Mining the developer pool: inside SA’s tech recruitment woes

Surprised nerd hides behind a computer keyboard over white background

“There is very little loyalty in the developer community,” says Alex Martin, CEO of Recruit Digital, a recruitment agency that specialises in tech/digital jobs. In the burgeoning tech ecosystem that South Africa is building, this doesn’t inspire confidence.

In the last couple of years the world has cottoned on to the fact that Africa has something special and worth looking into, and investing in, especially within the tech industry.

Africa is very software and app focussed when it comes to the tech space. There is money to be made from web development and mobile apps here, but the pool of talent that can do these jobs is still quite small due to newness. That seems to be the problem — startups, corporates and multinationals all want those developers, and that sort of demand can be quite the ego boost.

“We have seen some big egos with some of the developers that come to us looking to be placed with a company,” says Roxy Dallas of Staffing Projects. Dallas thinks that one of the biggest problems when it comes to tech recruitment, especially when it comes to developer talent, is the lack of “common ground”.

“There is no common ground when it comes to developer salaries in the tech space, it seems salaries are figures pulled out of thin air and companies are expected to pay,” she says.

Martin agrees that a benchmark is missing because it is a new and emerging space.

Multinational crisis and the big budget syndrome

It seems the influx of multinational corporations such as Microsoft, Amazon and Rocket Internet wanting to do some of their development on the continent hasn’t made the developer pie any easier to deal with. Bigger corporations have bigger budgets.

“Amazon has a bigger budget than most of the companies hiring,” says Martin. “The big guys can afford to steal from the small guys and this inflates salaries.”

Other recruiters like Dallas are seeing the effects of those big budgets when proposing offers to developers.

“Developers that come from bigger corporations like Amazon and Microsoft have a higher expectation even if the experience isn’t there,” Dallas says.

But what is a developer worth? Surely the developers must be paid their worth?

“Indeed,” says Dallas but she reckons in some cases the experience doesn’t justify it.

“Developers with less than three years experience asking for R75 000 month,” she argues, isn’t quite appropriate especially when going into a startup or SME where the CEO doesn’t even earn that much. “People want 20-30% increases, and recruiters have a difficult time recruiting in the tech space.”

Welcome to the bidding wars and golden handshakes

Unless a startup has venture capital money to throw around, or has inherited the family treasure, it can scarcely afford to pay anyone anything north of R20 000 if they are lucky.

According to Martin, there is a lot of counter offering that goes on in the tech space, and developers move from company to company for small raises until they get to a point where no one can afford them.

“We have had a situation where a developer has gone through the process of negotiating offers with us and when he was given a final offer declined because he took the same offer to his employer and got it matched,” says Martin.

This practice is becoming commonplace according to Martin, and could lead to a far more dangerous outcome than overpaid developers.

He warns that “it is dangerous because one day companies will decide that it is far more economically viable to outsource to India rather than to hire locally, and when that happens no one wins.”

There seems to be a lack of loyalty in the developer community. “Organisations are now giving golden handshakes as a way to secure loyalty for at least two years because of the quick job turnaround time with developers,” says Martin.

The way Martin explains it, an employer will offer R70 000 a month and then a cash payment of R100 000 on the condition that the developer doesn’t leave in the first two years.

International exposure means a lot in tech

A case could be made for the developers wanting better exposure, with the salary from the Amazon’s of the world being a by the by.

Andre de Wet, CEO of PriceCheck — a company in the Naspers group — argues that international exposure isn’t really as important as one might think. He says that his company also faces the same challenges as the smaller companies when it comes to developer recruitment.

According to de Wet most developers only see a job description when it comes to applying for a job, not what lies beneath.

“Take us for example — we’re currently looking for PHP and mobile developers to join us. What developers see is a normal job description and as much we try and give the best vision to growth option out there, it only goes so far,” he says.

“What developers miss at times are things such as where we’re going. In the past year PriceCheck built a world-beating mobile app, we’re now moving into Africa, we share learning and resources globally, and most of the time no one sees that,” he adds.

He reckons understanding “local” should be key.

“South Africa is at the forefront of mobile development and solutions, and is very much the breeding ground of the developing world’s mobile development. And it is fundamentally different to the US and the UK. We need people that think local and understand local problems,” says de Wet.

The developer’s word

One developer agreed to talk to me anonymously. According to him the offers are always coming in, each always bigger than the last. “I have never received anything higher than R45 000, that to me seems to be the cutoff point,” he said.

For him making a change is not about money but more about experience and growing as a developer.

“The problem with the startup environment is that you are one of two or three developers, and end up being mediocre because you are not challenged enough or just do the same thing over and over and over again.”

“I would rather be the dumbest junior developer with tons of seniors to learn from than be the most senior person of two.”



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