Dr Precious Kaijuka Mwongera on Growth & Career

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Dr Precious K Mwongera  (PM) on Growth & Career.

RK: Precious, it is a pleasure to have you this evening on #360Mentor

PM: Thank you very much for having me and for adding me on the great list of speakers on #360Mentor.

RK: So many people are fascinated by the path you took. I will begin by asking you the question I ask everybody, were you born with a toolbox in your hand?

PM: Definitely I was not.

RK: At what point did you get interested in engineering?

PM: I am not sure but if I am to look back to when I was younger, my main interest was in mathematics. I was the kind that would tell the teacher, we can try another formula to solve the pythagoras theorem 

RK: So you are the people in class who had lugezigezi

PM: No, we were just finishing our school fees

RK: So you’re also the kind of child who, during shopping time counted the change. Right?

PM: Yes. I used to tally up and ace the mental work in class. I am really interested in quick calculations. But I think the engineering interest came in when I was in A level. When I had to pick subjects I picked computing. The idea that I would tell a computer to do something and it does it was, wow for me. I had to come up with a final year project. Once I went to a  polling station and there were so many long lines and a lot of paper yet it had rained. I thought I could build a system and have this done online. I started building it up. I learnt visual basics which is an older form of programming from back in the day and I was able to build an online voting system. I was one of the candidates standing for president.

RK: You rigged it for yourself?

PM: No. I just wanted to see whether it would work. I got all my family to vote in a secret ballot. And I was able to tally the votes in real time. That is where my interest grew. If you believe you can do something, you can build it. At the time I didn’t know it was engineering, I knew it was tooling and software.

RK: Let me take you back to your schooling days. Where did you do your earlier years?

PM: I was in Kampala Parents’ School for all my seven years of primary school and then I went to Namagunga.

RK: You’re one of those.

PM:  What does that mean?

RK: Gungas, I won’t say anything else. I don’t want enemies. But the question I have for you is, were you always academically oriented?

PM: If you ask my brother, he will tell you I would be studying my P3 finals like I had P7 finals. I have always been curious. I have always wondered ‘why’. Why are we doing something? Why are you here? And that is why I liked maths because it has answers, 1+1=2. I struggled with the subjectivity of the other subjects. They were not clear.

RK: So was it this curiosity that drove the investigation?

PM: The curiosity drove me to want to find out how but I also used to ask a lot of questions. I gathered a lot of information from different people to ask questions. And that is one thing that I think really helped me. The more you talk to people, the more you learn. That curiosity and gathering information really helped me to know what opportunities were out there. For example, I knew that while doing my computing project at A level, I would be a software engineer.

RK: In our time, if you went to ask questions, people thought you were disrespectful. For people like me, that always put me off and I feared asking. Were people helpful when you asked? Were they forthcoming?

PM: I think I found the difference earlier on when I was younger. At least before my university. When I was younger, people would say you go and find out when they didn’t have answers. And sometimes things don’t have answers. ‘Like why does a cassette player spin around?’ When I asked such questions, they would just chase me away.

But at university it was appreciated. My lecturers were forthcoming. I still talk to them, they are my friends and we were able to build that relationship. And I think beyond curiosity, I also built relationships which is a good factor of life.

RK: How and why is that important?

PM: Looking at my career, relationships  are so important in a number of different ways.

Even just the knowledge that certain careers exist. That certain opportunities are there. The knowledge that if you have a problem, there is someone you can speak to. Someone who has done it before and solved it. You don’t have to go through that hurdle. And that people work with people. They don’t work with robots much as I build robots. That’s the most important thing I’d say. 

RK: In all these pursuits, did you at any point feel that your gender got in the way of things.

PM: That’s a disturbing question. I will say that sometimes being the only woman or black woman or the youngest  in the room was a challenge but not a limitation. Possibilities are the ones you give yourself. In terms of blocking my aspirations, it did not. I chose to put it on the side. Sometimes it was hard. That’s the truth. From a relational perspective, it is hard. It can be difficult being in those spaces sometimes. But it is not a blocker, no one has stopped you from putting out your best. It was not a blocker but it was difficult.

