In this episode, we chat to Warwick Vlantis from Umuzi, a digital technology focused not for profit training organization. Their passion is to ensure that the unemployed youth are skilled and ready for the workplace, and that they are connected to the possible opportunities available to them.
We talk about design thinking and education extensively. Umuzi is a design led organisation, and design thinking principles are used to ensure that the courses they offer are designed with the users in mind (the users are right there every day) but they also teach the trainees the principles and mindsets of design thinking through the courses they offer.
As with many of our previous episodes we talk about the importance of putting the humans your are designing for, first, and we look at how this is being taught. We also look at the various processes and models available, and how these are applied in corporates, but also how the processes and models that are taught, are changed and implemented to fit the organisation it is being implemented in. Design thinking is after all about evolving and making things better.
Warwick touches on the challenges that COVID posed to them as a business, and how they pivoted, using design thinking to see these challenges as opportunities instead and are now seeing the positive outcomes thereof.
The conversation with Warwick:
Welcome to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Where we investigate design thinking, the challenges, the successes and the problems it solves. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of design thinking, check out episode 1. Be sure to subscribe so you get the newest episode as it’s released. Great minds design think alike is hosted by Stuart McDougall, owner of Tenaka, a leading Design thinking consultancy in Johannesburg, South Africa and is proudly brought to you by Mac Media.
SM: Thanks everyone for joining again. I’m sitting today with Warwick from Umuzi. Warwick and I met. I think Warwick must be going on about 2 years now? I met him through the design thinking circle. But the reason that I wanted to chat to him is he is with an awesome company called Umuzi. He will give you a little more information about him. You know Tenaka is quite passionate about education and I know that one of the key things that Umuzi does is educating and helping educate those that maybe do not have the means to get education. But I think Warwick give us a bit of a background about yourself, Umuzi and we’ll just chat generally about design thinking and where it’s taking you.
WV: Amazing. Thanks for having me. It’s quite exciting. So Umuzi is, we are not for profits in the training space and training in digital skills, so that’s text or coding but also strategy and then straight up sort of digital design UX UI sort of work. We train through in South Africa using skills development budgets of large organizations. And the young people we get our programs, they study for free with us and then the corporate pay through a learnership model for them. And in South Africa it’s a story that we all but know it’s also the same story in the rest of Africa. It has a huge and growing number of unemployed youth and notoriously low access to high value education which leads to a high-value job role. So we’ve been really invested. Umuzi is about 10 years old now and over the last 10 years that’s been our core purpose. How can we get young people into economically active roles but high value careers? So something like if you start off as a junior developer within however many years if you have the right tenacity and drive you can grow into a senior developer or the next CEO. Whereas if you are training people and low value roles like your call center agents, you will get stuck there so that’s really where we play at. To try to find people who just have huge potential but don’t have the opportunities and then link into the opportunities through a short training. So we train one year. Then accelerate them into a job roles.
SM: Cool man. You are of a design thinking side. So give us a bit insight of how that plugs into the whole Umuzi model.
WV: Yeah. So I think that’s a totally interesting space for us to talk around. It’s just education and design thinking. But Umuzi itself is I would describe a very much as a design led organization. We’re very user-focused, unfortunately we are working day to day with our users. So it’s a really unique space to be practicing design of our service which is training. We got our users so close. So any kind of iterations we do, we do really quickly. So design plays an important part in the service itself training young people. But also in their training so not just assigning the service but we’ve used it as a common language between different departments. So where the training is structured as it’s very practical on the job. So we trying to mimic the what you will be doing and your job role as much as possible. So how young people work in product teams working on real products. They use agile and then they use design thinking. We initially came to it as a common language for your team’s to understand to work around when they’re building their products so it was just really nice way to get team’s talking to each other in the same language.
But it’s grown significantly since that introduction of just needing a common language to collaborate to being a very important backbone of our training program where every young person no matter the career path they are entering. If they are entering in, as a UX designer or they are going into backend coding or data science even, they all start in some form or other way with design thinking. So your 2 weeks sprint. What we are trying to do is get the mindsets into the ways of working and thinking about customers first. Regardless of where you are, even if you are producing a data set and you are trying to program a machine learning algorithm into it, understanding what are your inputs what are your outputs. You are building something for a human. Even if you feel you are so far from that, the result is people. So we focus on that. So I came in initially on more of the education side. But now I am very much involved in the business strategy side. Where we continue to grow our business. And we got some exciting new ventures that we are looking to expand our impact beyond just South Africa and our limited capacity to train locally. We are looking at a Pan African which I would love to tell you a bit about as well. My role is very much, my title is design lead but I think that it’s not just working with people and enabling them to think about the end user and the stuff that this podcast talks about. I’m doing very practically and helping young people think like that and then applying myself into growing our organization. So those are the two lenses I wear.
