Passion for supporting entrepreneurs

There's a common link between the joint winners of this year's IT Personality of the Year Award - Prof. Barry Dwolatzky and Mteto Nyati. Both men have a passion for supporting young emerging entrepreneurs, and both have made that a core principle guiding their careers.

Mteto Nyati and Barry Dwolatzky.
Read time 6min 40sec
Mteto Nyati and Barry Dwolatzky.

As the director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), Prof. Barry Dwolatzky is responsible for educating successive generations of IT professionals.

Mteto Nyati, the MD of Microsoft SA, has persuaded his company to focus its empowerment efforts on pumping money and resources into emerging black-owned start-ups. Microsoft also supports the JCSE by supplying lecturers and mentors to work with its students.

Dwolatzky's ultimate goal is to promote the growth of SA's software industry and transform it at the same time. "We're trying to make it look less like me - which is grey, old and male," he jokes. "We're looking to get more young women and black people into the industry, and it's very encouraging that there's a noticeable change."

The JCSE was set up in 2005 at Wits University as a partnership between academia, government and industry. It runs research programmes and training initiatives for the software industry and promotes best practices to help Africans develop world-class software.

The Joburg Centre for Software Engineering is now at an exciting stage of expansion, ambitiously renovating a row of buildings in Juta Street in downtown Johannesburg to create an IT incubation hub. "My big obsession, over the past year, has been to create a technology hub in Braamfontein," Dwolatzky says. "Almost every major city has a technology hub for digital technology where innovative people get together to come up with ideas, learn things and promote start-ups."

Exciting expansion

Dwolatzky visited an IT hub in the East End of London in March and was thrilled by the activity. "It's absolutely unbelievable. There's a start-up a day launching there. There's an edgy mix of techies and creatives coming together in a convergence between hardcore technical stuff and creative media, and we need such a place in Johannesburg."

Wits has acquired buildings, including a former nightclub, which will see a very different type of nightlife and networking once the geeks move in.

It will take R40 million to achieve the vision, so donations and sponsorships are crucial. A fundraising event was held on Halloween night to flesh out the plan to set up labs, co-operative working spaces, meeting rooms, bandwidth, classrooms and incubation space for start-ups. The hub will host courses on topics such as application development, how to launch a start-up, training for entrepreneurs and copyright law.

The centre will be called the Tshimologong Precinct - a Sesotho word for 'a place of new beginnings'.

"A growing number of partners will be getting involved, including Microsoft, which will run courses," Dwolatzky says. "I've seen this happening around the world and the principle is if you create this space, then magic happens."

IT Personality of the Year Award

Presented by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), in association with ITWeb, Gartner Africa and GIBS, the IT Personality of the Year Award recognises a personality who has made an exceptional contribution to the profession and an outstanding impact on the industry.

The prestigious title was won by Softline founder Ivan Epstein in 2009; Mark Levy, Blue Label Telecoms in 2010; EOH head Asher Bohbot in 2011; and Quirk CEO Rob Stokes in 2012.

The search for IT industry's top achievers is conducted via online nominations and voting, attracting industry-wide participation. From the nominations received, an eight-member judging panel short-lists ten candidates and members of the public vote for their favourite candidate. The judges then select the top five finalists, interview them face-to-face and select the winner.

The 2013 joint winners, Barry Dwolatzky and Mteto Nyati, were announced in November.

Dwolatzky was nominated as the IT Personality of the Year in 2005, but felt it was premature as it was based on things he was promising to do. "I have now achieved a lot of those things and I think I have made a positive impact on the IT industry," he says. "I have put forward a very dynamic programme of activities in skills and best practices."

Winning the award is important because it gives more credibility to what he and his team are doing and the chance to win more support, he says. "It's all about social entrepreneurship and trying to transform the world by doing not-for-profit stuff. The disadvantage is that I depend on people sharing my vision and giving me money and support. This award and the visibility it creates should help achieve those objectives."

Microsoft's Mteto Nyati has the clout, vision and financial resources needed to support the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering, and he does so wholeheartedly. But he has led Microsoft into doing much more than that too.

The company is investing R475 million into small black-owned IT enterprises with the potential to develop software for a global market. "We identified six black-owned companies developing something unique that has the potential to make it not just in South Africa but globally, and almost all of them have grown in terms of the number of people they employ and the number of products they are offering," he says.

One of the companies folded, but the others are two years or 18 months into the mentoring scheme, and a couple are now operating in Dubai and Singapore as well as locally.


"We give them mentorship and technologies and strategies. We help them develop a seven-year growth plan and we pay for new people or new products - whatever is required," says Nyati. The programme aims to turbo-charge these software developers, and a second batch of potential candidates is now being assessed.

Nyati is proud that the scheme has now spread internationally. "The work we are doing in South Africa to drive enterprise development with these black IT companies has had a huge impact on Microsoft. The company now understands that it can do business differently in emerging markets. We now have a project called the Microsoft4Africa initiative to do the same as we have done in South Africa."

The pan-African initiative is also championing access to technology through affordable connectivity and affordable devices.

A second pillar is focusing on skills development, to help young Africans acquire skills that are relevant for the future through the 4Africa Scholarship programme.

A third important pillar is around innovation, which is why Microsoft is working with the JCSE and with other innovation hubs right across Africa.

"We are supporting them with technology and funds to help them become successful," Nyati says. "We like what the JCSE is doing, so we train their trainers. We recruited a number of young people for an application factory where we train them to develop apps relevant to Africa. They have been with us at Microsoft for eight months and now they have moved to the JCSE."

If you create this space, then magic happens.

Prof. Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering.

Microsoft SA has set up a technology centre where customers with ideas they want to test can do so using Microsoft's resources. In the past, such clients had to be taken abroad, but now customers from across Africa can test their ideas more quickly and cheaply on local soil.

Nyati also founded a support organisation for CIOs as a forum where they can share ideas and look at global trends and figure out how to respond. "Four years ago, I set up the CIO Council for South Africa and now these guys meet every quarter, have a great agenda and look at the things that are keeping them awake. Now even if I'm not there, the structure runs without me."

Nyati is particularly proud of all these projects he has led because he has put people in place to ensure the work can carry on without him. "We have put together solutions that bring many partners together, so it's no longer an Mteto Nyati thing or a Microsoft thing, it's an industry thing. These projects have the ability to scale through other people and to be hugely impactful way beyond Microsoft and that's very important, because the work I've done isn't limited to benefiting Microsoft, it's benefiting the industry," he says.

First published in the Dec/Jan 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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