Michael Niyitegaka on Digital Skilling

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Michael Niyitegeka (MN) on Digital Skilling.

RK: Thank you very much for agreeing to be part of the #360Mentor. How did the tweet session go for you?

MN: Thank you too for the invitation, Robert. The tweet session was great. I didn’t realise how intense it could get. The compliments and the proposals that people were sharing. But most importantly the fact that we are sharing a lot in common together. It’s extremely humbling.

RK: I usually ask people were you born? For you Michael, I ask, were you born with a digital device in your hand?

MN: I am sure Robert you know that road that takes you to Ian Clarke’s farm in the tea estate. The nearest technology I had as a child was a tractor. Dad was working in the tea estate and our first home was next to the garage. Our house was by the roadside. The tractor was the first mode of transport to school because my dad was one of the managers in the estate. We were part of the class students who were dropped off at school on the trailer at the back. Technology was one of those things that caught my attention from childhood. I remember my first escapade when I was young. I escaped from home. But, I couldn’t exit through the main gate of the factory. So I went through a trench and spent the whole day in the garage where they were repairing tractors and there was this white man who liked me. At lunch time, he took me home and said; I have brought my worker back for lunch. You can bring him back after. That saved me a beating because I was delivered home.

My love for machines goes on. I remember in my Senior Four vacation, I asked to spend time at the garage as a spanner boy. I spent two months and they were paying Ugx 300 a day. My Father was the manager there and he would say, I am the manager but you are an employee. If you are not here by 7am, your day is cancelled.

RK: You said you studied social sciences, tell me about your journey into the digital world. How did that shift happen?

MN: My passion was always in engineering. Actually at A level, I did physics, chemistry and math. Upon admission at Makerere, I found my name in Arts in Arts and I actually told guys this is a wrong name. One of my friends said, there is only one Niyitegeka I know. When I checked the index number it was the one. I then went to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof Oswarld Ndorereire. I told him the course I was admitted to had nothing to do with my interest, he looked at me and said; “man, this you can do.” I was given Philosophy, Communication studies and French. All the people I had met who had studied philosophy were in a seminary. I told him I am Anglican without intentions of becoming a priest, why was I studying philosophy?

Let me tell you this Robert. Philosophy turned out to be one of the best modules I ever studied. It taught me the art of reasoning. Because that is what philosophy is all about; questioning knowledge.

After my undergrad, I was retained at the faculty of arts for 4 years and after I did my MBA.

At that time, I met Baryamureba. He had been with me at St Leo’s in S6 and in S1, but for some reason we connected. He called me and said you have done an MBA and I have established IT, can you come and teach in this faculty?

When I joined the faculty, I realised that language was critical. Guys were using a language that really alienates you when you are not part of them. I needed to understand the language and to be a part of them. They would ask which frame of work you were using or which system you had applied. I started speaking that language. I promised myself to be part of the community and not an outlier. I quickly noticed one thing; all the guys at the faculty were very technical. None of them had an idea of business. Then for me that was the light bulb moment. I asked them why are we teaching the students without connecting to industry. I started asking relevant questions. The more I did, the more I got accepted. I started teaching business courses and strategy and later at Masters level. The more I taught, the more I understood the technology and how it works. And how it applies to business.

RK: So you were teaching the business side of things but to tech students?

MN: Yes. The first thing I told myself was that I was going to teach this business but with a technology approach. The challenges I had then that the majority of the guys that were teaching the business courses were teaching it like they were coming to teach commerce students not relating it to the tech side. But because I was intentional, it became like natural to me because if I was talking about strategy, I would bring out the google strategy, Facebook, MTN and that made sense to them. I remember when they were starting the Masters in Information Technology at Makerere, I was in that meeting and I asked a question; why are we making this course heavily technical and my assumption is that when you are doing a masters, you aspire to go to a managerial level? There is no strategy course in this program. Then Baryamureeba looked at me and said design it.

RK: That was the radical and decisive side of Baryamureba. He just allowed you to grow.

MN: Yes. So he tells me to design it. So I put together a program that is sent to senate. Then to National Council for Higher Studies and it is approved. When it came to teaching, there was a concern that to teach at Master’s level, you had to have a PhD. Baryamureba said why are you wasting time; he put it together, so he can teach it.

I started teaching masters students, supervised them and yeah, that is where my journey started and I just kept moving in that space.

RK: And you have been through quite some amazing programs. At one point you were training people on Microsoft, do you want to tell us about that.

