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01:22 – Rehema’s Superpower: Empathy
02:53 – Rehema’s “Untypical” Origin Story
07:20 – Enjoying Coding Because of the Complexity Behind It
11:21 – Creating a “Culture of Saving”
14:52 – “Diversity of Thought” and Seeing the World Through Others’ Eyes
22:20 – Being Creators and Makers
30:28 – How Technology Empowers People
38:27 – The Distribution of Brilliance and Opportunity
47:01 – Freedom of Creative Expression
Astrid: Having to unlearn the need of being perfect.
Jessica: We want to speak to more guests on a global level! Please reach out!
Sam: Fixed vs growth mindset.
Rein: Diversity is not just good for ethical reasons, it also makes your organization more competent.
Janelle: Celebrating beautiful.
Rehema: A fundamental right to freedom.
ASTRID: Hello everybody and welcome to Episode 63 of Greater Than Code. I’m Astrid Countee and I’m here with my friend, Rein Henrichs.
REIN: Good morning, or whatever time it is when you’re listening to this. I am here with my friend, the colorfully-haired Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Good morning! And I am thrilled to be here today with Sam Livingston-Gray!
SAM: Woohoo! And I’m happy to introduce the prodigal Janelle Klein.
JANELLE: And we’re here today with Rehema Wachira. And she doesn’t fit the typical profile of a software developer. She is a self-taught coder from Nairobi, Kenya whose passionate about making a positive impact on people’s lives through technology. She’s a graduate of the University of Virginia. And she first started her career working in advertising. And then after learning about product development, becoming intrigued with the complexities of coding, she began teaching herself the basics of Python. So, with only two months of coding experience under her belt, she applied and was accepted to Andela’s development program where she now creates code that’s used by companies every day. Welcome.
REHEMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here.
JANELLE: We’re excited to have you here, too. So, the way we usually start this is by asking a question about your superhero powers. So, what would you say your superpower is and how did you acquire it?
REHEMA: Hey, that’s an interesting question. I think for me, it would have to be empathy. I think. My mom used to work for nonprofits for most of her career. The majority of her career, actually. And she has a big heart. She cares a lot. And I think she would bring that home and that’s something that I would witness and sort of absorb as well. And it was really important and it made me good at my job when I was working at nonprofits and when I worked in advertising and communications.
I wasn’t so sure how it would apply to being a developer but I actually more and more am realizing just how important it is to have that empathy to see people not just the way you see them but to be able to see people the way they see themselves. And to be able to understand things from their perspective, really putting yourself in their shoes. It’s important just for everyday life but also when we’re building things. To me, code is a tool but it’s also always an expression of who you are and the way that you think in the way that you write the code. And so, being able to put yourself in a potentially user’s perspective I think adds more to the thing that you create at the end of the day. So yeah, I like thinking about empathy not just as a personality trait but as an actually really useful took for navigating the world, especially as it becomes more complex.
REIN: Superheroes also usually have an origin story. Can we talk about origin stories in tech for a minute? I think that you said that you don’t have what you would consider to be a typical origin story for a developer. So, in my mind that’s the, for my generation it was you grew up with an Apple2e in your parents’ basement and you wrote BASIC when you were five or something. What was your origin story like? And how do you think that has given you maybe a different perspective than other people who are in the industry?
REHEMA: Well to begin with, I’ve never had a basement. [Laughs] That’s not something that we have in Kenya.
SAM: Well done.
REHEMA: But yeah. I always thought that I would do something with my life related to helping people and communities. Again, I think stemming from what my mom did. And I was one of those kids for whom school wasn’t that difficult. It was fun. I enjoyed learning things, especially the humanities and languages and all that good stuff. Good at the sciences as well but really terrible at math. And I just didn’t think that I was a logical thinker. This thing that we tell ourselves and we tell kids from a very early age of like, if you’re good with languages and humanities, then that’s how you think and that’s where you should stay. And then if you’re good at maths and science, then you’re logical and that’s a completely different thing. And we sort of put people into these different categories from very early on. So, I always thought I was going the humanities route. And even when I went to college, I studied political and social thought. My major literally was called Thought, something that my parents were not too happy about but they got over it. But essentially that was the way I was thinking about my life and my career, was in terms of how I help people and thinking about systems and the human systems that we build, really. Society, culture, all that good stuff.
But it wasn’t until I was working for a company, a telecommunications company in Kenya, the biggest one in East Africa, and they created a mobile money payment solution that is pretty revolutionary (and I can talk more about that because it’s really cool), way before you guys had Apple Pay and all that stuff. We’ve been sending and paying for things using our mobile phones for the last 10 years. So, I was just fascinated by the impact that that had, just seeing what it could do for communities for individuals and for financial inclusion. It just, it blew my mind. And I was like, “Okay. So, if you can create these things, if people can do this, then why can’t I also be one of the people that creates things.” I wanted to be more involved in actually shaping solutions and creating them.
So, I was interested in product, actually. I wanted to start building products. And I figure if I know a little bit of code, maybe that can help me be a better product manager. And when I started playing around in Codecademy and all that stuff, I realized, “Hey, wait. I actually really enjoy this. I’m writing stuff and things are happening.” [Chuckles] And that feeling really got me excited. And I just continued with that, trying to figure out how I could get better at it. And a short while later, found Andela and applied to join their program and yeah, and now here I am as a developer. And sometimes when I say even as introduction to other people like, “I’m a software developer,” it still sounds a bit funny to my own ears. But it’s cool. [Laughs]
SAM: You said something interesting just now which was that you thought that learning to code could help you be a better product manager. And it’s funny how many programmers I don’t hear say things like, “You know, I thought that learning more about the humanities would make me a better developer.” And I feel like we do, just societally, we do such a tremendous disservice to kids who are good at math by not making them study more of the humanities. Because there’s so much out there that we could benefit from.
