There is nothing new about women leading major global technology organisations. From Ginni Rometty at IBM to Safra Catz at Oracle, female CEOs are no longer a rarity.
In South Africa, women head up the regional offices of multinational tech companies like SAP, Intel, VMware, UiPath and, soon, Microsoft.
However, there is a vast gap when it comes to men and women lower down the ranks. It is nowhere more obvious than at international and local technology conferences and expos, where male delegates outnumber women by between 10 and 20 to one.
It was no different on the show floor at last week’s Cisco Live conference in Barcelona, where the global networking giant unveiled the next generation of technologies that will connect enterprises and their customers. But there was one dramatic difference: many of the key speakers and role players at the event were women.
Karen Walker, Cisco senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, and Wendy Mars, Cisco senior vice-president for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, took centre stage. But it was a South African who all but stole the show with her inspiring story.
During the main opening keynote address of the conference, the face of Ntombozuko “Soso” Motloung flashed up on screen as an example of Cisco transforming people’s lives through technology.
With the title of chief solutions engineer, Motloung heads up Cisco’s networking academy in South Africa, focusing on building a community of instructors who will, in turn, help train the next generation of aspirant technology workers.
For someone in her early 30s, her achievement is impressive in its own right. But when one discovers her background, it is nothing short of astonishing.
“The village where I grew up, you can’t find on Google Maps,” she said in an interview during Cisco Live. “There was no electricity, no running water. It came to the town when I was almost finished high school. Until then, we had to go to rivers to fetch water. We used fire to boil water and cook everything.
“The house was a shack, with a bit of mud on the inside. You would really be scared of any extreme weather conditions and when it was raining, it was wet inside the entire house, so you literally had to find a dry spot to sleep. It was a communal house, everyone slept in one room. You really envied the kids who lived in brick houses.”
For many, these circumstances alone would have been enough to crush ambitions for a better live. For Motloung, it was the spur.
“Those conditions were the reason why I pushed myself harder in everything I did. It seemed the only hope of us getting out of it.
“It was pretty much unconscious: usually people started school at seven; I started at five. During my school career, I did everything to the max, with no resources. We didn’t even have TV or radio.
“It was about you pushing yourself to the limit to be better, to get the marks that could get you a scholarship. I could tell no one was going to fund my education from home; my parents were unemployed and living off a government grant. You either get mediocre results and stay at home, or get exceptional results and get a scholarship.”
Even then, career prospects seemed limited to the kinds of jobs that were visible to children. “The only careers we were exposed to were nurses and teachers, which were known as the normal careers, especially for a young girl growing up there.”
Motloung’s life changed when a new school was built nearby in honour of Nelson Mandela. It was the first school in the area with a computer lab and surrounding schools were invited to send promising students to attend digital literacy classes once a week.
“I was one of only 10 students chosen from my school and it was my first encounter with technology. It was 2002, I was in my last year of high school and I didn’t even know how a computer works. Nobody, not even our teachers, had any idea of what we were going to do.
“But it was exciting being chosen for such a programme. It was an honour and it meant I was really working towards something. I wouldn’t miss a Wednesday. I didn’t even know what it was going to lead to, but it was fascinating to learn about something new.
“The first class was fascinating. We thought the screen was the computer. “They told us what a mouse is, what a CPU is, what a processor is. My mind was blown away.”
The class was taught by student volunteers from Rhodes University, and they joined her list of role models. “I saw those students and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be at a university and be like them.”
When school ended she sent off applications for scholarships, all via traditional mail. “I got a scholarship in June, and was invited to Johannesburg to study further. I was 15, turning 16, and went to Johannesburg by myself.”
She studied business classes, including business economics and accounting, and then applied to Cida city campus, the first free university in South Africa. She enrolled for a bachelor of business administration degree but, on arrival, realised they also had a Cisco networking academy.
Cisco has a corporate social responsibility (CSR) department, of which the flagship programme is the academy. It offers Cisco’s internationally accredited courses to people who would not be able to afford them, through nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), schools, and colleges. Cida was an NGO partner with Cisco and Motloung saw the opportunity to accelerate her studies there.
“During my studies of business courses, I enrolled in the Networking Academy. You do those in the afternoon, so I was studying both a degree and an international certificate in IT. So when I graduated in 2007, I graduated in both.”
Her first job was as an IT technician at Queens Casino in Queenstown. Within three months, she was promoted to network administrator, overseeing the rest of the IT technicians in the casino. But that wasn’t enough: she felt unfulfilled in her role. Then came the call that changed her life yet again.
“I got a call in 2009 from Cida’s ICT academy to say they needed somebody who could train their ICT students for their Cisco courses. I went back to Joburg, back to the school where I started, and became an instructor. Within the first three months, I was trained to be a trainer of trainers.”
For the next five years, she trained other instructors and felt she had finally found her niche. “I had to mould students and, coming from the industry, I could add more value to what they were learning in the academy. That’s the first time I really came to the attention of Cisco, because they took notice of the students I was producing.
“Cisco used to run a national competition among students, and the first African winner, Raymond Mazibuko, came from the academy where I was teaching.”
Since then, Motloung has become an iconic figure at Cisco. She joined one of the company’s channel partners as a Cisco solutions engineer, but never stopped working at the academy as a consultant to the instructors.
Last year, Cisco appointed her as programme manager of its CSR programme for the whole of South Africa. She was put in charge of the academies and made responsible for bringing new academies into the programme.
The job has since evolved to technical manager for South Africa, responsible for growing the instructor community. “This is where I wanted to be. Because I’m from a rural area, I refer to it as a well. “I drank from the well and now I feel like I’m part of the team that maintains it for other people to be able to drink.”
She never forgot her roots though. “My first salary ever went to getting material to build a proper structure for my family to live in.” Within six months of starting her first job, they moved out of the shack into the new house.
Her legacy extends to the next generation. “My 11-year-old daughter is starting her own nonprofit organisation, looking at assisting people who are less fortunate, especially the homeless, to get them into a route that is going to lead them to education or get them out of that situation. Each and every one of them, according to her, is a unique story.”
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee