Navigating LEADing to Africa for African Careers

By Christopher Mesiku.

Chris discusses the solar energy curve with IBM Scientists Arun Vishwanath and Julian de Hoog in Australia"
Chris discusses the solar energy curve with IBM Scientists Arun Vishwanath and Julian de Hoog in Australia

If you were a child of the 80s or 90s you might remember reading a choose-your-own-adventure book. My favourite was The Cave of Time by Edward Packard. Typically, these series of books had four or five different plots with as many different endings. The reader chooses different plots and combines them with a variety of endings. My participation in the IBM LEADing to Africa (L2A) program had many parallels with these choose-your-own-adventure books. For instance, L2A was fulfilling because I had full control and ownership for completion of my projects.

L2A is a unique IBM program that allows successful applicants to carry out a three-month project of their choice. These projects are tailored to the science, technology and innovation industry of key African countries. Some of these countries being Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. All business areas of IBM can offer L2A positions including IBM Research where I was based. A key aim of the program is to help candidates to establish networks and pathways that lead to long-term careers in any one of those key countries in Africa.

As an African with visions of creating positive impact in Africa, I’m inspired by ideas for Africa’s economic development and by personal career aspirations in Science Technology and Innovation (STI). Sadly, Africa itself offers minimal opportunities for its STI graduates to pursue careers that contribute to solutions for the region. I came to the L2A program as a result of discussing some of these challenges with IBM’s Dr Juerg von Kaenel during a networking event. We came to the conclusion that the L2A program is a promising pathway for me because it gave candidates the opportunity to make a difference through a profitable career in African STI. As a word of caution, my L2A experience taught me that turning the experience into a career in Africa depends on each candidate’s willingness to explore many possibilities, to take risks and on their willingness to surpass personal goals.

Chris presents his research to scientists at IBM Research Australia Melbourne lab
Chris presents his research to scientists at IBM Research Australia Melbourne lab

When I was accepted as a L2A candidate by IBM Research Australia, I had the initiative and willingness to explore IBM Research teams and research articles. I chose a project that was concerned with solar energy because of its potential for impact in African STI. The project required me to explore and investigate Machine Learning solutions to solar energy challenges by collaborating with  scientists in Africa and with Australian based experts in the Multimedia Analytics team.

IBM’s innovative environment encourages collaborative risk taking and many of my solutions were a result of my willingness to take calculated risks. In addition, I had made a conscious decision to learn about the sorts of research my colleagues were undertaking and this gave me an opportunity to collaborate with them. As I discovered, it is necessary to know the research of yours peers and your own goals while being proactive in seeking help to achieve those goals. IBM’s innovative culture inspired me to think big and to surpass my personal goals.

Chris and IBM scientist Alexe Bojovschi taking a break from research
Chris and IBM scientist Alexe Bojovschi taking a break from research

One of my personal goals was to improve my ability to communicate technological solutions to a variety of clients. Throughout my L2A experience, I devoted sometime each week to practise public speaking and presentation skills. These were enhanced by impromptu presentations to visiting IBMers and planned research presentation during the Melbourne Research Lab’s Research Seminar Series. My rewarding L2A experience demonstrated to me that even when the time is short, you can achieve great things as long as you commit resolutely to achieving them.

Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, my time at IBM demonstrated that L2A candidates must take responsibility for their success. The program will appeal most to those candidates who are seriously considering a long-term career in Africa within one or two years.

All successful candidates will benefit from creating a list of goals prior to their arrival at IBM and by remaining flexible and adaptable. During my final month at IBM, I realised I had a successful L2A experience because I had made friendships through networks that are prepared to actively support my transition to an STI career in Africa.

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About the Author

Christopher Mesiku is a PhD student at the University of Queensland, Australia. Prior to his candidature, a scholarship from the Australian National University and Questacon-The National Science and Technology Centre led him to work in various research fields including astronomy research and outreach. He has a Physics degree from Flinders University, Australia and a Masters from the University of Queensland, Australia. Chris has just completed an internship at IBM Research Australia as part of the IBM LEADing to Africa program.

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