REHEMA: Absolutely. Because at the end of the day, everything that we build is within a particular context, right? Whether business context or social context, we’re putting things out there that other people have to interact with. And if we don’t understand the human systems that affect those, then I think the solutions that we build can never really be true solutions. And it’s so important because I have met people who are so focused on the code and they’re like, “Just give me the specs and I’ll build the thing,” and I’m like, “But there’s a whole world that you have to build for and that your product will live in.” And if we don’t have a sense of what that means and then importance of it, then I think we’re missing out in a big way as developers.
JESSICA: Yeah, and that world is full of human systems which are even more complex. I found it interesting in your bio that you enjoy coding because of the complexity of it?
REHEMA: Yeah. It struck me as a field where when I started to think about a possible career in terms of getting into this and really looking at it for the long haul, it struck me as a space where I would continuously be learning. And that was really important to me as well, because at some point in some of my previous careers I was looking up the ladder and looking up the chain and thinking, “I don’t feel like excited by what’s in the future.” Like if I try and imagine myself five years down the line as a marketing manager or something like that there were parts of it that really excited me, things that got me into the field in the first place, but I wasn’t super excited about it. But when I think about a possible career as a developer, and not just as a developer but what it could mean as a product manager, as a person who creates things, hopefully also as an entrepreneur, the skillset and the fact that it’s a field that’s changing so often is what I find really exciting about it. And the fact that you also have to do a lot of deep work, a lot of deep thinking to really solve problems, the problems in front of you, that kind of complexity also I think is just really fascinating.
REIN: So, when you say complexity, I’d like to maybe explore that for a minute. Because I get the feeling that you may not mean algorithmic complexity or cyclometric, like ‘how many branches there are in you code’ complexity. What do you mean by complexity?
REHEMA: Yeah, so you’re absolutely correct. For me, the complexity is in, I always think about things in terms of what can this help solve in terms of a human need. So for me, complexity is in terms of ‘Are we able to build something? Are we able to build a product or a solution that can address things at various layers or various levels of understanding or reach or depth?’ essentially. So, if we’re looking at creating the mobile money solution for instance, in Kenya, if the problem is we need an easier way for people to be able to send money back and forth to each other because we don’t have the right banking systems that make banking accessible to the vast majority of the population, how do we make that happen?
So, one way of thinking about it is, “Oh, let’s just have this service where I can send money to you, you can send money to me. Done.” But what has happened in Kenya is that it’s gone way beyond that. It’s not just about sending money. It’s also about savings. How do you create a savings culture? How can you use technology to remind people or to prompt people to start planning their finances and thinking through long-term how they’re using their money and where it’s going and how they can better track and monitor it? How are they able to seize opportunities to get loans for small businesses and enterprises? And are we linking that back to financial education?
So, that’s why I mean by complexities. It’s more in terms of the human complexities that we live in and how we can use tech to address all of those different things. I think as I continue in my learning and in my career and as I continue to get deeper into trying to solve for those different problems, things like algorithms and things like how to optimize different kinds of systems, the nitty-gritty, I think that’ll start to become of more interest to me once I can relate it back to a bigger picture. Does that make sense?
REIN: So, the complexity for you comes from the computers, that system interacting with other systems, usually humans, right?
REHEMA: Exactly, exactly. Humans and the infrastructures that we create. So again, in the same thread of the financial systems, how do we integrate that back with banks and make sure that they are actually serving people in a way that’s meaningful to people but also useful for them as a business, right? So yeah, for me that’s the area of interest.
REIN: Software would be a lot easier if we didn’t have requirements.
SAM: Or people.
REIN: Or people.
REHEMA: Or people. [Laughs] It would also be a lot less fun. [Chuckles]
SAM: This is true. So, you talked about creating a savings culture and I find that really interesting that you’re talking about using technology to affect the larger culture in that way. Is that something that you think is just something that you’re personally interested in? Or is that a major value of the culture that you’re in?
REHEMA: Yeah, I think a culture of saving is important, and especially so in a country where traditionally banking has not been accessible to the majority of people. So, companies that are in this space and that are trying to create and promote a culture of savings obviously have their own personal interest, which is the more money you put with them, the more money that they make. But I think it also goes much deeper and much larger than that because it does affect people’s ability to pull themselves out of poverty, right? So, in Kenya right now there’s big talk about a growing middle income. And you can definitely see it. Kenya’s a country that’s going through a lot of changes and we’re the biggest economic powerhouse of East Africa. So, there’s a lot of activity happening here. But how do you make sure that that’s a tide that’s raising all boats? So, the way that people have access to and are able to understand and interact with their money is super important, super big part pf that.
ASTRID: So Rehema, it almost sounds like your major that you talked about, that social and political thought, is actually…
ASTRID: The beginning of where you start thinking about these problems as opposed to the side-effect that you hope will happen in the end. And because of that, it looks like what you’re doing, well not just you obviously but other people who you’re working with, is that you’re creating a physical infrastructure by using technology instead of maybe augmenting or changing or even just adding to some other infrastructure that already exists. And that changes the way you ask questions. Do you think that some of what you’re doing can be translated to other systems that are not already set up to think about that stuff first? And how would you suggest somebody start changing the way that they solve these problems?
REHEMA: That’s huge, right? So recently, I learned about civic tech as an area that I guess a lot of people and interestingly enough a lot of cities are getting into, at least in the west. So, I met somebody who worked for New York’s, I can’t remember if it was part of… I think it was part of the city’s push to start using data science more effectively, essentially. And they were creating or they were using different maps and applying different algorithms to them to try and figure out as the city grows and as different types of infrastructures pop up in different parts of the city, how do you optimize for the populations that are there? So, if you notice that a whole bunch of high-rises are coming up in one part of the city, then you can figure out if you need more buses. Or do you need to add more libraries or more public amenities? Things like that. So, a very smart way, literally smart as in, you know what I mean [Laughs]. Like a smart city, essentially.
