The state of technical talent in Mena

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Leen Ashqar leads value creation at Propeller, a venture capital firm based in Amman, Jordan

Too often, we come across a startup founder complaining about the lack of qualified tech talent in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). When surveyed, finding good talent is often ranked among the top challenges founders face.

As an early-stage venture capital firm with founding partners who are prominent members of the software industry, we have first-hand experience of these challenges.

At Propeller, we spend a lot of our time supporting and guiding founders during the early stages of product development. Sourcing talent for technical and product-related positions is one of the key activities we do for our startups. Having interviewed hundreds of developers over the past year or two, we have come to realise that the issue with tech talent is not a problem of quantity but a matter of quality. 

Quality Over Quantity

Taking a closer look at the talent pool specifically in Jordan, you will find  many university graduates with degrees in software development, quite a good percentage of whom end up entering the workforce as junior software engineers.

However, once they join the workforce, the relatively slow rate of employee development in the Middle East compared to that in Europe and the US, leaves senior tech talent in the region inferior to their corresponding counterparts abroad. When we speak of employee development, we do not mean progressing up the corporate ladder to claim more senior titles, but rather the actual investment in developing employee skills, knowledge and capabilities.

This observation could be generalised to other domains of work but is particularly pertinent to the field of software development due to its ever-changing and rapidly-evolving nature, which requires professionals in the space to progress at a faster rate in order to keep up with the constant advancements.

International technology companies hiring software engineers in Amman are facing similar challenges. 

“Another challenge we faced was finding actual senior talent compared to global standards. After assessment a good fragment of them proved to be a level or two less than what their title indicated,” says Maisa Taani, talent acquisition and human resources consultant based in Jordan. 

This problem is even more prominent for startups building global technology products, those that are on the path of exponential growth. Every hire at a startup is crucial to the success of the company, and so founders cannot do with subpar team members. As a result, they are often left with no other option but to seek higher-calibre talent from abroad. 

Reasons For Technical Exodus

We have taken a deeper look at this situation to better understand the root-cause of this distorted distribution of quality talent and seek out potential solutions. Here are a few of our observations: 

Firstly, very few companies in the region have built a culture around career development and employee progression. With the lack of a continuous-learning environment and a clear path to advancement, very often employees are left unchallenged, demotivated and hence become stagnant.

Of course, those who are not satisfied by this culture seek more challenging work environments elsewhere. We have personally come across at least a dozen qualified developers who moved to Germany, or elsewhere, for better growth opportunities.  

Our region cannot afford to lose its very limited pool of high-calibre talent. It is the responsibility of all corporates and startups to challenge, empower, enrich and retain their best employees. 

Secondly, we could argue that very few professionals in the Middle East continue learning outside of the workplace. Looking at open-source project contributions by country on Github, a clear correlation to top-ranked countries for tech talent can be drawn, as seen in the graph below. 


Top countries by number of pushes/population on Github (Source: Felipe Hoffa, Github Top Countries, 2016) 

What this tells us is that software professionals in these top-ranked countries spend their free time writing code and sharpening their skills. 

To achieve accelerated development, contributing code to open-source projects, attending local meetups, listening to technical talks, or reading a book on tech leadership are all imperative supplements to the knowledge and skills learned on the job. Depending solely on learning-on-the job will by default result in sub-par calibre.

The third point we would like to make is on the impact that global technology employers have had on the local pool of talent. Global technology companies that have opened offices in Jordan are undoubtedly supplying top-tier talent back into the labour market.

What Needs to be Done

It is clear to us at Propeller that the region’s tech talent pool is experiencing slow career development and hindering the potential growth of the industry. To ameliorate the situation we believe two things must happen:

1- The bar of excellence has to be raised for all professionals to move a step up the “quality ladder”. 

For one, software companies in the region should consider hiring tech leads from abroad to inject higher standards of work into their culture and uplift their local teams. By the same token, we need more global technology companies to  open up offices in the region in order to elevate the work standards as a whole. 

2 - The speed at which talent progresses up the quality ladder is the second crucial element to the advancement of our tech scene. 

It is the duty of all stakeholders of the tech ecosystem to create a culture of continuous learning and instill the principles of personal development. Talent should be given more training and upskilling opportunities and receive guidance on career development, whether at a corporate or a startup. 

Some global tech companies are a good example of this when they make active commitments to develop the skill sets (technical and non-technical) of new, promising developers and grow them into more senior roles within 12-18 months. Some offer constant coaching, training and exposure to best-practices. They even go the extra mile to develop talent that does not make it through their interview process.

“If rejected, a member of the technical team would share detailed  technical feedback and would also suggest links, tools, and readings that they would commit to reading for an opportunity to re-interview after six months,” says Taani.

As ecosystem-enablers, we took the matter upon ourselves and are presenting one plausible and practical solution. For the second year in a row, we are organising Xpand Conference, a conference of world-class standards for developers in the Middle East. 

Xpand is an international software development conference, gathering the region’s top tech talent all under one roof for an accelerated developmental experience. The two-day conference will be taking place in Amman, Jordan on the 28th and 29th of March 2020 with the aim of speeding up the progression of the region’s tech talent pool. 


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