Putting myself through Technikon
I grew up in Cape Town, went to government schools and put myself through my studies at Cape Technikon, where I studied a National Diploma in Electrical Engineering. I used to work in a bank while I was a student, working some afternoons and Saturdays.
Later in my studies, as I moved towards light current and specifically tele-communications, I became the mentor for the first year tele-communications class and assisted the junior students in their practical lab-work, as well as marking and invigilating their exams. So this substituted my income and allowed me to put myself through my studies.
Many of the students whom I mentored later became clients, which has always assisted me to have their trust, and many of whom have known me since my Cape Technikon days.
My practical in-service training was with a company that designed and manufactured home alarms. I found the work very mundane and left soon after my in-service training was complete and joined a specialist RF company that designed and manufactured high-end wideband HF receivers. I started out as a junior RF technician and learnt a lot from really experienced RF engineers, who took me under their wing.
The company had very high quality standards and one of the things I was entrusted to do was carry out QA (quality assurance) for any products supplied by contract manufacturers. What I saw at the time as being overly pedantic quality standards set me up for life in terms of the quality standards I naturally work towards and which I impress on the Otto Wireless Solutions team as the operations director. Taking pride in one’s quality of work has become a natural standard at Otto, most likely having its roots in the standards that were drummed into me as a junior engineer.
I left the design and manufacture environment after I had reached the level of CAD layout for 12+ layer multi-level PCBs which had a mix of analog and digital circuitry – really difficult and challenging work which I was enjoying at the time, but which I also realised was pushing me into a corner which was quite narrow and specialised.
I then joined a major electronics distributor, where I worked for close to 10 years in sales and marketing, as well as FAE support, reaching the level of branch manager in Cape Town, before venturing to Johannesburg, where I re-joined the same company after a brief interlude at a connector company.
I spent three years in Johannesburg at a specialist distributor of GSM technology-based products, before I was approached by my now-senior partner Barry Culligan, to start up Otto Wireless Solutions.
The Otto years
As one of the founding partners I started by managing sales and marketing and had to learn skills such as graphic design, ISO compliance, OHSA officer responsibilities, etc. As time passed, my senior partner handed over more and more key operations to me, such as production planning, overall stores management, technical management and so on.
It reached a point where human resources and finance are the only two parts of the business which I don’t take responsibility for. When we changed from a Closed Corporation to a Pty (Ltd), my title changed from general manager to director, and the word ‘operations’ was placed before it because it best described the various hats I wear.
Ups and downs
It’s been 10 years at Otto now, so yes, there have been good and bad times, but I never look at things as highs and lows, as that is too one-dimensional. I always think of things in terms of achievements and challenges, because when you use that frame of mind, I find that if one approaches tough situations as being challenges, one employs the right mindset to achieve a positive outcome.
Some of the things which stand out for me would be sitting in an interview and going on to hire a young man for our production line, supporting him through his studies and seeing him now reach the point of being the technical manager for the business and of course, I am referring to our current technical manager, Miyelani Kubayi.
We have been fortunate to have a number of young staff join us, remain with us and grow tremendously over the years and that always gives one a sense of satisfaction. There have been a number of customers whom we have won over the years, some large banking customers as well as customers in the automation sector and when we got our first crucial orders from any of those customers, it always gave me goose bumps, so without dropping names, there have been a number of those sort of achievements.
Launching our Ottenna range of high-performance outdoor antennas and seeing the massive exponential sales growth and hearing from blue-chip customers who tested and compared the products very favourably against products which were sometimes four times the price... bringing products to the market which were that well received also stands out as massive positives.
Challenges? Coronavirus and lockdowns. Living through this makes every other challenge pale by comparison, but I also see positives, because we have learnt to work remotely, more efficiently and make ourselves more available to clients in innovative ways. Some of these lessons will translate into business efficiencies when this pandemic is over.
There are two things which keep me going through the challenging times and the first is my wife, Monica, who also handles corporate customer service, debtors, creditors and many other sales and admin-related tasks at Otto Wireless. Aside from the personal connection, having someone whom one can trust 100% in a key position like that is something which I believe both myself and my senior partner, Barry Culligan, have come to depend heavily upon over the last 10 years.
And that brings me to the second thing which keeps me going: my senior partner, Barry Culligan. There have been times when I have had to lean on his wealth of experience and advice, especially in the tough times and I am very fortunate that as far as mentors go, I probably got the best I could possibly get.
As to why I stay in this industry, firstly I enjoy it. It’s what I studied and staying at the forefront of technology is something which certainly keeps my mind active. I have a mathematical mind, so engineering suits me and I have an outgoing disposition, so sales suits me as well. I really enjoy speaking with clients, hearing what they are doing, and discussing ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions with them.
COVID-19 and what happens next
I don’t think there is a pre-COVID and post- COVID scenario. Maybe the pandemic brings existing challenges to the fore, but nothing more. The design and manufacturing industry is contracting, whereas the integration of existing products is expanding, as more customers use existing, tried and tested hardware and concentrate on the service offering to their end clients.
The number of engineers available to do designs seems to become fewer and fewer every day, with more and more of the ‘brains trust’ leaving our shores. It worries me that for a part of our market, we are reliant on design engineers who seem to either be very young, just out of tertiary education, or very senior, close to retirement.
The core which we need for strong guidance and leadership and associated growth in the coming years – the age group 30-45 – seems to be almost all gone. I don’t think this has anything to do with the current coronavirus pandemic, although I think to a certain degree, the way our government responds to the crisis might be a deciding factor for many individuals who are currently ‘sitting on the fence’ with regard to staying in South Africa, or taking their engineering skills offshore.
Advice for youngsters
Don’t look at your shoes. Don’t look at my shoes. Look people in the eyes and you will go from being an engineer to being a businessman/woman. Engineering is easy. Marketing the product is another story altogether. Any person who has been in this industry for 20 years or more can tell you endless stories about great products which never got off the ground due to poor marketing.
To be a successful engineer, take the time to do some marketing courses as well; you won’t regret it.
Away from work
I spend every available moment I have with my family. I love the outdoors, particularly hiking and fishing. When I cannot go outdoors and when the kids are asleep, my wife and I are both avid online gamers. That should tell you I am still an engineer at heart.
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