But thinking about how you build right from the get go instead of using information that may be outdated or anything like that, you essentially have this data constantly at your fingertips. And so, city planners are able to tap into that and look at all this information and be able to make smart goals and smart planning based off of data, which I thought was really interesting. So, there’s lots of different ways in which this is happening all over the world. And even in Kenya, open information type of movements and all of that where we’re keeping better track of what government is doing and what the public sector is doing to empower people.
REIN: Can I just mention that the phrase ‘diversity of thought’ has been sort of perverted to mean being able to be a bigot without consequence. But in my mind, this is what ‘diversity of thought’ really means. When someone like you approaches a problem, you may look at it from a way that no one else on your team looks at it. And that gives the whole team a better understanding of the problem.
REHEMA: Yeah. I think that’s the biggest argument for diversity, because at the end of the day, like I said earlier, what we build is an expression of ourselves. So, if I’m building and I’m thinking about the end user, then essentially I’m just thinking about myself, right? Because that’s the frame of mind in which I understand and interact with the world and that’s what I know best. So, it’s so important to have people from all different walks of life, different experiences. I think the challenge that a lot of companies have is, because this goes right through to hiring, to how the company talks about itself, to the type of people that it attracts. So, its’ one thing to talk the talk and say, “Yes, diversity is important for us,” and I think quite challenging for a lot of companies to actually figure out how to put that into practice. And making sure that as you’re sitting there in an interview with somebody across the table that you can somehow control for people’s biases, right? Because people have them and it’s like, how do you navigate past that? That’s a tricky one.
SAM: Yeah. It’s very easy as a company to say “We value diversity,” but it’s a bigger commitment to actually value it with dollars or local currency of choice, right?
REIN: The other problem is hiring for diversity and then making everyone think the same way.
REHEMA: Yeah. I think that that’s also really fascinating, because you… I see this a lot in adverts or company profiles, especially in Silicon Valley where the descriptions all kind of tend to sound the same. “We’re super fun. We hang out all the time. We have lots of games and we all drink.” It always… they say they’re hiring for different people but you’re right. The culture always seems to be the same in every environment. So, the question is how do you create a world where within the company, a world where everybody can have their voice and be comfortable.
Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot that we discuss quite a bit here at Andela is extrovert versus introverts, and how the world is primed and built for extroverts. But how do we make sure that those of us whose energy comes from different places are also served just as well and feel comfortable in that environment?
JANELLE: I’ve just been kicking back listening to you and taking all these notes. And there’s this theme that I hear emerging in the references you’re making of continuously taking the problem that you’re looking at and then zooming out and zooming out and zooming out and relating it to that bigger picture. And that bigger picture always comes back to culture. And when you started and talked about your superpower with empathy and you mentioned your mom, I have that in the back of my head. And then I’m thinking about where we went with this discussion to the meaning of diversity and diversity of thought specifically. And what I’ve come to really appreciate in different people is to learn how to see through their eyes and to listen to them and see ‘How is it that you see the world?’. And when you learn how to look at the world through another person’s eyes, that’s where you really get that diversity of thought coming together in synergy.
And so, the question on my mind that I wanted to ask you is you’ve got this rich culture that comes from your mom and from Kenya and this savings culture and everything that means. And that’s given you a current set of eyes. And so, when you look at the human system around you, what I’d like to ask you is just what are the major patterns that pop out to you? What do you see?
REHEMA: Would this be specific to Kenya or just in general?
JANELLE: I think contrasting those things. If you think about that upbringing and you look at the things around you, I’m guessing what you see is a lot of dissonance with that culture. Like savings culture and what that means. Here we promote the complete opposite. It’s a spending culture, right? And that contrast alone is very distinctive. And it’s also in that meaning of diversity, right? It all comes together in that human system. And I bet given the things you’ve bene talking about, you see a lot of contrast in that. But it is contrast at the same time, like the smart city movement is very much happening. It’s very much alive here, right? But there’s a lot of contrast to that, too, of people stuck in the weeds in their thinking where you’re like, “Bigger picture. Bigger picture. Bigger picture.” Like an echo.
REHEMA: Yeah. So, when I’ve been fortunate enough to travel, I spent a bit of time in the US. And when I contrast these different places that I’ve been in and the different spaces I move through, I think one thing that always strikes me is how to some extent, people are fundamentally looking for the same things. It’s just how they go about actually getting them that tends to be very different, or even how they will talk about how they go about getting them. So, I don’t know. The interesting thing about comparing people in Nairobi specifically to people in for example New York City is there’s a very similar drive towards being active and active in terms of hustling. Like, I need to get to this next thing. I need to get this next gig. I need to push and push and push.
And I don’t know. It’s interesting how people will describe what they are doing, because here it’s very much like that’s the accepted thing. Whenever people from outside come to visit, they’re always fascinated by the fact that so many developers are doing other things completely unrelated sometimes to actually being developers. You have people who have farms. You have people who are like, raising livestock. You have people who are doing very different things. But here, it’s just part of the culture and the energy of the space. So, it gives the two cities very similar energies in terms of being very almost frenetic and high-speed. But at the end of the day what people are looking for is a sense of independence, a sense of control over their lives and their incomes in many ways. In Nairobi that’s very much geared towards ‘I need to do this because for me, but also because I need to support family’. In places like New York, it’s ‘I need to do this for me because I need to be at a certain level and have a certain level of accomplishment’.
