Woman who leads 40 engineers and developers explains why we should teach girls about tech bravery

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • Marzanne Collins is the chief information officer of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator.
  • It is a not-for-profit social enterprise that has successfully pathwayed young people into 160 000 jobs and work experiences.
  • Her team provides a platform that supports more than 800 000 unemployed youth.
  • She shares advice for women who want to enter the technology field.

Marzanne Collin's journey into the tech space was a zig-zag one, she says.

She studied BCom Economics and Mathematical Statistics without a clear idea of what she wanted to do with it. She just knew she liked numbers and analytical reasoning.

Her first role was that of a project administrator – the note taker, the person setting up meetings, ordering catering, sorting out logistics. She struggled with why she was given this role despite having an Honours degree in Mathematical Statistics and being awarded top Honours student in the entire BCom faculty for her year.

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"The young men who joined at the same time were given roles in process mapping and analytics. Yet I was assigned to the administrator role. Years later, I think back to this time – yes, this was gender bias, but I learned so much from this role," she says.

"I learned foundational skills, but I also learned that it will be tougher to be a woman in this space and that I need to stand up for what I want. I approached leaders to discuss my aspirations to do more than just the administrative work, and they gave me the opportunity. I learned how to ask for what I want!"

Marzanne was exposed to large-scale technology programmes when she worked at Accenture Consulting after having completed her studies.

"From there, I went into data analytics roles, operational roles and entrepreneurship. I completed my MBA at IE Business School in Madrid – and learned that South Africa has the most exciting opportunities to make a real difference," she says.

She adds that South Africa has a unique set of social challenges due to its history, but at the same time the country has incredible talent and creativity.

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"Through all of this, I learned about the value of problem-solving, analytical reasoning, spotting opportunities, taking the initiative and leading people. I also learned about the role technology can play in enabling processes and people. And it is this combination of roles that led me into the tech space – understanding the intersection of leading people and using tech to solve problems."

At Harambee, her goal is to direct and empower her team to scale a technology platform that will provide solutions for unemployed youth in South Africa. "In partnership with government and the private sector, this inclusive platform recommends content, resources and opportunities to young people," Marzanne says.

"It's like Netflix for young work seekers searching for a job. Depending on who they are and where they are, the platform will recommend what is on offer for them to be more employable and job ready. It's more than just a jobs board. It's a network for young people to stay engaged, connected and informed as they navigate their journeys into the world of work."

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We spoke to Marzanne about her work, goals and what women who want to enter the tech field need today, and she also responded to four of our questions. 

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, women, IT,
Marzanne Collins (Image supplied by Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator)

1 - What does your job entail?

I lead a team of over 40 developers, data engineers, data scientists and IT specialists, who provide a platform that supports more than 800 000 unemployed youth, and growing. I believe that the role of CIO [chief information officer] entails understanding our customer – the young unemployed person – first and foremost.

Daily, I engage with my team on detailed design and implementation, I engage with partners who are critical to solving youth unemployment at scale, and I engage with many others to strategically build out our products and services to young unemployed people so that they can get onto pathways to earning. 

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2 - Do you believe women in tech have equal opportunities as men, and why?

From the data we have gathered from our network at Harambee, we've learned that young men are 1.5 times more likely than young women to have matric or high school qualification, which is often a prerequisite for technical careers. Young women often don't have the opportunity to complete matric due to barriers such as teenage pregnancies and cultural expectations of home care and domestic responsibilities.

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While there may be opportunities in the technology industry, the odds are stacked against women to access them. Women have less time to search for work, and they spend more time on transport to mitigate their safety risks. There is a high level of dropout of young women in school and educational programmes due to childcare and added household responsibilities.

Even after navigating these barriers, women are then still faced with a general misconception that "tech is just for the guys". 

Young girls need women tech leaders to look up to and see that technology and digital careers are possible.

3 - What do you think women have to be aware of when pursuing tech careers?

While it may be a male-dominated industry, there are exceptional women techies to look up to! Women bring diversity to technical teams – we bring different communication styles and diverse perspectives. We often play the role of great communicators between teams, users and partners, and we then translate technical language into people's language.

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As an example, I often play the role of translator between our technical teams and our business teams by explaining technical terms, defining acronyms and describing how the technology practically works in a way that's relatable and not intimidating. We can go toe-to-toe with any male when it comes to technical know-how, but we also bring empathy, understanding and warmth.

One of the significant barriers faced when pursuing a tech career is how male counterparts perceive us. When we're assertive, they may label us bossy. When we ask the tough, detailed, essential questions, they may label us as being difficult. We should teach young women about tech bravery. It's okay to make mistakes and fail forward, then stay within your comfort zone.

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My advice is to always rise above this; don't shrink yourself – be you. Bring your best version to work, and know that it's a learning journey, so be kind to yourself. Ask for feedback and be open to feedback – from your male counterparts and female counterparts.

4 - What advice do you have for girls regarding their career choices?

Do what you want to do. And don't be hard on yourself – be kind to yourself as life is a learning journey. Don't ever be scared to ask for support and guidance; be open to listening and learning. Join networks where you can connect with others in the field you want to pursue. Be confident. Work hard! Be brave!

Do you have an interesting career? Tell us about it here.

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