Staying relevant over 30 years

30 years is a long time in the Tech Industry! It’s the entire period of personal computing, from early IBM PCs to powerful mobile devices.

End of March this year, Khanyisa Real Systems will be throwing a party to celebrate 30 years as a software house. It’s a unique opportunity for a reunion of past and present staff to celebrate our 30 year journey, and the very unique KRS culture that’s held us together for so long.

KRS has faced many challenges to stay relevant over such a long period. These are generally in 3 areas: the obvious one of fast moving technology; how people’s attitudes have shifted; and business expectations and needs that are quite different to 30 years ago.

Technology Growth

KRS started with a lovely 4GL language called DataFlex in 1987, and then we moved on to Clarion and Delphi for many years. That’s a trip down memory lane – when we were writing serious business systems for DOS and early LANs!

KRS has been a long time Microsoft Gold Partner, with a big focus now on JavaScript frameworks for responsive web sites, and Android and iOs mobile development. We also have in-depth skills in a variety of databases, such as MongoDB, PostgreSQL and Microsoft SQLServer.

We dedicate time and resources to investigating new tech, and looking at upcoming trends that we should embrace. You have to be able to spot the hype from the worthwhile, and also look at the commercial value of each trend.

There is only one way to deal with so much technological change in a company, and that is to make learning (and re-training) a way of life. Back in the early 1990’s, KRS had a formula of Friday afternoon workshops for all staff. We would get together for an hour, hear about something new or worth further investigation, maybe even have a short tutorial, and then we’d hang out over a few drinks and look at how we could use the new ideas.

We still do short workshops, but most of our organizational learning now comes from more intense Boot Camps and Hackathons. Teams are given 3 to 5 days off production work to experiment with new technology, listen to lectures, and practice the new language, framework, techniques or whatever, in an immersive manner together.

The technology stack has gotten a lot deeper with Web development, and the amount of learning has had to increase.

KRS has an “honour wall” in reception where we show off all our staff’s certificates, from leadership and soft skills accomplishments to industry Certifications. We are very proud of the continuous learning of all our staff.

Growing People

Staying relevant also means a focus on people, especially the youth. KRS has an annual internship programme: we take on around 12 interns and bridge the gap between college and business with intensive training before they move on to projects. This fresh intake of youngsters each year is a major plus – it helps to keep our thinking fresh, and we are always impressed by the insights and drive of our interns.

We’ve always had a very flat structure at KRS, and have adopted Agile practices that entrench the autonomy of our teams. Millennials align well with this approach, and are totally up to challenging the older developers to find better ways of working!

We work very hard at protecting the KRS culture. An organization needs to be able to define its culture, and communicate that to new staff. We generally hold a facilitated Culture Review just after the interns have joined each year, where staff break into groups, and discuss how they handle various people challenges.

For instance, we have an honesty snack bar, where staff take whatever sweets or drinks they want, and just sign for them. The at-cost salary deduction is done based on what staff say they’ve taken. We would ask, at the Culture Review, how a staff member would handle seeing someone take something and not sign for it.

This helps staff to internalize that they are the custodians of the culture – that they need to be willing to point out to the person that they’ve forgotten to sign, and to please do so. Any other approach turns management into police, which is the exact opposite of what we want.

We also have a Team Building budget, where teams decide what they’d like to do together each quarter. It’s entirely in the team’s hands, and not management’s. We’ve had team choose some amazing activities, like stand up paddling, going to Prestige Cinema for a matinee, surfing, go-karting, or just enjoying lunch or drinks.

We’ve avoided traditional office space, and have always been based in big, rambling, old houses. It’s a completely different working vibe, when you can take a swim after work, or spend a few minutes with the office cat. The challenges are finding premises that are big enough to accommodate us, and especially parking! Some teams are based at client’s premises, but more than 50 work from our Rondebosch house.

Did we mention that we get a cooked meal every day? The kitchen is truly the heart of the office, and eating lunch together is also part of the KRS culture.

Business Changes

Finally, we look at the changing needs of business. In the early days, KRS developed a lot of financial systems, like Debtors and Stock Management. Nowadays, that’s taken care of by off-the-shelf offerings, and custom development is focussed on what you can’t get from packages.

This makes the domains that we work with at KRS very interesting, as we’re usually designing something new and unique for a client. We have found that our strong foundation in financial systems is very relevant though, as most business systems are still about money, however it is packaged!

There is also a lot of integration work. Packaged solutions must work together with custom software, as business can’t afford to have dozens of separate systems that don’t communicate with one another. KRS has strong back-end API and database skills that address this business need.

Mobile is great, and we’ve developed some of our own mobile apps, as well as apps for clients. There’s a mind shift needed for mobile though, as the better apps really take the possibilities (as well as the limitations) of the mobile device into account.

One of our own mobile apps that has done well, is an events platform for kid’s activities: “I’m Bored Kids”. We have over 60,000 fans who use the app, 90% of whom are women. “I’m Bored” definitely appeals to the moms! We cover events in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, with fresh content added daily.

It’s been interesting to venture into consumer apps, from our base as mainly business-to-business systems developers. Consumer-facing apps are definitely the future, and a great area for businesses to offer value to their clients.

These are all business needs that have evolved over 30 years, and we are grateful to have been a part of this exciting time to be alive!

Next Steps

It might sound strange, but we’ve never believed in long term plans, at least not beyond about 2 years into the future. One of our KRS strengths has been adaptability. Looking at new tech while it’s still on the bleeding edge, and being able to embrace the winning tech early as a learning organization.

We are currently trying to reduce our staff’s working hours. Creative work, which is what software development is, can’t be achieved through long hours. Teams are challenged to improve productivity in any area that they can, and that allows them to work a shorter week. We call it the 38 hour programme, and it’s just 2 hours off per week. But that adds up to 8 hours a month: an extra 12 days leave a year.

We are just a few weeks away from our next batch our interns being ready for deployment onto projects. That triggers a bunch of activity: mentoring training for the staff who will get an intern; culture review workshop; and Boot Camp training plans kick off.

And a party. We celebrate our 30 years in business at the end of March, and are arranging a big reunion for everyone who has been a part of our amazing journey, and who has helped us to get here. A big party!