Female Software Engineer – Abigail Annkah

Have you ever used Google Maps or any other online maps? Read about how our female Software Engineer contributes to this service;

Hi Abigail, thanks for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Abigail Annkah from Ghana. I am a Research Software Engineer with the Google AI Lab in Accra, Ghana. By profession, I call myself an Applied Mathematician because I started with Mathematics and Statistics in my undergraduate studies. On a high level, what I do with my team at Google involves the identification of infrastructure and built-up environment in Africa. Different Google products use the results of our work. For example, Google Maps and other maps that require our input. 

Coming from a Mathematics/Statistics background, how did you end up as a Software Engineer?
My undergraduate admission was into Bsc. Statistics – I preferred Medicine but didn’t make it. At that time, I wasn’t so much informed about what the opportunities were and what I do. What I learned was that the course had a lot of Mathematics in it. All I knew about my career path at that time was to do my master’s, and Ph.D., then come back and teach since I enjoy sharing knowledge. I later realized that there was more to my future. This is not to mean that the teachers are not doing an amazing job, they made me who I am today, but for me, there was more to my future than that.

During my second year at university, we had a group of people from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Ghana speak to us about the various applications and what they do. Through this interaction, my eyes opened to how big Mathematics is! I learned that I could branch out of Mathematics, pick another field, combine it with Mathematics knowledge and solve a lot of problems there.

We studied Computational Mathematics where we used numerical methods, coded in Python, to solve simple problems. Translating everyday routine into instructions understood by a machine was very fascinating to me. I knew that no matter the problem if I work hard at it, I can get a solution. My job is to specify instruction on how the solution can be found and what could be gotten from it. Because I had enjoyed this course very much in the second year, I took it again as a free elective in the third year.

After four years, I finished with a combined major in Mathematics and Statistics and did my undergraduate thesis in Computational Mathematics. My research about diffusion models using Python gave me more exposure to this field that was of interest to me. Right afterward I did my national service as a Mathematics teaching assistant at the University of Ghana before applying for a master’s program at AIMS Rwanda. This time I was more focused on applied mathematics with an expectation to get more exposure to the field.

At the same time, I received a personal invite by Dr. Prince Osei to apply for a program called African Masters in Machine Intelligence (AMMI). This was the very first machine learning graduate course in Africa for Africans so that we don’t always have to travel abroad for such knowledge. It is led by Moustapha Cisse who at this time had just opened up the Google Research Lab in Accra. I applied, got accepted, and went through the program.

Combining my Mathematics and Statistics background with my Python experience gave me a good foundation for this machine learning program. Everything was a perfect blend for a career and that was it for me.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as you immersed yourself into this world as a Software Engineer?
First of all, it was challenging for me to choose between accepting my offer at AIMS Rwanda and declining it to apply for AMMI. We all know how hard it is to get a fully-funded master’s program in Africa. So, me having to decline AIMS and putting all my trust into the AMMI application without any experience in the required fields was a hard decision but I made it and it paid off. I did my homework about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and anything I could do to get me ready for the program, I did it.

During the AMMI program, most of us had come from different backgrounds but we were determined to take the course until the end. My biggest challenge was not being exposed to any program related to what we were covering then. The second challenge then was being away from my family for the very first time in my life. There were some good days but the other days were bad! Some days we thought we understood everything but test results showed otherwise. Another challenge was expressing myself in a way that I could be understood. However, the AIMS/AMMI setting allows us to open up and reach out to people.

Coming into the industry, it is a “yes” and “no” answer because the AMMI program had connected us to people who assisted us to make that transition from class to work. So, whether one had to take a Ph.D. or join a company, the program prepared us for all of it. To get fully ready, I decided to go for a one-year residency with Google to give me the experience I needed, and then later decide whether to do a Ph.D. or continue with work. This was another challenging time in terms of preparing for the interviews, getting used to the work environment, delivering as expected, and a lot more. We made it and here we are, haha.

