One person’s journey from kneading dough to writing code

One person’s journey from kneading dough to writing code, creating disruptive new products and services at a Cape Town based innovation firm, shows young people what’s possible when it comes to crafting a career in technology.

Gary Willmott and Enricko Smith

“Never give up.” That’s the advice 26 year old Enricko Smith offers youngsters wanting to carve a career in the technology sector by becoming coders. “Look at me,” Smith says. “I went from baking to technology. This is a complete jump, an absolute change in direction. No one would even think such a thing is possible. Yes, landing your dr
eam job is tough and life can be difficult. But learn as much as you can, and get as much experience as you can, and doors will open to you. Business owners want experience so even if you must settle for an internship, do it. It’s the first step of what could be a great opportunity.”

Smith has come a long way since his days in the the Pick n Pay baking department, where his speciality was crafting complex cakes. These days the young coder is working at Urbian, a digital product studio that innovates digital solutions, and uses digital technologies to better brands, deliver new markets to business, and unlock revenue streams. Top global brands that have invested in innovation with Urbian include Guinness, Coca-Cola, McCain, BlackBerry, and Mountain Dew. Urbian’s local clients include Absa, Capitec, Windhoek, Distell and Investec. Established in 2007, Urbian is a venture partner in personal health solution, UpForIt, and has its own startup in residence — a transformative HR tool that is called Hi5.

It was Smith’s dream to work in an innovation hot shop like this, but life had other plans. Smith went to school at Mondale High in Mitchells Plain, and then studied IT at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology [CPUT]. “My uncle owned his own bakery, and when I was still at school I used to work there on weekends,” he recalls. After graduating from CPUT Smith tried to get a job in IT but nothing opened up to him because he lacked experience. “I managed to get a job in the bakery department at Pick n Pay, and was promoted to the company’s Tokai branch where I was an assistant manager in the bakery department.”

“I realised I’d hit a ceiling. The next promotion would make me a bakery manager, and then I’d be at the top. I also wasn’t in my dream job, so I left Pick ‘n Pay. I was out of a job for six months, but used this time to go on coding courses. I was on an advanced Java course when I met Gary Willmott of Urbian during a speed interview intervention,” Smith explains.

“A few years back, we were invited to CapaCiTi [the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative], an amazing initiative run by Ian Merrington,” says Willmott, the Managing Partner and co-founder of Urbian. “We had the opportunity to take on young students for our internship programme,” he says, adding: “I remember that day like it was yesterday.”

“I had about 30 students to interview in just 3 hours. There was no way I would be able to run a decent interview, so I ran the session using a speed interviewing process. I asked each candidate just three or four questions, and kept each interview to a maximum of five minutes.”

Willmott says he was more interested if he could hold a great conversation with the interviewee, and if the interviewee was genuinely interesting. “At Urbian we are more interested in culture, attitude and aptitude as opposed to just skills and lengthy CVs,” says Willmott who adds: “Enricko Smith was a confectionary baker at our local Pick n Pay, and although he could make amazing Cronuts, this career choice was limiting and not fulfilling his passions.”

“I will never forget the day he came for his final interview, it was a hot summer’s day and he arrived at Urbian in a suit and tie and was a nervous wreck,” Urbian’s managing partner says. The rest of the studio was dressed in boardshorts, T-shirts and flip flops. “Enricko quickly realised he stood out like a sore thumb,” Willmott says.

From day one, the Urbian teams threw Enricko into the deep-end, giving him prototypes to build and getting him to run quality assurance tests on platforms. “Baking and coding are physically very different,” says Smith, who adds: “but mentally you are still creating something, and bringing it to life. In baking you use water, flour and yeast, but in coding you use a pile of languages,” the coder says.

Smith has been with Urbian for a number of years and has enjoyed numerous promotions and salary increases. “Enricko was really quiet to begin with, but he overperformed. Needless to say, he’s a keeper and well on his way to earning equity in one of the startups we’re incubating”, explains Willmott.

Today, Smith still bakes cakes over the weekend, when he has time. “I still enjoy making very detailed cakes, but my focus is all about learning new coding languages. This is such a great opportunity – the world has really opened up to me,” Smith says. “My advice to young people who want to code is to never stop learning.”

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