SM: Awesome man. So I mean from a design-thinking perspective you been practicing for some time now and turns of the principles and the mindset and just like are you saying that you’ve managed to maybe more of the process of design thinking a bit to suit the way that you guys work in your environment or you seeming to stick very much to the traditional you know, the way design thinking has been initially brought us are you sticking to that traditional method?
WV: Yeah it’s a great question and I’m quite aware of my own evolution and thinking on this being in the design-thinking Education space having to teach design thinking and being aware of the contents in much of it I have consumed myself. Your IDO and your five or four step processes, I think they are what they are because these big companies have used them almost as a marketing tool. Which will be great for everyone. Great for design thinking, great forgetting customer-centricity known but the end of the day there is all these pre resources and you can do the six weeks course but at some point you gonna realize you gonna be practicing it in your company and IDEOs business model is that you eventually are going to call IDEO.
So it’s like you are getting great things, you are getting great foundation, you are getting great ways of thinking about things. You are getting very elementary introduction tools but very powerful tools. But I think when push comes to shove and these things are actually needed, you put them into its purpose which is trying to build your product and services for actual people. I think it you run into limitations. So we have developed our process very much fit to purpose. What’s trying to think from the end and backwards? What do you want to get? What does someone need to learn from this experience? If we are practicing empathy we iterate it many times. That’s the beauty of the education space; it’s just this playground. But you know its old adage I think in the design thinking world just get out and talk to people. It is like practicing empathy tools sort of drawing your user journeys, they are all good and valuable but just the practical work of it. Talk to people. So we, I suppose it’s my own bias but I’m very light on tools. I don’t think toolkits are going to help us solve. It’s more like where is the application, what’s the purpose and then design your own design process to get that. That becomes the beauty. I think the danger is expecting the IDO five-step process to be the copy and paste one that helps you.
SM: You have obviously got this sandbox environment and the certain terminology comes to my mind, sort of instead of design thinking you sort of design rather than design thinking. It’s kind of like a perfect world to be in because the way you have explained is having the same box environment you are able to gather your data and feedback really really quickly and try something new. And then even then get feedback quite quickly from that. Which is the perfect world really isn’t.
WV: Yeah. I think the translation from the education space into the corporate consulting space, especially design thinking isn’t much different. We should as design thinkers practitioners what we were primarily doing is enabling. you know no one to me if you’re not running a good Consulting shop, if it’s the traditional model of our team of design thinkers are gonna come in and then do some design thinking and leave you with a human centred product. That’s not the process. Design thinking in its nature is education and by that I mean it’s enablement . You know you’re working with teams and you’re trying to get teams to think more about end users or their customer service so if we are working with 18 year olds or we working with executives I think the application of transferring the skills of the ideologies or just in its very essence of just design and it is all the same isn’t it yeah.
SM: Yeah. No, I mean the way that you are positioning it is quite interesting. It’s making me think deeper about some of the projects that we’ve even done. Where it’s very much operated at this strategic level of the problem that you are trying to solve. That you never ever get into as a consultant that’s going into the organization. You rarely get to actually experience the solution in effect or both or built in a finished state. The company seems to take it on from that point. But I mean what you are implying is you know that the same sandbox environment that you guys are creating at Umuzi yourself can work in corporate I mean you just need to have the right people at the right places to manage it and drive it forward I suppose.
WV: Yeah and I think we have ended up doing a bit of Consulting and design thinking space. And not because we have marketed ourselves as design thinkers or just kind of emerged. The employer partners that are hiring young talent are people who are equipped with these skills and kind of say oh you do that design thinking thing can you tell us about it? I think we are kind of just practicing what we preach. And we are living that and we are doing it with our young people. We are running our own organizations like that. So it’s a powerful model and it translates well and it’s how we ended up playing in the consulting space with it. But exactly mobile of any project that we do isn’t to have the solution but this customer-centered solution on the business runs with it. Our project over whatever team we were working with is thinking more designed like. So it’s like, I suppose the endpoints of the project so one is people focused one is enablement one is product focused. I think if you get the teams, if you enable the people right. The product will move forward. There is no end to a product life cycle. So If your team is equipped to do this stuff hopefully. So I’m not saying there is no space for consultancy in this because I think you definitely get your design experts who just knock it out of the path that just created. But if your team is on board with this thinking and they are just working in this way anyway, it means your product is gonna be iterated more. It’s gonna be, you gonna get more user feedback just put in it. Yeah I think.