So, people are sort of going after the same things in what seems to me to be increasingly similar ways, like the gig economy and all that stuff. But the way that they talk about it here, they’ll always try and frame it in terms of “I’m doing this because people need me to do this.” Or people often are the only breadwinners or have come from outside of Nairobi and therefore this is their one big break and if they don’t make it then the world falls apart. So, that’s been interesting to see. I don’t know if I’m really getting on, I’m really touching on what you’re asking in terms of the human systems. I don’t know. I might need to think about that a little bit more.
ASTRID: It sounds like what you’re saying Rehema is that they’re doing the same sort of things but in the context of the values of wherever they’re from and what’s going to be rewarded. Is that right?
REHEMA: Yeah, yeah. I think so. I think so.
ASTRID: Earlier in the conversation you were talking about how people kind of get tracked into different routes, like you’re good at math and science, you’re more humanistic. And some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately are similar and to like, how do you stop making it about those specific traits and more about how people think? And you had also mentioned how the reason why you wanted to pick up more coding skills is because you wanted to be able to make things. And so, I wanted to ask you what you thought about creating and making as something that is more neutral in terms of you’re not really talking about how you’re doing it. And if people can start to think of themselves as wanting to be creators and if that can help them switch their mindset a little bit and give them more access to maybe something that they weren’t trained to do.
REHEMA: Absolutely. That’s something that’s actually quite close to my heart [Laughs] as an area of discussion. So, like I mentioned, growing up school was fun for me. And I think I’m quite lucky for that, because I know for a number of people, it wasn’t. And I think for me it was fun because again I enjoyed learning. I enjoyed the process and act of learning. I did well in my studies and so I got a lot of positive feedback. “You’re smart. You’re clever. You’re intelligent. Good job.” That all fell apart once I got to college, actually. I started a bit late. I think I joined about a week after everybody else did. And I had put myself in this, I guess it was an accelerated intermediate Spanish class or something like that. I’d only done Spanish for three months before then, but I somehow tested into it. And I was excited. I loved learning languages, which probably also explains why I love being a developer. But I was excited and I joined the class and I realized that it was a week late but I figured, “Oh, I’ll just catch up.” And I never did. It was a four-credit class and I think I got a D by the end of it. So, this is first semester, first year, new country, university and all of that. And I was failing that class that had the most credits.
I think that was my first major experience with failure and I completely fell apart. I didn’t know what to do. My whole identity was built around this idea that I am clever, I am an intelligent person. Nothing should be too difficult for me. Failure shouldn’t happen. And I completely fell apart. And it took a while, probably the rest of my college career and a lot of time after that, to realize that essentially what they call the ‘growth mindset’ versus ‘fixed mindset’ of me believing that I was a certain way and it was therefore a fixed amount of intelligence that I had and I had surpassed it when I failed and realized that I had used up my quota of intelligence, so to speak. And that was that. But fortunately, over many sort of almost painful years of trying and failing and trying and failing, I got comfortable with the idea of failure. And reading about growth versus fixed mindsets and seeing people who are a lot more comfortable with experimenting and creating helped me realize that actually, I needed to change the way I think about things.
And it’s interesting because to me, being a creator, when you’re in the context of development it’s very specific. Like, yes there was nothing there and I built something and now there’s something there for somebody to interact with. But I think it applies to everything. Like, people who cook, people who make music, people who write, people who do haircuts. The idea of being a creator to me matters or integrates with the idea of a growth mindset because essentially what you’re saying is, “I’m going to take a blank page,” so to speak, “and I’m going to put something on it. And I’m going to see where that leads.” And it doesn’t have to be perfect from the get go. And even if it goes wrong, I can always fix it, change it, scrap it, start again, and create something else. So to me, that mindset of being comfortable, being a tinkerer, being comfortable with just playing almost with things and just to see where they lead, has been really important, like shift in my mindset.
When I started writing code, I was terrified of breaking anything. I always thought that to even begin writing the code I needed to know the exact right way to approach a particular problem. And I would spend hours trying to google and research and figure out, ‘What is the right way?’ before I would even begin. And it took me a lot of unlearning to get past that and to be comfortable making mistakes, essentially. Hopefully none that cost my company anything. [Chuckles] But being comfortable with that frame of mind. And I’m applying it to all different areas of my life. Learning how to play the ukulele, for instance. I’ve always loved music, always wanted to learn how to do something and how to play something. But I was always like, “If I’m not going to be perfect, then why begin?” which is a terrible way to go through life because essentially you never do anything. You never challenge yourself. So yeah, I’m all about thinking about myself and having other people think about themselves as creators.
REHEMA: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s awesome. Actually, I’m going to start adding that to my mental lingo. [Laughs]
ASTRID: I love that story, Rehema, because I feel like there are so many people who when they hear will be nodding and saying, “Oh my god, that’s me. Oh my god, that’s me.” And we don’t hear enough of it because there tends to be a lot of discussion about how amazing you are and how you got to be so amazing and how your amazing is so special that nobody can be amazing like you.
ASTRID: And there’s not a lot of discussion about “Yeah, this was hard and I failed. And then I tried and I failed again. And I tried and I failed again.” Even in the “tech failure stories” it’s always like “Yeah, they gave me a hundred million dollars and then that company crashed and burned, but it’s okay because I took a vacation and I thought about things. And then when I came back from climbing that mountain, I realized I could do this other thing.” And that’s really not helpful for most people to try to take that next step forward. So, thank you so much for sharing that.
