REMAINING RELEVANT IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Khanyisa Real Systems (KRS) is celebrating 30 years as a software house at the end of March 2017. Their journey represents the entire period of personal computing, from early IBM PCs to powerful mobile devices. CEO, Lorraine Steyn, looks back at some of the ways the company has rolled with the changing times.

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How do you and your team succeed in keeping up to speed with technology advances and keeping your innovation edge sharp?

We dedicate time and resources to investigating new technology and, at the same time, to looking at upcoming trends that we should embrace. You have to be able to differentiate the hype from the worthwhile, and also look at the commercial value of each trend.

There is only one way to deal with so many technological changes in a company and that is to make learning (and re-training) a way of life. Back in the early 1990s, KRS had a formula of Friday afternoon workshops for all staff. We would get together for an hour, hear about something new or that we felt was worthy of further investigation, maybe even have a short tutorial, and then we’d hang out over a few drinks and look at how we could use the new ideas.

We still do short workshops, but most of our organisational learning now comes from more intense Boot Camps and Hackathons. Teams are given three to five days off from production work in order to experiment with new technology, listen to lectures and practice the new language, framework and techniques together in an immersive manner.

The technology stack has gotten a lot deeper with the development of the Web and the amount of learning has had to increase.

KRS has an “honour wall” in our reception area where we show off all our staff’s certificates, from leadership and soft skills accomplishments to industry certifications. We are very proud of the continuous learning of all our staff.

What has been your secret to bringing in and developing new staff?

Staying relevant also means a focus on people, especially the youth. KRS has an annual internship programme through which we take on around 12 interns and bridge the gap between college and business with intensive training before they move on to specific projects. This fresh intake of youngsters each year is a major plus for the company as it helps to keep our thinking fresh. In return, we are also always impressed by the insights and drive of our interns. We’ve always had a very flat structure at KRS and have adopted agile practices that entrench the autonomy of our teams. Millennials align well with this approach and are completely up to challenging the older developers to find better ways of working.

We work very hard at protecting the KRS culture. An organisation needs to be able to define its culture and to communicate that to its new staff. Generally, we hold a facilitated Culture Review each year just after the interns have joined, where the staff break into groups and discuss how they handle various people challenges.

For instance, we have an honesty snack bar, where staff take whatever sweets or drinks they want and they don’t pay for them there—rather, they just sign for them. The at-cost salary deduction is done based on what staff say they’ve taken. We would ask, at the Culture Review, how a staff member would handle seeing someone take something and not sign for it.

This helps staff to internalise that they are the custodians of the culture—they need to be willing to point out to the person that they’ve forgotten to sign, and to please do so. Any other approach turns management into police, which is the exact opposite of what we want.

We also have a team building budget, where teams decide what they’d like to do together each quarter. It’s entirely in the team’s hands and not management’s. We’ve had teams choose some amazing activities, for instance, stand-up paddling, going to Prestige Cinema for a matinee, surfing, go-karting or just enjoying lunch or drinks together.

How has your working environment contributed to staff engagement?

We’ve managed to avoid the traditional office space as we have always been based in big, rambling, old houses. It’s a completely different working environment as it allows our staff to take a swim after work or even take a mental break to spend a few minutes with the office cat. The challenges are finding premises that are big enough to accommodate us—not to mention offering enough parking. Some teams are based at client’s premises, but more than 50 work from our Rondebosch house.

Did we mention that we receive a cooked meal every day? The kitchen is truly the heart of the office and eating lunch together is also part of the KRS culture.

How has KRS adapted to the changing needs of business?

In the early days, KRS developed a lot of financial systems, like Debtors and Stock Management. Nowadays, that’s taken care of by off-the-shelf offerings and custom development is focussed on what you can’t get from packages.This makes the domains that we work with at KRS very interesting, as we’re usually designing something new and unique for a client. We have found that our strong foundation in financial systems is very relevant, though, as most business systems are still about money, however, it is packaged.

There is also a lot of integration work. Packaged solutions must work together with custom software, as a business can’t afford to have dozens of separate systems that don’t communicate with one another. KRS has strong back-end API and database skills that address this business need. Mobile is great and we’ve developed some of our own mobile apps, as well as apps for clients. There’s a mind shift needed for mobile, though, as the better apps really take the possibilities (as well as the limitations) of the mobile device into account.

One of our own mobile apps that has done well is an events platform for kid’s activities: “I’m Bored Kids”. We have over 60 000 fans who use the app, 90% of whom are women. “I’m Bored” definitely appeals to the moms. We cover events in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, with fresh content added daily.

It’s been interesting to venture into consumer apps from our base as a mainly business-to-business systems developers. Consumer-facing apps are definitely the future and a great area for businesses to offer value to their clients.

These are all business needs that have evolved over 30 years and we are grateful to have been a part of this exciting time to be alive.

How are you approaching the challenges that lie ahead?

It might sound strange, but we’ve never believed in long-term plans, at least not beyond about two years into the future. One of our KRS strengths has been adaptability—looking at new tech while it’s still on the bleeding edge and being able to embrace the winning tech early as a learning organisation. We are currently trying to reduce our staff’s working hours. Creative work, which is what software development is, can’t be achieved through long hours. Teams are challenged to improve productivity in any area that they can, and that allows them to work a shorter week. We call it the 38-hour programme and it’s just two hours off per week. However, that adds up to eight hours a month, which is equal to an extra 12 days leave a year.

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