SM: I think the life of the consultancy you kind of illustrating here is a little bit different because it might start off in the space of education transferring of the skill principles. The mindset of that team like you say but then later on in the journey they become more of a facilitator in terms of just helping them and nudging the team in the right direction when they get stuck at a particular point to say we would need to do next to take this forward you know. And that’s when the consultant will come back in and say okay but you know if there’s other methods that you could use or I mean you said you don’t really have much of a tool belt that you like to use but there are tools available where you can say have you tried this? That’s gonna push you guys to think that little bit differently and then start progress again you know. The other thing we’ve also experienced is that people are really excited when they first get into the design thinking space and start to think creatively because I think every single one of us has this creative bone in our body that we don’t really exercise much but we get to exercise the fun stuff. You get to enjoy it yeah and it’s new stuff. But then that kind of dwindles again over time and that’s when the consultant can come back in again and say ok well let’s begin that creative bone exercise again, that muscle exercised again and start thinking differently again because people sometimes can gravitate back to the old way of doing things.
WV: I love that your focus is on people. And your people progress your product as opposed to focus being on progressing the product. That’s almost the human centered consulting. Yeah, you are unlocking people potential. You are not unlocking product potential. I think that’s the game you should play.
SM: The more people you have the more creativity, the more ideas can be put on the table and tested.
WV: Yeah. And as I said, I love that idea. You are unlocking the creativity in people, or you are unlocking a new way of thinking in people which is a powerful tool. You come in and say let’s think about this thing in this way, it’s never about the sticky notes, it’s about the thought that the people are putting into putting into the sticky note up. I think it’s the story of enablement that I think I have come to appreciate through education, and this note of education continues. It is, there is always more to learn. And everyone has that same journey. There is always more for everyone to learn. From everyone else, from new environments, from new markets.
SM: So you mentioned that Umuzi has got some like new project that you guys are part of you might have mentioned that it might have eluded to making the border or getting outside of South Africa yeah what’s happening? What’s in the future there?
WV: So it’s been really interesting times for us. I think Covid as for everyone has been very disruptive. The one positive that came out of it, we’ve realized we have built some, we have a tech department that does the tech training but also built stuff we in hours and a lot of our development. We were forced to convert our friend to fully remote which went surprisingly well. It’s one of those great stories that you get disrupted and it forces you into a new thing that you may or may not explore. So we went fully remote in our training and we realized this is quite efficient. We are doing it well. It hasn’t fit too much stress on our managers and we could do that thanks to consistency. It may think beyond our reach. What we could offer between or just in South Africa if our training model is remote and the goal of our organizations to get more people economically active. Does this present an opportunity to scale our impact and yeah again being a very design lead as an organization we could have tackled this as a how might we question. What are the opportunities presented to us? So where we have landed is this concept.
It’s called an African coding network and we are on a mission to help coding schools just like Umuzi is. Coding schools which are popping up all over Africa specifically in East and West Africa. They are huge in growing tech markets. Tech industries and we think if we can enable coding schools to improve their quality of training and improve through code in getting people into industry. If we can sort of feather it and network of coding schools and offer them an airtech platform which helps them reduce their costs and improve the quality of selecting young people. Or training them or accelerating them into job markets. Then our impact can be compounded or expanancial. The more coding schools and a network the more young people in training. Then your sort of inputs into the network 10% improvements leads to hundreds and thousands and it’s a network to fit. Yes we really really looking at this as a new opportunity to support the coding schools and improve their training set offering. And I think it’s fascinating for me. It’s just fascinating because we are never far from our users. We are always trying to train people into high value tech roles. And the lessons that we have learnt in the last 10 years of doing this on the ground with Umuzi are so transferable and applicable in young people trying to do this in Nigeria and Kenya. So it’s really an interesting time for us.
SM: So during Covid how did you guys pivot to the online space? Were there any challenges in terms of the learners that you guys are teaching? Having sufficient connection and any other challenges that we might not be aware of?
