There are drinks laid out on the table in front of me and a sense of excitement in the air as these ladies make their way towards me. I’m kidding, it’s impossible to share refreshments over google meet. But the excitement of sharing a moment, albeit virtual, with these amazing Nigerian women in tech was palpable through the phone speakers. When we said our first hellos, we had no idea where this conversation would take us.
Tomi Adesina joins me first. She exudes friendly energy and laughs easily. Tomi works in the financial department of the Nigerian fintech company Paystack. According to her, after hearing about the Company from 3 different people, she decided to schedule an interview, and eventually landed the job. Being an actual “I Just Got Back”, Tomi hustled to find the one thing she would eventually become passionate about in Nigeria, tech.
Tomi, your story is so interesting. People literally had to convince you to join the company. How did you reconcile where you are coming from with tech and what was the defining moment for you?
I was studying economics at the University of Ibadan before I left to study at African leadership University (ALU) in Mauritius. The decision to go to ALU was because I was just tired of school. I had a moment where I was like “OMG, I’m going to be a grade-A student, then I’m going to graduate, then I’m going to do NYSC and get married and like be useless with my life and hate my job forever” and I was like “yeah no, thanks.”
So, I got accepted into ALU to study business management. I was in school to flex. We had classes for 8 hours a week and then the rest of it was peer group, self-work and working with companies. Joining Paystack was easy because it felt similar to what I had done in the past 4 years leading to that time.
At the time when I met with the Paystack people, I also had other significantly competitive offers. So, the defining moment was having different offers. There were even some that were going to pay much more than Paystack because they were full-time roles. The way I thought about it was that I am this person who feels like I don’t have any particular thing I can boast about and say “I’m super capable of doing this”, and my mandate to myself was to just stick with something and do it. I never wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or anything that people wanted to be.
Why Paystack in particular?
So, I asked myself “what do I want to learn right now?” With the other roles, I knew I was just going to throw myself into them, they were not going to train me per se. I was going to have to go in and hustle my learning out of the industry. With Paystack, it was clear that there would be very intentional effort into making sure that everybody is growing. It is also very fundamental to the growth of financial infrastructure in Nigeria and Africa and I was like “yeah, this is the industry for me”.
So, these other offers you had…
Yeah, there were significantly higher offers, that’s why I knew I just had to go into Paystack and pour myself. I am a naturally self-driven person. I know that I always figure stuff out when I get into it.
That is an interesting perspective especially for someone fresh out of school. Fresh out of Uni is typically equal to desperate.
I think at the time, I wasn’t desperate. So while I was in school, the school was good money. You can imagine, It was outside Nigeria so I’m very sure I earned way above most people who are in that job field in Nigeria. I wasn’t thinking about money when I decided to come and work in Lagos. Deciding to come to Lagos to work was because I had gotten other offers in London and South Africa but didn’t get a visa so I was like “God wants me to do NYSC ”. I wasn’t looking for money, it was like I wanted to learn this skill and I took it very personally because I really appreciate people who can say “I know how to do this and I really wanted that for myself.
Do you think it helped that you didn’t have the pressure of having a future ambition? Did this give you more clarity?
I guess being passionate about my own growth helped. It’s a natural thing for me. I may not have the industry skills but once I get in, I become passionate and all about how much I can grow. I know how this sounds. Sometimes I’m talking to some people and they say “Tomi, you have first-class problems, what do you mean you don’t know how to choose?” Even in the meeting with Paystack, I didn’t have the pressure of OMG THEY MAY NOT CHOOSE ME! Because it didn’t matter. To me, it was just another excellent engagement. So, it was easy to feel secure in myself because desperation makes you just want to take anything and everything.
Cynthia Ugwudike brought the fun to our little rendezvous. She is a self-taught freelance UX designer who got into the tech space in 2020 and is currently interning at Risevest. Being a freelance designer comes with its highs and lows, and Cynthia communicates these experiences to us in her passionate, yet humorous tone.
Cynthia, how did you get into tech?
For me, at the time, I had zero money on my hand and I was learning UI design because my friends suggested I do it. Then, someone reached out to my friend that they needed a quick app design. My friend told me and I was like “okay, let’s do this.” The money was not a lot, it was 10 grand. When I was done, and they gave me the money, I was like “hmm….this is lowkey the biggest money I’ve ever had in my life” and it was really fun doing it so that’s when I got into it.
Was there a defining moment for you?
So I didn’t go to the university, for personal reasons. Before that first job, I was very into animations and wanted to do artsy stuff but I was trying to do everything at the same time and it wasn’t working out. After I got the 10k, I watched a youtube video where the designer was making animations with UI/UX design and that was a defining moment because I was like “OKAY! I CAN DO ANIMATIONS WITH FIGMA AND STUFF!” I enjoy storytelling so UX design is the sweet spot for all the things I love to do; tech, animations, design. Since then, I started chasing internships and getting more serious and spending more money investing in courses. That was the defining moment: realizing that I could make money and have fun while I was working. It was perfect.
You started out with that first 10k that sort of fell into your laps. Was it easy to get more jobs or did you suffer for a little bit?
