Gladys Maina

From life without a computer to globally competitive IT professional

One of four sisters, Gladys was brought up by her mother, a primary school teacher, in a Kenyan village in Nyahururu. Her mother did all she could to provide her daughters with an education and a career, and perhaps that is where Gladys gets her resilience from: ‘seeing her push and not take no for an answer – she instilled a lot of “you can do it” attitude.’

They didn’t always agree, though: while her mother paid for her to train as a medic, Gladys was developing a new interest after a chance encounter when on a long holiday from her Medical Laboratory course.

Like the majority of Kenyans, Gladys grew up without a computer or internet access at home. But on a trip into Nairobi she visited a cybercafé, falling instantly in love with computers and their ability to follow her instructions. ‘I was fascinated and began to think I could pursue this,’ she says. Not wanting to disappoint her mother, she completed her medical certificate, but knew the career wasn’t for her. ‘It’s a calling and I wasn’t meant for that.’

Encouraged by a friend, Gladys moved away from home to Nairobi, living in a hostel and getting a sales job at a newly opened cyber-café. ‘If something isn’t working, I want to do something about it,’ she says of her ability to pursue change.

At first, she was drumming up business by distributing brochures on the street, but after about a month, her manager noticed that she could do more. She was promoted to the role of cyber attendant, and from there she was able to enrol in a diploma in Management Information Systems with the British Computer Society (BCS). ‘That’s when my mum started coming around!’

Gladys balanced work and education, paying her own way through evening classes to get her diploma. ‘I believe education changes lives,’ she says, and she is living proof: after completing the diploma, she had the opportunity to join Jhpiego, an international non-profit health organisation affiliated with John Hopkins University.

Starting with a 4-month internship, she was promoted to IT assistant. She worked hard, learning about the industry and how she could improve her organisation, and was promoted again to IT officer. And she learnt a valuable lesson: ‘Start where you are and then rise your way up. I would have been tempted to look at the internship and say, “This is just an internship, I need a job; I can’t take this.” But through that and through working, that’s how you manage to rise.’

As an IT officer, she streamlined the organisation’s service desk management, ensuring that those needing IT support got the assistance they needed on time, as well as introducing a process to get new staff set up. Her work there resulted in a trip to Jhpiego headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, to introduce the processes she had set up in Kenya. Her exemplary achievements also earned her a sponsorship at the popular Learning Tree International in Rockville, Maryland to study for an ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) Intermediate Certification Course. Gladys became the only IT staff member outside of the United States to be ITIL Intermediate certified in the 30 countries that Jhpiego works in.

She continued to learn alongside her career, completing her bachelor’s degree in management of information systems at Kenya Methodist University and several international certifications. It wasn’t easy, but she was helped by having understanding supervisors who enabled her to work flexibly, so she could come in early and leave early. ‘I had to make sure that when I go to the office I just concentrate on work, so that when I leave the office I’ll have some time to just be me – the social part of my life.’

After she completed her undergraduate degree, she moved to Jubilee Insurance, the largest composite insurer in East and Central Africa, where she continues to work as a business systems analyst. ‘I sit between IT and the business,’ she explains: her role is to translate the company’s technology objectives into a language the IT team can understand, check the solution meets stakeholders’ requirements, and train the business team in how to use it. Sometimes the end users can be resistant to change, but she has a workaround: ‘If it’s a new project, have a champion who is a business user and who is really keen on that project, and then have them sell it to the other team members.’ She enjoys the challenges that the role brings: ‘no day is ever the same.’

Gladys hasn’t stopped learning, completing a Masters of Science in IT Management at the University of Nairobi alongside her work at Jubilee Insurance. She was among the graduating class of September 2020, making history as their first ever virtual graduands due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Gladys believes in continuously seeking opportunities that broaden her horizons. She was one of four people and the only Kenyan short-listed in the category of IT project management for the 2018 Afrika Kommt! program. This initiative offers training opportunities for young African at leading DAX-listed companies in Germany. She was also one of just 25 finalists out of 3000 applicants to the 2019 Adobe Research Women-in-Technology Scholarship. Though she didn’t get into the program nor receive the scholarship, it made her realise:

It doesn’t matter that I’m in Africa, I can still do what other people are doing in developed countries. It boosted my morale, it boosted my confidence, and it has made me now go for more international experiences.