MN: While at Makerere, there was a time when university was industry focused. That time Baryamureba had become a Professor. So I asked him, you want to become an industry focused university but we don’t have anybody who is in charge of the industry. By the time I got to my office on the fourth floor, he had sent me an email with a job offer asking me to take on the job of Corporate Relations Officer and my job was to interface with the industry. I told him I didn’t want the job, I only suggested it. He said the fact you thought of it, means you can do it. I did it for about 2 months. On 1 March 2008, I was Head of Corporate Relations. I remember asking myself what was I going to do with this office. The time we came to you at New Vision, it was one of the initiatives we were trying to push.

One of the meetings I attended was with Microsoft. Microsoft was supposed to establish a Microsoft Innovation Centre in Uganda. The battle was between Makerere which was trying to promote the faculty but the Ministry of ICT was proposing UICT Nakawa. I quickly arranged a meeting at Makerere for the guys from Microsoft. There was a black American lady who I told, let me take you to where this centre needs to be. I called Baryamureba and told him about this person I was bringing. By the time we came, he was already hyped. The lady left convinced that the centre had to be at Makerere. However, it had to be approved by government. That battle went on for about 4 years. We became the second university world over to host a Microsoft Innovation Centre.

The unfortunate bit because of leadership changes and all that, that centre was never given the prominence it deserved and it died. It just went under.

RK: Was there a decent burial ceremony?

MN: I wish there was. That was quite unfortunate. For the big dream was to turn the college of computing into an industrial centre of excellence. I was looking at google and IGM having presence there. We were on that track. Let me tell you we had the attention of these guys.

We had 5000 students and that was a marvel. There was time when the college had more Kenyan students than all the total IT students in Kenya in 2010.

In 2012, we were able to get support from the Microsoft Support Association. You see they don’t give you money but they give you a lot of support. A lot of capacity. They train your team. I remember we did some work with Nokia. They trained the first mobile application developers in Uganda. I remember a young man called Abdu Ssekalala who was posing on us, I earn more than my professors.

RK: Where is he now?

MN: He is working with UCC but he has been all over the globe doing technology and solutions. Aga Ssekalala should find him.

RK: There are quite a few people at crossroads. There are people like me who are at that stage where we see the world changing and we could become irrelevant, how do we transition having 30 years trying to acquire a skill? We are also the same category of people who are having children join university, they have ambitions, how do we advise them?

Then there is another group in their 30s or close to their 40s that are wondering what this new world means for them. Then there are the young people who are fairly exposed into the world but are trying to find their way. So you are our advisor now, advise us.

MN: The first thing I will tell you Robert, if you are to go to school, don’t go for a qualification. I would say look for something that exposes you and gives you a level of technology.   

The second thing to think about, is there a possibility that technology can solve the challenges I have right now. I was talking to CEOs of insurance companies around 2018/19 and I told them we’re going to start distributing insurance on our devices. One of the CEOs told me never! I want to meet him now because we are now buying insurance off our devices.

Once you start asking yourself these questions, is there an opportunity for technology to do this, you then expose yourself to media and guidance that then makes it possible. One of the things that we hope to do at Refactory is to create what we call the Minimum Viable Product. When you come to us, you define a problem and we want to do a,b,c,d then we walk with you through that journey. When you ask yourself that question; can technology solve this for me then you are on a journey of applying tech to work for you.

The third thing I will say to people like you is to look at technology from a transformational aspect and then assume your leadership role. That is what we call digital transformations leadership. You don’t need to know what is happening in the backend. Your role is to define the problem and then a solution will be required. As a leader you are catalysing thought process. Techies are like mechanics; they will not think ahead of the business. They will fix what is problematic but at leadership level you can catalyse and transform the whole thing. Those are the three things I’d say for you senior managers and leadership. Find something that exposes you to digital transformation and that will give you a hand to run with.

For your children, I’d say seek to understand them. Don’t go with the advisory note because they probably have a better understanding of how technology works and applies to their life than you will do. My son sometimes asks me a question; are you really in the IT space? How could you not know this?

RK: How old is he?

MN: 15. That has taught me something Robert, for him, he is excited by the versatility of these things, and therefore his appetite to learn a little bit more is way higher than mine who is trying to look for school fees. I will pick on a few things and run with that. I don’t have to know everything.

I would also like to tell teachers in career guidance, don’t advise. Seek to understand where someone is coming from and quiz them a little more to see if they are grounded. If they have understood, if this is something they can really do. That’s for the children.

RK: Okay. Next, can you address the category of the guys that have been in the work space for at least 10 years but are stuck with what to do next?