REHEMA: Yeah, no problem. And one place that I really like to go to read stories about people who are still in the weeds and trying to figure that out, especially entrepreneurs, is Indie Hackers. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that. They have a really good newsletter where people ask different questions but also a lot of people will just talk about their experiences trying to build something and the mistakes that they made. Which I think yeah, is important to hear that over and over again. And especially back now in my context of being in a developing country. We’re in a position where the majority of our leaders are a generation or two older than the majority of the population that they’re leading.
And I think the topic of empowerment is a difficult one. Because on one hand, you have a group of leaders who perhaps see things in a very different way and believe in a sort of “I’m going to tell you what to do so you should do it” type of mentality, the traditional teacher/student type of relationship where you don’t really have an opportunity to ask questions or at least in our context, you’re not really supposed to talk back to a teacher and question them or challenge them. And I see that a lot. We see that when we go and do mentoring or tutoring for kids in different schools. And you ask kids a question and everyone will be scared to respond, not because they don’t know the answer but because they haven’t been in an environment where they’re empowered to speak and to have their voices heard and that their thoughts are valid.
So, letting people know that it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to try and to create and you have some agency in your world I think is such an important mindset to have, not just for us as we build things in our day-to-day lives, but in an entire population actually, of people who will become the next business owners and public leaders and all of that.
JANELLE: So, there’s no real right answer to this question. What I asked you was essentially ‘What do you see?’ because we were talking about this diversity of thought and perspective. And I wanted to be able to just see the things that stand out to you as a starting point. So, we got Nairobi versus New York City. Two cities, both very high-speed. And you’ve got this similar active drive and hustle, the similar culture in terms of push, push, push toward the next thing. And what you described as the importance of this is the sense of independence and control over your life, of your income, being able to choose your next goal, where you invest your energy, whether it be your money or your time. And at the core of this seems to be the essence of what it means to be a free human being. [Chuckles] And there’s constraints in terms of things that we shackle ourselves down with in terms of culture and shapes.
And we talked a little bit about identity and how we look at ourselves. And then you mentioned earlier about how technology has this role in shaping culture, in shaping that human system. And so, you’ve connected these things together. So, you’re always going big picture, big picture, big picture, right? And so, I’m wondering then, if these are the patterns you see at a societal level, how do you think technology has helped to shape those two systems similarly and differently?
REHEMA: I think one thing that always stands out to me about a difference between the two societies that I’ve moved through, Kenya and the US, one of the things that always strikes me about the US and I think for any foreigner who visits especially if you’re coming from a developed country, is you can see the history of the place. America’s very good at, and has been very good at, telling a very unified story to the outside world, to the international community, about its origin story, going back to superheroes. Its origin story, its ethics, values, the people who made it great, the things that they’ve built. And you’ll see monuments to that and you’ll see all of this massive effort to preserve a particular narrative in the history, right? I know the US last year was having some trouble with that. [Chuckles] But from the outside it’s always seemed very unified. One thing that I struggle with as an African is where to find that at home in terms of where the monuments to the people who’ve made our countries and our continent great, where the monuments to the things that we have built that have stood the test of time.
So, one thing that Andela’s director, country director of Nigeria, our Nigeria campus, his name is Seni Sulyman, he loves to say “Africa may have missed the industrial revolution but we’re not going to miss the technology one.” And I think that’s the thought that I think is really important for a particular generation of Africans in terms of “How do we build things that will last?” And how do we build things that can become part of that conversation and part of the monuments to what makes this continent important and incredible and amazing? And they don’t have to match what has made the west and what has made America important and amazing. We’re trying to create our own narrative and our own story.
So, in terms of how technology can bring that about for us, because technology is in many ways such a huge force for democratization (if I’m saying that correctly), it’s an opportunity to really build something that could change the narrative around the entire continent, if that makes sense. So, I guess in some way, it very much ties into why I wanted to be part of Andela and what Andela is all about. It’s essentially founded on the belief that brilliance is evenly distributed but opportunity isn’t. So, how do we create that opportunity? How do we make it accessible? So, we’re about creating an entire network of technologists that will be not only the leaders for Africa but for the world as a whole, to be global technology leaders and creating solutions in a world and a space that is really moving forward in a more inclusive and supportive way.
So, that’s an area where I’ve seen so far has been a huge difference between the African context and for example the North American one, where there’s a history there and a narrative that continues to empower young people in the US telling them that if you’re going to build something, it’ll impact the world. And that’s very true in Silicon Valley, I think. That’s the narrative in Silicon Valley. But in the US as a whole, you build products for the United States but they impact the world. That’s something that I think we feel very strongly about here now in the African continent, that it’s now our turn to do that. And we’re empowering people to do that. We’re building solutions that may begin locally but will impact the world, essentially. Does that connect? [Laughs]
JANELLE: Yeah, I thought that was great. There are so many great things in that of what I ultimately heard you coming to with technology empowers people.
JANELLE: And lets us have an impact, lets us not be invisible. And our narrative that we push forward as ourselves, this is the foundation of our identity. This is our story. And if you think about who I am, what it comes back to is, what is my story? What is the narrative I’m telling? And whether we’re telling that narrative as an individual, as a team, as a company, as a nation, there’s this echo of the same kind of human system that we’re talking about at all these different levels of abstraction, that bigger picture, bigger picture, bigger picture. That echo. And so, that’s kind of what I hear from you when you jump to these different tangents, is there’s essentially isomorphisms between these different contexts that are associated with identity.
REHEMA: Very much so, with identity and the story we tell ourselves about what is possible. Because if our identity is built around the idea that we missed out in this revolution, we missed out on that revolution, we don’t hear or see or tell stories about the things that have made us as the African people uniquely powerful and uniquely fantastic. If we don’t hear enough of those stories, then our idea of what’s possible, what’s in the realm of possibility is therefore very small in comparison to the kinds of stories that in the US, that you are told and that you hear about yourselves as a people.
