Tabitha Kavyu: Figuring it out.
By Mwaniki Nyaga, KamiLimu Management Committee Member
Earlier this year, I posited that one of the key components of a strong community is an environment where members feel welcome to share their questions, knowledge, and ideas. I met Tabitha two years ago when she joined KamiLimu’s fourth cohort as a mentee. It was soon revealed to me that we were both Computer Science students at the University of Nairobi’s School of Computing and Informatics. Her laissez-faire attitude to the small day-to-day stresses of student life was juxtaposed by her fervour for getting people in the tech community together in a room.
Tabitha Kavyu is a creator of welcoming environments who adorns many hats: she is a final year Computer Science student; a Moringa School Campus Ambassador; and a Crowdsource by Google Influencer. She is motivated by a desire to give back to the community, use her skills to meet with like-minded people, and have fun while doing so. She is actively involved as an events organizer with GDG (Google Developer Groups) Nairobi and volunteers as a mentor at DSC (Developer Student Club) University of Nairobi, having served as its preceding DSC Lead. She attributes her achievements to one of KamiLimu’s pillars, community engagement, which she took interest in while a mentee in 2019.
What do you wish you knew about Computer Science a few years ago when you started that you know now?
I feel when you get more exposed to the tech community, you realise there is more to tech than the Computer Science we learn in class. Initially, when I joined university, I thought I’d be learning all this programming, especially hacking because that’s mostly what we see about computers in movies. But you go to class and there is less code, more theory. And as you progress you feel like that’s when you’re going to learn more coding but then you get into other semester courses like Organisations and Management or ICTs and Society. In school, the emphasis is mostly on the theoretical aspects of the science, not the actual languages and frameworks used in the industry. I had a friend of mine who thought our exams are like practical assessments and that we code during exams!
What did this discovery make you think about the course?
In the first year, it wasn’t something I was aware of. I thought these were foundations that would build up into the hooded hacker archetype I had in my mind. However, we would have meetups and workshops at the SCI (University of Nairobi’s School of Computing & Informatics) labs and the guest speakers would be talking about technologies like Firebase or Github, and illustrate a lot of command-line work (which is what I’d thought was hacking all along). I used to float so much at the meetups, but I kept going back thinking that maybe someday I would figure it out. From that community exposure, I got to know that there are actually more practical aspects that one needs to learn on their own outside the classroom.
So you came into Computer Science wanting to be a programmer, exclusively?
How I chose to do Computer Science is interesting. A friend of mine asked me the question — what I would want to be when I grow up. I wasn’t actually sure what I wanted to be. He said he wanted to do Computer Science when he goes to university, and this statement resonated with me. I was studying Computer Studies in secondary school at the time, and as I loved the subject, I thought I’d just figure it out along the way. I didn’t have consistent exposure to computers when I was younger, so I never had that innate passion that some would say drove them into studying the course.
So what has been the value of the classroom in your Computer Science experience thus far?
At some point, I started to wonder why we were doing all this if what is needed in the industry is your skill in a particular language or technology. Regardless, I still knew I had to finish school first. It’s something my father has instilled in me over the years. There are people who actually quit and go find these skills elsewhere, but for me, my mind has always been programmed to see one thing to its logical conclusion. There’s also this untrue perception that what we learn in school is really not important. From my talks with people based on their interview experiences, I appreciate CS concepts such as data structures. I also believe that a competent IT practitioner should also possess skills such as ICT Project Management, which covers concepts like requirements scoping and project scheduling. Most CS curricula cover this subject, which gives students an edge over self-taught coders.
You recently won a scholarship to attend 2020’s GHC (Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing). What was the application process like?
I learnt about GHC through KamiLimu, where we celebrated past mentees who’d won the scholarship. At KamiLimu, you are always encouraged to apply for things, not just for the personal experience of putting an application together but to improve yourself and to learn to handle rejection. I had two conflicting voices in me before applying: Do I really need to apply? Why do I think that I’m capable of doing this? At the same time, I had this other voice telling me that I am equipped to apply based on the scholarship-writing lessons we had covered at KamiLimu, where I also had access to a team of reviewers. The fact that mentees from earlier cohorts had actually done the application successfully was also a significant motivator. I reached out to one of the previous winners and she helped me to craft my essays. Just so you know, I never saw this win coming. The first mail was a notification on my being white-listed. I didn’t really think much about it. The following day, however, my scholarship status had changed to selected! How everyone took the news was very exciting. I had wanted to downplay it but getting those reactions pushed away the feelings from the negative voices in my head and allowed me to embrace it: “This is me. I actually got it on my first try.”
What has your involvement in the tech community taught you about life and yourself?
KamiLimu really shaped the person that I am today. It is through one of its pillars, Community Involvement, that I got to volunteer for events where I learned of some of these communities. The confidence to apply for the DSC (Developer Student Club) Lead role came from the kind of immersion I got from volunteering, which introduced new networks and a sense of comfort to me. I find joy in volunteering and helping people. At the start of my DSC Lead Role, I felt like I didn’t really have the technical knowledge, and I wondered how I would be able to do it. But I came to see that it’s more about a willingness to lead people in the same direction I’d like to go. As the community learned from experts in a topic, I also learned. And this way, I could practice what I preach and give back from a point of understanding. I have this drive now to learn new technologies so that by the time I graduate, I actually have tangible skills that I can lend to the ecosystem. The community has taught me the value of growth in learning.
How has this new learning informed what excellence is to you?
What did you do lately that you felt made a difference in the world?
During this pandemic period, I’ve been speaking a lot. I remember my first speaking engagement this year was in Nigeria, at the Open Source Festival in February. I met a lot of new people who commended me on my speaking skills. When I came back, I started getting requests to speak about developer communities, building networks, and Crowdsource by Google. But what I’ve mostly been speaking about is impostor syndrome because of the relatability and engagement it gets from most audiences. I first learnt about the condition at KamiLimu, where we were introduced to ways to identify and manage its effects. Upon my graduation from the program, I saw it fit to pass that knowledge to the communities with which I’m involved. I’m really happy about that because I believe change all starts with one single person.
That is touching. What are you looking forward to doing or learning in life over the next year?