RK: How do you distinguish between a limitation and a challenge?

PM: I think a limitation is where you are unable to go ahead with the pursuit. For example if a job ad went out calling only 35 year olds and below and you are 40, that is a limitation.

But a challenge is when there is a problem with the global railway and you have to think very hard to try and fix it.

RK: Let me take you back to Namagunga, how did your time there propel you to the place where you finally ended up?

PM: Namagunga was an interesting time. You either love it or hate it.

RK: By the way, it is not unique to a particular school. That is how we related to schools. it didn’t matter whether you loved it or hated it. No matter what the school was.

PM: Exactly. One thing I learnt from Namagunga especially at O’ level was the reading culture. I think it is one which propelled me into going into my education and I am a strong Christian. I went to mass every morning for all my years there.

RK: In terms of your performance as a student, what did that do for you?

PM: In my S4, I studied really hard and became top of the country.

RK: First wait, which country?

PM: Our country Uganda.

RK: Oh wow! What are those things you did as you to get to that level of influence?

PM: I remember S4 vividly because to me, that is the most I have ever read. I don’t even know why I was doing that.

RK: Were you sleeping in the library?

PM: Not really. I was just fixed on the prep hours. I remember whenever prep started I would have my reading plan. I knew I would be reading this or that, and I stuck to it. But I had subjects I really struggled with like literature and history. Knowing that the two were a challenge I had to fix it. I reached out to teachers to help me out. But also focusing on my low points enabled me to find a way of replacing that inability.

RK: Basically for you it was good organisation and focusing on your studies and nothing else.

PM: And praying to God.

RK: Yes. What did you study at A’ Level?

PM: Physics, Computing, Economics and Mathematics.

RK: It was in A’ level that you got interested in computing, how was that experience?

PM: In the beginning it was very difficult. I didn’t have a background in it. Those days there were no laptops. I had this very big computer in our house which would take forever to load. That’s where I used to practise. At A’ level, I had to learn the concept. That’s when I turned to past papers and practice. That time I was studying in Kenya but whenever I returned to Uganda, I would ask people about their challenges at the time and I would build a solution for it. That is how I got practical skills.

RK: Is that also the time you did the election thing?

PM: Yes. In fact it is the one I used for my submission as my final A’ level project.

RK: At that time, were you clear about the career you wanted to pursue?

PM: I knew it had to do with computers, software and something practical. That is something I knew.

RK: At what point did you get clarity of this?

PM: Usually when the options are put on the table, engineering has so many components to it. There is a mechanical, civil, technical aspect and then there is a technology aspect to it. Electrical engineering has an aspect of robotics. Robotics is all about using  a computer to make a physical element move.

At the time I didn’t know, I just spoke to my teachers. But now that I have been through the experience, as a piece of advice to anyone applying for university. Reach out to teachers and tell them what your interests are and  they will be able to tell you what to consider.

RK: What was your focus when you joined university?

PM: My university degree was in electrical and electronic engineering. It was a masters of engineering programme where you do a bachelors and masters at the same time and graduate after four years.

RK: Wait you girl, you did two degrees in one go?

PM: Yes.

RK: What made you choose what looks like an extreme challenge?

PM: It’s funny because at the time I didn’t know I was walking into this challenge. I remember walking into the building during orientation week and I couldn’t see any girl in sight in a class of 400. I was the only black in the entire class. I was like there was a reason why girls did not pick this course and I was wrong. I later found out I was one in five girls. I actually felt like an ambassador. It’s like I had this huge responsibility to put Uganda on the map as well because everyone will then remember me. I decided that I was not going to disappoint myself and the many people that I was representing inside that room. I entered the class with my braids in the room.

RK: What did this study entail?

