Tala’s Chief Engineer Shares What It Takes To Be A Software Engineer
There is a huge demand for software developers in Africa attributable to many factors. The continent is experiencing increased investments from global tech companies that are setting bases in the continent. For example, just this year, Microsoft Africa Development Corporation, Google, AWS, and Oracle among others opened new offices in the continent.
Africa also has the youngest population in the world. This has fuelled digital transformation and the uptake of digital products. What’s more? Tech start-ups are sprouting up on the continent further fuelling the fierce fight for the few software developers.
Jimmy Gathage, Director of Engineering at mobile lending firm Tala, Kenya shares his view of what it takes to be a software engineer at this age. He boasts more than 13 years of experience in IT operations, software engineering, IT project management and cyber security.
What sparked your interest in software engineering? Can you describe the moment you realised this was a field you’d like to pursue?
Naturally, I have an inquisitive mind. In addition, I love to solve problems and build things with my hands. So, for me, engineering was more of a natural inclination. From early on, I knew I wanted to end up in engineering but was unsure of the specific field. I struggled between computer science and automotive engineering. Finally, I settled on computer science after extensive consultation and guidance from my eldest brother and sister.
The realisation that this is the field I would like to pursue came much later in my career, a couple of years in my job. Before then, I had contemplated a complete career change. I was involved in a project in Zimbabwe a few years ago where I built a mobile banking solution for a local bank. During that time, Zimbabwe was facing a cash crunch and great financial strife. The final solution was a huge success. This experience completely changed how I viewed my work and how it can impact lives and alleviate human suffering. This was the turning point for me that I am in the right field and fully committed to this career.
What was the most challenging part of your college experience? Did you ever experience any uncertainty that this was the path for you?
During my years in university, software engineering was an emerging field in Kenya. As with any emerging field, teaching talent with practical industry experience was hard to come by. I struggled to understand the practicality of what was being taught. I convinced myself I’ll never pursue software development because it was not for me and seemed like a very difficult path to pursue. This completely changed during my last year when I was involved in a boot camp organised by MIT.
By the end of the boot camp, I had fallen in love with software development. What I learnt from this experience, for you to consider yourself an expert in your area, you should be able to explain complex concepts in simple language to someone or a child who has no clue about your area of expertise.
Tell us about your first job. What did you learn there that you couldn’t have learned in the classroom?
My first job was a game-changer for me. I was an IT technician for a premium rate service provider (PRSP) that provided mobile solutions. I was mentored by an accomplished engineer who pushed and demanded only the best from me.
It was a small company, so I did everything from developing software, setting up infrastructure, and customer support to helping in business in technical sales. This experience was golden in shaping my career the skills gained were invaluable. A lot of what I learned during that time I still apply today. The job developed a framework in me for how to be a complete engineer.
Describe your job as a software engineer at Tala. What do you do? What does an average day look like for you?
I provide strategic direction primarily in technology matters. In addition, I partner and collaborate with various functions in the organization to solve problems. Most of the time, this involves actualizing and bringing to life concepts and ideas by building mission-critical technology solutions by leading teams that execute this great work.
Tala is a complex organization with so many moving parts and decisions are made very fast. The day starts by getting updates on projects and removing blockers if any, jump into a meeting to align with the product and business teams. I also have sessions to review technical decisions and to get a pulse of how individuals are doing by having one on ones. I finally end the day by checking out tech blogs and news.
Are you also on 24/7 in case the system crashes?
It rarely happens that I am on call. I have a superb team of support engineers who are empowered and well-equipped to handle most incidents. In extreme cases, I have had to burn the midnight oil with the team to ensure service restoration. It’s part of the job.
There are a lot of challenges around data privacy. How do you secure data?
Tala has made considerable investments to assure stakeholders of data protection and privacy by having controls at different points to ensure a sophisticated layered defence mechanism. At a high level, we have managerial, technical, and physical controls that enhance our security posture as an organization.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job?
I haven’t experienced this that much, but sometimes people consider me only a people manager. They would avoid having a technical discussion until I start engaging them technically.
What advice do you have for women interested in software engineering? What kinds of practical experience should they have? What technical skills should they pick up?
The first software engineer in the world was a woman by the name of Ada Lovelace. I don’t know where the scale tipped that we have more male software engineers today.
To be a successful engineer, you need to have a strong problem-solving mindset and the ability to think logically. These two in my opinion are the most important but underrated foundational skills that all the rest build on. Some of the best professionals I have worked with are women. I have noticed some aren’t as bold as their male counterparts and often suffer from imposter syndrome. They should believe in themselves more and the universe will align for them. In my opinion cloud engineering, cybersecurity and data science are hot areas to invest time and money in.
Why do you think so many developers are exiting their careers?
I think there are varying reasons and not in any order. First, I believe if a job is not aligned with your 3Ps (purpose, principles, and passion) in life, one is bound to be frustrated. Ideally, what you do in life should be at the intersection of the 3Ps, known as the ‘one thing mission’. If a job is outside the ‘one thing mission’, then a lack of meaning leading to frustration and disengagement is an end result. At this point, seeking an alternative is a reasonable thing to do.
In addition, there are disruptions in the industry that has created a tonne of opportunities for developers. First, remote working is a new norm meaning engineers can work from anywhere in the world. So local organizations are competing globally for talent. Second, we are witnessing start-ups to big tech setting up locally, leading to increased competition for top talent. Retaining engineers right now is a curve ball.
What do you wake up looking forward to? What’s next for your career?
I always look forward to waking up every morning to solve problems that will positively impact my fellow humans and be of value to my organisation. In the next phase of my career, I am looking at working on my current professional blind spots specifically data science and artificial intelligence. I believe this will close the loop in me being a super engineer.
I want to learn how to be a software engineer, IT project management and cyber security