With its angular design and glass walls, the new BCX offices in Centurion are an impressive sight.
CEO Ian Russell, who has been in the hot seat at BCX since May, greets finweek with a broad smile as he enters a meeting room in the new building. He is eager to chat and begins with the merging of Business Connexion and Telkom Business into BCX.
Business Connexion, which was founded by Isaac Mophatlane and his late brother Benjamin, was acquired by Telkom in 2015 for R2.67bn. It was merged with Telkom Business a year ago and in February 2017 was rebranded BCX.
“Customers don’t want to deal with multiple players,” says Russell. “They want one trusted adviser who manages everything for them.”
He explains that the bringing together of the R8bn IT services firm and the R12bn telephone and connection services company was a necessity. Now, the need is to strive for efficiencies.
“We need to develop technological solutions, not sell products,” says Russell. “In the past we haven’t been so good at listening to the customers’ business problems.”
He adds that both companies have legacy technologies that were relevant five years ago and are barely relevant today: “These old technologies still have a place, but they are not enough.”
It is clear that Russell is looking for new tech ideas – and such new concepts require new coders.
Russell starts talking about one of his passions – tech education. In May, BCX ploughed R60m into the WeThinkCode initiative and in September it put R50m into the Explore Data Science Academy.
“If you look at GDP growth globally, the countries with the fastest GDP growth have the strongest technology sectors; there is a strong causal link,” he explains. “[South] Korea is a really good example; they went from zero to hero in a very short time frame.”
Russell says one of the reasons South Africa’s GDP growth is “pedestrian” is because of a lack of skills. Speaking specifically about tech skills, he adds that the situation needs to be addressed
now – SA doesn’t have the luxury of trying to fix the school education system.
“We have to work quickly,” he says. “We are at a critical crossroads.”
WeThinkCode takes on coders between the age of 18 and 25 and takes them through a course, which is fully funded so the students don’t have to pay. They are also given a stipend.
Russell says WeThinkCode is based on peer-to-peer learning and is structured around business problems that the coders have to solve every week. Currently 250 young people are enrolled in each two-year programme, and the offices in Johannesburg are open from 8AM to 10PM.
An interesting fact that has emerged from the initiative is that the young people who do well do not have university degrees: “Of the top five of the first 100 kids we put through the programme, three didn’t even have a matric.”
It is clear that Russell is passionate about these initiatives. As he describes visiting the learning environments these young coders inhabit, you can see the excitement on his face. WeThinkCode is set to open a Cape Town branch in January.
Explore Data Science Academy
Also launching in Cape Town that month is the Explore Data Science Academy, which will be offering a one-year accredited skills data science programme for applicants aged between 17 and 35.
BCX will fully sponsor 300 interns over the next three years to attend this programme, as it has come on board as founder partner.
More than 3 300 applications have already been received from those eager to join the academy‚ from which only 100 will be selected for 2018. Successful candidates will divide their time between on-the-job training, project work and classroom learning.
The Explore Data Science Academy was created by Shaun Dippnall, Dave Strugnell and Aidan Helmbold, all data scientists with actuarial qualifications and experience in lecturing, research and consulting.
Russell says the “real world” structure of the learning is crucial. He says he wants these young coders to solve the world’s future problems. The academy’s first project for 2018 is the Cape Town water crisis.
Helmbold adds: “We want to start with problems that are massive and topical and show how the skills of data science can be used to help understand problems better and find solutions to them, that’s why we picked the water crisis in Cape Town.”
BCX Disrupt Summit
Another project that Russell is eagerly anticipating is the BCX Disrupt Summit, which is being held in Johannesburg on 16 and 17 November.
He explains that when he took over at BCX, he asked why the company was sponsoring rugby and cycling.
“What relevance does that have? I thought, ‘Where do I put the money that gives me both brand awareness but also delivers some real things that are of use to the company?’”
Russell says disruptors are people who unlock new ways of thinking to solve problems.
“Meet a new breed of insurgents who are driving disruption at the frontline of technology, business and beyond,” reads the marketing material for the summit.
“From the great minds who are imagining what future data storage looks like – not just 100 years from now, but 100 000 years from now – to enlightened thinkers who are bringing together ideas from vividly diverse spectrums. This is disruption.”
Russell promises that BCX Disrupt will not be a one-time event. “We are already planning for next year,” he says. “We are asking people ‘Who would you like to see next year?’. Do people want to hear Elon Musk talk? What about Mark Zuckerberg?”
Russell says he is very excited to have secured Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell and Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am as speakers for the 2017 inaugural BCX Disrupt.
Others include Charlie Ayers, known as the “chef that fed Google” and iamtheCODE founder Mariéme Jamme, as well as best-selling author and game designer Jane McGonigal.
ABOUT IAN RUSSEL
Ian Russell was appointed CEO of BCX in May, after joining the Telkom Group four years ago.
He was a member of the Telkom Group executive committee, accountable for the delivery of a wide range of group services to Telkom’s business units including procurement, supply chain, corporate real estate, security and human resources.
He previously served as head of procurement for South African Breweries and has a long history in the financial sector, holding a number of positions at both Barclays and Absa.
CHAIR IN DIGITAL BUSINESS
Africa’s first chair in digital business was announced by the Wits Business School (WBS) in 2016, through an initial five-year funding commitment from Telkom Group. The chair in digital business is a first for South Africa and the continent
“WBS plans to conduct research in the field of digital business in Africa, and advance awareness of digital business and readiness by engaging with business, government and communities,” a Telkom statement read at the time.
“Potential future developments include WBS offering a Master of Management in Digital Business, and the establishment of a Centre for Digital Business.”
Telkom Group’s former chief commercial officer, Prof. Brian Armstrong, was appointed as the first chair. He has a long history in the telecoms industry, starting at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and including employers such as British Telecoms and Telkom.
Armstrong said that “digitalisation” is a concept that is “over-traded but under-researched”.
“Most of the information we have about digitalisation is anecdotal – there is no body of knowledge available which is underpinned by rigorous academic research,” Armstrong said at the time.
Russell says it is vital for institutions to start researching the unintended social outcomes of greater automation.
“What happens to all the unemployed people? We need bright people to do research papers on offset strategies for greater unemployment.”
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