So for me, yeah exactly what you’re saying, identity is so important. Because if we continue to push the ideas of what is possible, if we change what the stereotypical developer is supposed to look like and I present myself as a developer and I’m saying “I’m from Kenya, born and bred. I’m female. I changed careers. I’d done all of these different things,” and there’s so many stories here of people who come from such different backgrounds who are creating and building such incredible things, I think that narrative is so important. And that’s why Andela is more than just a company. It’s really a movement, because we’re tapping into that and saying “This is possible. We are here. We are working out of our native countries. I don’t have to leave my home in order to have global impact.” And that’s so important to me.
JANELLE: That’s beautiful. Because it basically echoes as a statement of identity “We’re just going to be superheroes. We’re going to choose to be superheroes and let technology empower us to make the world a better place.” That’s the identity statement.
REHEMA: Yeah, exactly. [Chuckles]
JESSICA: This goes back to something we wanted to talk to you about, which was you told us that sometimes you feel insecure about not having the traditional developer story?
REHEMA: Yes, yeah.
JESSICA: I love that ‘brilliance is evenly distributed but opportunity isn’t’ in relation to that. Because maybe it’s like we think of developers as having learned to program as children and been doing this their whole lives and they had computers as kids and this is how the grew up, and that’s the traditional getting into programming story. But maybe that’s not where brilliance is distributed. It’s where opportunity is distributed.
REHEMA: Precisely. Exactly. [Laughs] You’d be surprised the number of people who started learning how to code on phones here. They saw games or whatnot and they were just like, “Hey, let me just try and figure out how to make a game.” The number of my colleagues who first interacted with computers when they were in high school or once they were in college didn’t even have laptops of their own, borrowed from friends, because they were just, they saw something. They saw somebody write something or they saw a game or they saw a website and they were like, “Hey, I’m really curious about that. Let me figure out how to do this thing.” And now they’re here working for companies like Viacom. They’re working for companies like Facebook. And it’s amazing, right? And I think that every single day that I come to work and I’m working with people and I’m interacting with them, that always come to mind as why it’s so important that we do provide and we do give people access to different kinds of opportunities. Because it’s not always going to come from the most traditional or the most obvious of places. And there’s the whole narrative, I think especially in startups about yeah, they went to university and then they dropped out. And here it’s like, “Well, some people didn’t even have that opportunity to get to university.” but here they are still creating incredible things.
REIN: When you think about the global tech community culture, it is extremely anglocentric. And one of the outcomes of that is that work done by people that aren’t in the USA, Europe, especially people in the global south, is erased. We don’t know that it exists unless you go look for it. And even if you do, it can be hard to find. So, I wonder how many of our listeners knew that there was a system for mobile payments in Africa before Apple Pay was a thing. I wonder how many of our listeners knew that Chile in the early 70s had a cybernetic software-based system that managed their global economy that is the basis for a lot of work in cybernetics. It’s led to things like [Kybernetes] today. We don’t know that. If you go search…
REIN: For that project, it’s called Project Cybersyn. If you search for it on Amazon, there are zero results and Amazon things you misspelled something else.
REIN: So, this work around the world that’s getting done in various countries that don’t speak English, that aren’t primarily white, is erased. It’s hard to find. And That’s a tragedy as far as I’m concerned. And I’m wondering what we can do about that.
REHEMA: Very true. I mean, even when you think about it essentially, to be able to code means to have to learn English. [Chuckles] Essentially.
SAM: At least the 50 or so keywords that are used in most programming languages, right?
REHEMA: [Laughs] Exactly. But even…
JESSICA: But the documentation.
REHEMA: Just to read documentation. Exactly, yeah. I was working with a developer from Albania and he was saying to me how when he started off it would take him an incredible amount of time because he had to, when he was looking something up [Chuckles] for every other word that he read, he would have to google that word. So forget just trying to understand documentation, which can be difficult enough in and of itself. He had to understand the language as well. And I never really thought about that because Kenya is predominantly, English is one of our national languages. So, it’s not something that I’d had to think about. And even then, you’d assume that because I’m coming from a country where we do speak a lot of other languages, that that’s something that I would be sensitive to. But it wasn’t until I met someone who was from somewhere where English isn’t even on the menu, he was like, “Yeah, that was actually a really big challenge.” But he’s grateful fro now the ability to learn the language because it’s helping him in other ways in terms of his education and his business opportunities and all fo that. But again…
SAM: Thanks, colonialism.
REHEMA: [Laughs] Exactly. Very anglocentric world that we’re living in. Yeah, I don’t know how we go about fixing that. I think part of it is telling these stories of people from different places and having their voices heard. The fact that you guys agreed to have me on here, I think that’s incredible because otherwise there isn’t much of an avenue for people from different parts of the world to tell their stories and have them heard on the global platforms. That’s quite tricky. But I do think that the tech world does it better than most though, even having said all of that. Because I think there is, okay with some caveats, I think if you’re working on things that are already deemed interesting by the Silicon Valley set, then yes, you’ll be able to maybe have your voice heard. If you’re working in spaces that are not directly related to the next Uber or the next e-commerce app, if you’re working on things that are more local to your context or even more focused on civic tech, then I think there is still more of a challenge there and we still need to highlight those projects because they’re just as important.
JESSICA: Yeah. And that gets back to the empathy of, can you appreciate a solution to a problem that you don’t have?
REHEMA: Right. [Laughs] Absolutely, yeah. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m not entirely sure how that’s something that we can solve until we really appreciate what we were saying earlier about the importance of diversity and the importance of different people’s perspectives. Because at the end of the day, it might not be a problem that you have directly, but I think we should be able to appreciate and try to understand the difficulty that somebody else is having and how that solution then solves that. But yeah, that’s a tricky one. Because I think it means not just being able to imagine having a problem but to imagine how that problem then affects so many other aspects of somebody’s life, right?
