I’ve Always Been Encouraged – Irene Nattabi

There is always something amazing about people thinking less of you and later realising your potential. Being from Masaka, Irene was always thought less of until the results of her work in Telecommunication Engineering spoke on her behalf. Here is our interview with Masaka’s finest;

Hi Irene, it is wonderful to finally speak with you. Thank you for joining us today
Thank you so much for considering me, Winnie! It is such an honour after reading Eng. Diana‘s story. I have been privileged to give some talks here in my community, my former school, and my son’s school. So, having this excites me because I know it’s going to reach a wider audience.

Please give us a brief introduction about yourself
My name is Irene Nattabi from Uganda, a Telecommunication Engineering Specialist currently working with Airtel Uganda in the transmission planning and operations department. I am also a project management professional and coach with the professional evaluation and certifications board. I am also a tutor, wife, and mother of 3 beautiful children.

You are our first telecommunication engineering guest, haha! Please tell us about your journey in that field so far
I come from Nyendo, Masaka, as the last born in the family of Mr. and Mrs. Kasujja. I attended Hope Nursery and Primary School, still in Nyendo, before joining Masaka Secondary School for my secondary level. I grew up as an A child with a lot of love from people around me. The love and support from that system gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities. The primary school I attended was entirely Christian-based. This gave me a strong prayerful foundation. I graduated with 5 points and joined secondary school.

I was admitted to Uganda Martyr’s Secondary School Namugongo (one of the best missionary schools in Uganda) but my mom had to take care of many other financial needs at the time, so we didn’t have enough money. The deal was to join Masaka Secondary School, then go to Namugongo the following year. You should have seen me cry like a baby, haha! We have grown up seeing my mom toil to give us a good living, which has taught us that we can make it anywhere in life. We later joined school with my sister and ended up enjoying it. I graduated from O’Level as the best girl in the entire Masaka district.

Joining A’Level, I was again given admission into Namugongo, haha. However, my headteacher at Masaka S.S [Mr. Sendagire – I love this man so much!] refused to let me go. His point was that they had struggled with me through foundation level, and now another school would be praised for having their students join university! This I completely understood and chose to stay under a full scholarship from the school.

Through my mom’s business of timber, I met Engineer Kanamwangi, a Civil Engineer who became my mentor. He taught me what it took to become an Engineer. Combining his advice with the career guidance I received from school, I was able to make a career choice that I loved. I loved this school because of how strict the staff was when it came to education matters, especially with someone whose potential they trusted. This taught me to never take my children to a school with no accountability about my children’s progress. I am intentionally doing this with my children now. You know, as children, we most times need someone to follow up. We know what to do but playing is more attractive than doing the right thing, haha.

I ended up doing Physics, Economics, Mathematics, and French. My aim was to do subjects that I was going to perform well in and secure government sponsorship at university, given my financial background. I also didn’t want anything that was going to give me a hard time understanding, haha. When it was time to fill the forms into university, I was guided through the different courses but Telecommunication Engineering caught my attention the most. It was amazing how you could talk to someone far away like they were close to you. I took advantage of the fact that it was a new program, with lower points for government sponsorship. I graduated A’Level with 24 points and joined Kyambogo University under the sponsorship of the Government of Uganda.

At what point did you realise that you could pursue engineering as a career?
While at university, we had many mature-aged people in the class. So I had friends from MTN, Zain (now Airtel), Civil Aviation Authority, plus many other big companies. Since they are busy people, they always look out for students who can support them and I happened to be one of them because of my love for sharing knowledge. This experience helped me a lot in terms of getting exposed to actual work since we sometimes had to study with them on their sites of work.

I started working when I was still in school. A relative of mine, working in Huawei then, accepted to recruit me and some other colleagues of mine for a project that was running at that time. Three-quarters of my class got that job because it was a telecommunication engineering job that required site engineers and we were available. This kick-started my career in telecommunication engineering. It was an exciting experience because we were fresh from school, landing amazing jobs in our field of study. But the excitement was lost once we saw the real world of telecommunication engineering, haha. I usually get a chance to speak to our new junior teams in Airtel and pray for them for a chance to work with Huawei. Man, that was an exciting job, haha. We were given 2 weeks of orientation and training through the most comfortable experience. These were mostly theoretical because we were in class all through.

