In Conversation: Dr. Otlhapile Dinakenyane (Computer Science Lecturer, BIUST)

As an industry liaison at BIUST,  Dr. Dinakenyane's role, among many others, involves fostering collaboration between academia and industries to solve real-world community problems. In this interview, the Computer Science Ph.D. takes us through the importance of such collaborations, her Ph.D. thesis, her view on women's representation in Computer Science, and much more!

In your own words, please tell us who Dr. Otlhapile Dinakenyane

I am a computer scientist currently working as a lecturer and researcher in BIUST. I promote industry-university collaborations and STEM in general. I am also an aspiring farmer.

Briefly take us through your career journey in the field of Computer Science

I taught in Seepapitso Senior for a year and a half after completing my first degree. I then got a scholarship with BIUST to pursue my MSc in Software systems and Internet Technology in the UK with the then University of Sheffield. My sponsors offered me a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. immediately as they were pleased with my MSc performance. I completed my Ph.D. in Computer Science in November 2014 and joined BIUST immediately as a lecturer. I have since graduated one Ph.D. student and several MSc students. I am an industry liaison for our department and that aligns with my passion to see industry collaborating with universities to solve problems that exist in their immediate community and extend to the rest of the world. I have taught many subjects within the department among which include Programming with Java, Object Oriented programming, Mobile Computing, Human-Computer Interaction, Emerging Technologies, and Databases.  I recently embarked on a journey in Cyber Security. Though I have not been certified yet, I have done ethical hacking with the EC council and I am currently doing mobile security. I have a keen interest in issues surrounding social engineering as it seems trivial but can be catastrophic if not addressed properly. 

What was the motivation for pursuing this career path?

I honestly decided to venture into this path after my 1st year BSc in UB. My initial plans were to do something else and when I couldn’t, I had to decide to work with what I had then to make the best out of my life and I do not regret the choice I made.

The field of Computer Science especially in academia still has a large gender representation problem. Having been in such a field for well over a decade now, what has been your experience?

Yes, there is that gender disparity and it can make one feel like an imposter since you are the only lady in most cases and in many rooms. 

If there have been challenges as a result of this representation gap, how have you been able to surmount them?

It can be daunting, but my character goes a long way in helping me survive. I have always been confident and comfortable in my own skin besides while in the UK. I used to be the only lady and the only black person in many rooms so being the only lady at home does not scare me. More often than not people may judge you with preconceived ideas but that shouldn’t be your problem, just let your results speak for you.

What do you think can be done to reduce this representation gap?

Stop treating a girl child as a fragile glass. Sometimes the campaigns that we do for the girl child and women are the root of all problems. You cannot tell me that I am equal with my male counterparts and still give me a job because I am a lady. Give me a job because I qualify for it and because you trust I can deliver. We are still far behind in dealing with this gender disparity issue as the world if we are still saying women this and women that. Afford people equal opportunity. The fundamental thing is to treat boys and girls equally from a young age then you would not need to do a lot of damage control trying to make the girl child see that they too can do this.

Please tell us what your current role at BIUST entails?

I am a lecturer; I do research and supervise postgraduate students. I also serve as an industry liaison for the Department of Computer Science & Information Systems. At the university level, I am the chairperson of the Student Disciplinary Committee, a member of the Tender Management Committee, chairperson of the STEM and National Science Week Technical committee for the years 2020 and 2021. It was under my leadership that we hosted the first-ever virtual STEM and National Science Week. I also represent the university at a national level. I was part of the team that developed the cyber security strategy that has been approved by the cabinet. I am also a member of the Botswana Internet Governance Forum. This is but to mention some of my responsibilities.

What is your favorite part about the work that you do?

Changing someone else’s life is magical. I feel very proud every time my students graduate and even prouder to see them succeed in life. Being part of the solution instead of just pointing fingers is also rewarding. As an individual sometimes you gotta ask yourself what you are bringing to the table. It is easy to point fingers and blame others but what are you doing to bring change

Your Ph.D. thesis, which you recently submitted a library copy of, was on “SIQXC: Schema Independent Queryable XML Compression for Smartphones”. In layman's terms, please explain to us what that means?