MN: Upskill. There is this narrative Robert, that if you are able to access your email, you can type a Microsoft word document and can do the basic PowerPoint. Then you have it all. Far from it. One of the things we have been able to see from the studies, there is what we call digital lifestyle skills. Then there is digital workstyle skills. You being able to use your WhatsApp and email that is purely a lifestyle. The workplace requires you to use multiple tools, and that means you need to have a lot of comfort using the Microsoft word tools.

I used to supervise MBA students from Esami and when they would send me their documents, I would track changes and send it back to them. Then someone would comeback complaining; it has things, how do I remove them? But this is a senior person asking. Then I would have to explain to them on what to do.

This is wat I have learnt Robert, most of the organisations have more than they use. I am pretty sure, when you were still at New Vision, there were a lot of spare applications that you would sign off as CEO because the guys in it needed them. When you have that, the IT people may never come back to tell you that this is the capacity that you have.

RK: True, I was with them for 15 years, they never did.

MN: Thank you. This is the challenge and this is where we need to get it people to be oriented to the business. They need to get out of their servers and understand the business. I had this conversation with Herbert Oloka from Stanbic and he too acknowledged it. “my board thinks I am a pit hole they always put in money but never get to see the results”

So for these people what needs to happen is to upskill. I was speaking to a lawyer friend who confessed that power point is hard for him. So I asked him; which office application do you have on your computer? Is it office 365, windows 10? He turned and asked; how do I get to know this?  It’s like when you are given car keys and showed how to ignite but have no idea what the dash board means.

I would really advise people to upskill. There are frameworks like the international computer driving license that is meant for people like us. Go learn how to use PowerPoint very well. Go learn how to use spreadsheets very well. The biggest part of accounting is based on spread sheets. Any accounting package you can think of is based on excel. That was the starting point of building accounting packages. So if you understand excel, probably you don’t need to buy an accounting solution.

The same applies to Microsoft. Understand how technology is applying to your space. If you are an accountant, ask yourself what functions are being taken over by technology?

If you are a lawyer, same thing. We are soon going into the e-court system and court clerks are probably going to lose their jobs technically speaking. The question is; how do I upskill that court clerk? The technology may not understand the law as of now.

RK: Let me see if I got it correct. That for us senior guys, we need to know how tech can solve our problems, that we are dealing with at a particular time.

MN: Yes

RK: For the guys below us, it is getting more skills and see how these things work.

MN: Yes. And the intention is to make you more productive.

RK: Yes

MN: Because there are all these tools that allow collaboration. Before, you would get a documnet and print it off. Today, we can collaborate and work on the same document together. We are minimising wastage. Look at those for your competency.  

RK: We just have to be patient and understand how technology works for them. One of our friends visited us and had a conversation with our son Joel. He asked him what he wants to study and he quickly said software engineering. He went on to ask, is it because of your father? Not really, he said. In his defence, he said he had been fascinated by how technology works.

Then the gentleman told him something that caught my attention; he said, you can potentially teach yourself software engineering. Within 9 months you can be good at it. But there are certain things you will never teach yourself that you will need to learn from a certain place. He suggested engineering on which he could add his IT knowledge.

RK: You need a foundational course?

MN: Yes. If you are a social scientist, understand how technology works and then begin to understand how you can be part of a technology enterprise. A story is told of how the radio got into the phone. It all started out in India. Remember when I said social anthropologists can be part of software developers. I had never thought about it until we had a team from Makerere that teaches social anthropology at Makerere. They told us that they hire between social scientist and social anthologists. The non tech guys were close to 45% of the entire enterprise. You need to understand human behaviour to be able to build technology for them. Your psychologists here need to be oriented to be able to understand how technology works. So that they can contribute to building tech. The guy at social sciences needs to understand how technology is impacting human behaviours and society. That person can be hired in a software company as a human centred expert. They are the ones who go and explain the human attributes to the developers. A typical software engineer does not have that.

RK: He’s probably an introvert living somewhere in the house alone.

MN: Once they get a problem to be solved, they will solve it but they will have to work with a team. That’s what I am coming to. That any degree program will essentially have to come to terms with working with tech or at least be influenced by technology. So it is important that we try and invest in these people to prepare these people for the digital era.

RK: So while you acquire 1 or 2 of these tech competences there should be a tech component in what you studied so that you can see how the two relate? 

MN: And in your context.

RK: For instance, if you are at Makerere Law School studying to be a lawyer, you should have a tech component that relates to being a lawyer?

