From Umlazi to Silicon Valley – One Woman’s Inspiring Journey in the Tech Industry

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In October this year Phumzile Khumalo heads to what is still considered the world’s leading technology hub, Silicon Valley in San Francisco, USA, to start work for global payments technology company, Visa Inc.

Phumzile-Khumalo-1

I believe it is very important for women in tech to be very clear about where they want to go

Khumalo began her career in tech as a developer for the Medical Research Council’s Open Medical Record System (OpenMRS) while completing her Computer Science and Information Technology degree at the University of KwaZulu Natal. She also obtained her honours degree in Computer Science in 2008.

After graduating, Khumalo joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on a studentship while pursuing a MSc in Computer Science, primarily focusing on Image Processing of Satellite Imagery.

“Due to financial reasons and family responsibilities, I had to drop out and join corporate,” says Khumalo.

She joined RMB’s graduate recruitment programme where she worked as a business analyst/systems analyst (BA/SA), joining their central reconciliation team, before moving to their central integration team.

“This is where I initially gained exposure to business processes to complement my tech skills,” says Khumalo.

This was followed by a two-year stint at Deutsche Bank as a software engineer and information security officer.

“After 2 years at Deutsche Bank, I decided to leave to start my own company, with the intention of getting more tech skills and [to] try to get into the tech entrepreneurship space.”

The corporate world, however, came knocking once again and Khumalo accepted a contract position at Visa Inc SSA where she was the tech subject-matter expert (SME) for the tokenization technology, which is used in credit card processing. This position led to her opportunity in San Francisco.

Khumalo talks to SME South Africa about what drew her into the industry and why we need more women in tech. 

A ‘spark’

I was fortunate enough that I went to a school that had Computer Studies as an elective. We had a choice between Technical Drawing, Home Economics and Computer Studies. I figured I already knew how to cook, I was not interested in drawing, so I might as well learn Computers.

In the Science class, Computer Studies included programming, and it appeared I had the natural aptitude to program. For me, programming clicked in my mind. I then decided to pursue a degree with programming (Initially I thought that was Computer Engineering), and so I applied for Computer Science.

I cannot say something sparked my interest in tech more than that programming made sense and there was nothing else I considered doing. At that time, I didn’t even know if it paid well, I just figured I’d rather be poor, than not be in tech.

Women who end up in STEM are usually curious and stubborn, even bullish enough to defy all odds

I’ve been strategic about how I’ve navigated my career

When I started off, my interest was always gaining more knowledge. I knew my skillset and knew what was lacking. And I worked towards ensuring I balance my skillset.

I believe it is very important for women in tech to be very clear about where they want to go, and be willing to work towards it. It is not about a job and paycheck, ensure that you are getting something out, that everything you are doing is contributing towards your bigger picture.

I was fortunate enough to work in small teams, so I was able to ask for more responsibilities to improve areas that were lacking. As a result, my skillset encompasses a lot of areas instead of just one. South Africa needs tech skills, women especially, but don’t let that dictate how your career should map out. Play an active role in mapping your career.

Silicon Valley will provide the opportunity to be in the middle of all the action

I get to be in the heart of tech and learn, to feel the heartbeat of tech live and experience the innovations as they happen. It feels like I am going home. Finally.

[I hope to gain] knowledge and tech skills. To be part of the solutions designed first hand, witnessing the innovations as they are unveiled and be part of the discussions.

[I am excited about] being able to attend lectures, events, and to work closely with the tech companies and experiencing life in the biggest tech hub of the world.

Women role models are in short supply in the tech industry

There was not a lot that made me aspire for the life I have built. Books were my escape from reality, my place [to dream] and what motivated me to want a different life. The examples around me taught me what not to do. I have achieved the life my brain built.

There aren’t enough female role models in STEM. And there are not a lot of people teaching women to be in STEM (even female teachers are not helping). Women who end up in STEM are usually curious and stubborn, even bullish enough to defy all odds. Bullish even. To a point that they are willing to ask questions and be a nuisance. But in our society, where males are often painted as a different species, we cannot ignore that it is still challenging for women to ask male teachers questions or clarification or even go to their offices to ask questions. Let alone aspire to be in the STEM field.

We need more visibility of the women in STEM, [to be shown] how it fits in everyday life, and how they are in love with what they are doing. That will spark more interest in STEM, and make it more tangible, practical.

Ideally I would love to create a gateway of some sort, for SA tech startups, to impart all the tech knowledge and skills I will learn in Silicon Valley

There is, however plenty to be excited about in SA’s tech scene

At the moment, there are a lot of opportunities for South Africa in terms of tech innovation. We are just waking up to tech innovation and its endless possibilities.

The challenge is the support and risk culture. We need to go from adopting to creating solutions to our problems, while not being scared to fail. We have unique problems as a country, given our past, and some solutions from the tech hubs of the world might not be able to solve them like we can.

I plan to bring everything I learn back to SA

I would like to share the upcoming technologies with our country and how they can be applied to solve the problems of the country. Silicon Valley is the hotbed of new technologies.

I feel like being there will give South Africa a glimpse of where the world is going and maybe, as I share on my social media platforms or vlogs, it will spark something on the South African side. But ideally, I would love to create a gateway of some sort, for SA tech startups, to impart all the tech knowledge and skills I will learn in Silicon Valley.

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Lebohang Thulo
Lebohang Thulo
Lebohang Thulo is the editor of SME South Africa. She enjoys keeping up with the country’s exciting and fast developing entrepreneurship ecosystem. You can find her at @lelele3

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