PM: Electrical engineering in particular is the study of different elements of high and low voltage. But what you will find with an electrical engineering course is that there are many modules that fall into different sub areas. There is telecom engineering, software development, renewable energy, electronics and their elements. In the first year, you study everything and anything but you get to specialise over the years. The area that took my interest was control systems engineering. And control systems can be likened to metatronics. If you think of robots using software and electricity to make objects move. My focus grew in that area and my final project was on control systems. I looked at: ‘Simulating the launch of a rocket into space’. That is where the principles of control would fit it in.

It is really this large object that you would need to propel into the sky and you have to deal with the different elements to do with that. My interest then shot to 100. So I was wondering, where else can we go with this?

RK: At what point do the railways come in?

PM: My area of expertise was in control systems but now the problem was in railways. I was looking at different projects that I could get into and I saw that the railway is a single cause of failure… maybe I can explain the process briefly.

How railways work; they have tracks. When a train needs to change routes from one direction to another. The physical track has to slide from one direction to another. But the problem is it has worked the same for the last 200 years since Victorian times. Globally, the railway has survived on that. If it fails, the service has to be stopped for maintenance. It cost the UK in maintenance of about 120 million pounds a year. It’s a huge problem that has never been solved.

RK: So you decided that you were the one to solve a 2000 year, 120 million pound problem?

PM: I thought I should give it a go. How I chose to look at this specifically, look at planes; they spend so much time in the sky. As they operate, something can go wrong from a mechanical problem. But planes have what we call redundancy. If one engine fails, there are others that will operate it. I thought, can we use some of these concepts from the aerospace industry and introduce them to the railway. In the railway, once one machine goes down, there is no backup. And that is where my call came in; using redundancy to apply to the railway.

RK: Where do you derive this self belief, this high level of confidence that problems of this magnitude are yours to solve?

PM: I will answer it in two ways. From a personal perspective, it’s about my upbringing. My parents allowed me to dream. I could never look at anything and think it was not meant for me. In fact, one of my mantras was that impossibility is one that you give yourself. Otherwise, everything is possible. Also in action, I saw it with my family. One of my late aunts who passed away three years ago had a PhD and was a role model. Having such people in my life confirmed that I could do it. My upbringing had a lot to do with it. But also I am one kind who gets into things without knowing what exactly I am going into.

I don’t overthink things. I get in. If I don’t make it out, at least I tried.

RK: How did you solve the railway problem?

PM: It was three painstaking years. I can tell you categorically that it was probably the hardest years of my life because doing a PhD is a very individual journey. You are pretty much alone with your problem. I used to sit in a lab everyday for almost all the three years on my own trying to crack this thing. Mentally it took a toll. From that I learnt different coping mechanisms in order to get through it.

RK: Like what? Would you like to share?

PM: Yes. Small things like noticing when you are about to reach your limit. Part of solving this issue was figuring out a fault tolerance mechanism. I was trying to develop an algorithm that would pick the fault once it occurred. I had this prototype in the lab but in order to fix those faults, I had to fix more faults. Part of it was sending a high voltage to this machine which would fly physically, and I had to use the emergency stop button. It was quite crazy.

So I had this thing which was breaking day in, day out and it was not working. Some of the mechanisms were not working. I would pack up my bags and leave. Sometimes it would be as early as 10am and I would try again the following day. At the time, I was a student, I didn’t have money, I would just go window shopping looking at things.

Also, what made it more difficult, my supervisor left midway through the project. So my funding was at risk. From that experience, I learnt how to manage different experiences. As part of the separation agreement with the university, I could potentially lose my prototype that I had built and it was tough.

RK: But you were able to weather all that and come out okay at the end?

PM: In the end, something just clicked. I realised that time was going and I was going to be that person who studies the PhD for forever. I decided to be that person that focuses on the academic aspect of it. I spoke to my supervisor who was leaving and asked him to at least spend some time with me at least once a month. Using this tolerance I talked about earlier, we were able to solve faults that occur on this switch. I was also able to replace a lost physical signal with a computer generated signal and this was the first implementation of this kind of technology on a railway switch.

In doing that, I was able to get a publication in a science leading journal called IEEE and the challenges were worth it in the end.

RK: What is the accomplishment you are most proud of?

