Talent Wars? What Talent Wars?

When Microsoft came to Kenya, they hired talent across the country, especially from Safaricom. As it so happens, they might have just done a good thing.

A silent war broke out soon after Microsoft launched its Africa Development Centre in Nairobi in March this year. The fight was for the crop of young software engineers in Kenya. The most effective weapon – money.

The words “war for talent” were the perfect description of the phenomenon I  witnessed as software engineers, especially the really good ones, migrated for better pay. I saw quite a lot of our developers being poached by big, big, multinationals, like Microsoft, AWS (Amazon Web Services), and others, as well as many local companies, banks, fintech, who are hiring developers talent. The “war for talent” was among the first items on the agenda at the Safaricom Engineering Summit, an event organised by Safaricom to bring together a range of stakeholders in the sector from technology companies to learning institutions and the much sought-after engineers.

Apart from the entry of the multinationals, the war for software engineering talent has been driven by the accelerated digitisation that was necessitated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Google’s Africa Developer Ecosystem Report for 2021 says three other factors contributed to the positive developments in the developer community: the growth of local start-ups, increased demand for remote tech talent, and increased demand for the use of the internet by local businesses, which in turn hired developers to help them grow their businesses online. The result has been an increase in the number of developers, an increase in the average pay of software developers, with more of them getting full-time jobs and opportunities to work remotely.

“African developers are, on average, younger than in more mature markets. They work primarily in Android and web app development,” the report released in February stated.

On the ground at Safaricom, there has been an increase in demand for not just general software developers, but well-skilled developers who can go beyond creating software. There has been a higher demand for people who can connect things to create a solution and enable businesses serve customers better, for example, and bring ideas to life in ways that make sense for the immediate needs of businesses.

Before the war for software engineers began, there had been a realisation of our need for our own developers working on Safaricom’s products and services. We have gradually moved from having apps like the Safaricom App developed by third-party vendors to entrusting them to an internal team. The result is the Safaricom App being among the highest-rated apps locally, proving the managers right. Having apps developed by the internal teams allows us to react faster to issues raised by customers and to integrate other aspects of the business into it.

This has been the case with the m-Pesa Super App, which has been fashioned as an all-in-one app, where other apps can be hosted, giving users access to a range of services like motor vehicle insurance, SGR tickets, air tickets, gift shops, and payment for products or services without leaving the app. We’ve built the team to about 500 now and we feel it’s time to at least announce that we are making a dent not only in Kenya but in Africa and the rest of the world. For developers, perhaps the best thing about the war has been the increase in pay that comes with the natural effects of low supply when there is high demand.

Mbugua Njihia, Venture Scout, SHL Capital and the event MC said at the Safaricom Engineering Summit, “LinkedIn nowadays is just buzzing,” with people announcing new jobs and promotions, which is exciting for the community. I am happy that the talent I have had to let go have gone on to do well in multinationals and other companies. They have subsequently opened doors for others. I have a ton of people who’ve gone to Ireland, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and South Africa. We are seeing a lot of people realising that we have a lot of smart people and great engineers.

Even as we recruited more engineers, we have been forced to make adjustments for those who remained. It meant increasing pay and creating an enabling environment where they are paid based on performance. When we asked them what would make them stay, says Paul Kasimu, the Chief Human Resource Officer was told some engineers requested for more autonomy in their work to grow, and improved leadership as key. From his experience in HR he said, most people (about 67 per cent) “leave employers because of conflict with their line managers, not the companies,” and that for him this meant there was a need to re-evaluate and train the managers working with the developers. He also sees the competition as a natural consequence of the increasing complexity of work that comes with the digital age. That, he says, was happening even before the onset of COVID-19. “If you ask me about what is work, I will tell you www; work is changing, the workforce is changing, and the workplace is changing,” he said.

From his experience and conversations with colleagues across the continent, he has discovered that enterprises are increasingly dealing with a generation of workers uninterested in pension, insurance, and other traditional perks that kept Boomers anchored to one job for life. Even as we recruit in droves, tech companies are alive to the reality that their employees are likely to leave when opportunities arise.

For Paul, the realisation has been that when companies like Safaricom train software engineers, they are not training for an organisation, but for an ecosystem. At the end of the day, he said, “There is a skills shortage.” As leaders, Paul and I acknowledge the Safaricom Engineering Summit was the first step in creating a community of engineers. The plan is to create the Digital Academy in partnership with big tech companies in Nairobi and universities around Kenya to train and certify software engineers.

If Kenya is to become the Silicon Savannah, it will not happen without a strong software engineering community. Looking at the environment now, I no longer regret the opportunity I missed to become a lawyer as there can only be good things in the future for young software engineers. Ultimately, Paul says it best. “The war for talent is over. When I look at the battlefield, talent has won, not organisations.”

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