MN: And there are two components to that;

  • One will make you understand the basic tools like word, excel, power point, collaboration, security and that.
  • The other bit is how does this influence the way we practise law

RK: Let me switch you Michael, you said something profound in your tweets on education. You said we should change our education system so that it is skills based fundamentally rather than academic based, can you elaborate on that matter please 

MN: Here is the challenge, our education system is largely academic based. We test your ability to reproduce what we have taught you. That is why when I was at the IT faculty at Makerere, I proposed that course works should account for 60% and exams 40% instead of having it the other way round as it is. I was told the national council doesn’t allow. The question is why?

If my intention is to make the learners more skills based, why shouldn’t I give them more project work as an assessment as opposed to sitting for three hours for an exam.

The other thing is that because we are largely focused on academics, then the students are driven to focus on one thing: can I remember enough to enable me pass? This came to me when I was teaching an IT year 3 course. I told the class that to pass my course, they had to attend class because 80% of the stuff you need I am going to say it, it’s not in the notes. I used to project slides and they could be only one sentence. One student put up her hand and said; Sir, these slides will not help us to pass. I asked why, then she said there is only one sentence. I then told them my exam does not look for which points I gave you, it looks for one thing, did you understand?

I mean I would share an example that I had not shared before. I was even reported that I was not giving students enough material. I told the dean that as long as I teach the class, I have a lee way on how I teach it. I can’t be accused of slides having less content.

That really hit me Robert, because the student was implicitly telling me that all the other people that are teaching were giving them slides they could memorise. Here I was telling them to forget about that slide. I wanted them to apply what they had understood.

I taught entrepreneurship to a class. For the entire semester, I never gave them notes or any materials to read. I told them we were going to dwell purely on the three case studies.

  • The first one was the boda boda.  They were to go and learn about product positioning in Wandegeya. Learn about why they do what they do.
  • The second category was rolex
  • The third was ‘kikumi kikumi’

We would discuss them in class, marketing, product, pricing and all these things. Today, I still meet students who undertook that class and they tell me that class worked for them.

And so the academic ability focus has taken away the ability to think. Someone told me universities have become petrol stations. It’s about how much fuel you have.

RK: They are just churning out numbers?

MN: Yes. The other thing about it, is that it is so silo based. Everybody is in their corner. That is an unfortunate bit.

RK: There are no linkages

MN: Very unfortunate. I will give you an example. There was someone who was trying to fund a project when I was still at Makerere. They were doing some wok in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). He came to me and asked; how come you guys have 6 GIS labs located in 6 different units? There’s a lab in vet school, engineering, agriculture, geography, environmental sciences and at IT. Why don’t you come together and set up a GIS centre?

The question was who is going to host it?

RK: Who was going to be in charge?

MN: I had thought it would be very simple, but I was wrong. Territory is very important.

 RK: What does the future look like from where you are? What do you see?

MN: The future is “what can you do for me?” The future is not about your degree unless you are going to be in an academic environment. The future is quickly evolving from you must have done the following for you to become a professor. I visited a university in Canada and they had “professors of practice” these are senior retired experts who had been brought back to university and appointed as professors. Because the industry is moving ahead, the way education is evolving, they have to make sure that industry is an integral part. They have to be very intentional.

Skill are going to be a necessity. If you can write, show me what you can write. If you can design, show me what you can design. It is not about what module you passed. That is no longer an issue.

RK: The session we had with Tio Kauma was very profound. He said the way CVs are written has changed. He encouraged people that your CV should start with your accomplishments, before you mention which job you have held and what academic qualifications you hold. What problems have you solved? That is why the first place to learn about you is your LinkedIn profile. For any professional, you will need to update your profile.

MN: The other thing is that employers will look at your qualifications at the tail end.  At Refactory, we have seen guys who come in as Community Development Programmes and in 9 months’ guys are hired as Community Software Developers.

RK: Is it too late for me to join Refactory?

MN: No.

RK: I am unemployed right now; I might as well come to acquire new skills.

MN: You remember Timothy Mwondha. He came to Refactory and told us, I run an IT company but I do not understand things. I want to give myself one year to learn. And for one year, he took the course. What I am trying to say is that, the future is increasingly looking at alternative education. In the US, you have entities like lambda schools, the entire curricula is run and done by industry professionals, they have companies lining up for their graduates before they come out of school. And they are not giving them degrees. The future will not be looking at that now. I met a Senior Developer from Facebook who did history. I asked him to tell me how that works. He said I just loved the whole putting of things together, I went to Facebook and showed them how I could work for them and I was hired at Facebook. Whether you are a historian or a literature person, you have to demonstrate. You need to be part of this conversation.