This led to her acceptance onto the TechWomen programme, which trains and mentors emerging leaders in STEM from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East. ‘It exposes you to the tech giants in silicon valley; you get to see how those companies run, see what you can learn from them, and when you come back home, you pass on what you have learnt.’

She describes the process of applying to these programmes as hit-and-miss; she was really looking forward to one scholarship with Google, but that one didn’t come through. ‘You have to keep trying and you have to keep making it better. Sometimes I look back at the essay I had used for Google and the essay I used for TechWomen and they are worlds apart.’

Rejection makes you refine your essays; you’re going to get a few hits and miss, but eventually one will come through.

To make it through the rigorous application process, Gladys advises that, as well as being honest and confident, ‘You should be very specific and clear, because most of these programs want to see “how will you come and give back after you learn from us?” So be very specific with your action goals. Don’t just say “I would like to impact women” – how are you going to measure that? Say maybe, “In the first year I would like to impact 20 women who are in universities, in Nairobi or outside the city.” You need to have quantifiable impact.’

Gladys speaking at the African Women in Tech Conference 2018, discussing Career “Dos and Don’ts”

One of the ways Gladys makes an impact is through mentoring others, offering girls and women the helping hand that she didn’t get herself. She often wonders: ‘What would I have done better if I’d had someone holding my hand, if I had someone guiding me?’ Gladys volunteers with African Women in Technology and Women in Tech Africa, and lights up when asked to describe her first time mentoring outside of Kenya, with an organisation in Ghana: ‘Those girls have gone ahead and joined universities, and they’re doing very well, and I feel so proud of them!’ She also recently joined Wentors, an organization in Nigeria that shares her passion for reducing the huge gender disparity within the technology industry.

She’s only too aware of the challenges faced by women in tech: ‘In all the organisations I have worked for, I am usually the only lady.’ Along with that comes frustrating assumptions – that she will take notes in a meeting, that she will serve tea at a conference. So she teaches the girls she mentors ways of circumnavigating these issues: ‘For the first time you can take the notes, because you don’t want to look like someone who is not cooperative, but then on the second time you can say, “I took the notes last time, I would be really glad if somebody else could help me this time.”’

Then there is the pay gap: ‘You find that you are doing the same sort of job, but because you’re a woman you get paid less. Those are the things that we talk to the girls about, telling them about their value and how they can negotiate better.’ These were lessons Gladys had to learn on her own. ‘I had to go and google and read and say, “What should you do in such a situation?”’

Gladys talks openly about the inequity of having to hold herself to higher standards to garner the respect she deserves. ‘It’s quite unfortunate because that isn’t expected for male colleagues, but that is what you need to do. You need to keep asserting yourself, you need to keep subtly reminding them that you are the one who is running the show.’

She is quick to point out that not everyone would – or should – go through the difficulties she has overcome, when asked how she has managed: ‘I think it’s because of my resilience, and it’s good to recognise that not everybody has that kind of resilience. There are some people who will see something and think “It’s a challenge,” and not pursue it. But for me, I’m someone who is action-oriented, who thinks “Why is this happening, what can I do to change it?” And not all of us are like that.’

But she does think the culture is slowly changing; she points to the recent appointments of women to country manager and director roles in Kenya: Kendi Ntwiga, Country Manager at Microsoft; Eva Ngigi Sarwar, Country Manager at Visa; and Agnes Gathaiya, Country Director, Google East Africa.

Most young girls, especially here, cannot become what they don’t see. I am very excited that the narrative is changing.

Gladys points to Wangari Maathai – the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and the first female professor in Kenya – as a role model in the absence of women in IT when she was growing up. She hopes that remote working and flexi-hours will enable more women to join her in IT roles.

What motivates her to carry on despite the challenges of being a woman in tech? Job satisfaction is first: ‘I see the difference that I am making… Say for example there is a manual process in the business that I have helped automate, maybe it would take them an hour, now it’s taking them minutes. It’s the satisfaction in seeing me bringing value and change to the organisation.’ And second: ‘If I do my part and pave the way for the next person, then they don’t have to have it as hard as I did. If I can make it easier for even one person, then that would keep me going.’

For anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps, Gladys has these words of advice:

Keep going. Some mistakes will happen along the way: learn from them and move on. Keep learning and do not be afraid to ask for help.

Written by Bryony Stubbs.

14th November 2020

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