So, I read about, sorry I watched a documentary actually about a coding competition for young girls in different parts of the world. And I think there was a group of girls from an Eastern European country. I don’t remember which one, but if I find it I’ll share it with you guys. And they had a problem where in their town, clean drinking water is very difficult to find. So, what these girls did is they built an app that basically pointed people to all of the wells in the surrounding neighborhoods and would have indicators for the level of cleanliness of the water or like at different times of the day or at different times of the month. I can’t remember. But essentially, a way for people to easily check and see which wells were most appropriate to go get clean drinking water. So, that’s a solution that’s very much tied into that particular area. But you’d also have to understand why, for you to understand how important their solution is, you’d have to understand how lack of access to sanitary drinking water can affect so many other aspects of their lives.
So, it’s not just about understanding a specific problem but understanding a whole context in which somebody lives. And that takes a lot of mental effort. [Chuckles] And I guess some people would find that to be too much work. But I think hopefully if we continue to tell the stories in a positive and inspiring way, more people would be interested, hopefully. And want to take part in those discussions. Because eventually, there will be some application or some learnings that they can take and bring back to their own context.
SAM: I’m really encouraged by that particular example just because it tells me that the tools of programming and creation are accessible enough that they can be picked up and used by people who have such different contexts than somebody in my position does.
REHEMA: Yeah. Technology as a tool is incredible, I really think. And so is the internet, which allows us to go and find out all of these things. But not everyone has access to [Laughs] internet easily. Which is again, another challenge. So, seeing stories like that and hearing about people who’ve been able to create solutions in that way is really inspiring but it’s also I feel like another reminder of just how important it is to make sure that these tools are actually more greatly accessible.
SAM: Oh yeah. I didn’t mean to imply that we don’t have a lot further to go. But yeah, definitely.
REIN: We were talking earlier about access to opportunities being unequally distributed. I think in my mind there’s another thing that’s very important that’s also unequally distributed, which is freedom of creative expression. The ability to…
JESSICA: Is that the ability to make mistakes?
REIN: It’s the ability to create on your own terms without being dictated by other people.
REHEMA: Can you give us an example?
REIN: Yeah, so… and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t name-drop a philosopher on one of these shows.
SAM: Bring it.
REIN: John Locke, the inventor of classical liberalism, said that the basic human rights were life, liberty, and ownership of property. Wilhelm von Humboldt a hundred years later said that the basic human rights were freedom of inquiry and freedom of creative expression. And the example he gave is that if a craftsperson makes a piece of art of a sculpture or something like that on their own terms, we generally respect their creative expression. If they were told to make a thing by someone else, if they made it for their boss, we can appreciate the thing they made but not respect the way it was made. So, access to freedom of creative expression is necessary for art and I think it’s necessary for a lot of human growth.
JANELLE: I think this was the same thing I was seeing before in the contrast that I brought up freedom. And then Jessica made this funny face like, “What?”
JANELLE: And I was sitting there thinking about well, how does this fit in? But it’s this theme that I see repeating with this idea of basic human rights and being able to see all this potential of what could be. And then being able to have the freedom to reach for your dreams and to express creatively. And in order to do that, to not have shackles that hold us from those things, we have to have knowledge distributed. We have to have the opportunity to be able to experience these things, to have the basis of knowledge so that we can participate in that. And once we’re empowered by technology which is awesome because it’s just, we’re empowered by the ability, the things that we learn, by things that are in our mind. They’re not things that we acquire. They’re not materialistic things. It’s the ability to create with our mind, the ability to do free, creative expression. Think about what you can do with software. It’s amazing. It’s like magic. We can create anything we can dream, right?
And so, if you think about the freedom of creative expression as something that’s core and fundamental to be what it means to be human, and you bring back this contrast in culture of movement, movement, movement. We’re always pushing forward toward the next thing. And then when you look at that system and how technology influences the culture, then you’re like, well what if this was the thing that we all looked at? What if we saw our potential? What if we imagine that we could build anything that we can imagine and we started working together to make that happen? What if we looked at the human system and started with smart cities you brought up? So, that’s sort of the similar theme i’m hearing, is there’s all this potential that we’re wasting because of our culture, essentially. Like barriers in our culture. And what if things like, we could tell our stories and identities and we could accept people for who they were and the way that they saw the world and their unique perspectives that they brought to the table? And you described those things at a team level, an individual level, and then at a national level too, which I thought was really interesting.
REHEMA: Yeah. Because I think the world that you’re describing would be utopia, right? And I think that we can get closer to it, inching closer to it, in different ways and with different aspects. But you’re right. I think that’s such a profound way of looking at the whole idea of human potential, and through human potential achieving an incredible almost nationwide or continent-wide potential. I think for the context of the African continent, access to that kind of freedom is something that we have been sorely lacking. And what you’re seeing now is this huge resurgence in music and fashion and food and all of these different things that help to cement and celebrate different aspects of different cultures within these different countries. And it’s so fascinating to see that grow, because I think the more that we celebrate in the things that we are able to do, the more people’s minds open up. And the more they’re able to start thinking beyond what we currently have and think about the opportunities of the future and how they can make the best use of that.
What’s been really fun for me personally is, so currently Andela is based out of three countries in Africa. We’re in Lagos, Nigeria, Nairobi, Kenya (where I’m based), and Kampala, Uganda. So, we have a lot of exchanges where we’ll meet and hang out with folks from the Lagos office or from the Uganda office and it’s just so fascinating to see and to experience and enjoy everybody’s differences and the cultures. Because they’re all very different. And we all get to interact and share so much. And I think that really adds to and builds to everybody’s sense of what we’re doing and what we’re building might look slightly different in each country but it’s all moving towards the same ideas and goals of opportunity and what can we do and what can we make of this opportunities that we have? What can we build for each other? What can we share with each other to help continue to grow and cement this movement? And I think that’s such a cool, cool way of thinking about it, what freedom can do for lighting a fire essentially, towards achieving such incredible things. That’s so exciting. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way. But that’s really cool.
