July 17, 2020

Free 8-Month Structured Mentorship Program: Upskilling Kenyan Computer Science Students

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TECH TOOLS :

Navigating the various stages of the college-to-career transition: choosing a major, finding an internship, and getting your first job, is no easy endeavor.

In the tech industry, where there's a broad spectrum of fields and career paths that require varied skills and expertise, having a mentor to support you along the journey goes a long way.

Mentors can shorten your learning curve, serve as a trusted sounding board to think through opportunities, and share industry insights to navigate challenges. 

In Kenya, 60% — 80% of university students do not receive any mentorship outside the classroom. 

And yes, although countless engineers and entrepreneurs have proven that Africans can build world-class products and raise millions of dollars, providing students with mentorship opportunities is critical to the evolution of the continent’s tech ecosystem. 

The youth need more than role models. They need personal relationships with people who can both serve as positive examples of world-class tech professionals and help guide them along the journey to becoming one. 

Launched in 2016, KamiLimu's vision is to upskill university tech students to foster their global competitiveness. The free 8-month structured mentorship program augments classroom learning for Computer Science students at Kenyan universities.  

In its fifth cohort of 42 mentees, KamiLimu has served 170 students from 19 Kenyan universities. 

I spoke with Ruth Waiganjo, Software Developer at Andela, and the Committee PR/Communication Manager at KamiLimu, about the importance of mentorship, what the mentorship program provides participants, and tech in Africa. 


Share your background and how your journey led you to KamiLimu?

KamiLimu is a structured mentorship program for students who are in university pursuing tech-related courses like computer science, I.T., etc. My role at KamiLimu includes managing our communications and social media platforms. Also, I’m a professional mentor to some of the mentees. 

My tech journey started at university, where I studied computer science, and at first, it was very daunting. I wasn't one of those students who was coding during high school. I learned about programming in my first year of university, it was hard, and I really didn't catch up until my second year.

Initially, I didn't have the best attitude towards programming, and things didn't get better until I changed it. I realized that if I kept seeing it as too hard, then I'd fail. So I decided to have a positive attitude towards programming and to put myself out there. That's when a group of classmates and I started going to every tech event we could find. 

In my 3rd year, I met the founder of KamiLimu Dr. Chao Mbogo at one of the many events I attended. She discussed applying to the Women Techmakers Scholars Program (formerly known as the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship). Interested, we connected, and after the event, she mentioned that she had a mentorship program and was looking for applicants. I applied and became part of the second cohort.

I joined in 2017, and afterward, I applied to become a peer mentor to guide the new cohort. Then after graduating, I became a professional mentor and joined the management team.

What does it mean to be a mentor, and why is mentorship in Computer Science so important?

Mentorship, to me, means guidance — sharing what worked for me since I've already gone through what you're experiencing.

If I were mentoring someone entering their first year of computer science, I would tell them to have a positive attitude. I didn't initially, but later on, I came to see how a positive mindset can help with learning. 

Also, attend tech events because that's ultimately how I ended up joining KamiLimu. 

Mentorship is important because I believe that someone shouldn’t have to repeat the mistakes I've made. I've already struggled enough to get to where I am; why should I let you struggle? 

A career in software programming and software development is often seen as a hard and daunting process, but it doesn't have to be if you have a mentor who can guide you along the way.

Imposter syndrome is a challenge that many junior programmers face. 

They look at a senior person, and it seems like they know everything, and it feels like you're a long way from getting to where they are, I've been there before. 

As a mentor, I can help you eliminate it and get you to refocus your energy on building your confidence and growing your skills.

KamiLimu maintains a 50/50 balance of students that identify as male and female. Why is that important, and how does that balance contribute to the KamiLimu experience?

Dr. Chao Mbogo's mindset for implementing the 50/50 balance into the program was to create what she wanted to see in the work environment. 

In the tech space, the ultimate goal is to have a ratio of 50 females to 50 males. With KamiLimu, she wanted to mimic that, so students got used to working together in a gender-balanced environment.  

