Leah Ndikuwera is a systems analyst who is passionate about providing innovative solutions to aid humanitarian causes. She is an Equity and Merit Scholar from the University of Manchester where she received her MSc Management and Information systems under the Global Development Institute. She also holds a BSc in Computer Science from Makerere University.
Currently, Leah works at the Democratic Governance Facility in Kampala where she manages the planning, development, and operationalization of the facility’s information systems. Prior to that, Leah worked at Evidence Action, an international not for profit organization, where she spearheaded the technical team as the senior associate in charge of management information systems.
Why did you get into STEM?
My primary school offered so many extra-curricular activities, it was around grade 3 that my school opened a computer lab and placed it on the afternoon roster as a new activity. It was a toss-up between ballet and computer class, which were scheduled at the same time. Since I had already auditioned and had a few lessons in ballet, the excitement for it had fizzled and so computer class won the internal battle. Keep in mind, around this time we were in the age of MS-DOS where everything was done on the command line, later on when we started using Windows 95 I almost lost my mind when I discovered solitaire. Throughout the years in school, I was always interested in subjects that had very little theory and a larger amount of applied problem solving; I found them easier to understand and excel at. STEM seemed natural to me and I have always been interested in all aspects of it.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
My greatest achievements so far are all the accumulated victories that I have had while practicing in my field, from getting to grips with new technologies on the fly to implementing completed systems. I am also really proud of my Master’s degree. During my dissertation I experienced so many unforeseen issues and ended up only having about 3 months to conduct my empirical study – for those that have written a Masters research thesis, you can appreciate how challenging that was. I don’t remember sleeping during those months but I completed it and graduated.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Information systems are tricky, they require you to know and have experience with a substantial amount of fields in computing and business. You must have hard skills in server management and administration, programming, development, and database design, as well as soft skills for understanding business, approaches, organizational development, negotiation and change management. You must also be a very good communicator speaking both the technical and business language so as to not have any misunderstanding on either side. If you are a team leader you also have to add the challenges that come with leadership on your docket. Staying sharp and up to date is challenging and I have to constantly be reading and learning new things since organization needs are fluid. As a technical lead, most interactions will be from a point where you have been hired as an expert and you should be in a position to provide an informed recommendation.
As a woman in STEM I have found that I will most likely not be equally respected for my skill on paper and have had to go the extra mile to prove myself. By doing this I have been a victim of what I like to call the ‘synonym effect’ where the unflattering choice of a word is used to describe you and your male counterparts differently. Where you are nit-picky, aggressive and emotional a male co-worker would be described as having attention to detail, a go-getter and passionate. To overcome this one has to grow a thick skin and not take words so personally in the workplace. The biggest challenge faced so far was realizing how unequally I was being compensated compared to my peers. This was particularly difficult because such things feed the imposter syndrome and make you doubt your ability. I have overcome this by learning how to pick my opportunities better.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM
For the budding women in STEM, know something about everything and everything about something. In order to be innovative, you cannot remain within one box of knowledge, master a field and gain insight and experience to another related field so that your ability to be a creative problem solver is enhanced. Keep learning, keep growing, understand your worth and never ever give up because your opportunity is always just on the horizon!