Getting career ready is much more than developing specific technical skills, even when working in the technology industry. Dell Young Leaders alum Athenkosi is new in his career as a software engineer and started his current position working remotely in the midst of the COVID pandemic. He shares his advice for students and recent graduates on learning to engage with people across different industries, taking feedback, and listening to the needs and ideas of teammates.
Tell us more about yourself.
I was born in the Eastern Cape but raised in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Having grown up in such a difficult environment, I was limited and challenged in ways that pushed me to rise above my circumstances. Despite the adversity, I matriculated in 2015 before commencing my studies in electrical engineering at the University of Cape Town.
What did earning your degree mean to you?
My engineering degree is not only a gateway to my future but a sign of hope to those back home that look up to and depend on me. I plan to give back to my community and other communities that suffer similar struggles related to poverty, such as lack of access to electricity and resources, and social issues such as gangsterism and drug use. I would like to promote education to others in similar circumstances and motivate them to also work their way out of their predicament. A quote that I live by is, “Nothing is impossible, because the word itself says ‘I am possible.”
Tell us more about starting your career in technology.
I’m currently a software engineer at South Africa’s central and well-respected scientific research and development organization. I started working during the pandemic, so I never saw my colleagues during my first year! Even though I was getting this mentorship, I couldn’t meet them in person. I had to be self-disciplined to work from home and create a structure. Every day at 9 a.m. we have a standup meeting where you say or present what you did the previous day, what issues you faced, what you did about those issues, and what are you planning to do that day.
Those standup meetings helped me learn a strong sense of accountability. I also always try to have something to present so that I can get feedback and know the errors I’m getting. That way I can contact someone to help me, and get corrected. If I just try to be academic and not apply the information, I am not contributing or helping the team.
What soft skills do you utilize at work?
Teamwork is super important. I believed in university that I could do most things alone but, in the workplace, we’re not doing an individual project – we’re working on the company’s project! Whatever solution you are bringing must align with the values of the company. Being able to take negative feedback, learn from it, and move on: this skill requires someone who understands the importance of teamwork.
Listening skills are also critical. When you are in groups and given a problem, you need to listen to your teammates and then add on your solution. It is easy for some people to not really listen attentively to what others are saying, but at work, it might be disrespectful to your colleague if you are repeating what they said. You must acknowledge what others are saying in your recommendations.
How did you make the transition to working in technology after studying engineering?
Choosing whether to go into software engineering or more traditional electrical engineering was the first hard decision I had to make in my career. I had to catch up on a lot of things. I spent a lot of time trying to get the attention of those in the industry and trying to find mentors, especially because software engineering was new to me, and I did not know as much as those who studied it at university.
What tips do you have for students looking to go into technology, particularly if they did not study it in university?
What is important is to not limit yourself to your major. You might think “I can’t do a certain job because I don’t have the qualification”, but do not let the qualification be the determining factor in applying for a job. Focus on the skills you need and dive into that industry.
You also need to be a fast learner and try to add value wherever possible. It is very easy to think that if you are new or have just come out of university, people owe you or need to teach you something. Really you need to be knocking on your colleague’s door and offering to assist. It might be simple tasks, but making yourself useful and showing interest in learning is good when you are starting work.
What tips do you have for recent graduates starting a career in technology?
Own up to your work and own up to your mistakes. If you coded something or presented something incorrectly, go to the person who has been there before or your manager and tell them, “I think I did something wrong.” If you made a mistake, and they test it as a team, you must own up to your error. What makes work hard is trying to find what went wrong, so it’s better to go to them directly than try to hide it.
How would you suggest getting career ready?
Take advantage of any opportunity where you meet different people from different industries. Engaging in topics that do not necessarily relate to your specific career or qualification and pushing yourself to engage in ways to be constructive with your teammates is very reflective of the working world. The Dell Young Leaders programme provided this through leadership symposiums and other events – it builds your leadership capacity and makes you into someone who can work in a team and value everyone’s feedback.
Given the current economic environment, new university graduates face a steep road ahead. The Career Insights Series is designed to help graduate job seekers. Dell Young Leaders alumni share insights on their career path, highlight a day in their life at their employer, and provide guidance to students on how to stand out to employers and prepare for the world of work.