Lessons I’ve learned of working with remote software developers from Africa

BY Reinier Van Scherpenzeel

One year ago, we were packing the 10 suitcases we could bring with us and preparing to move to Uganda with our family. It is a time of which memory seems to be fading, as the expectations we’ve had been mixed with the inevitably unexpected reality of how it turned out to be. Professionally though, it has singlehandedly been the year in which I have learned the most. Let me try here to share the lessons of working with remote software developers from Africa.

Follow your instinct

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned working with remote software developers in Africa was to stick with my intuition. If something does not feel right, don’t hide behind the idea that this is due to the cultural difference. It may very well be, but wouldn’t you rather find out after discussing it, then assuming this is the case?

It can be daunting if you’re working with people with vastly different backgrounds since that questions your own values in many ways. Like, who eats bread with peanutbutter for lunch? But once I started following my intuition more, I started to get at the bottom of situations much more quickly. Yes, I may be the knucklehead that doesn’t understand it right away, but in the end, I make sure to understand it.

Time is fluid

One of the biggest prejudices about working in Africa is how that would go with being on time. And as many prejudices, there is a source of truth in it. Remote software developers in Africa are not that stuck up on clock time as the Western European ones are. The negative connotation, however, comes from the idea that time missed is time lost, something the Western Europeans fear above all else.

Turns out, that is not the case at all. Yes, time is more difficult to manage in most African contexts. Traffic is a nightmare, simple administrative tasks like going to the bank can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours, rain disrupts everything. To deal with these inconveniences, (because they are inconvenient!) most people continue working in the evening, the weekends, whatever is needed to get the job done. The flexibility you need to run your life, you give back by making sure the job gets done.

So instead of pouring sweat when something I had been expecting has not been delivered at 5 pm, I remind someone and know it’ll be there the next morning when I need it. So that was my lesson. Be clear about your deadline, but be flexible about the delivery. It will be there.

Honesty is the best policy

Why do remote software developers like Tunga? We pay well, and we are honest. Everywhere I went, that is what I heard being reiterated. Remuneration is a strategic choice for us. We believe that if you pay people well, their output will also be better. But the honesty policy, that is the more interesting one.

Of course, you would say, honesty is important. What is the lesson there? Well, for me it is in sharing the negative message openly, without distortions. This is known in some circles as Radical Candor. We try to practice this as much as possible. For example, we place a lot of developers on assignments for our clients. Now, of course, a percentage of these placements are not the right fit, and thus the developer is not performing. Instead of just terminating the contract and putting some pro’s and cons on paper, we always have a call with the remote software developer (preferably with the client there as well) with direct and applicable feedback on how they can improve.

In the beginning, this was quite scary to me. Yes, I was living in Kampala now, but did that mean I knew what kind of challenges a software developer in for example Lekki ( a city in the south-east of Nigeria). Turned out, that doesn’t matter! Performance is performance, and the opportunity to learn is greatly appreciated, no matter where you are coming from. We’ve had ample examples of people bouncing back and greatly improving their performance after these meetings, and experience that people come back to Tunga because it is such a learning opportunity for them. So the lesson is, don’t sugarcoat it! It doesn’t matter what cultural differences there may be, be clear about your professional feedback.

African remote software developers vs myself: we are very much alike 🙂

In the end, though, my journey may well be summed up by saying things are not that different as they may look. Yes, after writing this I will go home and sit in the evening sun under the mango tree, and last year would have huddled in my coat against the winter rain, while the sun had said goodbye long ago. But wherever we are located, we are all professionals with a job, looking to get that job done as good as can be. And if we focus on that, working together is not that difficult.

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