I think the gender balance affects the experience for both our male and female mentees. 

If you're a female, tech is a field that's highly concentrated by men, so getting exposed to working with male students earlier will help them as they transition to their professional careers. It fosters trust and ensures they're not intimidated to work with males. 

For the male students, seeing female students contribute to the team with their technical and presentation skills will cause them to trust that females are capable and can deliver on their work.

In the future, we hope that they will trust their female colleagues; however few there are, and treat them with dignity and respect because of their experience at KamiLimu.


Can you share a story about how an alumnus is benefiting from their KamiLimu experience? 

Tired and no longer interested in programming, one of our students, Cornelius, was ready to quit computer science and venture into another field when he joined KamiLimu.

Unfortunately, a lot of people feel that if you can't understand or do programming in computer science, you're not worthy of being in tech, which is not the case. Tech is more than just programming, and that's something that KamiLimu showed him. He's now doing networking, which is his passion and something that he loves. 

He even got to a point where he had an interview with Google. Seeing someone who was at the brink of leaving tech to finding a niche that he's passionate and confident about is amazing. 

We've had 68 students win various scholarships and fellowships. Every year, we have some students who go to the Grace Hopper conference. Opportunities like this boost their confidence and provide continued exposure. 

We also get feedback from employers about how KamiLimu students are exceptional in the workplace because they understand how to contribute to the business goals and present themselves professionally.

Our founder is a lecturer, and one of the tips she consistently reminds our cohorts is that your professionalism can affect how someone sees you or quantifies the skills you can bring to the table in both a school and work environment.

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What is the structure of KamiLimu’s eight-month program?

When KamiLimu started, it was a six-month program, but then the founder felt we needed a bit more time to complete the curriculum, so she increased it to 8-months. 

The first half of the program is theoretical. We discuss personal and professional development topics, and the second half is where we apply those skills with mock interviews and innovation challenges. 

Overall we focus on these five areas: 

  1. Professional Development, which includes sessions about how to write a nice CV and present yourself in interviews
  2. Personal Development, which includes sessions such as mental health, financial literacy, and public speaking.
  3. Innovation and ICT Skills, which includes sessions such as design thinking and pitching skills.
  4. Scholarship application, which includes scholarship awareness and review of scholarship essays.
  5. Community Engagement, which includes working with organizations that teach kids how to code. 

What are the keys to being successful in Africa's tech ecosystem?  

Be teachable. This is a field where you know something today, and then tomorrow, it can become obsolete. 

You can find yourself in a situation where you have five years of experience, but you have to go to a junior person to teach you about something. This happens a lot in this industry. And so having a mindset of I'm always learning and seeking knowledge is very important.

In terms of being successful in tech in Africa, immersing yourself in the community is essential. Let's say you want to pursue opportunities in a certain niche or build a product. Being a part of the tech ecosystem will allow you to rely on the knowledge of the people who came before you. 

Attending tech events and putting myself out there is how I got some of my internships. I went to tech fairs, learned about people's products, and even asked, would you like an intern?

Most times, they'd say not at the moment, but putting myself out there communicated my interest. Eventually, some actually circled back and offered internship opportunities. 


Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

Built In Africa, to me, means that the product has Africa imprinted in it. 

We have many situations where an "African" startup is celebrated in the media; however, when you look into the company, the founder is someone from the US who saw a viable idea in Africa. And it became huge because they had the network to get funding. 

We have so much talent here, so I look forward to seeing more founders with a foundation on the continent who build products for Africa and have so much success that they attract funding from abroad. 

At KamiLimu, one of our professional mentors, Eric Wesonga, has three successful startups, and it's inspiring to see him continue to think of how to create solutions to some of the gaps in the market. He's an example to the students that it's possible to have an African startup led by an African. 

He also hires interns from KamiLimu, which makes it full circle. We need to see more of these types of success stories—startups in Africa by Africans.

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