South Africans should be more self-confident about their ability to innovate in the IT solutions space, says Mike Steyn of Aspire Solutions: “We operate in a vacuum a lot of the time. It’s only when you go to the international conferences that you begin to realise that in some areas we are actually way ahead of our counterparts in the rest of the world.”
“Everywhere we have been to benchmark ourselves, people have been blown away by what we have been able to achieve compared to overseas counterparts, in less time and for less money,” he says. “In the domains where we are good, we are very, very good.”
Steyn says the very fact that South Africans don’t always have access to the latest and greatest technologies, or the most cutting-edge skills, can be an advantage: “We don’t have huge budgets or a large pool of talent, so we have to be extremely efficient with what we do have,” he says.
“Our willlingess to take ownership of a problem also seems to be unusual – we are much less bound by formal roles and structures than our colleagues in the EU in particular. South Africans tend to be willing to grab a project by the scruff of the neck and do whatever it takes to solve a problem. This ‘let’s fix it’ attitude that we take for granted at home really stands out in global markets.”
Stereotyped perceptions of Africa continue to work against us, however, he says. “Even when people see what we can do, there’s still a reluctance to hire South Africans because their bosses won’t believe we can do the job. Combined with our geographical distance from key markets, that is a real challenge to overcome.”
Going into projects with overseas partners is a useful entry point, says Steyn – but he cautions that South African companies should not be content with staying “at the bottom of the food chain”.
“You have to fight to get close to the end client,” he says. “You need to be there to ask the right questions and propose the best solutions. That’s crucial to the success of a project, of course; but it’s also a way to overcome negative perceptions.”
Steyn says a recent project with a major EU client was “a real eye opener for me. They were very wary of us at first, but once we had convinced them we knew what we were talking about and could do the job, we ended up driving the project. Our willingness to talk back and take the lead is a huge asset.”
The areas where South Africans do best are not always the sexiest or most media-friendly, notes Styen. “We’re not going to lead the world in designing new iPad apps and social media tools,” he says. “But when it comes to designing and implementing workable, cost-effective solutions to real business problems, we still have an edge.