Tabitha Mutunga: My fulfilment is seeing tech changing lives

Tabitha Mutunga

Safaricom's Technology Enterprise Services Project Manager Tabitha Mutunga during the interview at Safaricom offices in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Faustine Ngila | Nation Media Group

The future of work demands everyone to upskill and re-skill in emerging disruptive technologies, yet research reports by the United Nations, World Bank and World Economic Forum indicate glaring gender gaps in this front across the world.

 However, if the right strategies and policies are put in place to raise the number of women in tech in the workforce, companies would help a great deal in ensuring women play a critical role in shaping the future. Tech journalist Faustine Ngila caught up with Safaricom’s Project Manager of Technology Enterprise Services Tabitha Mutunga and discussed the state of women inclusion in tech in Kenya, barriers limiting them and opportunities therein.

1. Let’s start with your journey as a woman in the tech space.  What inspired you to join the tech world?

Everyone comes from somewhere. From my childhood I have been a tech lover. My upbringing had a lot to do with who I am today. I was a very hands-on child. I was that child who would get into trouble for opening up a radio, to know who was speaking inside. So, I was very technical. I used to build small apparatus. In training, I have been in IT from A levels and have mastered in project management. I was in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where I did Bachelors’ in Information Technology. That's how I found myself in technology. I am also very excited to work in a fast changing environment and I like mind boggling challenges, things that make you think and also see results of what you do. I think that’s what fuels me. I have worked a lot with engineers. In a nutshell that’s my journey to technology. I joined Safaricom in 2012 so up to date I still do technical project management.

2. You are in charge of the Technology Enterprise Services department, what does it do?

I would say the department is like a hub. You know we work a lot with enterprise and we deliver for the enterprise customer for both large enterprises and small and medium enterprises. We deliver connectivity and technical products to the customer. We come up with the products that are fit for the customer then we deploy. We are the ones who build the product and deliver it to the end user. There are so many products we put into connectivity, we have the Internet of Things, IT security in the Wide Area Network for customers and M-Pesa products. Basically, we deliver to the end user on every product that Safaricom offers to enterprise customers.

3. How has your career in tech impacted your life?

It's interesting that this is impacting my life. I think largely I get a lot of fulfillment when I see lives being transformed through what we do. As an Internet Service Provider (ISP) company, we find ourselves working with everyone from banks to hospitals to hotels to everyone who is in the enterprise space. When I deliver a product to a customer and see it transform his or her life, that gives me a lot of fulfilment.  I have also seen growth career wise, I have learnt a lot, there is a lot of learning and unlearning in technology because we keep on innovating, we keep on changing, we keep on receiving new requirements that were not in the market before. You find yourself up-skilling every time to match up with what the market demands. It has broadened my view of existence.  Initially we used to do things in a certain way, but because of the changes that we encounter in the digital market, you keep on thinking of new styles of doing things. You also get to interact with so many other people so you have to be cognizant of people's style of work. You know you find yourself having to work with someone who is not technical and you have to bring them to speed to understand what you are trying to develop for them or what you are trying to sell to them. So that way you are able to widen your mind or to challenge your mind on how to look at the world.

4. What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a woman in tech?

You face challenges on a day to day basis because you have to keep on innovating.  But you know in our culture a woman is known to be a homemaker, and balancing work life and home sometimes can be tricky. I think largely that’s one of the challenges I face. As an African career woman, especially if you have school going children, it is hectic.  You know people depend on you as a woman, you have to be productive at work and also make sure that your family is not compromised also. That’s one of the major challenges for every woman in the technology space. But I think challenges exist even among men because you have to keep on changing. So, if you have a stiff mindset, you cannot innovate and that way I think you can’t survive in technology. There are so many new things that are coming in.

We are now deploying 5G. You have to learn. You must know whatever is required for you to have a functional 5G out there. On stereotypes, I think lifting things is the only advantage a man would have over a woman, the masculinity you are able to lift things here and here but when it comes to mental power, the agility of doing things, I think we can match up to what men are doing. I think the stereotype that a woman is supposed to be at home taking care of the family is what hinders so many ladies from coming into technology. But it’s a very exciting space. You just need to challenge these stereotypes and then challenge yourself, throw yourself out there and see how easy it is to grow.

5.  What has been your most successful tech project and is there any innovation you have come up with?  Just what keeps you going?

During the World Athletics Under-20 Championships at Kasarani in August 2021, Safaricom was a connectivity partner through the local organising committee to host the historic event. This was the first time it was held in Africa. It happened in a pandemic period where we would have so many spectators but they were not there. Then Safaricom came in to provide a stable fixed internet connectivity to all the teams that required connectivity to showcase what was happening in Kenya. Because the only avenue where other people would see and be part of the event was either online or TV. So, we needed to provide connectivity so that any person live-streaming or uploading live happenings could do it seamlessly.  Actually, TV commentary was not being done in the country so we provided live links to the UK that enabled them to do their work. They need connectivity to communicate to plan for logistics. Even the medical teams needed a strong internet to access their systems, authenticate Covid-19 tests and upload them on the relevant online platforms. I help bring in teams to think and come up with a product that would be useful to the end user. Not necessarily me as a person coming up with a product, but I have been very key in deploying and fine tuning products before going to the market.

 6. How has the women in technology program impacted women’s careers at Safaricom?

One, it's a place where we can share at our level.  You know as women we go through challenges. So we share and you find out that you are not going through a certain challenge alone, and there are people in the same space who have been able to overcome and grow through the ranks. You get motivated and you really want to give yourself all to whatever role you are doing in Safaricom. So it’s a platform that has also challenged young girls in school. They should take up space in technology and see what life has to offer for them in the technical space. 

I thank Safaricom for allowing us to thrive, in both work and home. During the pandemic, we were able to work from home, and we were facilitated to work from home. You are able to take care of your children and are given a good leave period to go and rest when you feel that you have fatigue and burnout. So, the program helps us keep a balanced life. You can easily forget the family and also the work. But Safaricom has given us a thriving environment to work and make sure that we are able to take care of our children, and spouses.

7. What is your message to young girls who want to venture in tech?

There are a myriad of opportunities out there, do not limit your mindset, do not limit yourself because of stereotypes or how you grew up. There are so many opportunities in technology that will build your mindset. You will also have something to put in your pocket. You deserve a good life as a woman, tech will put your finances into good shape. 

So, challenge yourself. Do not be afraid of anything. Take chances in the technical space. You may not be an engineer nor someone who is technically trained, but you can work in that space. And it’s a very exciting space when you keep on thinking and innovating on a day to day basis. Be part of the new tech trends happening in the world, it's fulfilling. Work hard, build your character, try to know what is happening, and put yourself out there.  

Don’t dictate what you can do, be mentally agile, try and seek to know what is happening. There are so many innovation hubs on university campuses. Try and see what is happening there. Study what is interesting to you or is of good value to the human race. So don’t limit yourself. You also need to learn how to work with other people, team players, and collaborate. In the current world you cannot survive alone, if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go with other people.

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