I got to know Kirabo through a mutual friend called Linda Mwesigwa, who makes up a big percentage of the support I get while running this project. I am excited to share Kirabo’s inspiring STEM journey with the world;
Hi Kirabo, I am honoured to welcome you to this episode of Words That Count. Thank you very much for joining us today
Hi Winnie! Thanks for reaching out. I am grateful to Linda for the recommendation ♥️. I took time to look through some of the posts on your blog. I love the stories and your mission to inspire more girls. I am happy to participate. Also, following Linda’s lead: I’d love to recommend some friends, if you’d like.
Thank you very much for that suggestion. I welcome as many ladies as possible. Our aims it to reach many girls in all parts of Africa.
Kindly introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Lynn Kirabo from Uganda. I am currently a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University in USA. My study focus is human-computer interactions; this is a field that exists at the intersection of Computer Science, Design, and Behavioural Sciences. It’s basically about understanding how people use computers and interfaces in different domains, and how we can ultimately design them better. I am also a summer intern with Facebook, specifically Instagram.
Please walk us through this Tech journey; How has it been like for you?
Haha…mine is not a glamorous story,!
I saw my first computer when I was under 10 – my friend’s family had bought one and it was in their family room. I went home and asked my father to buy for us a computer too, haha. Poor guy, thrust with a child with these lofty dreams (although I think he secretly loved it). I explained to him that what I wanted to do in my life had something to do with computers. I actually asked him what such people are called, he told me they were called “computer wizards”. That’s what I went with for the first few years of my life. Every time I was asked what I wanted to become, my answer would be “computer wizard”.
By the time I reached secondary school, my dad had talked to some people about my passion and they had given him a better job title; “Computer Analyst”. Lucky enough, Makerere University introduced a course in Information Technology by the time I was finishing high school. I was supposed to be in the first batch to pursue that degree but I failed high school. Winnie, I failed-failed high school , I got 5 points. If you have been through Makerere, you will understand – 5 points get you nowhere! I remember my dad just encouraging me and making me believe that I was going to get a degree. His comfort at the time fuelled my passion to work when I eventually got in. He was an academician, so you can imagine how my 5 points hurt his soul!
So I started with a diploma instead; CISCO CCNA, then applied the following year and joined the degree program. By now I had lost all aspirations of “Computer Analyst”, I just wanted to get a degree for my dad. I was determined to work hard this time because I wanted to make my parents proud, and that’s exactly what I did. There was no going out, I was part of study groups in the first week of school. It was a funny way of doing things but it actually paid off. God was faithful and I did really well; I made it to the Dean’s list. My dad was extremely proud of me, I remember that moment very well!
All this felt good but now the problem was my father had started having dreams for me. He wanted me to become a professor! You know how the university retains best performers in different colleges? That’s what he was looking at, yet I didn’t want anything to do with it. I just wanted to work for Watoto Church! We had months of fights about what I was going to do at Watoto; I had no idea but I wanted to work with them. Now I realise how patient my dad was with me. I think all parents should be like that with their children.
I had done my internship at Watoto, under their IT department. Some people used to laugh at me and ask what I was doing there (making puns about running the project). There was actually very serious work and it was a wonderful learning environment for me. I learned about routers, switches, trunking cables; there was so much work that I started documenting everything I was doing per day. That’s what I used for my report and it earned me a distinction. Sometimes people laugh at you without understanding your journey. This doesn’t mean you should stop and give up on your journey.
Anyways, I joined the Marketing team at Watoto Church, and was assigned under the Webmaster; we maintained the different websites for Church & Child care. Social media was just starting, so we also maintained those, plus answering general emails. So here I was; a first class person, answering emails. My father couldn’t understand this; I think he low-key had beef with Watoto. For me, it was the joy of working in an environment I was comfortable with, and I knew I was going to learn useful things from there; an example was from my internship.
When my boss retired, I took over as the Webmaster. You won’t believe that even then, people used to laugh at my job. In their mind, I used to sit there and just enjoy Facebook! It’s surprising how the world has evolved that now people sit on YouTube the whole day and make lots of money – that’s their job! The most amazing thing is that people’s attitudes have also changed over time.
Now, fast forward to early 2013 I realised it was time for change! I used to go for some meetings and people were talking about Python, Java, C++ and I am like, “God even me Java!”. That was also the time my dad passed away. I remembered he really wanted me to do a masters, actually that’s one of the last conversations we had. I remember how his face lit up when I told him I wanted to do a masters. You could tell he was very proud! I made my application before he passed away. When we got the news about his death – he died on a flight in the US – we had to get money to fly his body back plus all other expenses. It was some challenging time.
We received the call about his death on Monday, on Tuesday I received an email from Carnegie Mellon University Africa (CMU – Africa) mentioning the fact that they liked my application and would love to interview me. On Thursday I got an email from a tech company in Kampala that I wanted so bad, indicating that I had passed phase 1 of the interview and would be heading to phase 2! Imagine I am here mourning and all this good news is coming my way! I told all of them that my dad had passed and I wasn’t in the right state of mind to take on any form of interview. The CMU-Africa people were very kind to shift the interview to a later date until I was ready. The recruiter at the time was so amazing through the entire process, we are still friends up-to-date.
Along the way, my mother found out that I had an opportunity to interview for a master’s program and I turned it down. Winnie!!!!! mourning aside – my mum was furious! Long story short, I had the interview with all sorts of technical difficulties, just know it was a hard paper! We later buried when the body arrived and news about my interview was out – I had passed. New hustle was to find money to prepare for that including GRE and TOEFL results. My then boss didn’t know anything about my applying to CMU, but called me someday about a university that was coming around with scholarship programs. I just went for the sake of going but was surprised to find it was CMU – Africa. I had ignored their emails all through because there was no money for those exams.
