As a Cloud Technical Solutions Engineer, Flavia provides technical support and guidance to customers, troubleshoots issues, identifies root causes of problems, and develops solutions to meet customer needs;
Hi Flavia, thank you for joining me today. Would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?
Hi Winnie, thank you for inviting me. This is my first interview in life, haha, so… I am Flavia Nshemerirwe – my name means “happy”, so I am always wearing a smile, on good days, at least. I am from Uganda – born, raised, and educated in Uganda – but currently living in Dublin, Ireland. My work, I am a Cloud Technical Solutions Engineer with Big Data at Google. So, I work with the Google Cloud Platform.
I am excited to learn about how you became a Technical Solutions Engineer at Google! But before that, what does a Technical Solutions Engineer do exactly?
My normal day involves dealing with customer issues that arise when using our Big Data products. For example, customers might face a broken pipeline. So, they raise a ticket indicating that their job is not going as expected. I pick up the ticket and start figuring out where the problem might be. This is an entire process of looking through their code if necessary, infrastructure, network setup, and all other things in that line. I either give suggestions for fixing the problem or reach out to the product engineers if it is a product issue. The good news is that with our combined effort, we always have a happy customer.
Does this mean one needs a tech background to become a Technical Solutions Engineer?
That is true, one needs to understand how systems work. For example, one needs to understand how things are put together in a distributed system. Initially, it was a mess for me, coming from a software development background. I was used to developing things on my own computer with a small space. But, now, here I am dealing with customers owning petabytes of data and I have to ensure that there is no data loss. I learned that I had to work very fast to fix the issues before our customers lose money. So, to answer the question, yes, you need to apply tech basics at a large scale.
I am now very eager to learn about your journey to becoming a Technical Solutions Engineer. Walk us through that
Wow! Growing up, I never imagined myself working as a Technical Solutions Engineer at Google. Even when I joined, it has never hit clear that I am working for Google, haha. Since childhood, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer but was not sure of the field. This was because I was always good at mathematics. However, because my sisters were all into Biology, that was the most expected path for me. But I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. So I deliberately dropped Biology for my A’Level and did Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Economics (PCM/E).
By the time I joined the university, everyone was going for Petrochemical Engineering. My dad was very hesitant about me joining that field because few companies specialized in that at the moment. He talked to me about a new course at Makerere University that had Mathematics and Logic. That’s how I ended up in a software engineering class.
My first day in the class started with a very intriguing question. A classmate asked me, “what are the specs of your computer?”. I was so confused that my only answer was, “daddy bought me the best laptop”, haha.
With all this confusion, at what point did you decide to pursue software development as a career?
At first, I had a blur of what I would do, maybe join the cooperate world in Uganda, but I didn’t know what I would be doing exactly. Because of this, I just went through my course units as a very green person. I am very happy that I had that unbiased moment to explore what my chances in this field might be. I watched videos on YouTube, attended tech workshops and conferences, and picked up all opportunities to improve my skills. For training, I was more comfortable with women’s programs because we were few and no one was showing off, haha.
Luckily enough, I got into the WOPA-Women Passion Program where I found women in tech who were willing to teach us everything they knew. That is where a mention of the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC) captured my attention. I read about it, applied, and was accepted. For the first time, I was to travel out of my country on a fully funded trip to Texas in the USA. It was all good until I had to pay for my flight to the event and the organizers would reimburse me after. My parents were very skeptical about something they had never heard of. I took a chance and asked the organizers if it was possible to pay for my flight before I attended the conference. The worst-case scenario would have been a no but the organizers were kind enough to pay for all my expenses beforehand.
It was a very interesting time in my life but also challenging. Most of the lecturers in my university refused to give me an exemption for the tests that were running around the same time. Some were supportive enough to give me catch-up tests and assignments when I returned but others were not. I had the opportunity to network with amazing women from different parts of the world. For example, this lady I met at a luncheon mentioned that she had attended the conference because she had internships with Pinterest and Microsoft and didn’t know which one to choose. In my world, that was news!
By the time I left that conference, I was a changed person. I learned that there were careers in software engineering that didn’t involve system administration. I had just landed myself a career path that could take me anywhere in the world.
Tell us about how you navigated the period between leaving school and penetrating the working space
I had very good grades – a first class – but all the internships I applied to were nonresponsive. This broke my heart and made me think about not having a future in Uganda. My family told me about Andela, which was recruiting then. My mentor, Lynn Asiimwe, whom I met through WOPA and is now a close friend also encouraged me to go for the opportunity. She wanted me to join her at Google but my skills were still lacking. This opportunity at Andela was a good foundation for my qualification into Google.
I passed all my interviews and joined Andela. Throughout my time there, Lynn kept asking me very challenging questions – you know, the ones that make you question your growth at work. Yes! I made it a point to learn everything I could during my stay there. In August 2019, Lynn asked me if she could share my CV with Google for an opening in her team. I had to polish my CV and LinkedIn profile using the skills I learned from GHC. We submitted the application, I passed the interviews, and got the job.
I, however, was not yet convinced to leave home because I am a family person. It was very challenging to pack my bags but once I did, I have loved every moment of it. I have been challenged, I have grown, and I am enjoying my work.
Let’s talk about what you have found most challenging as a Technical Solutions Engineer
The challenges are many but the most difficult one is lacking a sense of belonging or what most people call impostor syndrome. I don’t know if it is because we don’t have similar people in these spaces! Everyone I see around me went to a better school and seems to know more than I do. I always pause before asking questions because I am not sure if they are dumb or not. My other trait is being a perfectionist – in most cases, I feel inadequate.
This is a big challenge for most African women in STEM! How do you overcome this feeling when it crops up?
Right now, I talk to people whom I know for sure believe in me. One of those people is my dad, he keeps telling me that I am smart and I can do it. I remember one time I was part of a very challenging team and my dad made me see life in a different way. He is not from a tech space but he understands me as his child. For example, he recently made a comment that got me to the core. He said, “I wanted this career for you but you have loved it more than I did”.
The other person is my mentor, Lynn, who has been very supportive on this journey.
Wow! Kudos to daddy and Lynn.
Walking this Technical Solutions Engineer journey, what have been some of your prestigious moments?
Getting the GHC scholarship and qualifying for the jobs I have had, especially this one at Google. Those have been my most prestigious moments so far.
We have seen Flavia in school and at work, but, who are you out of those spaces?
Haha, I was going to say I love teaching girls about computers but that is still in the computer space!
I am a family person and I love quality time with my family and friends. Sunday is for church because my faith means a lot to me. Those are my things, basically.
What is your favorite quote?
“Living the urgent life” ~ Bozoma Saint John. After all the challenges I have experienced, this line means a lot to me right now.
What is your advice for a young African girl who would like to become a Technical Solutions Engineer?
I would say, “your background doesn’t matter”. I say this to mean that the opportunities ahead of you shouldn’t be limited by your life experiences. Many people ask me if I did my education outside Uganda, hence my job qualifications. No! grew up in Fort Portal, and went to Green Circle School in Fort Portal for primary school. For high school, I attended MaryHill High School in Mbarara, then Gayaza High School, and finally Makerere University. I was the first person in my family to leave the country for work. Where you are right now has the resources to get you where you want to be. You just have to be humble and willing to learn.
Lastly, I encourage people to attend events, workshops, and conferences. There are many women willing to mentor people if needed.
Thank you very much, Flavia, for adding your voice to this cause. For the first time in my life, I have learned about what a Technical Solutions Engineer does. We thank Keziah for the recommendation and wish you the very best ahead.