Kanke Ishaku Software Engineer
How did you find your university experience - were you a part of any societies while you were there?
My university experience was the best. On my courses at uni, I was actually the only woman. I thoroughly appreciated the range of modules that were part of the degree; you experience everything from programming to computer networks to security to cryptography. It really helps you get an idea of what area of computing you want to specialise in when you graduate. Studying at the university itself was an amazing experience; it was really big, with an incredible library, and it was located next to Glapsides beach. In terms of societies, there was the Computing & Engineering society which was for students from the various sectors of the computing department who met once a month to mingle and share presentations on what we thought was interesting. We also met to talk about what we were working on in our projects and dissertations, and to generally share knowledge. Occasionally, we organised competitions or hosted movie nights. I worked a little bit in the computer labs as an assistant, so that when students came into the labs for practical sessions, myself and other assistants were available to help set up equipment. Outside of the computing department, I was involved in the African society because of my Nigerian heritage.
What do you consider to be the best part of your job as a software engineer?
Personally, I find that I have a skillset that I can use anywhere in the world. I can always use the same skillset, whether I’m in the UK, the US or anywhere else in the world, and there is always something new and exciting coming out every day that I can learn and add to my skillset. There is a creative side to it as well: someone comes to you and says, “This is my problem, find a way to fix it.” You have the option of fixing it however you desire. You are able to be creative and do your own thing and just be yourself, as opposed to jobs where there is a set way of doing the job and any variation is considered incorrect. Another perk is that my job allows me to work from wherever I like; we have a number of remote workers that work from all over Europe, so it’s nice to know that I have that freedom. It really is a global career.
It sounds like you have to constantly adapt to keep up with all of the new technology and changes in IT, which is both exciting and challenging. What would you say is the biggest challenge that you have had to face throughout your professional career?
I think the biggest challenge that I faced was the sexism I experienced at the very beginning, right after I transitioned from university to the professional workplace. I had a fellow work colleague approach me and ask: “Why are you in this career? This is the most horrible career for a woman to be in, especially as you’re going to have kids. If I were your husband, I will never allow you to do this type of profession.” I find that I always have to prove myself. On more than one occasion I’ve had someone say to me, “For a woman, you’re a good coder.” However, it’s not a challenge for me anymore, simply because I don’t care. I’ve gotten to that point where I can say I don't necessarily care about your opinion, and when I go to an organisation, the attitude is normal. As your career builds up, you will face other challenges like leadership positions. Traditionally, male teams have always been led by male managers, so it’s a new challenge to break that circle and be the leader of a team as a female.
Another challenge has been confidence when going for a new career, in terms of negotiating what you feel like you deserve. In the past I’ve always undersold myself simply because I didn’t have anyone to mentor me - I didn’t really know how the industry worked. In my experience, guys have always had the whole ‘bonding in the pub’ thing, and they assume that just because you’re a woman, you have different interests - you’re almost like an outsider. It’s really quite difficult to be part of that circle and have that mutual respect when asking someone to complete a task. So I think that was a problem, the confidence and everything that comes with being a professional in the industry. The other little challenges are things like programming and keeping up with changing technologies, which can be very difficult in the beginning, but after two to three years, if a new technology is released, it can literally take you a week to pick up. You just read the documentation and get up to speed and do a good job. Now I think my challenge is breaking that barrier moving from where I am now to a more senior position as a woman.
It’s awful that the unconscious, and sometimes conscious, bias that comes with working in a male-orientated technology sector can make women feel like outsiders, perhaps making us more reluctant to go into that kind of industry. It’s unbelievable that in this century we are still experiencing this level of sexism.
Honestly, it has gotten better. I think it was mostly earlier in my career that I struggled, because there’s not so many women when you start and you’re already afraid. It’s more of a confidence thing. When I got into the industry, I found that I was able to grow a thick skin and, at the end of the day, this is what I want to do and what I enjoy, so I see no reason why I should be treated this way. Any time I experience something similar, I call that person out and ask them whether they are treating me differently because of my gender. You can see that realisation and that 'Oh' expression on their face. If you don't feel comfortable in any situation, it's best to address it regardless of whatever it is that’s being addressed. I had an interview once where a guy asked me my age and I didn't see the necessity as they don’t legally have to know that. But he did it in a sly way - he told me that the interview was over, but while we were still sitting there how old was I? Obviously I'm not stupid, I knew he asked for my age because he was thinking, ‘She’s getting older. She might want to settle down and tell us she’s pregnant in the middle of a project.' I did call him out - I said, “I'm not quite sure why you're asking for my age, as far as I'm aware it's illegal. Are you worried that I might get pregnant in the middle of a project?” I kind of laughed to make it easy and lighthearted, but you could see the shame and realisation on his face. He apologised straight away and said, “I'm really sorry, that was not my intention.” But even if it was, he wouldn't admit it. Calling people out forces them to realise that they are being sexist, regardless of whether it was intentional. Sometimes you need to make people more aware of the things they say and how they interview people because some people are genuinely clueless and ignorant about such things.
Yes, I completely agree. Moving on to IT in general - do you think that more women should be learning how to code, even if they're not getting a degree in computer science? For example, I'm doing English Literature at university - do you think that I should be teaching myself how to code alongside my studies?
