Three years ago, Ivy Kinyanjui, a software engineer, quit a high paying job in the US, where she had lived for more than 20 years, packed a few belongings and returned home.
“Then, I was working for Allscripts Healthcare Solutions, Inc. as a lead software developer,” she says.
Her job, though satisfying, was so demanding, that it took a toll on her health, leading to her being hospitalised for weeks. She figured that returning home and setting up her own practice would be the best decision to make.
As an independent software engineer, Ivy’s job involves creating the backend software used by hospitals, banks, advertising entities and others, to interact with, and manage their client databases.
“I tailor make information technology solutions to meet the needs of a diverse range of clients,” she explains, in a nutshell, what her job involves.
Majority of the jobs she undertakes are of a sensitive nature, requiring her and the client to sign strict Non-Disclosure Agreements, NDAs, in industry lingo.
Ivy considers herself a disruptor in technology. This is someone who thinks outside the box to come up with innovative solutions to everyday problems.
“At the moment, I am developing an algorithm unique to Kenya, to help a client diagnose illness and imminent health risks using patient’s data; height, weight and diet to pre-empt, plan and manage healthcare” She explains, adding that while software of similar nature exists, none of it is designed for the Kenyan or African context. Consequently, the information and solutions generated by existing software are neither precise nor accurate for the local target group.
Ivy begun coding in her early-twenties in the Silicon Valley in the US, helping many tech startups get off the ground, and has worked with some of the best in the industry, including Microsoft; Intel Corporation, (a multinational corporation and technology company headquartered in Santa Clara, California) and Allscripts Healthcare Solutions, Inc. (A publicly traded American company that provides physician practices, hospitals, and other healthcare providers with practice management and electronic health record technology), where she was a lead software developer.
But her rise to the top did not come without challenges and also invaluable life lessons.
“Working in a pre-dominantly white-male environment, I encountered gender and racial bias at the onset. To survive, I developed a thick skin; learnt to think, behave and work like a man, at times working for more than 48 hours straight to create a new product.”
While her job earned her a good income, it demanded great sacrifice, which eventually led to a serious bout of stress-induced illness.
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
“Being hospitalised for 13 weeks was my wake-up call. I decided to return home to make my contribution to Kenya’s burgeoning ‘Silicon Valley’. It was the right thing to do.”
After completing her secondary school education at Alliance Girls High School, Ivy went on to study International Relations and Strategic Studies at Lancaster University in the UK, where she came into contact with computers for the first time.
“When my dad later bought me a computer, it was love at first sight. I discovered that like languages, computer programmers use syntax when coding.”
That discovery prompted her to take a postgraduate diploma in Applied Technology, the launching pad into her present career and passion.
To stay relevant in a competitive and fast-paced IT industry, Ivy learnt early to seize opportunities and lead, and to take advantage of her perceived weaker sex and use lessons learned in the work place and in her strategic studies class to be tactical and strategic in everything.
“Women listen better than men do. Because women talk quieter, people tend to pay more attention to what we say. I encourage women to use this attention to their advantage. You don’t have to be mean to succeed. You can be gentle and persuasive and excel.”
PLAY NICE AND GO PLACES
She advices every woman who wants to reach the pinnacle of her career to read the book, The Power of Nice, by Linda Kaplan and Robin Koval. The book offers practical tips on how to conquer the business world with kindness.
If considering a career in information technology, you must excel at mathematics and physics. You must also be a strategic thinker. If you enjoy Sudoku and solving crossword puzzles, you might want to consider a career in coding. Various local universities, Including University of Nairobi and Strathmore University, offer computer science and Information Technology, so you could start here. You could also consider International Universities such as MIT, Cambridge and Stanford.
According to Ivy however, the best coders are not the most educated. If your big interested is IT, you have a headstart; the rest you learn by doing. You must be prepared to put in long hours though. Also read widely and learn at every opportunity to keep abreast with changing trends.
She gives the poignant example of IT guru, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, both pioneers in this sector, who made their first million before their first degree. Zuckerburg, founded Facebook in college and left Harvard after his sophomore year to concentrate on the site, while Gates dropped out of college to build Microsoft. Both men are billionaires who revolutionised the world, without much formal schooling.
Great role models are instrumental to career success. Ivy’s role model is an aunt, Winnie Kariuki, a software engineer with a PhD in Chip Design.
“My aunt worked with Intel in the 90’s and rose to the top of her career against many odds. She made me believe I could excel. I owe my success to her.”
“Embrace failure, because it is through failing, and then trying again and again, that great innovators succeed.”