JESSICA: Speaking of really cool, it’s now time for reflections. Who wants to go first?
ASTRID: I can go. What I wanted to bring up was what you had said Rehema about you having to unlearn this need to wanting to be perfect or wanting to have the right solution first. Because I think it’s something that happens a lot. I know for me it’s something that still happens to me a lot except it’s more under the radar whereas before it was top of mind. But now it’s, “Why haven’t I done this yet? Oh, because I think I have to make it perfect.” Or I want it to be this way, instead of just starting. And I feel that it’s applicable to actually writing code. But I think it’s also applicable in other aspects of your life where it’s very uncomfortable to be uncomfortable so much and I think it makes you want to retreat back to what you know so that you can at least feel some sense of safety again. And you have to push yourself to take baby steps so that you’re not still in the same place month after month, year after year. So, I thought that was a really great thing to remind everybody about.
JESSICA: One thing that stood out to me was that Rehema, you said that people outside of the US don’t often get an opportunity like this podcast to speak to people globally. And I’m like, “Whoa, our podcast is global?”
JESSICA: But, but, but I think you have a great point there and we should seek out guests from all around the world and do this disparate timezone thing some more.
REHEMA: Absolutely. There are so many stories out there that are just waiting for a mic. [Chuckles] It would be incredible just to hear from these different people, to hear so many different perspectives. Because it makes our worlds all that much richer for it. But also because there could be real sparks of inspiration from people’s stories and the things that they work with and the things that they’ve created. If you guys could create that kind of a platform, I think that would be incredible because I also think it would be very, very unique.
JESSICA: Greater Than Code: The World Tour.
REHEMA: Do it. [Laughs]
ASTRID: I like the sound of that, I really do.
SAM: One thing that really stood out for me was Rehema, your story about failing in your first semester of Spanish and you were talking about the fixed versus growth mindset. And that really resonated for me because a lot of the frustration that I feel in life really does come from that place of feeling like I should be good at something from the get go. So, it was a really useful reminder to me and hopefully to our listeners as well that I need to be more gentle with myself, that I need to accept mistakes as being part of the learning process, and how you get good at something is by [chuckles] being bad at something first. And Rein, I’m going to take your reminder to heart to add the word ‘yet’ at the end of my sentences now. So, thank you all.
REIN: I’m glad that we as a podcast are thinking about how we can add more diverse voices. I think we do better than most people or most podcasts in the game right now because our focus is on people and because we care about getting diverse viewpoints. But we’re still reaching into a really small pool. And there’s so much more that we could be doing.
And my other reflection would be that diversity is not just good for ethical reasons. It’s also a way to make your organization more competent. Because you need at least as much variety to solve problems as the variety of problems you have.
REIN: And the way that you get that variety as an organization is through diversity of experiences, of viewpoints, of all sort.
SAM: And you have more problems than you think you do.
REIN: And so, if you want as an organization to solve harder problems, to become more competent, that’s where you should be looking.
JANELLE: So, the thing that really struck me that I still got on my mind was right at the end you mentioned fashion. And so I’m thinking “Fashion? Where does fashion come into this?” But you brought up this idea of celebrating culture and celebrating our stories through fashion and how beautiful that was to be able to empower something like fashion. And when I started thinking about who I am and who we are and you start thinking about what matters to us, being able to express my soul, being able to express my art, that essence of creative freedom; and then I’m thinking about fashion and it’s the same kind of thing, right? We have all of our stories and all these things that we build which is the beauty that comes out of us. And that maybe if we just take a step back, that fundamental thing that we can do to influence the culture around us is just celebrating beautiful. And I think that’s ultimately the message I hear you echoing through all of the things that you’re saying when you’re admiring all these different cultures, when you’re admiring all these different people, is to celebrate beautiful.
REHEMA: Yeah. I think that’s probably yeah, my reflection as well, my takeaway from this. Because I’m all about opportunity and I believe in it so much but I hadn’t, even I hadn’t thought about it in terms of fundamental right to freedom, which I think is such an incredible way to think about it. Because technology as a tool, like we said, it democratizes. It has so many applications. Like you said, it’s like magic, right? You can create entire worlds with it, which I think is what so many of us love about this. But if we do go slightly more bigger picture and we pull back and we’re looking at people’s fundamental rights to have freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and the ability to create, and the kind of mindset that allows them to see the world around them and want to, and feel like they have the ability to effect change and positive change hopefully on it, then opportunity isn’t something that somebody else has to provide. It becomes something that people are able to take and make for themselves. And that’s the big thing that I’ve taken away from this conversation. Thank you guys for directing that and for bringing that up because I think that’s really cool.
JESSICA: Awesome. Rehema, thank you so much for coming on the show.
REHEMA: Thank you guys for having me. This has been a blast. [Laughs]
JESSICA: As a reminder to our listeners, if you like the show and you want to hear more of it, Greater Than Code is a listener-sponsored show. We are looking for a few really special companies to sponsor episodes but we’re pretty much listener-supported. And you can participate in that. And if you contribute to our Patreon in any amount, even $1 once, you get an invitation to the exclusive Greater Than Code Slack channel, which is my favorite Slack channel because it’s not very high volume and everyone is super nice. And especially, you get access to the overheard channel where I put things that Rein has said without attributing them.
REIN: Wait, what?
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