by Kaz Henderson

THE SOFTER SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT

“Technology is an exciting and rewarding career,” states Lorraine Steyn firmly. And she should know. A pioneer in the South African software development industry, Steyn has been at the helm of the company she founded for some 30 years since it launched. She ascribes her company’s enduring success to the fact that she started Khanyisa Real Systems (KRS) with an entrepreneurial mindset, which she continues to apply every day.

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When it comes to some of the challenges and opportunities that women may have in the technology sector, Steyn is vocal. “Women are very suited to software development, as there are components of creativity, detail orientation, problem solving and good communication, all skills that women excel at.

“There are many women in technology already, when you look at roles with high communication and ‘soft skills’ needs. Business analysts, scrum masters, product owners, marketers, designers and many more fields across the tech spectrum have high numbers of women. It is only in the ranks of senior developers, DBAs and systems architects, where the bias is seen clearly, and women are outliers,” she says.

But it wasn’t always so. In the early days of software development, women played a large and important role. They were major contributors to the development of the technology sector. Take Commander Grace Hopper, for instance, a Computer Scientist and a US Navy Rear Admiral. Hopper was a computer programmer and the inventor of the first compiler. She also popularised independent machine-driven languages, which ultimately led to the development of the computer language COBOL, still in use today, and this was in the early 1950s.

The lovely movie, ”Hidden Figures” does a good job of showing us just how many women there were solving computer challenges in the background from the beginning. (Sidebar: Steyn’s company operates from a rambling house in Rondebosch, Cape Town, where it has two cats—one of which is called ‘Grace’—no guesses as to where this name may have come from…).

Even further back though, the world’s first ever computer programmer was a woman. Her name was Ada Lovelace, born in December 1815 and who passed on, one month before her 37th birthday in 1832. She is credited with having written the first ever algorithm to be processed by a machine. Fast forward and we can include Arianna Huffington in the long line of female technology developers. While not a software developer per se, The Huffington Post—while a news channel—is first and foremost a technology platform and Arianna is globally recognised as a computer pioneer.

Did you know?

Did you know that the first video game designer was a woman? Her name was Carol Shaw, an American software engineer.

Yet, while the opportunities are many and there are women in technology, Steyn believes there are just not enough female developers. “I hate broad generalisations” says Steyn, “but I do believe that more women have the high detail orientation needed for software, more so than most men. Being a software developer requires a creative mind and one that can take a problem and find a new solution for it, whilst considering all the possible ways that a user or system may go wrong. It requires a mind that can not only code, but one that can also handle all possible exceptions—convoluted possibly,” she smiles, somewhat enigmatically.

Extending her assertion that there are many areas where women outperform men, Steyn also postulates that anyone who has been involved in software development knows how much testing is required before a new system is ready for production. She submits that the sorry state of software quality is influenced by the lack of women in the field—not enough rigorous and detailed upfront design of systems and assumptions, leading to long cycles of testing to get post-production bugs ironed out.

When it comes to South Africa, we can acknowledge that we have produced some of the finest technology minds. Steyn believes fervently that South Africa has bucket loads of talent but she says it is a sad reflection on our educational systems that we aren’t able to realise all our potential. People like Elon Musk and Mark Shuttleworth are game changers who proved themselves to the world, not just South Africa. She sees them as important role models for our youth.

“Sadly, school leavers are not attracted to technology in general. We have a huge skills shortage, just like so many other fields requiring STEM skills” states Steyn. Something needs to shift—radically and quickly. “We should start by including wide-spread computer science at least at a high school level and making sure that the way we teach these skills includes a healthy number of practical outcomes. Writing code for code’s sake is not motivating—to anyone—writing code that has a purpose and one that the coder can see come to fruition will lead to a better understanding of the field and also to more girls (and boys) entering the industry.”

Motivation is something that we need to look at for our existing ‘technologists’ too. With many of South Africa’s top technology professionals leaving our shores, does Steyn believe that the brain drain is rand vs dollar or something broader?

“Technology and the digital economy is not tied to any one place. You can be successful from South Africa and many of our entrepreneurs continue to support growth in South Africa, even if their careers take them overseas. The technology field is affected by the brain drain, but no more than any other STEM field,” explains Steyn.

Internet of Things

When asked about how the Internet of Things (IoT) will change the way people do business and interact with each other and its possible side-effects, Steyn reflects enthusiasm yet is tempered with some healthy realism: “Do you have a crystal ball? The Internet of Things (IoT) is all encompassing and we just do not know how far reaching its implications are—or its opportunities. Connected everything. Devices, homes, cars, businesses and beyond. It’s already influencing how we communicate and as access to technology and the Internet start to become more prevalent, the exponential curve in development and opportunity increases accordingly.

“There isn’t a short answer to this, but pressed, I would say that access to connectivity will divide those who have and who have not. The new ‘wealth’ indicator. Right now, the choice of whether we are connected or not is what matters in terms of access to learning material, job opportunities and communication. Communities that are penalised by high data costs, such as our astronomical pay-as-you-go data costs, are heavily disadvantaged,” she says.

On driverless cars and just how far away we are from the everyday reality of this, and how telematics improves safety, which is often the number one priority for women, she says, “I don’t fancy driverless cars, myself. It feels like they solve the wrong problem, which is putting more cars on the road, rather than better public transport systems. We’ll have to see how that turns out—my crystal ball gives no answers. Safety will always be important and systems that give lots of safety feedback, like Uber, will definitely thrive, no matter who is driving or who the passenger is.”

When peering into her own crystal ball, what does the future hold in terms of new technology, if not her self-drive chauffeur? Are we seeing a slowdown in the development curve relative to earlier decades? “Absolutely not! The last few years have seen some important business disruption, as technology fundamentally changes the way companies do business. I believe we will see much more of this, especially in the ‘services’ businesses, which will be dominated by chatbots and artificial intelligence systems,” she says.

AI, machine learning and the fourth industrial revolution are already here. It is not that man is becoming more like machines, but that machines are becoming more like man. This is driving a range of technology interfaces and ‘jobs’—many of which we have not even imagined as yet—have a new set of rules.

“This is at once chilling, but it is also a hugely exciting time in the technology sector and I can think of no other industry that can offer such an opportunity for job satisfaction than being involved in the development of the future of our world,” Steyn concludes. 

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