sacrifice, so the maximum number is 65 learners,” Nghonyama says.

One youngster who didn’t want to go to university kept coming back for VacWork mentoring, and went on to get a job at Old Mutual and then Hollard with the skills he acquired through Geekulcha. Others have won university scholarships with their new-found skills, or created their own startups.

VacWork sessions have now spread to five provinces, with the latest in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The youngsters are mentored by university students who went through VacWork themselves a couple of years earlier, and have returned to pay it back.

The skills and working discipline gained during these sessions enhance the confidence and quality of the youngsters when they start university and help to curb the high drop-out rate, Nghonyama adds. “These kids come through our programme and apply to university with a bit of skill and knowledge about what’s going on in the IT sector, and then they come back as mentors. It’s an exciting technology programme and gives young people a voice in the digital transformation.”

Providing internships

He’s also excited by the recent launch of a geography challenge and internship programme.

“Geography is one of the difficult subjects for schools so we partnered with TomTom Africa and MapIT to use their data and make maps around tourism,” he explains.

One project helps young Sowetans map out cycling routes for tourists for a bike hire company. Some of the students involved have now been enrolled on internships with SA National Parks.

Another project he launched is Skatehacks, in partnership with the Northern Cape provincial government. Local kids were dropping out of maths and science classes, but loved skateboarding, “so I came up with a programme to change things,” he says. SkateHacks gets young geeks to build smart technologies for skateboards, and it’s been integrated into the Skateboarding World Championships.

Since much of South Africa’s hope for a brighter future relies on a competent government, he’s also working with several government departments on initiatives to improve service delivery through IT. He implemented the first cabinet-approved Hackathon, IgniteHack, and has been to Parliament three times through his work to develop apps for social activism, enhanced service delivery and building capacity in the field of IT security.

Not surprisingly, he’s already turning down job offers, although he knows he won’t be at Geekulcha forever. He and his business partner Mixo Ngoveni are devising an exit strategy that will leave the operations running successfully without them, although he’s cagey about his personal future plans.

He does enunciate one plan very clearly, though. “My motto is that I want to be featured in history books and, in 2018, we got featured in a book in London for the work we did in the IoT ecosystem,” he says.

He’ll be featured in many more books to come, I say, and he smiles shyly. “I hope so,” he replies.

IITPSA’s IT PERSONALITY Award runners -up

  • Lillian Barnard, Microsoft
  • Prof. Jean Greyling, Nelson Mandela University
  • Tebogo Makgatho, Netcampus SA
  • Peter Searle, BBD Group
  • Jaco van der Merwe, DVT

This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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