Comrade Otoa: I have seen Young transform people’s lives. He is turning young people into amazing people. What he is doing is that he is showing that people can do more.

RK: Let me ask Tio to remind us of what he said,

Tio: Good evening, and thank you very much. Michael’s presentation compliments what I said; looking at the effect of education as an outcome rather than as in put. This is why I mentioned the fact that when we are presenting a summary of ourselves to those we need to work with, what they are looking for today is what is it that you have done? What skills do you come with that will be useful to the institution you want to work with?  Highlight this first before you list the qualifications. At some point that ceases to matter rather, can you exercise what you say you do. I like the angle you brought in. LinkedIn is a digital CV, it shows the projects you have handled, references from people. I think that is important for the future of work. The future of work is here.

RK: What would be your comment on what Tio has said?

MN: I resonate with what Tio has shared. That’s one of the things I tell some of my students. Students would come for a presentation and I would look out for the guy at the back. The guy would tell you that code was written by this one, for me, I was the mobiliser. Some guy once told me “I was the investor”.

What does that even mean? It can’t explain a thing on your CV. One lady was making a presentation and her username was Boys2Men, when I saw that username and her age, there was no way that was her user name. So I asked her to show me her technical stuff. Then she started sweating and she asked to be excused. I let her go and I followed her. Outside I found the ‘ba cuba’ who had done the real work. That’s the reality, it is what is going to set you apart.

Timothy Musoke of Maboremus gave a one-year scholarship and another of internship to the first class graduates from Makerere. Out of 20, 12 showed up. Out of 12, 2 stayed after two weeks. After a month, none was left. But they had 1st class degrees.

This is another thing I have learnt, Robert. Through the work we are doing at Refactory. A lot of the things we are teaching are not totally new. They are things that are implied. One of the conditions I have for people to teach, you must have evidence that you have done the work yourself. I got a guy that had been teaching for five years at a university and 2 minutes into the interview, I asked him for evidence that he could teach. Prove to me that the thing you want to teach you have practised it.

The other thing we have done which is a disservice is that we have over split our degree programs. What used to be a Bachelor of Commerce now has like 10 other degrees out of it.

The man started sweating. He didn’t have anything but he was teaching. In minute 5 he asked to join Refactory as a student. After the training, he said, the stuff he had learnt in three months, he hadn’t learnt in three years. This is simply because we are now bringing the reality into the industry.

RK: Same reason for the many districts.

MN: We have positioned tech as something that is distant from us yet the reality is that it is our integral part. We are using smart phones every day. There are people who change smart phones every year. But on that phone is power. I always tell people that the laptops we had 10 years ago cannot compare to the power your smart phone has. The challenge has been largely to focus on functionality. There is a program on digital transformational leadership, we need it for people to become co-creators. They need to become part of the solutions that will make them become co-creators. Tech guys will only innovate.

There are people building for agric but have never been at a farm. And that is a reality. For me to innovate for agric, we need someone for agric who appreciates tech to be part of the conversation.

One time a student in technology wanted to do a project with students in electrical engineering and for me that was manna from heaven. The professor in tech said I don’t mind as long as he submits an independent report. He just killed the whole thing. This is the problem of being silo based. We ned to be able to collaborate. Our students come out with this silo approach.

RK: With all that has happened in the tech world and what covid has brought to us, have the fundamentals of work changed?

MN: 100% no. What tech has done is to make those fundamentals be visible. Let me give you an example. When you give your team a task to deliver, the fundamentals will be about delivering at the time you said you would deliver. That if you don’t understand, you will seek to clarify. That you will communicate when you find a challenge. And that you are going to support each other to make sure that work is done. These constitute about 40% of what we teach.

These are things taught theoretically.

RK: I used to receive a lot of correspondence in my previous job. But if you didn’t communicate what you wanted in the first paragraph, I would not bother with other details.  It is important on paper as it is on email.

MN: I tell people that your subject will lead me to open your email or leave it for later.

RK: Later may mean me not reading it. What do you do at Refactory?

MN: For me Refactory was a response to the many young people I saw graduating but could not find jobs. So I asked what do you look out for when you are looking to hire like a software engineer. I began with that because it was the lowest hanging fruit. I found the following requirements:

  • Are you teachable?
  • Do you have the foundation?
  • Do you understand the processes?
  • Can you work with others?

And so we put together a program that was defined by the industry. One of our lead partners is  Clarke International University. It is a 9-month program. 93% will find jobs in the first 3 months.

RK: Thank you very much Michael for your time.

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