Mumbi Karanja is a telecommunications engineer, who has worked in both technical and business aspects of the profession. Problem solving is the basis of her profession. Her story is one of passion, a dream, and continuous growth.
Question: How did you choose telecommunications engineering and how was your journey to attaining the degree?
Mumbi: My goal, since I can remember, was to be successful. I had a mentor before I joined campus who helped me structure this goal. I believe that a mentor helps you to see where you are and where you want to go. He advised me to start gaining work experience from my first year. When I began the degree course in Telecommunication Engineering at JKUAT, I took this advice and did my first internship at Orange Kenya after my first year. They employed me to do general office work, since I had no technical knowledge at the time. My goal learn how a corporate environment works. The boss set really high targets but my opinion was, and still is, that a target is set so that it can be achieved. I always achieved my targets, and actually received an award for it! In my second year, I worked with a Safaricom contractor, Huawei. After my third year, I did two internships at the same time. I had timelines for both of them concurrently. I learnt to work more efficiently to complete my projects. I gained a lot of knowledge on the technical aspects of telecommunication. After my fourth year, I went to Germany on an exchange program. I worked under a professor who gave me an assignment to create a printed circuit board to control certain machines. I had not done this type of practical work before. I did a lot of research, asked lots of questions and it fell into place. I, also, sat in some lectures and noticed the that lectures were more engaging and more of a round-table discussion. I learnt that there is more to engineering than what we are taught in class. In class, we learn a lot of theory that we do not know how to apply it. I came back with an open mind from Germany, knowing that engineering is what you make it. The work that I did in Germany was useful since my final year project required design of a printed circuit board, which I did successfully.
“Engineering is for all. Engineering is what you make it.”
Question: What organizations were you a part of while still a student and what impact have they had on where you are today?
Mumbi: I went on the exchange program courtesy of IASTE which is an association that organizes exchange programs for technical experience worldwide. I became the secretary general of the organization after my return from an internship in Germany. Right now, I am the secretary general for IASTE alumni association. We are setting up a program for industry exchange, to allow alumni to get different experience. I was the chairman of Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Student chapter, where we did community based projects. One of the projects we did was solar-powering a school in Kasuluni. The biggest lesson I have learnt from being a member is that the power of networking can never be underestimated. I met lots of people, got technical experience during projects and had access to IEEE journals. I am, currently, a member of IEEE Young Professionals.
Question: After graduation, tell us about work and your experience.
Mumbi: I volunteered for a startup called Strauss Energy for a few months. It is fascinating to be part of a team, listening to new ideas and developing new technology. After that, I joined IBM as the Telecommunications Business Operations Engineer. The job meant managing business operations for clients. There are different departments dealing with different aspects of business operations such as servers, postpaid services, billing, interface with intelligent network and so on. I was not attached to any specific section so I got to know the business as a whole. Eventually, I became the point of contact for one specific client because they knew if they contacted me, I would sort out the problem or if not, I knew who does it. It helped me work directly with people and I learnt a lot. I was, eventually, moved to the products and promotions department, when some of the departments were moved out of the country. There was increased workload, and managing people in different countries. I trained my team in the best way that I could.
Question: You made a hard decision to leave IBM with no job in the horizon. What was your motivation?
Mumbi: My decision to leave IBM was based on my personal career growth. Since I had already worked in technical services, I wanted to understand how business and technology interact. How is technology an enabler in business and why is it necessary in business? I got an offer from Airtel to train their team, which I agreed to but limited my stay with them to 6 months. I immediately trained on eof the ladies in the team to take up my role when I left. After this 6 month stint, I interviewed by Data Capture Systems, dealing with end processing of data. Coincidentally, they found my profile online and called me for the job. I am currently the presales engineer, setting up the business in Africa, specifically in Kenya. My job involves meeting and handling clients, explaining technology in layman’s language since it is a new business. I have been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi for training on Radio-Frequency IDentification(RFIDs) and biometrics. The technology is being applied in so many ways in Abu Dhabi. For example, the parking system is based on RFIDs, where deductions are made directly from the vehicle’s RFID chip. I believe a lot of these technologies can change how Africa operates.
Question: You are an alumni of Young Africa Leaders Initiative (YALI). What was your greatest take-home from the program?
Mumbi: YALI was a platform for me to get the leadership skills that I would need to give back to the community. I had a personal initiative, mentoring students at a mixed high school in Kiserian. At IBM, I was, also, part of a program, in collaboration with Kibera School for Girls where we donated hours to train the girls in computing. YALI opened up my mind. One of the facilitators said “You can be whoever you want to be so don’t settle. Do what you want. You want to be an eagle because an eagle keeps transitioning. Don’t be afraid of what is ahead of you!” With the experience from YALI, I am planning to set up the computing project in my home village in Gatundu, where girls drop out mostly due to early pregnancies. I am also mentoring some ladies in terms of career growth. I am currently working with one lady who wants to grow her career but doesn’t know how to go about it, to guide her to grow her career. People have been recommending their daughters to me. I always make time for these people because my mentor no matter how busy he was, would make time for me.
“You can be whoever you want to be so don’t settle. Do what you want. You want to be an eagle because an eagle keeps transitioning. Don’t be afraid of what is ahead of you!”
Question: What is your vision for the future?
Mumbi: I am currently exposing the sales executives in my team to what RFID technology can be used for in industry. For example, in distribution, a loaded truck can be scanned by reading the RFID tag of all the crates. I am excited about the opportunities which enable me to learn the business and at the same time keep the technical business in check. I would, also, like to complete my MBA and continue with my mentoring projects.
Question: Comment on these three things: Leadership, Networking and Having a Mentor .
Mumbi: Leadership. Being a leader is sacrifice. It is having other people’s interests, making a vision for other people before having your own vision. I believe in servant leadership. Listen to people and let their voice be heard through you.
Networking. When you network, people know what you can do. Jobs are not advertised , most of the time, but given to a person who would suit the job. I take the first five minutes of meeting someone as a power pitch. I sell myself so that when they think of me when they need someone to do a job. I always do a follow up once I meet someone. I want to learn from you and you will also learn from me. It is very important to expand your networks, sometimes you need to do something that you cant do yourself. It will depend on how you networked and who you know. How do I network everyday? I talk to everyone in my office. Smile, say hello and treat everyone with respect. I try to accommodate everyone, and make them free to come to me. If I know there is someone who is doing something great, I always approach them and talk to them.
Having a mentor. Choose a mentor that you want to be like. Mentors set direction when you are lost. For example, before my resignation at IBM, I consulted my mentor. He gave me the pros and cons of both decisions and he was my pillar then. You need someone who encourages you, and believes in you. It is also good to have a mentor in your own industry because they understand what you are going through.
“Leadership is about lighting up another person’s candle for them to continue preaching the good news.”
Question: What is the most challenging thing being a woman in technical field?
Mumbi: Women have to prove themselves once they get the job. I also believe those who come before us make the field smaller. For example, there was an all-male department in IBM which came to be because all ladies would complain about working at night. So ladies who came to the department later were judged using the same mentality. I told my boss that I expected the same treatment as other engineers. I believe that a lady in engineering should go out there and know you are representing all ladies in tech. Do your best. Don’t restrict yourself. Do as much as you can do so that the young girl who comes after you will not be restricted based on your decisions.
Question: Do you have a quote that drives you?
Mumbi: There is nothing impossible. Our minds are what limit us.
Question: Any hobbies?
Mumbi: Travelling. I make time for it. I love cooking and baking. I like to try new recipes. I would like to start cycling.