“It’s about time,” I think to myself as I march up the steep stairs to my next appointment, eager to meet the self proclaimed Tech Fairy in person. I’ve seen her speak on panels about women in the tech biz but I’m certainly keen to figure out what shaped her incredibly strong personality in a male-dominated environment. Xoliswa Mahlangu, currently the tech curriculum designer and co-ordinator for tech for the Future Nation Schools, greets me with a huge smile and a very, VERY firm handshake.
As we make ourselves comfortable, I shoot with my first question:
What is the Tech Fairy?
“A title I gave myself when I started here at Future Nation Schools a few weeks ago,” she responds curtly and confidently. “There’s a blog coming too but I needed to figure out my own identity, hence the Tech Fairy.”
The inspiration behind the name? Mahlangu wants to make computing simple for everyone. Like the fairy godmother of tech.
“I also do a lot of work around training and development – stuff that I’m really proud of!”
At previous jobs, the companies that Mahlangu had been employed by would invite kids from the townships and rural areas where they would be taught to code and to create games. “The joy you see on people’s faces when they’ve developed their first program and it works… It’s quite awesome!”
“Working in those teams and doing that for five years was great. Especially bearing witness to that first group of youngsters making it to university. It’s the kind of stuff that makes your heart flutter with pride.”
So, where did it all begin?
Mahlangu giggles a bit when you ask her about her studies and qualifications. It wasn’t the most direct route, she admits, but she made it here all the same.
This Wits Alumni was initially planning to take a statistics course but fell in love with Computer Science – yes, she used the term “fell in love”.
After taking to an office for a while, this driven woman went on to complete a higher diploma in computer science, an Honours degree in computer science and finally settled into software engineering for her Masters.
I have to ask…
Where do you want women to go in tech? Where do you see our future?
“Everywhere,” she declares.
“I want us to get our hands dirty, I want us to try new stuff, be brave enough to get into the world of physical computing because it’s not as hard as we sometimes think it is. Women are succeeding in coding, succeeding in business analysis, succeeding in all sorts of spaces but we still feel that we’re not made for the more ‘techie’ jobs – that we’re not tech enough for them.”
Do you think women are their own worst enemies or is it that men are holding women back?
“I don’t think it’s unique to our space but I think we’ve been bullied so much that we now do it to ourselves… we just expect it, even in spaces where there is lots of support.
“Women will assume the worst in a situation because we’ve been taught that the boys in the industry know what they’re doing. They’re loud and proud and we are not. So, we expect to be bullied/ held back/ get paid less.
“In any job there are men that will say great things and be supportive and men that just need to be ignored.
“Getting women into the right mind-set needs to start early on. It doesn’t start in the workplace – it happens in high school, if not earlier, handing over our tasks for the guys to tackle.
“During one of our training courses for the high schoolers, we were configuring programs,” Mahlangu explains. “We had the children in groups and I had made sure that there were equal number of boys and girls to the groups. And yet, the girls would still concede the real technical tasks to the boys.”
Where does it stem from? Are we being polite? Are we feeding egos?
“Unfortunately,” says Mahlangu. “It might be what we’re ‘role-modeling’ to our daughters.
“We still raise our children one way… it’s not like we’re in mid-Century England where the ladies sip their tea but we still dress the girls up as princesses and keep pushing it home. If she wants to be Spiderman, she should be Spiderman.
Were you ever made to feel like you weren’t good enough?
“I would feel that I’m not good enough but nobody made me feel that way. I would do that to myself. It’s hard because you do doubt yourself at times.”
BUT, and it’s a big BUT!
“Men can blow their trumpets and women just don’t.”
It’s something Mahlangu thinks women could learn from the men. “They exude so much confidence and faith in themselves, even when they know nothing. Men will be self-assured and sing it from the rooftops and women can find that intimidating.
Her advice is to take a minute, sit and think, tackle a problem, like you would any other. Ask yourself: what is happening? How do I get my head around it? … and when you actually do get into it… the solution might be simple!
“Don’t try to make things complicated,” Mahlangu says. “The men can be really good at that and they can intimidate you in that way – by making the simplest thing emulate rocket science.
“Some just like to brag.”
What has made you tenacious enough to keep going in this industry?
“I like challenges, I’m driven by challenges. I love unravelling stuff that has kept me up at night. Coding and physical computing is definitely the kind of stuff that keeps you thinking. I like doing things with my hands, I like solving problems, I’m a creative and that what’s kept me going.
As the woman in charge…
Mahlangu has managed teams of people before and when asked how to handle the different sexes in situations, she wants both men and women to accept criticism not as criticism but as guidance, constructive criticism, even leadership.
It couldn’t all have been smooth sailing. Any pitfalls along the way?
“I should’ve managed some situations differently,” she says. “The more senior you become, the more you become bogged down with admin and I don’t know how one escapes admin…
“I feel I haven’t grown as much as I would’ve wanted to lately because for a number of years I’ve been tied down to admin.
“The admin for me kills the creative spirit!
“You need something to distract you,” she admits abruptly.
“Fair enough, you’re part of a company and you want to fit into the vision of the company but to keep yourself sane you also have to feed your imagination. Have your own path and keep growing.
“I draw, I paint, I sing, I dance… I am a creative at heart which is what coding is.”
Do you still code?
Not as much as she’d like. More importantly though, Mahlangu wants to change perceptions around coding.
“One thing I’ve realised is there are a lot of people teaching coding who are just confusing the process. They’re making it so difficult for people that the general consensus is that they just can’t do this.
“My aim is to get coding right.”
Coding is basically problem solving she explains. “We do that all the time and women are great problem solvers. Better than men, some might say. We solve problems, we do it all the time.
It’s just something that’s in us… it’s instinct.
What’s the worst that can happen?
“I think people are scared they should ask themselves: ‘What is the worst that can happen?’
“I feel, mentally, you should approach things with an attitude of: ‘I tried…’ If I fail, I just pick myself up and try again or find an alternative.
Playing it safe. Why do women do it?
“The problem is socialisation,” says Mahlangu. “To some extent again, you’d let a boy climb a tree but a girl would be advised caution and that might kill that spirit.
“I suppose growing up with boys I just had to fit in… I’d fall behind if I didn’t keep up with them.