What factors would you consider when opening a professional services office in a new country? Proximity to clients, to talent, to other similar organizations?
In February 2012, Thoughtworks made the unconventional choice to open its first office in Africa in Braamfontein (Braam), a rejuvenated neighborhood in Johannesburg's city centre. Known for its thriving arts and community, Braam is not an obvious choice as homebase for an international company. Global companies entering South Africa are much more likely to locate in Sandton, an affluent city suburb. Placing the office in Braam was central to defining the Johannesburg office culture. A black suburb close to city centre, Braam has historically been known for the rapid decline it saw during the last years of apartheid South Africa. Placing our offices in this up and coming rejuvenated neighborhood was the first step in attracting the people we wanted as part of our first Pan African office.
Why South Africa and Why Braamfontein?
The decision to locate in South Africa started with clarifying our purpose. Africa as a continent has a wealth of talent, but is not known for custom software development. Our mantra was to support and cultivate a love of coding. We wanted to help create such passion for software development that an African "Google" would emerge so when you searched for the word “ubuntu," your results would reflect the Southern African meaning of ubuntu - of humanity - “you are my brother, my sister, we are connected," and not just the Ubuntu operating system.
After visiting many countries and cities in Africa, we realized that South Africa truly is the gateway to Africa. It has the largest economy of any country in Africa, a stable infrastructure, an existing IT consulting industry and a passion to make things happen. The vibrancy of Johannesburg captivated us and it was clear that it could more than support the leap to other Pan African offices across the continent.
So where to put down roots? The legacy of apartheid continues in many ways. Demographically South Africa is primarily black/coloured (90%), but the IT industry is still around 95% white. We realized on our second trip how important it was going to be to locate the office in an area where we were signaling inclusivity, and how important it was to create an environment where these numbers would be turned on their head. So inclusivity meant creating events and a meet-up group that defied the numbers, and brought together an inclusive group of people passionate about software.
Since then, other organizations have joined by partnering with us in the Tech in Braam initiative to grow Braamfontein as a tech cluster. Our meetup, CodedinBraam is the second most popular (and most diverse) meetup group in Johannesburg. Black Girls Code has brought hundreds of young women to our offices to learn to code. Two tech hubs have just opened in Braam and some predict it could become Africa's own Silicon Valley.
Two years after opening our doors, our clients range from large commercial companies to smaller social-impact organisations. We employ more than 100 Africans from across the continent, and offer Thoughtworkers from around the world a chance to experience working in South Africa.
But we didn't stop there.
Soon after creating a presence in Johannesburg, we wondered where next. We knew that our next office needed to be in East Africa and so in August 2012, we began operation in Kampala, Uganda so that we could be in the midst of a vibrant and growing software development community. Our focus in East Africa is to be a part of the journey to create a new benchmark for growth and innovation.
So far, we have been instrumental in the set up of the Girl Geek Dinners’ Kampala chapter and we regularly organize Geek Nights in the city. We also organise and run Ruby Fridays, which is a 7-week Ruby training programme for the ladies of Kampala. When it gained in popularity, we opened it to men as well. The Kampala office also doesn't miss an opportunity to celebrate milestones of technology like Ada Lovelace Day.
We are building a unique community of Africans developing software in Africa for Africans. Come join us!
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.