To become an Embedded Systems Engineer, Bunji says she has been trained by the whole world. Read more about her people-oriented STEM journey;
Bonjour, Bunji. That’s all the French I speak when I am excited, haha. Good to have you with us today
Haha… Bonjour! That will do. Thank you for inviting me here. I am happy to be your guest.
Briefly tell our audience about yourself
I am Bunji Antoinette, originally from a village in the Northwest region of Cameroon called Nkambe. My current location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I work for Astrobotic and an Embedded Systems Engineer. I mainly focus on Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) and image processing algorithm acceleration.
As a child growing up in Cameroon, did you envision yourself becoming anything close to an embedded systems engineer?
I never thought I would be an engineer, even around 2012, I still didn’t know I would be one, especially an embedded systems engineer!
Because I was a very hardworking child, my father wanted me to become a medical doctor because that was the only thing he knew at that time. I didn’t like it but didn’t know what else to do. We had a very good engineering school in the French-speaking part of Cameroon but I didn’t see myself there because I don’t speak French. I didn’t even know about it until my final year in high school.
Lucky for me, the first engineering school in the English part of Cameroon was opened that year. I got into the Electronics Engineering program. My father was just excited because I got into engineering.
The first year was very challenging because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. Some aspects of engineering are very hard for us back home because we don’t have the resources to help us do the practicals. We can do everything we want to do on paper but have to keep imagining every other thing.
I remember doing a course in digital electronics where the lecturer taught us about this programming language that blew my mind away. So, you write a code the way you would in C++ and the language generates what the chip would like in hardware. That was my introduction to electronics but I didn’t have anywhere to practice this.
When I graduated, I applied for various scholarships and got the Turkish Government Scholarship. I moved to Turkey and faced another huge challenge with the language. After one academic year of learning the language, we had to go to the university and register. Finding out that my best undergraduate course was to be taught got me very excited.
I selected the course but, unfortunately, when I attended the class I found out that they were like 5 years ahead of me. The tools we were using back home were so outdated! And you know with technology, a gap of say four years is like two centuries.
I dropped the course but got connected with someone who was already practicing engineering at that time and he volunteered to teach me everything he knew. He taught me for almost an entire year through Skype. Through his teachings, I was introduced to image compression and processing.
I ended up getting an internship that summer in the same field. Winnie, this internship was very hard! I was doing this for the first time, everyone was very smart and so young! Being the only graduate intern yet I couldn’t do anything was very ashaming. I remained strong and did my two months, then started coding on my own when the internship ended.
Towards the beginning of 2018, my advisor at the time introduced me to the professor who was teaching that course at the university. He asked the professor to mentor me in that field because I had covered the content on my own for a long time. I interned with him for some time and ended up working for him for two years.
Towards the beginning of 2020, I got this current opportunity in the US and moved from the defense industry to the aerospace industry.
I am happy people were noticing your passion and were willing to help you, irrespective of your level of experience
That’s for sure! I have learned that passion can take you to places you never imagined yourself to be. If you are passionate and looking, don’t give up.
You have mentioned a few challenges before, but what can you say has been your hardest time so far?
My biggest challenge was when I had just left Cameroon for Turkey. It was my first time to receive a serious culture shock. I was looking forward to the journey but the first couple of months came with so many regrets.
Unlike many countries in the west, middle eastern countries have a culture like ours. That also came with both advantages and disadvantages. It was easy to enjoy the culture and notice the differences but it was also easy to offend someone through actions because where you come from it’s normal to do what you just did.
I know people who have backed their bags out of graduate programs in the middle east! What kept you from doing that?
Three months before I moved to Turkey, I lost my father. He loved the idea of me getting a scholarship to study out of the country. The day I got my scholarship was the same day my father passed away. I felt like that is what he wanted me to do and just went on.
I also people who had succeeded in the same program. Like the guy who was giving me extra classes, he was a foreigner working for a big company. I knew that if he had made it, I had to make it too.
My huge international community while there gave me hope for better days ahead. I had friends from all parts of Africa, so I felt understood when I had frustrations.
For something outside computers and systems; how do you spend your free time?
I like cooking; it’s something that calms me down after a long day at work. Now, I don’t want someone pinning me for enjoying cooking yet my food might not be nice, haha. I didn’t say I am a good cook, I just like cooking.
Traveling is my other fun activity. I like the idea of traveling but the bag-packing process bores me, haha. Other than that, I am a big fan of that too.
I also like staying home to enjoy my time alone.
What is your favorite quote?
My cousin recently said something in our family group that caught my attention. He said, “someone out there is happier with less than what you have.” The reality is that we are always chasing something, we never reach a threshold. So, it’s better to enjoy every moment with what you have.
Also, I was recently talking to a friend and he said, “when you are going through tough times, know that it could get tougher than this”. Not in a way of comparing yourself with other people but trying to make sure you work through the difficult time as much as you can before it pushes you down the rabbit hole.
It’s okay to go for other things but to me, these quotes are about satisfaction and knowing that our happiness shouldn’t entirely depend on external things.
What’s your word of encouragement for a young African girl in STEM?
One of the things that worked for me was looking for people who do things I want to do and finding ways of speaking to them. I encourage this young girl to surround herself with people who are where she wants to be. Once you are with these people, you pick up their habits of success.
As you notice earlier, my journey has been through talking to people. Talking to people puts things into perspective, which reading and watching videos won’t do. Intentionally look for someone you can learn from. The thought of STEM might be glamourous but it is hard and needs dedication. You need to be persistent and take all the motivation you can get.
Thank you very much, Bunji, for this fun interview. Thank you for adding to my knowledge of embedded systems engineering. May you continue holding the flag for us.