Absolutely, I think that everyone should be learning how to code and how to do the most basic programming. And the reason why is because, unfortunately, it's the job of the future. We're moving into a very digital age where everything involves computers. My dad doesn't know how to use a computer and he struggles; it's a huge disadvantage for him because now everybody uses iPads, touchscreen phones and computers, and he feels left behind. In the next fifteen years, it'll be so exciting to see how far we've come technology-wise and it will be a requirement for someone to be able to whip up a quick website. It will no longer be known how to type or how to use an iPad or how to use Word and Excel - it will be much more than that. I would definitely push to just know the most basic programming and you know you're set to go. Eventually certain jobs will be phased out and computers will replace them. It's sad and unfortunate, but when that change comes, it would be to your disadvantage not to have that kind of skillset. With it, if you’re ever made redundant, you can always pick up a technical job. Women in particular need to start learning to code as the world moves further and further into a digital stage in society and men who do the majority of computer science degrees will be at the top - they're going to be the leaders, the managers. This is the only way we can bridge the gap: by picking up these skills, so that there is a fair percentage of women in the industry at top positions representing us.
What languages would you advise coding beginners should learn?
What resources would you recommend for someone looking to start learning how to code?
Personally, I would definitely advise using Codebar.io, I sometimes coach there myself. They give you free workshops and free training. The beautiful thing about it is that it's one-on-one, so they pair you with a coach that’s an expert in the subject matter and you work on exercises, tutorials or workshops. If you get stuck, you can ask them - that’s the best way to learn a language. It's not easy for beginners to just watch Youtube tutorials and work on online exercises. It's boring, and when you get stuck it can be very discouraging. When you have someone sitting next to you and you're doing it together, you’re more likely to remember what’s right and what’s wrong. But there’s so many different resources out there - there's Codecademy, there's obviously Ladies Who Code, Women Who Code. There's Learn Software Development, where I teach beginner Java classes. Start with www.meetup.com, check meetups, there's so many depending on what exactly you want to learn, including all the hobbies you've never heard of. These options are all free. In terms of women-only classes, I personally would advise you don’t always gravitate towards them. Start with them, but also start attending more mixed classes to improve your confidence because the reality is that you're going to be working in a mixed force.
So many resources! Finally, a couple of more questions about you - which women in the world personally inspire you?
I do have a few, and this is so cliché, but I think this first one would be Beyoncê. She's so young and she's achieved so much, she’s just inspiring every time I see her. I read somewhere that Beyoncê has the same hours that we do. When I read stuff like that, I think, ‘Well, she's achieved all of this in the same amount of time that I work. Why am I not pushing myself to do more?’ I listened to Destiny's Child growing up, so it's just natural that I look up to her. Condoleezza Rice as well - she was in a male-dominated industry of politics and the White House and was able to make an impact. In terms of women in tech, it wouldn’t be someone you know as she is a woman I worked with and was a personal mentor to me, although she doesnt know this yet! She's been amazing, years ahead of me and she's been through that journey. Any time I have any problems and need to talk, any time I need to negotiate, I just go straight to her. Finally, the first woman programmer Grace Hopper - she paved the way for all of us. It’s so exciting how she was able to stand out, especially at the time and her generation and how it was almost impossible. I wish that she'd gotten more recognition and we spoke about her as much as we spoke about Charles Babbage in our history of computers lessons. Those are a few women that I look up to, both dead and alive.
What is the one piece of advice that you've picked up over your professional life that can apply to any career and that you would like to pass on?
Your job is just a means to an end, so always find other things that you're interested in that can compliment your entire brand. You as a person are a brand, regardless of whatever career you're in. So find ways to build yourself and better your brand. In my case, I do a lot of hackathons, because I enjoy it and it helps me. Through them, I’ve been able to make amazing contacts and people approach me for work and company opportunities. Know how to sell yourself and be very aware of the value you bring. And that's how you can progress and pick up opportunities because you know who you are. My other piece of advice is forget that you're a woman. Forget that you even have a gender. Pretend that you're neutral when building your brand, never listen to what people say. Only listen to your instincts, believe in yourself and have fun. You know, life is really short. I think that if you are unhappy somewhere, in an organisation, in a company, in a group, just leave - it's not worth it at all. There are always opportunities. Women now have all these organisations such as Ladies Who Code etc and I see a lot of women who still lag behind in using their contacts. Take advantage of every opportunity and just be a good person, because good things always follow good people. For a professional woman, be fair, confident and believe in yourself.
Interview by Isabella Ford
What did we learn from Kanke?
Working in IT is far more creative than you think – you are finding solutions to problems in any way you want, there's no right way to complete a job
Want to be able to work anywhere in the world? IT is for you - as Kanke says, "It really is a global career"
Every woman should learn some coding basics, no matter what career you're in - it gives you a skillset you can use for the rest of your life, especially as we are moving into a technological age
If you ever feel you are being differently because of your gender, speak up. Kanke points out that sometimes people don't even realise that they're being biased, sometimes you have to alert them to their mistake
When building your 'brand' - the person you want to be and present to other people - forget that you're a woman. Don't let stereotypes and conventions get in the way of building yourself as a human being - be true to your character.
What do you like, what do you not like, what was useful, what should we have asked instead? Please give us your feedback
"Women in particular need to start learning to code as the world moves further and further into a digital stage in society and men who do the majority of computer science degrees will be at the top”
UK company Deloitte predicts that less than 25% of IT jobs will be held by women by the end of 2016 - this is an issue that needs addressing. Kanke Ishaku is here to answer all questions computer-science-related. Read our interview below to learn more about a career in IT and the fantastic perks it has to offer.
Dansol High School, Lagos, Nigeria
Subjects: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths, Further Maths, Computer Science, French, Home Economics, Yoruba
Eastern Mediterranean University, Cyprus
Degree: BSc Information Technology
University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, UK
Master’s: Software Engineering
Intern - Orange Computers Limited, Cyprus
Developer/Application Manager - Stanbic IBTC, Lagos, Nigeria
Part-time Retail Advisor - Vodafone UK
CQ5/Java Consultant - Investec, London, UK
CQ5/Java Consultant - MRM Meteorite, London, UK
Software Engineer - AlchemyTec, London, UK