Omo, I’m still suffering let me not lie to you. I’m still struggling to get jobs. Throughout May, I did not get any freelance opportunities and the only reason I’m still alive is that I am currently interning at Risevest and they pay their interns quite well. In April, I had like 3 freelance jobs, all at the same time and made some money; that’s also one of the reasons I’m still alive. The worst part of freelancing is that there are so many ups and downs – some months are good and some months are bad.
So, would you consider a 9-5 or do you still feel like freelancing is your thing?
I actually think 9-5 is perfect for me but I would also like to do freelancing on the side. 9-5 has security. At least, you know if you put in the work, by the end of the month, you are getting paid. But for freelancing, there are better opportunities for the things I want to do like website design. A lot of 9-5 that are available currently for me are products that have already been made and just need maintenance like redesigns. They are not necessarily things that I like to do but I can do them. If I get an agency opportunity, I would probably not have freelancing work to do because I’d be having too much fun working on different projects every other week.
Fiyin Akinsiku’s awareness was immediately inspiring. She is a self-taught Junior backend engineer at Flutterwave who despite her childhood dreams of becoming a computer engineer, obeyed her parents wishes to study Microbiology at the University. However, her interest in tech persisted and this interest has now blossomed into a full career for her.
Fiyin, I feel like you narrowly escaped Nigerian parenting. You studied what they wanted but you are doing what you always wanted.
See, I don’t hold it against my parents because I know that every decision they made so far has been because they had my best interest. At the time, they were actually kind of right because everybody was talking about being a doctor so they just felt that that would be the best way to set me up for life even if they couldn’t help me. At the point of entering University, I was over it because I waited a while. My name did not come out on the admission list so I was already over the whole thing like “Let me just do this thing and get it over with”. So far, my parents have been very supportive. Sometimes they even laugh to themselves and say “See, the computer science she wanted to study, now that’s what she is doing and she is making this much money”.
Even when I finally got a training opportunity last year, it wasn’t a paid one. I had to go to the workspace and I wasn’t earning any salary at that point, and my parents were supporting me. They were very supportive and that is why I don’t hold anything against them
Was there a defining moment when you just knew this was the right career path for you?
When I was done with NYSC, I couldn’t get a job on time. Microbiology people in Nigeria are really suffering but that is another story for another day. So when I finished, I couldn’t get a job on time, and I was working with my dad. That was when I had enough time to focus on learning programming.
I’m not sure I had a particular moment because I was really less busy for a very long time so I had a lot of time on my hands. I think it was the “joblessness” that was the deciding factor for me. There was no particular “I think tech is my thing” moment. I just had enough time on my hand and my interest just grew.
So, if you had gotten a job out of school or an MBA, you would probably not have been in tech right now?
The masters I even applied for was for bioinformatics because I was trying to combine computer science with microbiology. So, I would probably still have been in Tech, just not fully like I currently am.
Nice! How has your journey in tech been so far?
It was scary and it was stressful. When I started in 2019, in my mind I was like “At this age, I’m just starting programming. Something that people abroad have learnt in primary school and that is what I just want to start learning as a graduate” but I realized that if I don’t start now, in the next 5 years, I’m still going to be thinking about starting and then by then, I still won’t have any of the skills that I currently have. My personal motivation in life is that no matter what it is, no matter how scared I am, if I am sure of what I want to get at the end of it, I am going to go into it. Last last, I will die or something and that’s the end, there is no problem. So, I just decided to go into it afraid.
Good for you!
Yeah. Another thing that helped me was my online community. I am very active on Twitter, so there was this challenge people in tech do called #100daysofcode, I did it twice. I have some friends that are software engineers so if I had any issues with what I was working on, I could reach out to them. There were some times that I skipped some days and my friend was like “Ah Fiyin, come back. You’re saying today is day 93, but yesterday was day 90. Where are the remaining 2 days?” Everybody was rooting for me, even people I did not know. That’s one thing I always emphasize when someone reaches out to me to say they want to go into tech and don’t know how to start. I tell them “find people that can support you.” Find a community because it can be very daunting if you’re doing it alone and you’re not seeing any progress or it looks like you are not getting any reward for what you are doing. But when you have people around you that are encouraging you to just keep trying or you are seeing other people that have gone through what you are currently going through, it can be very encouraging.
I want to talk about the specific experience you all have as young women in tech. I know that in the older generation, you won’t find a lot of women in tech like in the younger generation but how has it been so far? I’m hoping it’s not as lonely as those at the top and you don’t experience brutal sexism? Tomi, please go first
So, the first thing that came to mind was that this question within the gender-specific context does not mean much to me because I work in Paystack. You know, Paystack is a world-class environment. I don’t have any weird moments working as a woman in my company but then I would say that because my work requires me to interact with 3rd parties, our partners, and we don’t always have the same mindset. So, in that sense, being young (because I’m 22), especially as we have now become mostly remote, they usually think this is some older woman so I feel there is some sort of respect they try to show. But, when they realize how young I am, I can sense that there might be some changes. I’m very comfortable enough to assert myself if I feel the need to. I’ve seen cases where people just naturally assume I might be a guy based on the tone of my message but besides that, I don’t have any unique experience. It has been a good work culture for me.
