Women with a passion for IT discover a path to careers in Kenya through the Women In Technology (WIT) Academy, a partnership between Safaricom and Cisco. The 3-month program prepares for information technology (IT) careers through job shadowing and mentoring.
Eva Ngugi had what it takes for a technology career: a degree in business information technology, a Cisco CCNA certification, and a goal to become a network administrator. Yet, she wondered how she would overcome stereotypes that women are not network engineers in Kenya. Joanne Orech earned her bachelor’s degree of science in information technology in 2013, then pursued a CCNA as she began to apply for jobs. Then they discovered Safaricom through the WIT Academy.
Kenya needs a pipeline of qualified women to compete in the global digital economy and help meet the expected shortage of 700,000 IT workers worldwide. Safaricom is a place where they can excel, but women in IT do not know about it. Half of Safaricom’s employees are women, yet they make up only 15% of the company’s IT workforce. The fact that more women did not make it through the interview process for IT jobs was a problem for the growing communications company.
“Kenya is a patriarchic society,” said Jacqueline (Jaki) Mebur, senior coordinator for planning at Safaricom. “It’s hard to find organizations like Safaricom where women are encouraged to speak out and be heard. We need to make more women in IT aware of our culture.”
When the company reviewed their interview process, they found that women with IT-related degrees dropped out due to lack confidence and hands-on experience. “We wanted to develop a program to support women in the workplace without changing who they are,” said Jaki. “We wanted to help them bring the qualities and values of being a woman to succeed in the workplace.”
Safaricom partnered with Cisco to launch the WIT Academy. The 3-month internship inspires women to stay in IT by bringing them into the Safaricom workplace to develop hands-on skills. They meet weekly with the Cisco Connected Women employee resource organization to learn about a range of soft skills—from working with a team to interviewing and CV writing to work/life balance.
Cisco Networking Academy instructors encouraged top students like Eva and Joanne to apply to the WIT Academy. A written application, qualifying exam, and oral assessment identified candidates with both technical skill and leadership potential. In 2014, 33 female students from universities and technical colleges across Kenya became the first WIT Academy interns.
From Monday to Thursday, the women apprenticed at Safaricom, shadowing a systems engineer to gain hands-on work and customer service experience. “When I joined the program, I thought it would be more like other internships, assisting with office work,” said Joanne Orech, “but the knowledge and skills I got exceeded my expectation. By the time the internship came to an end, I was very confident with myself and sure of what I wanted with regards with my career.”
The interns work as a team to plan and implement projects for Safaricom. Interns who need to boost their IT skills receive Cisco CCNA training. Weekly meetings track their progress both mentally and emotionally.
Eva quickly proved her expertise to her sponsor and eventually worked solo on integrations at client sites. She said: “It gave me an extra boost of confidence in my abilities as a female engineer working under the Customer Integration Team.”
On Fridays, the interns meet with members of Cisco Connected Women via the Cisco TelePresence solution. Cisco women from Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain and other parts of the world mentor the women in effective leadership, work/life balance, and interview skills.
“They show us that the struggles we face are the same everywhere,” said Jaki. “Most working women have families and careers. They have to stretch themselves thin.”
“The sessions were about interpersonal skill development, which are key in the workplace,” recalls Eva. “They were seemingly basic lessons, yet very important to the development of character and behaviour especially because of the different personalities in the place of work.”
The majority of interns returned to university to complete their degrees with newfound confidence. One of the top students in the first group, Wendy Akola Ombima, believes the program will help her find employment after she graduates in 2015: “My confidence levels have clearly escalated, my organization skills have improved for the better, and I am definitely much better at communicating with persons at different ranks.”
The 6 women who had completed their degrees became Safaricom employees or launched their IT careers with other companies. “The aim is not only to increase the number of women employed in technology for Safaricom,” said Jaki, “but also in other companies in the industry.”
“Before the program I was not so confident with myself,” said Joanne, now providing IT core banking system support as an employee of Jamii Bora Bank Limited. “Just one week after the internship, I went for an interview and I aced it. My CV was polished as well thanks to the training I got on CV writing. The internship is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
After she completed the internship, Eva successfully interviewed with 3 companies and accepted a position as a Network Operations Center engineer at Equity Bank, a leading bank in Kenya. She is pursuing her MBA in management information systems. One day, she envisions leading the technology department in a large organization with a beautiful family. She says: “Who says I can’t have it all?”