My name is Caroline. When I sat for the national Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination, I did not have a clue on what I wanted to do with my life. I did not have any idea on where I was headed to, post-secondary school. Our school did not have anything like career talk and mentorship programs. However, as you would expect, the teachers kept emphasizing on the importance of working hard in order to pass with good grades, for they saw ‘passing with good grades’ as the key to unlocking the future.
When the national examination results were out the following year, I had scored a ‘B-‘of 66 points, 1 point away from a ‘B’ grade. I was sure that was a good enough grade to get me to the University, any University. That year, the cut-off point for admission to the university had been revised from a C+ grade to B- of 67 points. I remember seeing the announcement in the newspaper and not thinking much of it. Soon, reality would hit me when I went to University of Nairobi for a university courses revision. I was welcomed with the news that my grade was not good enough to join any public university through the Joint Admissions Board (JAB). My dad was disappointed. He wanted me to repeat form four. I was not ready to do that. I felt like I was all alone.
My brother had sat for his KCSE examination the previous year and my sister had just joined high school. This meant that resources, in terms of money, were really stretched and I was not the priority at that point in time. I therefore had to shelve any plan that I had to join a private college until at least after my sister completed high school. In addition, I also had to wait for my brother to clear college. With that, the wait begun.
We had a big backyard at home and one day, bored, dejected and feeling hopeless, I took a hoe (jembe) and started clearing some space. I bought cabbage seeds and planted them in a nursery around the space I had cleared. After a few weeks I transferred them to the shamba. In high school, I had enjoyed studying Agriculture as a subject, and as a result, I found farming being a great activity that kept me occupied and suffice to say, kept my thought process focused and healthy. I would take the harvest to the market every Thursday, as this was the ‘Market day’ in my village.
When I was not tending to my shamba, I would listen to the radio as I was fascinated by the world beyond our borders. I remember submitting some artwork for an environmental competition in Japan and got some Origami folding papers and a recycled handbag, which was really cool, as a ‘thank you’ from the organizers. One of the radio stations also had a weekly French language class. I would tune in every week and slowly, I started to learn a bit of French. Every week after the radio class, I would send a letter by post to the radio station so that I could get the French class materials. This was my life for 3 years and 9 months after high school.
When my sister was about to complete high school, my dad told me it was finally my turn to go to college. At that time Kenyatta University had advertised some short courses in Information Technology. I enrolled for Information Technology (IT) short courses. This is where my love for technology would begin. The short courses ran for 1 year but I could not advance to the diploma level in the second year due to money constraints.
I started looking for attachment in IT companies as I could no longer continue with my studies. A company called LANTech Africa was recruiting interns at that time. However, the intern positions were not paid. I agreed to take up the role. I needed something constructive to fill my time. I learnt so much in this company and luckily, I transitioned from a non-paid intern to a full time employee. After 3 years it was time to move.
I moved to IPS Kenya, which is part of the Aga Khan Group and took up the position of a systems administrator. Along the way, I had acquired some professional certificates but still, all I had in my possession was the short course certifications. I remember being so scared after I was offered the job. What if one day they realize that I did not have a Bachelor’s Degree? However, I excelled at my work and would spend my evenings doing self-studies and a lot of research. The company gave me international exposure and I ended up handling projects I would never have imagined I would be entrusted with.
Whilst working at IPS Kenya, I enrolled for a four year BSc. Degree which I studied on a part time basis. In my second year at the university, while helping a friend with an online search for a master’s degree scholarship, I came across a “Google’s Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship” advert for female students enrolled in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs. The advert requested interested candidates to submit a project idea and some essays. The prize was 10,000 US$ grant paid in cash as a scholarship and an all-expenses paid trip Google’s Zurich office. As fate would have it, at that time, I had recently lost my National Identity Card (ID). Back in the day it would take eons before one could get a replacement. From the experience I went through trying to renew my ID, I figured in my mind I could create a project that would be tailored towards a database for lost and found National Identity cards, with designated collection points countrywide with a web and mobile interfaces. I submitted my project idea and the other required essays and almost forgot about it.
Three months after my submission, I received an email notifying me that I had been selected as one of the winners! I was dumbstruck. I could not sleep for days. I was excited. I was the first Kenyan woman studying in a local university to win this scholarship and the second Kenyan-born, world-over. The trip to Google’s Zurich office in Switzerland was just the icing on the cake. I met an amazing team and women from all over Europe, Middle East and Africa. With the scholarship and the prize money, I could now concentrate on school and not worry about school fees.
I was not done yet. Every year all Women Technologists around the globe gather to attend The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The conference has world renowned speakers and I had always wished I could attend this conference. Many Tech companies award women travel grants to attend the conference. I applied for such a grant in 2012 and unfortunately I did not succeed. In 2013 I applied for the same travel grant and this time round I was awarded the grant that catered for flight cost to the United States, hotel and conference fees.
I remember being so excited when I started the 24 hours flight to Minneapolis to attend the conference. This was happening a month away from my graduation day. I was going to hear from, and mingle with the best women in the tech-world. Over and above attending the conference, the best Tech’ companies in the world had set up camp to recruit women. I carried copies of my resume just in case an opportunity knocked on my door. The career day opened on the second day of the conference with the most popular booths being Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Cisco , Thoughtworks, and Twitter. One could not even get a clear peek of the booths. I met a lady wearing a Google T-shirt, who was trying to excuse herself from the Google booth and dash somewhere. I greeted her even though she seemed to be in a hurry. Not to let this opportunity go to waste, I insisted she should have a copy of my resume. She reluctantly picked it, amidst her protest that an online application was enough.
That night as I was going to sleep I saw an email from a Google recruiter saying they found my resume among those that had been dropped at their booth at the conference. He asked me if I was available the next day for a face to face interview at the conference. I was so excited and I did not sleep much that night. I researched about the position I was being interviewed for. I was really nervous. The next day, I passed the first interview and was invited for two more interviews. After the conference, I went back home to Kenya, pretty nervous as I did not know If I had a job offer or not. I was to get the results in two weeks’ time.
As promised, I got a call in two weeks from the recruiter saying they were impressed with my presentation and would like to offer me a job. My base would be at their EU Headquarters in Dublin, Ireland.
Here I was, from selling cabbages in a small village market in Kenya to Silicon Valley, the technology hub. Everyone I interacted with was so smart, and in a sense this was quite intimidating. I was afraid to speak up as no one seemed to understand me due to my accent. A heavy accent and technical terms did not really rhyme well! It was funny!
Its eight months down the line since I joined Google. Currently I am working in the Austin, Texas office as part of my work program. I will be heading back to Dublin, Ireland next month. It gives me joy when I get an email or an Inbox on Facebook from someone asking me how to apply for a scholarship or revise their essay, or any other advice that I can give. It shows they have taken that extra initiative to reach out.