Then the project started and we had to swap out equipment from Ericsson to Huawei. Swaps are done during the maintenance window, which is from midnight to 4 in the morning. Our site was in Masaka and I was the cluster head. We had 8 sites and I distributed my team members for the job. We had to communicate with people in the back office who had to give us a go-ahead to swap the equipment once they are done configuring. So in one night, we had to move a full Base Transceiver Station (BTS), and swap it with another BTS. In simple terms, it was more of connecting cables and configuring. Remember we had only been in class, and now we are thrown in the deep end! It’s in the middle of the night and you have to remember what a given cable should look like, haha. It was tight! The good thing is we had support from the Warid team.

I was on-site and struggled from midnight, looking for one specific cable for 2 solid hours! And then this support guy shows up and identifies the cable in a second, my goodness! Remember we were working in a sequence along the highway. This meant stagnation at one site had affected all the other sites yet we were running out of time. The support guy had to drive through all the other 8 sites to make sure things were working before the close of the window hour. That was a night of getting stuck but when we got it, we got it.

We were only able to reach our homes at 10 am the following days, haha. But trust me that was the last time that ever happened. We became experts and were able to swap more than 300 BTS sites in less than 4 months. That experience was a real-world teacher, haha; independent thinking, solving problems, among others. Once the project was done, I got placement in Warid’s Network Operation Center (NOC) and worked for 1 year and was later transferred to Airtel when the merger happened. My inquisitive nature helped me learn different things while part of the NOC. This is what landed me into my current passion, which is transmission planning. Here I deal with the blood of communication.

I attribute my success to the various people [whose names I can’t mention here] I have met along my life journey and my nature of trying to learn something new every day. I have been privileged to work in places where I am always encouraged to be better. For example, with Airtel now, I am given “power” to execute things, in a way that everything starts and ends with me. My job is to report. This is both challenging and exciting at the same time.

Let’s talk about your early challenges in the path of telecommunication engineering
A challenge that turned out to be a blessing in disguise was the fact that I couldn’t afford to join a very good school because of finances. The peer pressure from other well-performing students was overwhelming but I now consider it a blessing. I was instead educated in an environment that prioritised my well-being as a child first, and the student next. I was fully supported in that school.

One of the early challenges I faced from potential employers was the doubt that I had received such good grades from a school in Masaka. What they didn’t know was that I came from the best school in the entire district. That school had given me a very good foundation in the world of telecommunication engineering.

What kept you pushing through these challenges?
Mentorship, career guidance from school, and a strong hard-working mother always encouraging me to be anything I want to be. I remember always topping my class but my mom never stopped buying me gifts every end of term as a way of encouraging me to keep soaring. I have never felt discriminated against because of my gender. This is the same at my different places of work; I have always been encouraged by my peers and bosses. I want to encourage parents that this guidance and mentorship thing has to start from home. It instills something different in a child hearing positive words from their parents. No one can take that away from them.

God as well; that I can’t forget. I was raised in a Godly family and when I look back, I realise that God has always had my back. We can also talk about my super-competitive nature, haha. I always want to be the best at the things I do. I have to mention that I met my husband at university, we are in the same field. He has always been very encouraging.

Tell us about your prestigious moments of recognition
I always scooped gifts in my lower levels of education. It was too much that at some point parents started complaining about me taking their gifts every time, haha! Then my scholarships throughout high school.

With Huawei, I got an award after that Warid merger project. In 2014, Airtel awarded me as the best employee of the year.

I have achieved a lot through self-improvement. I am now into project management, tutorship, and I have several certifications.

What takes most of your free time?
Haha, I am a new mom; I don’t think I have free time, haha. Otherwise, I am a music person; I love dancing. And maybe some traveling.

Do you have a favourite quote?
Yes, I do; it’s by Marianne Williamson.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously permit other people to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This quote resonates with me because sometimes I feel like I am too much, haha. I am an all-around person; you will find me in the corporate world, and still, find me running errands for people downtown. I have learned to accept that yes I am too much but in a good way. I just want to have my light shine as hope for another person.

Lastly, how do you encourage a young girl who is passionate about STEM but can’t find their ground in there?
You have to work for it; put in the work because things don’t happen overnight, and then find support along the way. Some of the things I know affect STEM are the lack of opportunities to do things and then people to point us in the right direction. Make sure you network with the right people and keep around people doing things you are passionate about. Always lookout for opportunities. Another thing I can say is, you have to want it so bad! This comes with sacrifices. Work so hard so that you get the required qualifications for where you want to go. I have heard people say a first-class degree doesn’t count. This is a VERY big lie; even employers look for people with good performance. That paves a way for you; it is a good starting point to spearhead your career.

Thank you very much, Irene! It was amazing learning about your world. Thank you for accepting to be part of our mentorship program.

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