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Decagon: Developing Nigeria’s tech talent

Chika Nwobi is the founder of Decagon, a company that aims to position Nigeria among the top 10 producers of software engineers in the world. Chika has spent the last decade active in the early stage development of technology companies, and has been involved in the development of about 20 startups, including Jobberman, Cheki, MTech and more.
18 months ago, he decided to move from investing in startups to investing directly in talent through Decagon. The company aims to produce software engineers at scale in the country, to mobilise software engineering to solve Nigeria’s problems and help meet the global demand for software engineers.

There is a significant gap between Nigeria’s potential and its current position in the software development industry – India is currently the most successful country in the world for the software engineering industry, with about 0.3% of its population (about 3.9 million people) outsourcing and writing software for global companies. Nigeria, in contrast, has about six thousand to ten thousand software engineers; the industry is operating at only a fraction of its potential compared to the country’s population. Despite Nigeria gradually being recognised as a software engineering hub and Nigerian engineers being recognised for the quality of their work, the industry has not been able to scale.

Chika notes that there are two major challenges to scaling in the software engineering industry. Nigerian universities, despite having brilliant students, do not provide the training needed to produce good, experienced software engineers that can attract companies to set up outsourcing centres. Secondly, there has formerly been no entrepreneurial investment in bridging the talent gap in the industry, and many young people who could have been mentored and trained in software engineering also had limited access to resources like laptops, good internet, mentors and a reliable community to guide their advancement.

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Decagon is a response to the latter challenge, and aims to solve problems associated with entering the industry. The company runs a talent accelerator programme, open to anyone with a degree, that tests applicants’ ability to learn fast, collaboration and resilience, and trains those who are selected after a rigorous 8-week process to be software developers. Those selected for the accelerator programme are taught computer science fundamentals and in-demand programming languages, assigned projects and mentors, and connected with hiring partners which are companies in Nigeria and abroad. Training is in-residence, and participants are provided with accommodation, feeding, laptops, and a stipend. Decagon has accepted about 200 people, and 104 have finished the programme.

Speaking on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the talent economy, Chika notes that there has been some negative impact. Decagon’s training programme had to be suspended until government guidelines could be followed, and many companies that hired graduates from the programme experienced temporary disruptions in recruitment, which slowed the last set of trainees from all being hired. On the upside, he notes however that many businesses have now seen that digital channels are important to build resilience, and believes that the demand for digital transformation investment and engineering talent will rise as the pandemic slows. Also, as employees are forced to work from home, remote work will become more acceptable, allowing more Nigerian software engineers to work remotely for international companies remotely and removing the constraints on software engineering capacity by borders.

Chika opines that to the current generation of working Nigerians, it is becoming obvious that oil is no longer sustainable for the nation. In the current digital revolution, software engineering and digital skills lie at the core of value creation, driven by brilliant minds and made easier if they are English-speaking. These characteristics put young Nigerians in a good place to take advantage of this revolution, and it provides a window within which education must be prioritised by governments and in budgets, to ensure that most of the population is well educated in order to move the country out of widespread poverty within a generation. Governments must massively increase spending on education, starting at the tertiary level because it has the quickest returns, and then moving onto other levels of education.

The demand for software engineers has mainly been from companies based in Lagos, but the industry has the capacity, in time, to have demand spread across the country, especially as international markets are increasing demand for Nigerian talents and home work is growing popularity. This spread will be aided by state governments implementing proper infrastructure like stable power supply and reliable internet access in their states, and hiring local engineering teams with software developers to execute state contracts and create local demand.

Post-COVID, the company will work to support local companies to understand their needs and bring in software engineers to solve their problems. It is also expected that many engineers will leave Nigeria as the pandemic ends, since many international companies have demand for them. Nevertheless, Decagon will continue to be innovative in fast-tracking expertise acquisition, to allow Nigeria have the capacity to deliver and to give Nigerian engineers to opportunity to connect to global companies and earn more.

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