Dion Devow's mission to help bridge the gap between Indigenous Australians and IT

The entrepreneur is living proof it's possible to be in tech, without needing technical knowledge.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Dion Devow might be the founder of two IT companies, but he doesn't pretend to be an expert in technology. Rather, he acknowledges his strengths lie in Indigenous community development, and it's the reason why he is determined to help bridge the gap between IT and Indigenous Australians.

"The IT industry is so diverse and so are the pathways to get into the industry … you don't have to be technical," he told ZDNet.

"I think there's this misconception that you have to be a technical person, you have to get into university, or do the traditional and conventional ways of getting into IT -- it's just not true.

"If I could do it and not know anything about it, and go and create companies -- and I'm not urging everyone to do it that way -- but if I can get into the industry that way then anybody can do it."

In addition to running a cleaning company, his own clothing label called Darkies Design, and an online Indigenous store that he developed on behalf of his 13-year-old daughter, Devow is also the founder of Yerra, a recruitment and IT managed services firm, and Indigimation, a company specialising in automation and artificial intelligence.

Devow credits his ability of "weaving" his way into the IT sector to the learnings about community and development that he picked up as part of his Bachelor of Health and Applied Science degree.

He added while IT was something he was "always really interested in", it was not a sector that he knew too much about when he was younger.

"IT wasn't really offered to me as an option [at university] -- and not that it needed to be offered -- I just didn't have the confidence to pursue it because I didn't know how … the pathway wasn't clear to me," he said.

"I had nobody around me that was in IT. A lot of non-Indigenous people either have parents or people in their lives like lawyers and doctors, so they're kind of exposed to lots of different sectors and businesses.

"Whereas someone like me growing up in Darwin in the 80s, if you're a teacher you're doing awesome, which my mother ended up being but even for her it took eight years of studying part-time and raising me and my sister … to achieve that."

See also: Education alone isn't enough, tech pros need specialized skills, too (TechRepublic)

Even with the two IT companies under his belt, the 2018 ACT Australian of the Year Award recipient describes the work he does within the tech sector as having more of a policy and cultural focus. 

He pointed to how he worked, for instance, with Services Australia to assist with the development of the myGov app to better suit Indigenous users.

"When they gave everybody a set amount of time to transfer over to myGov for people to access Centrelink, they didn't think about Aboriginal people and communities. By the time they were ready to transfer people over, there was a whole group of people they hadn't consulted and weren't accessing Centrelink because they didn't have access to mobile phones," he said.

"I went in and did extensive work by working with Aboriginal communities across the country to try work with Services Australia to develop an app that would be more appropriate for them to use."

Additionally, Yerra has partnered with security firm Shearwater Solutions to offer cybersecurity apprenticeships to Indigenous students. The first apprentice participating in the program happens to be Devow's son, Dante, who is currently completing a Certificate II in cybersecurity at TAFE in his last year of high school.

"It has given me the opportunity to learn about the sector and also be able to create new pathways for Aboriginal youths to get into the IT industry," Devow said.

"Things like this would've been ideal for me while I was going to school but obviously that wasn't around. And I don't know if Dante will want to do this as a career, but at least it gives him the options … to explore whether or not that's something he may be interested in pursuing."

On the policy front, Devow is playing his part as the Indigenous engagement specialist with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre. 

"With me being the first Indigenous Australian to work there is quite a prestige itself, and to be able to influence at the policy level is really, really important," he said. 

Read more: How to close the tech skills gap (TechRepublic)

On the question of what he believes is currently holding more Indigenous Australians back from participating in the IT sector, he pins it down to a few barriers, noting it differs for those based in rural and urban Australia.

"For people who live in remote areas, it might be access to education, mobile phones, computers, proper internet … [and] within an urban setting it might be similar to my barriers, which was that there were not a lot of Indigenous people in the IT industry, pathways aren't clear for them, and they're not encouraged to pursue it," he said.

He added it's this very reason that motivates him to continue to "break down negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people" and lead by example.

"If I'm out there and my face is being seen in the industry, if I'm running workshops that's about exposing Aboriginal people and kids to the fact that it is a profession they can participate in ... and they can make it a career," Devow said.

"In everything I've done, I've tried to be respectable, I've tried to share my culture, I've tried to promote and help other Aboriginal people. I've tried to bring non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians together whether it was health, justice, or business.

"Through my profile, I use it as a platform to show people I'm not anything special or spectacular, I'm not even extraordinary because I know of hundreds of Aboriginal people who are just like me ... or are smarter than I am who just don't have that opportunity. But if we are presented by opportunities and we are guided, there's nothing we can't do." 

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