Cynthia, what about you?
As a UX designer, UX designers are already seen as doing less work compared to programming, front-end development, etc. People think it does not take so much time. A lot of people don’t value the work that designers do and this is very ironic. They think they can do it but they can’t. So it is a funny situation and the worst part about this devaluation is that they think it is more suited for females.
You’ll hear things like “you are a UX designer? Eh! Na una work be that” as per I am a woman so I am more inclined to do UX design especially if I’m a new person. When I started out in tech, I actually dabbled into programming for a few months before I dabbled out. At the time, I was thinking of what to do and people kept suggesting UX design for me because they felt that UX design was more suitable for females, they thought it had less work and less problem-solving.
There was one time a friend and I by coincidence were talking to the same client and we found out that the client was trying to lowball me. I asked for the same price that my friend was asking for but they kept on talking to me like I didn’t deserve that amount of money. But they were more understanding of him when he was speaking about how much he wanted – the same level of experience, the same everything – but the way we were spoken to was really different.
There is currently a huge boom for wanting females in the tech industry but the issue I have with it is the fact that most of the time, the boom is for entry-level. People say “let’s get these people earned up” but we are not even in the room that matters, we are outside, putting our ears to the wall. As a designer, speaking from my experience, you stay at the entry-level for a long time because people are less likely to give you opportunities even though they say that they are more inclined to females. I personally feel that this boom is performative because it is mostly entry-level. After my entry-level what else am I going for? Am I not going to move up from here? Am I going to stay at this level forever? So yeah, that is my sexism issue with the tech industry.
I’m still relatively new in the tech space. Regarding sexism – well, I’ve been trying to avoid using the word sexism – but for me, it has been internalized. For example, where I currently work, in the Flutterwave backend engineering team, I’m the only lady and I was surprised because we are up to 17, so it was a lot of mixed feelings for me. It was the same situation at my former place of employment. I have a love-hate relationship with roles that are targeted towards women. Like I get it. I understand that you are trying to help people that have been disadvantaged move faster but it makes me question myself like “are you actually giving me this because you think I’m qualified?” Where I am now, I was wondering, “we are 17, did they give this to me just so that they have a lady on the team?” I don’t know if that is okay to say.
It is what you are feeling and it is valid
At Flutterwave, I don’t feel like I am treated differently. I don’t feel like anybody is trying to pamper me or act like “oh she is the lady in our midst” It is like I’m just another member of the team so it’s one thing I had in mind that I have to conquer this thought of feeling special because I keep asking myself “why are you feeling special? What is so special about it? You are not different!”
I don’t like saying this because it sounds somehow but it is what I actually feel. I had to write it in a note on my mac like “Yes, you did the work and that is why you got it. There is nothing special in the fact that you are the only girl here.” I have to keep reminding myself to not put myself on this pedestal of being the only girl in Flutterwave backend engineering. From secondary school, I was used to thinking of engineering as an all-boys affair so if you are a girl in that space, there is something special about you. So most of my experiences are personal battles.
I understand. It is not something that is always direct, it is subtle social conditioning and it can go from unlearning that being the only woman doesn’t make you special to having imposter syndrome because you are the only woman
(Fiyin’s voice sounds laden with emotion)
Yes, imposter syndrome is something I constantly struggle with. I keep asking “why am I here?” It puts me in constant competition because everybody else is male so I am constantly thinking “These people are probably better than me” So, with every achievement I make, I’m like YES!I DID BETTER THAN THEM!
Talking to other women in tech might help
Yes, that actually helped. I remember when I first found out about Ada, the founder of SheCodesAfrica. Funny thing is, Ada was also studying microbiology. Maybe that was even my defining moment honestly because I was like if the COO of SheCodesAfrica also studied microbiology, there is nothing stopping me again in this life. That’s why I really like what you guys are doing at Document women because it is going to give a lot of people access to see what other women are doing because if I had seen a lot of women in tech, maybe I won’t feel like I am doing something extraordinary or that I am not qualified for it.
Thank you all so much for doing this and sharing your stories with me. I feel like we all just had a mini therapy session.
Tomi, Cynthia, and Fiyin are a part of the over 187 thousand tech professionals in Nigeria and an even smaller category of female tech professionals in Nigeria. Although there is a paucity of relevant data, the Nigerian tech industry is male dominated as only 18% of software developers, the biggest tech profession in the country, are women. It is important for us to celebrate these three women, who are forging ahead in an industry already skewed against them. More importantly, we should listen. These women speak of real issues that demand our attention. Tomi inspires a conversation on dealing with microaggression in the tech industry and asserting oneself. Cynthia struggles with getting freelance opportunities and advancing past the entry-level, confronting the seemingly performative interest of society in having more women in tech. Fiyin wants to see more women like herself and constantly battles with imposter syndrome and the internalized sexism of being “one of the boys.”
As our little rendezvous comes to an end and their voices fade away into the silence of my thoughts, one thing is clear to me. For these three young women, this is only the beginning.