In Conversation: Refilwe Siwela (Data Engineer)

For Refilwe, a career in tech chose her and not the other way around. Initially wanting to be a doctor, after getting a taste of the field of technology, there was no turning back and definitely no regrets. In this interview, she chats about her love for tech came about, what her current job entails and her plans for the future.

In your own words, please tell us who Refilwe Siwela is 

I would describe myself as fearless, daring, optimistic, a problem solver, pan-Africanist, businesswoman, competitive, opinionated, curious and a believer in learning new concepts and skills. All these descriptions resonate with the brand Refilwe Siwela. I like to see myself as a brand because it's important how I view myself to the world around me. This is mainly because I prefer standing firm on my ideologies and beliefs and not just following what everybody else is doing. Just as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.’ Amongst other things, I am a great friend, sister and daughter. As a private person, I prefer a small circle as I enjoy and love being there for my people. 

Briefly take us through your journey to a career in tech 

This particular story is really interesting because personally, I hadn’t envisioned myself pursuing a career in tech. I actually wanted to become a doctor. After not making the cut off for Bachelor of Science General at the University of Botswana I chose BSc. Computing with Finance as it was the most interesting programme on the list. Little did I know that this course was actually meant for me. Ever since I have never looked back. The programme I chose helped me to discover parts of myself I did not even know existed. I discovered my love and passion for business, communication in general and public speaking. Also with the combination of IT, I felt like the world was my oyster because we have just entered the 4th Industrial Revolution. At that moment I felt like I was on the right path because what I was studying complimented my personality perfectly. To this day I feel like that programme chose me not the other way around. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in tech? 

As I mentioned before I never really thought I would pursue a career in tech. However, after my degree and tons of research, I developed a curiosity for a career that combined both business and IT. I am so fascinated by the role IT has on all other careers and not long from now other careers are going to be obsolete as the world is going more digital. The degree I completed in BSc. Computing with Finance opened my eyes to a whole other world that was worth exploring. I personally feel I hit the jackpot of degrees because I have the liberty to choose the career I resonate with and love as I have many options to choose from. A lot of things are and can still be discovered in that space of finance/business and IT. 

Please tell us what your job entails 

So, currently, I have the opportunity to work as a data engineer at one of the fastest-growing tech companies in Africa, Reliance Infosystems located in Nigeria. Basically, what a data engineer does is build and maintain systems that help in the collection, management, analysis and conversion of raw data into useful information for business or data analytics to use. We improve data reliability, viability and quality by constructing datasets.

Women's representation in tech is still unfortunately low. As a woman in such a field, what has been your experience? 

That is true. There has not been a lot of exposure to women in tech in Botswana, especially in the public view. However recently, more women are being vocal and public about their various careers and accomplishments on different social media platforms. Representation is so important because when other women or girls see the great things other women are doing it inspires them to do the same. Personally, I believe in time this issue would be addressed as I was impressed when the criteria for team members for the SmartBots Hackathon competitions teams are required to have at least two females on the team. With such initiatives, more women will stand out and represent themselves and their accomplishments in order to inspire others.

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

I found professional social media platforms such as LinkedIn very helpful with issues of representation as on the platform one can see different women across the world doing what they do best and killing it in their careers. It is very inspiring, to be able to see black, smart, beautiful, educated women doing their thing and being appreciated for their work and efforts whilst still managing affairs at home. I was instantly inspired to do the same because I recognized the amount of greatness I as a black woman have and can accomplish if I make the necessary effort and sacrifice. As such as a pan-Africanist I am a strong believer in being educated and learning because there is nothing one can never really achieve if they believe and put in the work. 

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

I believe more exposure to the accomplishments of women in tech is one way to solve this misrepresentation issue as well as opportunities for women to showcase their skills. However, there are new platforms arising in Botswana which narrate the stories of these various women and that is very important like BW TechZone. I was impressed by the work it has published as these platforms help uncover such things and make people aware that there are people out there doing great things. That kind of exposure can literally touch and change someone's life. With the opportunities, I mentioned SmartBots Hackathon competitions which are a good start to helping women become more involved in such projects to showcase their skills. So I would say we are definitely on the right track as a country. 

Data Engineering, which is the field you are in, is constantly changing and rapidly. How do you ensure that your skillset always remains relevant? 

Learning is key. Learning is forever and it never stops. My curiosity for the field I am in helps me want to be on point as there are new applications and software being developed every day. Also amazingly, the company I work at encourages learning which is wonderful as we are given the opportunity to learn various Microsoft products and become certified as we are doing the job. We also have internal training and assessments which keep us on our toes all the time. The tech field is very competitive as such I constantly learn about new products introduced in the market so that I can remain relevant in your job role.

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

My proudest moment was joining the SmartBots Hackathon competition. My team did not win, but we did make it to the semi-final stage of the competition. It was such an exhilarating experience as we developed a whole functioning web application in five days and we did it as a team even If we had never worked together before. We had to work through our differences and do what needed to be done. I learned so much during those five days that I am grateful for as now I know I can literally handle anything anyone throws at me. My other proudest accomplishment was developing a whole ERP application from scratch with excel for a client. I had to push my limits and learn as I developed the application as I can be such a perfectionist sometimes. And after just a week and a couple of days, I was able to present a whole application that performed tasks that the client wanted. It is always amazing what dedication can do. 

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

I wish I knew I had to have a LinkedIn profile literally in my first year. I believe it could have helped me explore more concepts by looking at people who are in the same field as me. I could have had a first start on exactly what I am interested in because now I am exploring the different careers I am curious about in order to find what love. it is very important to me that I pursue a career I love so that working does not become a burden. 

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

It would definitely be, mindset. This is the advice literally most people say when I ask them this question. It is important to have the right mindset in all the things that you do. Having the right mindset or attitude towards challenges or things encountered makes it easier to learn, adapt, analyze the situation and come up with the right solution. A great outlook on life just releases the need to worry about how far along you are in your career as compared to colleagues. Instead, you clap for them with the faith that all your hard work will pay out when the time is right. Because just like farming, there is a season for everything in due time. 

Career-wise, where do you see Refilwe in the next 5-10 years? 

Currently, I still want to discover the career which best suits me, and the skills I have to offer. As such, given the opportunity, I will learn and acquire all the necessary skills and certifications on my way to my dream job. Then maybe before or after 5 years, head my own company. I have a burning passion for business and entrepreneurship. I personally do not want to be working for any company all my life. I want to develop the next big thing in Botswana and help where I can with the education crisis in Botswana. I believe in educating the children, they are the next generation, and they are the future. 

What advice can you give to young girls who are interested in pursuing a career in tech? 

My advice to them is to be curious, grow, develop and evolve in their career. They should learn new things and new skills because you never know when you're going to need them. And also, they should follow people doing the careers they are interested in so that they can get tips on how they can get there and what to avoid on the journey so they do not repeat the same mistakes that were made by another person. Lastly, attitude and mindset. It is key to have the right attitude and mindset with everything that you do. Believing in oneself against all odds is literally a superpower that can help elevate you in any situation you face.

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

My LinkedIn details - (Refilwe Siwela) 

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

Previous Post Next Post