Vodacom has joined forces with Women in Big Data, a global initiative, to grow this field in South Africa. We interviewed four women who are helping to drive this transformation. Here, Sibulele Hlongwane tells us about her journey.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in data science?
As a young Sibulele, I was absolutely obsessed with robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) before I even really knew what they were. I was fascinated with science fiction movies. And I 100 per cent believed that I would take over the world one day. My first experience with coding was in high school when I decided to take IT as a subject.
When it came to deciding what my major would be in university, it was obvious that I would study a major related to technology, so I chose computer science. In my final year of university, I needed to take an elective course and I decided on C++ and machine learning.
Looking back, I had an extremely predictable path and I find it extremely cool that I wound up in a field similar to what I was interested in as a kid.
I am now currently in my second year of the Discover Graduate programme, on the Big Data team, at Vodacom.
What are some examples of Big Data we may have seen in recent times in South Africa?
Big Data is being used in various industries, such as banking and telecommunications. In telecommunications, I think one of the most widely known examples is Vodacom’s Just 4 You, where machine learning algorithms and Big Data are being used to provide these offerings.
What exciting developments do you think we can expect in this field?
I am extremely excited about the future of Big Data. I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can do with AI. Future developments in this field are going to change the way we communicate, live and complete daily tasks. There has been so much hype about the 4th Industrial Revolution and how it’s going to sweep in and make the world a better place for everyone. Big Data will impact the way the health, automobile, insurance, banking, film and media, and farming industries operate, especially if they’re interconnected. With the increase in the generation of large volumes of data, customers and the industry will continue to experience growing concerns in regards to data and privacy, and technologies to ensure the security of data will need to be able to keep up with this.
What is the role of technology in driving social change?
Technology has allowed for greater access to funding, knowledge and education. It is changing the traditional systems in which we’re used to doing things. During Fees Must Fall, crowdsourcing platforms played a major role in raising funds for students. The Standard Bank-backed solution Feenix provided a platform to assist students with funding for their school fees. Technology has allowed access to educational resources on YouTube, Udemy, Coursera and other online courses as long as you have a solid internet connection. It’s easier now to find out what’s happening around the world without needing to read a physical newspaper or turn on the television. Social media and online news sources have played a major role in that. People, especially young people, care and are aware of social issues facing our communities and technology allows for everyone to be actively involved in the spread of these issues and bringing about a change. Solutions are being created for problems that occur in developed and developing countries.
How can we inspire more women and/or youth to enter the tech world?
I think that we need to start looking within the tech community and the toxicity of the ‘bro-culture’ that has taken over the industry. The tech world is heavily dominated by men. At times I have felt as though the tech community is not very inclusive. There have been numerous articles posted online about the harassment and discrimination occurring in the tech industry. And if I, as a person who is already in the tech industry, have these views, how can I expect women to be inspired to join? Not only are woman rarely joining the tech industry, but many are leaving as well.
Representation, representation, representation: not only should young girls be exposed to technology at an early age and be taught that they are just as capable – if not more capable – than their male counterparts to succeed in the technology space, but they also need to see more people who look like them in the media and communities. I attended an all-girls high school. On the first day of IT class, they asked us all: ‘Why did you choose IT?’ I replied: ‘Because I want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg.’ Looking back, I realise how fortunate I am to have attended an all-girls school that encouraged us to be independent, smart and powerful women.
We need more people within the industry to not act as gatekeepers or be complicit to systematic bias. This starts from a young age. Teachers in high schools should not discourage girls who want to follow STEM careers and they should treat everyone as equal. I say this because, during university, the Women in Computer Science Society featured women on their social media pages to tell their stories and one of the students shared this story. She had wanted to do IT in school, but – and I quote – ‘the IT teacher in my high school would basically “bully” the girls in the class until they dropped out. He didn’t believe that they belonged there’. This is the type of behaviour that should not be allowed in our institutions.
What misconceptions or myths exist around Big Data?
In the Big Data field, solutions are being created for a variety of problems across different industries and you need a variety of people with different skill sets and backgrounds to make a team successful and make a major impact. You don’t need to be an engineer or a data scientist to be in Big Data, but you do need an understanding of what Big Data is and how your skills can make a contribution to the vision of what the company is trying to achieve with Big Data.
You also don’t need to be a large fancy tech company to implement Big Data technologies and use it. You just need to be able to ask the right questions and hire the right people.
What advice do you have to offer other women and/or youth who are interested in data science?
If you’re interested in working in data science or tech, don’t let anyone discourage you from it. Don’t downplay yourself and own your achievements. Many people have felt imposter syndrome kick in and it’s totally okay. I have – and I still do. It’s so important to have a community of people who can support you on your journey. Remember that you are not alone and there are many people in this industry who are going or have gone through the same challenges and have some tips and tricks to share with you.
The tech community is quite active in that there are always conferences and meet-ups that are being held around the country. Join the ZA-Tech Slack group. You can also join a meet-up group. These groups can be found on Facebook, Twitter or the Meetup app (which is an absolutely favourite of mine).
If you’re in university and about to finish, hang on! Studying a tech degree and you being one of only five girls in a class of 60 students can be extremely demotivating. Find your people, study really hard and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you can, find a junior in your degree to mentor. Being able to guide someone and have a front-row seat in watching their growth can be extremely rewarding and you will gain so much from the experience.