PM: I think for me, I have not seen anyone like me being able to achieve that. And I know for sure, that when I achieved them, it was through hard work. There would be no other reason for me to get there. The election system I did, no one had done it before. At university, I walked in this class of 400 and I was the only black girl and I came top of that class. And also the other engineering programs. I know how much work I put in. I know that if we keep working hard we can get somewhere.

RK: Let’s go to your working life; you have worked in investment banking, then as a consultant and you work in academia, what informed these choices?

PM: When I was at university, I went to a career fair where all these different organisations would come. I remember going around the engineering companies. But someone had told me that banks paid better than engineering firms. So I applied for an internship there. I went through an organisation called ACO. ACO helps minorities with training and equips them with interview processes so that they are able to join these organisations. I did an internship at Goldman Sacks in London as a technology analyst. Earlier I mentioned that I had a huge focus on technology and software, I wasn’t out of my bracket. The difference was in the application of the software. In this case I was building different softwares for trading and markets. It was a three month internship and it was very interesting. I managed to get good relationships with the managers at the time, they asked me to go back after my final year. So I had a job waiting for me. I did that for three years.

But there was this hunger knocking at my door. That’s how I went back to academia. I mentioned that my PhD had to do with pulling from aero concepts for the railway. When I was done with my Phd, I was done with this backward thinking industry. Some of these spaces were not ready for some of these innovations. So I went into aerospace. I was working with Rolls Royce. I was working with the aerospace software for the aerospace engines. I did that for two years. After that I felt I had done enough for the UK and I decided I needed to come back and contribute to East Africa. That’s how I came back.

Looking back at the whole diversity for the work I have done, all the things my siblings didn’t do, I had to do. They didn’t do internships, I had to do them. I am the last born.

RK: You got to wrap up the family tradition.

PM: Exactly. And looking at myself, I love to do different things. Think that’s the beauty of engineering. If you are an engineer, you don’t feel boxed out to do different things. Think of a  football, it has mechanical engineering design they have used to make it. There is a velocity of how quickly the ball will move. The angle of the kick and so many other things you can do with engineering. That’s how my career is diverse like that.

RK: This diversity you have talked about, what did it do for your personal growth? How did it make you a better person?

PM: I think there is no substitute for exposure and experience. This diversity really helps in my curiosity. The more answers I get help me personally. But I guess it also helps you with answers to the problems we fix. My mum chose economics for me, she said I needed to learn about money and finances. Now that I am a little older, I see how this whole thing fits in. I think it’s a good thing to understand the world and all its facets. And that is what the diversity of a career can give you.

RK: You talked about feeling the responsibility to carry the nation and all those you represented at school and today you have SHE STEMS, tell us about that.

PM: They say, you can’t be who you cannot see. I walked into that room and there was no one else like me. If I had chosen to quit, that would be it. That responsibility came along at that point and also during my career at Goldman Sacks, I was part of the career women development committee  for women in engineering. And I felt that that also helped me to get the toolkit for mentoring. I found that even in the tech division there were very few women. There was no black women in the UK. So I was always asking myself how this is going to end if I don’t change it. That is how I came up with this mentoring and career platform for women and girls in STEM courses and careers. From an education point of view, I wanted to show them that if you choose this subject, you can become an engineer or doctor or software developer. But also there is the issue of retention, when people come to these careers, they don’t stay. There are many reasons for that, some are motherhood, starting a family and other aspects. Putting women and girls that walked the same path as you, can make you believe that you can do it. Look at Kamara Harris, and the new chief justice in Kenya, those ladies are inspirational. Now there are no barriers.

That was the idea of She stems. I had just started my PhD at the time and I was the only one. I was quite different from the rest of the team I was working with. This mentorship acted as an outlet. The kind of conversations I would have with myself in the lab. I am the only one in this room but not in the world.

RK: Precious, I am a father of an 18 year old girl, talk to me. Something through your life and experiences that you think I should know as a father of a girl.

