“Your mind is your biggest problem,” says Rodney Mapako giving the rather unexpected answer to the question “what advice you would give to someone in your shoes?” The shoes being referred to are those of not being able to afford to study and having this block your desired future.
Mapako overcame his mind, financial difficulty and more to transition from restaurant employee to software engineer. The recipe for success was a mixture of ambition and hard work backed by the kindness of strangers, all timed to perfection.
As a young boy growing up in Zimbabwe, Mapako, intrigued by the allure of his father’s computer, would constantly get into trouble for taking the mysterious machine apart and putting it back together again. From this time, his passion for technology has continued to grow. But after finishing school, he was not in a financial position to go to university, nor in the academic position to obtain a bursary.
He made his way to South Africa and found work at the restaurant Café Genesis. This would be the start of his journey into the restaurant industry, which would introduce him to the people who would assist him on his journey to software development. While working at Café Genesis, he never gave up his technology dream. When Café Genesis closed down, he made his way to the next restaurant, Frangelicas, which would become his home.
Mapako started saving the money that he made from tips. Two years later, he had enough money to take himself to university, and he registered for his childhood passion – a Computer Science degree with Unisa. He never stopped learning from that moment until he completed his degree.
“It was not an easy journey. In the restaurant industry, you work very long hours. Nine to fifteen hours a day and after that, you have assignments waiting for you, projects waiting for you. So, I came up with a plan. What I used to do was I woke up every day in the morning at 3 am (before work) and I would study to make sure I was up to date with my schoolwork and do my assignments and that is what got me through,” explains Mapako.
During this time, Mapako became a well-known and well-loved Frangelicas employee. His customers would never know that one of their favourite people at their local haunt had been up since 3 am. He was always warm, welcoming and energised.
After two years of studying, Mapako would meet one of his first kind strangers, Romi Levenstein, the Executive Director of Feed SA. Mapako shared his story with her. “I was really struggling those days, and she offered to help. For the past two years, Feed SA has been paying my school fees all because I love tech, I love learning new things and I love to challenge myself.”
The next kind stranger would lead Mapako to his dream job at a software development company, Synthesis Software Technologies. This stranger, like others, would quickly turn into his friend. Cassie Gewer frequently visited Frangelicas. One day he asked her what she was busy with and she showed him a Python code she was working on for her assignment on Machine Learning. This was the very same coding language he was learning. Gewer introduced Mapako to her boyfriend, Evan Rubin, who is a software engineer at Synthesis and another fast friendship was formed.
Rubin advised Mapako to apply for the undergraduate program at Synthesis. Unfortunately, he did not make it past the rigorous selection criteria set for the grad program. Instead of feeling defeated, he proactively approached and greeted Jake Shepherd, Synthesis Founder and Director by saying “Good morning. I applied for the grad program at Synthesis and unfortunately, I did not make it. I am redoubling my effort and my aspiration is to one day work at Synthesis”.
Jake said of this encounter “Before Rodney approached me, I was not aware of his interest in software development. However, I was aware of how appreciated and loved he is by everyone who knows him; clients and fellow staff members alike”.
After personally interviewing Rodney, Jake reached out to other team members at Synthesis to see if an appropriate position was available for Rodney. Synthesis has a policy of hiring for three character traits – hungry, humble and people smart.
Mapako had all these and more. Shepherd said: “We can see that Rodney has huge potential, and he just needs an opportunity to start working full time in the software industry”. Rodney has started working in a technical support role and can use this opportunity to solidify the software theory he has gained through his studies, but can also start picking up new skills needed by the industry.
This was the end of his restaurant days, but it is just the beginning of the journey he started as a boy. “I hope to do cloud certifications (prestigious and difficult Amazon Web Services exams). After doing that, I hope to go into development and hopefully run my own company one day and also keep on learning.”
“When God is looking after you everything happens at the right time and I thank God for that. I also want to thank the Jewish community. They are a kind, generous and united people. They are such wonderful people. They are like family to me. Everyone is willing to help if you tell them your problem. Everyone jumps in to help and chip in. At Frangelicas, they have been like a family to me. There are so many names to thank. There have been a lot of people that have been there for me and I have been lucky.”
Mapako is an inspiration to everyone looking to overcome obstacles. His story makes us wonder what dreams and commonalities lie behind the surface of the strangers we encounter.
“I worked hard to be here. It has not been an easy journey, and it’s all because I love tech and I wanted to change the industry I was in.”
“Your mind is your biggest problem because in your mind that’s where everything plays out and, in your mind, you tell yourself I can’t do it because of this and that, there are so many excuses to tell yourself but if you put your mind to it, you can do it and if you can dream it, you can do it.”
- Kim Furman is a Synthesis Marketing Manager