Stafford Masie, the former CEO of Google South Africa, is not an easy person to define. His aura is electric and he speaks with a passion for technology, the kind of passion that is often discussed in ICT circles – but rarely seen in practice. His words ring with an air of confidence and pay tribute to an established career that has been sculpted by technology and a tenacious approach to overcoming adversity.
Like a new father, the 38-year-old speaks of his latest venture – Thumbzup – with a sense of genuine pride. There is no tiptoeing around what he envisages for this company. It is a local payment innovations company which enables mobile businesses and entrepreneurs across South Africa to accept debit or credit card payments using their mobile devices combined with a world-first, plug-in device called The Payment Pebble.
The emphasis is on local, on people and on manufacturing technology to make a difference. He has a staff of twenty, including PhD-graduates, on his payroll and a team that is ultra-passionate about innovation.
Thumbs up for Payment Pebble
Thumbzup and The Payment Pebble, it seems, are creations that have emerged because of Masie’s dogmatic defiance against technology that is produced to simply improve the bottom lines of enterprises. He has a preference for technology that serves as a real catalyst for change in the lives of users.
“Two and a half years ago I was sitting in the reception of the office of a mayor of one of the metros. A lady walked in and was crying. She had a baby wrapped on her back and she couldn’t speak because she was crying so much. I asked reception what was wrong and I learnt that this lady had given birth to twins, prematurely, during the winter. During the process she was hurt and, at the same time, authorities had arrived to switch off her electricity. She had the money, she had credit cards, but she couldn’t pay. One of her babies died because of exposure.”
This was one of several defining moments for Masie. “It was my little epiphany. I thought to myself ‘this will be the very last time in my life that I utilise my skills sets and my assets and who I am to sell tech that is made somewhere else in the world to make a multinational money’. That I would walk out of this and build things that make a tangible difference to people.”
Mobile money happens to be the avenue he has chosen, a decision based on working with alpha-geeks to innovate. He has the relevant skills and contacts in this area, and believes the payment process can be made a lot easier.
Looking back on his personal and professional journey, Masie holds nothing back as he reflects on the difficulty of establishing his credibility amid a society that was struggling with cultural difference and the stigma of discrimination.
Masie grew up in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg South. It was his uncle, a computer programmer at an insurance firm, who first introduced him to the world of technology. The young Stafford had a natural inclination and love for programming and writing code.
In the early 90’s he took the opportunity to further his skills as an analyst by landing a job at Telkom South Africa as a Novel-certified trainer within company’s Novel Authorised Education Centre.
This required that Masie travel across the country to train people. It was then where he learnt about the realities of life, particularly the ramifications of culture diversity and discrimination.
“It was hard in the beginning. It was the first time I came into touch with discrimination and the first place I learnt a lot of life lessons. My dad said to me ‘you can choose one of two things: you can either choose to become the victim, or you can choose the alternative – why not ensure that every time you stand up in front of that crowd of people, that you are the best. If you do that, not only will you personally overcome, you will also help to break the stereotype,” said Masie.
This experience had a profound affect on his career. “You know, when you are forced to ensure that every time you stand or sit in front of people, that you know your stuff – it grows you. It inherently grows you. You have this innate organic requirement to acquire all the knowledge you can because you are always in a defensive position having to prove yourself for the first five minutes,” he continues.
Masie has embraced this growth experience and made it a part of his professional profile.
He is often invited to deliver keynote presentations at events and is always prepared and entirely comfortable in a room full of people.
After heeding the advice of industry associates, Masie left Telkom SA and headed to Dimension Data.
“This was a fantastic time. It was the heyday for the company … it was when Dimension Data had the exclusive rights to Cisco, people were implementing local and wide area networks. Networking was new. I also saw them acquire Internet Solutions,” said Masie.
It was then when Masie met with- and learnt from people like Ronnie Apteker and Jeremy Ord. “These people were pivotal. I watched them, I watched them succeed and saw the ways they lived their professional lives, which led to their success,” he adds.
But who, if anyone, would Masie consider to be his mentor in the industry in South Africa? It is the first time he has been asked this question and the first time he has mentioned it to anyone. His reply: Bruce Watson, a senior director at Dimension Data and one of the company’s original founders.
“What I liked about him was his demeanour, his professionalism and his interaction with us. He had a respect and an aura about him that he didn’t have to demand. It was just by consequence, about who he was. I always said that if ever I was a top businessman, I would like to be like Doc. Even to this day he is the same,” says Masie.
What of the state of the domestic ICT industry? Masie believes we have become a culture of technology consumption and not a place where we make technology. The biggest companies are the multinationals he says.
These are cohesively linked to large integrators who are taking software, made overseas, and adding professional services and configuration capability with design.
“I wish we had a greater organic invention and making culture in the IT industry. That is why Thumbzup has been established, to make things. We are not buying software, we are making our own hardware and a product that we are going to ship overseas. I also don’t believe we have the necessary incentive platforms in place for invention making and this is where government can play a greater role: to incentivise companies to make, not just consume,” Masie adds.
“I almost want to take a step back. It is not about the industry. It is about anything you do in life. Steve Jobs said it so beautifully, ‘you can never connect the dots forward, you can only connect the dots backwards and the only way the dots connect is if what you are doing, is to what you truly love what you do.
According to Masie, he has always been in situations in which he loves what he is doing at the time.
“Somehow that has led to success. I have had a fulfilling career to date … and I am only 38, I have so much more to do!”
Chris Tredger – Online Editor