You have spoken about your resilience and having a winning spirit, those are very important. But, what else can we say keeps you going during challenging times?
There’s a whole lot that goes into play. These days I vouch so much for mentorship because everyone needs guidance and assistance. Growing up as a teacher’s daughter, I have always asked for help before taking a step. It has downsides of not being confident in your decisions but the upside is that you always get help and assurance before taking a career step, or any step for that matter. I have had a lot of mentors along the way, telling me the pros and cons and letting me decide the final path on my own. Surprisingly, they don’t stop at that, they always come back to check on me and make sure the decision I made is treating me well.

I also want to emphasize the resilience part, which I view from this perspective; as you move higher and grow, it seems to get more difficult. What I do is, the older me looks back at what the younger me achieved and starts questioning what more I can achieve now that I have all this experience, exposure, and connections. If the younger me could win without what I have now, how much can the current me do with all that I have! I am the same person and I am supposed to get better, so I should be able to overcome.

Let’s talk about some of your prestigious moments along this journey
I have two moments that stand out for me; the first one being the AMMI scholarship. As I said, it was the first cohort so the founders made sure that whoever was admitted fit the description of building the talent good enough to define the future of machine intelligence in Africa. It was grace for me to be considered among those who had the talent. I am not saying others didn’t deserve it but they must have seen my potential and allowed me to nurture it. As I said, this program was a very big part of who I am today.

The second moment is getting my full-time role here at Google. The conversion process might seem easier for some since I am already in the company but it’s not like that. I was a resident for almost 18 months, half of which were used to cater to personal needs like maternity leave and family. Because I was intentional about what I wanted to achieve, I got it irrespective of the maternity leave. I went through the time and was able to make it as a Research Software Engineer. Yes, I am at the start of my career but if I am asked to celebrate me, I give myself an applause. Going through interviews at Google is not an easy thing. I seem to be doing well at what I do and believe I will do better with time.

We have seen Abigail at work and school, but who is Abigail out of these spaces?
Out of work and school, I enjoy site-seeing – something I haven’t done in a long time now. I like discovering new places, finding out their stories, and listening to what makes them what they are. If we can put it this way, let’s say I also like hiking. I remember my last year in Rwanda, I walked for 4 hours as a birthday gift to myself. It was in the evening, around sunset, which is a perfect time for such an activity. I would have appreciated the walk more if I knew that I would work on Google Maps in the future.

I am a food lover but it’s more about the different cuisines that exist around the world. So, when I am cooking, I love experimenting with different things. I also make it a point to eat special food when I travel. My love for music can’t go unmentioned, although I don’t have a specific genre of preference. The final one is spending quality time alone with friends and family. The world is moving so fast that if we are not careful we might leave our loved ones behind. If I had a chance, I would love to spend more time with my family and loved ones.

Do you have a favorite quote?
You have interviewed my closest friend who said that her friend usually says “great today’s and better tomorrow’s”. That friend will be me, haha. I got the concept from a book that I never finished reading. As people, we are each unique and destined for greatness. The only trick is using the same metric for everyone at the same time. It favors some and not others. If you choose to go with that, you fail to see the greatness in yourself. I know that I am meant for greatness today and tomorrow will even be better.

What would be your encouragement for a young African girl who wants to become a Research Software Engineer?
No matter the mistakes you have made in terms of decisions, you can do anything you set your mind to. If you chose to do Arts earlier and now you want to join STEM, just go for it. Or someone who did STEM but feels like they didn’t give it their all, it’s never too late.

I also want to tell them that they don’t have to figure it all out on their own. Employers want to see how much you can do alone but also how well you work with others. Bearing that in mind, mentorship is very useful. Reach out to people if you can and take advantage of our social media platforms. The worst they can say is “get off my back”. With time, you will look back and appreciate what you have done.

Thank you very much, Abigail, for squeezing me into your busy calendar. I appreciate you for that and for sharing your Software Engineering journey with us. We wish you the very best at your job.

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