I took the exams, passed and submitted the results. I was accepted, went to Kigali with a promise of getting scholarships. It was hard being in a foreign country without money. One amazing day, my friend Ivy and I got UN Women Tuition Support. Now we needed upkeep! I then got a gig for website designing – remember my Watoto experience? This is when it paid off. I worked on a world bank project and got some good money to sustain us.
We graduated two years later and I had the amazing opportunity to be the Valedictorian, so I gave a speech.
My mum and auntie came for graduation and were amazed by my performance. I returned to Uganda and wanted a job that helps me give back. I now had all programming skills I had wanted. I applied for a job at Fenix and was called for an interview. I got in on an internship or say probation that was supposed to be reviewed after 6 weeks. 2 weeks into that job, I was asked to stay full-time.
After 2 years, I felt like I needed to contribute more than what I was doing. There are many people doing research about Africa but most are not African. Most of this kind of research is for academic purposes, so after dissertations projects end and some communities are left hanging. I wanted to be able to portray the Africa that I saw with a dignified light. My next move was to apply for a PhD.
I talked to some people and just placed my application – in my mind, I knew people don’t get acceptance on the first try. I applied to only one university; which is CMU here in the US and I got in. Here we are, 4 years down the road. It’s been and still is a journey.
My next question would have been about some of the challenges you have faced but these have been clearly captured in your history. Unless you have something to add?
It has been a struggle for me to learn how to believe in myself. This wasn’t made easy by people around me who constantly doubted and second-guessed me. It’s not because they are bad people but it’s that constant bias about women breaking barriers in Tech. So, if anyone is struggling with it, don’t give up. Many of us are in the same situation but giving up is not an option – stick to the plan.
This is something I expected to hear along the way in this session. I know it is very real but that’s also why we run this series; give other women courage and knowledge about fellow women going through the same, plus those that have overcome.
Please tell us about what inspires you irrespective of the negativity around you
It is being rooted in my faith and knowing that there is a bigger plan for me to be something. I know my story could help someone else. That keeps me going. I have to point out that over-dwelling on this is another slippery slope that we need to be careful about, lest we start seeing ourselves as demi-gods. It should only be a reminder to keep you pushing.
Another source of inspiration are the many women who have walked this path before me; the older women, our aunties and our moms. Those people are still open to trying out new things, even after retiring.
Lastly, when I looked back at the journey I have walked, I am always aiming to give back. With Watoto it was to their specific cause, the same with Fenix, now in academia. I keep pushing so that what I give back is of much value to the people benefiting. We can all benefit from each other! This lie that we are all the same is a big lie – the way Winnie perceives a problem and develops a solution is different from the way Kirabo does! I wish we could all just learn to mix our colours and form that beautiful rainbow, the world will be a slightly better place.
I know you have mentioned some of your most prestigious moments through your journey, but, are there other things you would like us to celebrate with you?
On top of what I have mentioned before, I received a Grace Hopper scholarship to attend one of the conferences in 2018.
I was also awarded a FLIP fellowship, which is a program to diversify academia in specific universities.
I had an opportunity to speak at Women in Data Science (WiDS) at the beginning of 2020. it was an opportunity the someone passed on to me – and that’s the thing, right! People should know that if you have the opportunity to pay something forward, do it! This is a friend who always challenges me! She was supposed to speak at an event but couldn’t make it, so she gave in my name, can you imagine! It was at Stanford!
A little earlier, I was also part of panels for LeO Africa Economic Forum and Youth Connekt at Transform Africa Summit. Just know I have been part of platforms that overwhelm me. I remember I got to share about how I had failed high school and there I was going to pursue a PhD in the US! This changed the direction of conversation to how youth shouldn’t give up, irrespective of their failures.
If it has nothing to do with Tech, who is Kirabo outside work?
Basically who am I on Saturday, right?
I love a lot of things and I have learned to be okay with that. You know most people are specific about their likes and me, there’s just a lot! I love crotchet, making scarfs and headwraps, I love reading and swimming – if I can combine those 2 I would do it, haha. I am currently doing a pastry tour, that means I love eating. If I can eat with people I like, that’s even better. I enjoy reading stories about our history and Biblical history. I have been doing some graduate theology courses from the Bible Project because the way they bring out the history is so fascinating to me. I REALLY love my sister’s babies, I know I spoil them too much but to my excuse, it’s because of love. I love family; I love my family.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Do I? Hhmm, I don’t think I do really. I only have bible verses and the best at the moment is Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”.
What advice would you give to a young girl in STEM?
I would first of all tell them not to discount where they come from. Let no one look-down on your history or where you come from because that is what makes you unique. All that influences how you see the world and you can use that for the good.
I would also say, “don’t let the outside voices drown your dream”. That’s something I am continually learning even to this day. There’s a place for identifying who is on your team and who isn’t. Once you do, learn to cultivate the ones on your team. There’s always going to be external voices that doubt you and are negative of you. Amidst all that, there should be voices that remind you of your greatness.
Think of it this way, each of us has a thumbprint. Now your perspective is your thumbprint in the world; it is unique and necessary for people to know your ideas. I recently read something on Instagram – might be a quote, I don’t know, haha. It read, “Speak up, even when your voice shakes”. I don’t know if you know that feeling, but even then, speak up! Do it anyway! When you feel like “banange God, what am I doing here?”, just remember my story; I had so many “banange God, what am I doing here”’s but I made it through those moments. If I could do it, you can as well. .
Thank you so so much, Kirabo for such a beautiful time. I hadn’t laughed this hard in a long time! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. I wish you all the best with the final parts of your PhD.