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Introducing the Open Box Academy

Posted by Abu Bakr Brey in: leadership, industry news, Open Box Academy, Learning

Cape Town is a hub of IT activity, and competition for talent is intense. Finding the right people to join our problem solving, creative thinking entity has been a constant challenge over the years.

This is especially true of two of our fastest growing divisions - Automation Services and Enterprise Solutions which both require specialized skill sets not in abundance locally. The irony is, we have probably exacerbated the problem by simply being Open Box.

What do I mean by this? Let’s look at Automation Services as an example. We decided in 2017 to kick off our Robotic Process Automation services division, relying on our knowledge of systems in the industry we service as well as our technical ability to figure things out. Having gone through the exercise of building from the ground up many times in my 11 years at the company, I was comforted in knowing that we had great individuals applying themselves to the audacious task of Automation using technologies that were new to us. Fast forward a couple of months and we had surpassed the norms of what the IT industry were using robotic processing for.

With an unemployment rate of 29%, there is definitely not a shortage of people, just a shortage of the appropriate skills

As the division boomed, going to market for relevant resources was the obvious and quickest solution. However, we quickly found that the local automation industry was immature in their thinking and application of automating processes when compared to what we were achieving. This was highlighted in numerous interviews, particularly around the technical exposure candidates had in their development experience.

This was much the same story with our Enterprise Division, especially around their knowledge in MRI Software - real estate and investment management software for real estate owners, investors, and operators. Finding technical expertise matched with appropriate accounting knowledge proved to be time consuming, with a lot of investment in training during the initial employment period.

What to do? With an unemployment rate of 29%, there is definitely not a shortage of people in the broader sense, just a shortage of the appropriate skills. Having mentored many people over the years for numerous positions and situations, I knew that relevant skills can be attained, but pure raw talent and a willingness to make a difference comes from within.

In South Africa there are many incentives for companies to provide internships to learners as part of their degree completion. The term “previously disadvantaged” is used as a guideline for receiving such incentives when granting internships. I have however seen many advantaged people disadvantage themselves by not taking opportunities presented to them, and the previously economically disadvantaged rise and own the space they’re in. So, it cannot only be about the economics but rather the ability and willingness of any individual to better themselves.

It cannot only be about the economics but rather the ability and willingness of any individual to better themselves

We have seen these success stories at Open Box throughout our existence. People without IT degrees and experience taking the opportunities we provide and making them work. From botanists to nuclear physicists, we have them all.

Based on this, I decided it was time we formalized the process and took control of filling the skills gap we constantly face. At the beginning of 2019 we kicked off The Open Box Academy and accepted our first intake, with the aim of producing individuals geared towards our Automation and Enterprise divisions.

Partnering with a local institute which provides basic IT training that covers the theoretical aspects, the aim of the Academy was to provide the practical training. It ran for 6 months until June this year with 40% of the class making the grade required for permanent employment at Open Box.

We learned many things during this time, which is why kicking off the second intake mid-year was a no brainer. Our new students are completing a much more structured training curriculum, which includes making use of Pluralsight and other internal bespoke training, including the soft skills expected in a high functioning knowledge-based workplace.

The Academy is held within our offices and the students are exposed to real project delivery by shadowing client teams. Added to this, they have a 4-month project where they are required to develop and automate processes identified through real problems experienced by our clients.

At the end of the 6 months, those that have made the most of the opportunity we provide will be offered a permanent position within the relevant division at Open Box.

At Open Box we are all about people

At Open Box we are all about people. We believe if we spend time and effort on nurturing the positive aspects of employees, that positivity and creativity will be reciprocated. Processes will be improved, and problems will be solved, all based on the principle of paying it forward.

So, what’s our takeaway? The overall employment and training costs are worth the spend when you know that the person you are offering a position to has effectively been through a 6-month interview process and has excelled in meeting the required skill standard by demonstrating talent and developing it with a hunger and passion.

This way we do good and apply good business sense all in one.

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