PM: First of all, I would like to talk to her. I will use my experience. There are many times where there was no one that looked like me in the room. Sometimes you will not understand it, you don’t know how it is going to affect your path. You can try and do your research to understand but even if you do not understand, your support as a father is invaluable whichever way it comes. Also in the event that you know people she can tap into as role models, that can be very helpful. I had my late aunt and I grew up seeing and admiring her.

RK: There is this prejudice among men that if women are highly educated they are likely not to be attractive for relationships and marriages, what would you say about that?

PM: I am glad my husband is here. There is prejudice. I remember when I was leaving my job at Goldman to go for the Phd, one of the number one questions was “ who will marry you?”

In life there is who you are and what you do. What you do does affect who you are. I am Precious. My personality is my career. You cannot change society’s view but you can only do your part.

RK: To the fathers and the young girls here, you have heard the advice from someone who has lived life so don’t hold yourself back because you are worried about all these things society tells you.

Comrade Otoa: I would like to know more about She STEMS.

PM: The idea behind the She Stems Mentorship is about guidance for young girls. I didn’t have that. I went into many things blindly. When I started, I would just do zoom sessions with someone for an hour or two. With time, I realised there are diverse perspectives. I am an engineer, but here could be a doctor who would like to speak to another doctor. So I reached out to my network of friends and we continued to grow across the world. There are so many African women out there who are doing all these many great things. The platform has continued to grow. Today we have like 50 mentors and 200 mentees from all over the world and they just continue to have these different calls. And we also have group sessions with different people. and there are so many opportunities which keep opening. Just knowing which opportunity there is alone is huge. That is what we do. In Uganda we have so far worked with the Institute of Professional Engineers (IPE). I hope we can do more work in Uganda once we are fully open, whenever that is. And for any girls here, feel free to reach out.

Kevin Tusingwire: How can we promote STEM education in Uganda? 2 How can we promote robotics? How do you see human beings dealing with these robotics?

PM: Robots replacing human beings is a wrong narrative because robots will always need human beings to operate them. There will always have to be a human in the loop because something could go wrong. And also there is a need to develop robots and the softwares. Clearly there are going to be more opportunities.

Hussein: The schools you went to, how did they shape you to become the person you are today?

What motivated you to come back home when you had all the good opportunities abroad?

PM: We used to do a lot of homework. There was a maths teacher at Kampala Parents’ who really made me love the subject. He allowed me to express myself. The academic culture of the school encouraged us to learn. Even at Namagunga, prep time allowed me to do a lot of learning.

I left the jobs in the UK, I spent a lot of time there learning and I believed I needed to come back home and give back in one way or another.

RK: From what you describe, one of the lessons you leave with us is preparation, how much does preparation lead to success?

PM: I think it is valuable. It is in times that I did not value preparation that I realised I could have saved a lot of time. For example towards the end of my PhD, I was struggling, there were times I gave up. The times I prepared for what to do daily helped to make things better.

RK: You are a person of faith, what has it taught you along the way?

PM: There are many moments I realised there is a higher being, why was I chosen and not someone else. We all put in a lot of effort, why am I  the one that got the scholarship. In those moments I realised there is a higher being that is guiding my path. In the times when it was difficult, I believe there was someone stronger than the battles I was going through. I also learnt that everything that I do or the skills I have there is the hard work element but there is also the blessing of God in my life that has led to this.

RK: What would you leave with us?

PM: If you are out there and you have had certain doubts about something you wanted to do but haven’t yet done; I would say give it a go. Give it a try. These opportunities are available for you. And be hungry for knowledge. If you spend long enough on a problem, you will solve it. That is part of the learning process. Not knowing the answer at the beginning but getting to the bottom of it.

For someone who does not know what they want to do, look at the things that interest you. All those things in your everyday life, see how science is applied to it. If you have something you are doing and it is a great challenge whether it is in your career, if it scares you then it will be worth it. Go ahead. 

RK: Thank you Precious for sharing your experience with us.

PM: You are welcome. Thank you for hosting me, Robert. It was such an honour to be a guest on #360Mentor. 

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