We all know that one needs to unzip a zipped file (compressed file) to read the contents therein so what I was doing here was basically providing a solution that would allow one to be able to read the contents without unzipping the file thereby saving space especially when one uses smartphones. The solution works for computer systems too but the emphasis was put on the smartphone to justify the research.

One of the advantages of SIQXC is that it reduces dependency on wireless connections. Explain to the readers, again in layman terms, how this can be advantageous for smartphone users in Botswana where decent wireless connectivity is still a challenge?

When dealing with compression many can argue that it is not necessary because we have cloud computing as an example but for one to use the services of a cloud there should be connectivity to the internet where my solution is especially handy where there is no connectivity and we all know our landscape. The solution can therefore help people that deal with lots of data and need uninterrupted access, but the downside is that my solution only works for XML data, not for all data. The data must conform to the XML structure

Compared to countries like the UK where you have been based, Botswana’s tech industry is what one could call archaic. What learnings do you think we can get from such countries to grow our tech industry?

The industry needs to collaborate more with universities.

Coming back to Botswana, you have been a part of numerous STEM initiatives such as being chair of the technical committee of the Botswana National Science Week organizing team, being a panelist at the Girls In ICT and Botswana Cyber Week Commemoration to mention a few. How important do you think such initiatives are in growing STEM in Botswana?

They are very important as they sensitize people about their part in STEM. Sometimes we view STEM as a university thing when our very existence is STEM. As part of STEM and National Science week last year, we interviewed Batswana that are indirectly involved in STEM but do not know that they are. There was a TV program aired on BTV that showed some of what we collected. We could not show everything because of time limitations. Some of the people that were interviewed were people that are doing pottery, basketry, thobega, go dupa metsi and of course the people along Dibete that are selling medicines that a lot of people are either curious about or are using. We believe this was just a first step that may lead us to one day commercializing some of these initiatives. When one says cyber security, most people think it does not affect them, yet we all use computer systems in one way or another. Your smartphone is a computer system therefore can be attacked and or used to attack so we are all affected by cyber issues and we should take interest in them lest we find ourselves on the other side of the law. The cyber month commemoration was therefore organized to sensitize the nation on such matters.

Having been an active part of them for a while now, what support do you think such initiatives need to achieve that mandate?

I wish the government and private sector could set aside money to sponsor countrywide cyber awareness campaigns. The cyber month commemoration alone is not enough. We stand to lose a lot by not investing a little to take preventative measures. Being reactive in cyberspace can be costly. Just because we have not experienced yet does not mean we are immune.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

When I graduated my first Ph.D. student.

What’s something you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

In 2019 I was selected to participate in the University of Lancaster Recirculate residency program where I learned about the colocation idea. The RECIRCULATE project is funded by UK Research & Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund Grant. The colocation setup allows SMEs to work with universities by being housed within the university in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The targeted SMEs are usually the ones that have businesses that the university has an interest in. It could be a company that sells products that are related to some research that is carried out in the university. I wish to see universities in Botswana adopting this. We are in a piloting stage in BIUST and we will hopefully see this grow. We are in conversation with relevant stakeholders to see this through. If I learned about this early in my career, I think I would have contributed positively to our economy by helping SMEs survive and also commercializing some of the research products seamlessly.

If any, what is the best advice you have received in your career?

How you present your idea is most of the time more important than the idea. Knowing this can help see a lot of brilliant ideas seeing the light of the day.

As a woman holding a Ph.D. in Computer Science, you are a role model to many young girls and women interested in pursuing careers in the field. What advice can you give to them?

Go for it. The Computer Science field is not defined by gender. Focus on achieving your goals and building a legacy. You can do it.

Lastly, please share with our readers your contact details in case they want to get in touch with you.

Email:    LinkedIn: Otlhapile Dinakenyane

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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