WV: Great. So definitely. As I say, I suppose I played on our strength there. We had the right, we had the tech that could help us go remote. Unfortunately the young people on our program being from previously disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access not only to education but to the internet. A lot of them don’t have computers. Those sort of things. It did take sort of an organizational push. We have computers in our office which are desktops. So every young person had to take a computer home with them so we sent all the desktops all over South Africa where they come from. And then we bought everyone data and then again kind of being clever with it rushing data. So it was a big challenge to get it all set up. Once we got set up it paid off. And interestingly employers in South Africa are also not rushing back to the office. So the young people are finishing up programs and getting work experience. And then full time job offers. All remote anyway. So it’s been good that part of that training was fully remote. Because as they enter the working world right now, they are going into a remote working world. So it paid off in that sense.
SM: Yeah I know, I mean it’s been interesting times you know in terms of business and how we had to operate and pivot etc. So outside of those few challenges that you had I mean that we started Covid in end of March are these all students then that were on this year’s program that went remote and are you gonna then train them remotely now and I suppose this is what led to you being able to offer the service now to Kenya and and Nigeria is that correct?
WV: Exactly. We have four intakes a year. So it has been this we are on the program but we continue to recruit on an ongoing basis. And the reason for this is that it helps us iterate fast. If it took a year from the last cohort of learners in 12 months time. Whereas taking them in shorter thirds allows us to, for the design thinking component of it. We tried a 3 week version of the crip introduction crush course to design thinking. We would try a 1 week one. We would just keep on changing it. Like what works here. The same with the tools we introduced tool service blue printing. And then realized that well that’s a bit complex right now. We got to come back to like user journeys. So it does allow us to iterate. So to answer your question, we continue to take more and more people but still have the people who are already there in the training program. So it takes a year and it doesn’t matter when you start. But there are some challenges in this story as well. It’s just the South African financial sector. Which is how majority respond. I think everyone is just hesitant to spend money. so it has, we definitely had a huge reduction in learners that were taking on the course. We are hoping that it comes right and it regulates itself again. And people come back to looking for unemployed learnerships. So that is a constant we are. We are in a cash flow crisis. But we live on to tell the tale. Which the the moral I think.
SM: And are you guys gonna continue to maintain your office space? Or or are you gonna give up that that learning center that you that you had been here?
WV: So we took that hard decision to officially close it down to fully remote.
SM: The design thinking projects just in that environment.
WV: Yeah that was great, obviously my background is in architecture and just like working with the young people using design thinking to build our own furniture was usually the task at that time. But I think it’s sad that we have to see the office go. At the same time I think as we become more and more conscious with the new way of working. It makes more sense to try to deliver everything we do remotely. It’s just gonna enable young people much much more. And I think to be honest it’s a bit of a competitive edge. Because many training providers were caught unaware and they were not as easily able to just change to fully remote service.
SM: So tell us then Warwick if people wanna get hold of you, maybe some corporate might listen to this podcast and they wanna help you guys out, sustain you, what’s the way for people to get hold of you?
WV: Great. Any interesting ventures that I have spoken about obviously in South Africa and you are obviously looking for junior developers, or tech professionals then that Umuzi.org or you can reach out to me directly or anyone at Umuzi. If it’s an African coding network, it’s something interesting we are looking to expand our platform. It’s sort of running as a tech startup looking for ground funding and in that sort of space. So again we have a website Umuzi.org is the South African training. And then Africancoding.network is the site for the African coding network. And both just contact us on the page that’s the easiest. I’m on LinkedIn, which is my only real social media.
SM: Which is Warwrick Vlantis?
WV: Yeah that’s it, correct yeah.
SM: Thanks Warwick. I really really appreciate your time and and I’m sure we’ll catch up again in the years time see has a coding African network is going because that sounds really interesting in the how that’s gonna grow because I’m sure it is. and see if she still maintaining the remote working and the environment that we currently operating in then if you guys you’ve ironed out the wrinkles and able to operate under extremely normal circumstances in different parts of the world.
WV: I think as a design thinking practitioner or as just a designer at heart. These disruptions are distributive but they are really fascinating challenges. Now we are iterating now we are, so yeah I really look forward to the next major disruptions and responding to them. Telling you about it in a year.
SM: Cool man looking forward to it.
WV: Thank you.
SM: Thank you Warwick.
Thank you for listening to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Give us a call to discuss how you can take design thinking into your organization to make life better for your customers or employees. Visit our website at Tenaka.com. Look out for our next episode where we will uncover more or simply subscribe. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it.