Editorial Interview with Olatokunbo Ogunlade, Systems Engineer at Factorial HR and founder of the Coding Mums. This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.
“At Venture Garden Group, we have a system that helps you track different versions of your code and collaborate with other developers.
How it works is that you pull from the master branch, create your branch, and work from it.
When you’re done, you send a pull request for approval.
As an intern, I was unfamiliar with the protocol, so when a colleague sent me a pull request, I deleted the whole code base instead.
The entire application. Gone. With a click of a button.
‘Tokunbo, where’s our code base?!’
I didn’t realise the damage until my line manager reached out to me with an anxious tone. It was a defining moment in my career.”
Mum. Wife. Systems Engineer and Mentor to women across Africa looking to transition into tech.
Olatokunbo’s career journey has seen her rise from long nights learning python while her 8-week-old daughter slept, to becoming the only female Systems Engineer in one of Europe’s biggest companies.
In this editorial feature, she shares her doubts, challenges, and unique insights on life as a self-taught Systems Engineer.
This is her story.
“So how did I get here?
Serendipity. I was crazy enough and fed up with my living conditions at the time, that I started to learn a programming language, Python, while 7 months pregnant.
My husband would give me about 500 Naira daily and I would save it to afford data and a ‘Codeacademy’ subscription.
About three months later, I had my daughter, so I had to take an 8-week break from learning. When I resumed my online class, it was one of the most demanding periods of my life.
‘You’re not good enough for this’, whispered every thought in my head, but I dared to dream.
I dared to challenge myself that I could do it, that anybody who could read or write can also code no matter the circumstances.
It’s hard to see the light at the beginning of the tunnel but I hoped and prayed for a break.
It came seven months after”
‘Everything is figure-out-able’
“I heard that from Ali Abdaal and embraced it like my life depended on it.
On the most random of days, as I mindfully scrolled through Twitter, I saw a tweet from Shola Akinlade, co-founder of Paystack who was looking for a senior female developer.
I mustered every bold bone in my body and sent him a message, asking if there was an opening for interns.
This was in September 2018.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t an opening for me but Shola encouraged me to keep learning and look out for an opportunity in January. I felt okay, stirred up even. You lose 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Minutes later, on that same thread, a lady responded with an internship opportunity and sent me a DM. Her name is Ore, from Venture Garden Group (VGG).
The week after I was called for an interview at VGG. That morning was one of the most anxious moments of my life.
‘I have a daughter, let me just go and sell bedsheets instead!’
I don’t remember much of the interview but at the end of the interview, the HR officer told me I had just inspired him to believe that anything is possible.
That day, I woke up as an aspiring bedsheet seller and went to bed as an employed engineer at Venture Garden Group.
Since I learnt Python, I started off with front-end engineering at VGG, basically learning on the job for about two years.
At VGG, we have a DevOps department and every week, one engineer in the company takes up some responsibility with the DevOps team, so whenever there were issues, they could either resolve them or escalate easily.
At some point, the deputy CTO reached out to me that they needed help and wanted to loan me to the DevOps team for about two months.
Turns out I enjoyed it more than front-end engineering and transitioned full-time for another two years.
Not too long after, I got poached by Factorial HR to work as a full-time systems engineer.
Not too bad a journey eh?
My Favorite word is ‘courage’ but even if you fail, it’s best to still try at it.
“I’ve been blessed with good people.
One of my line managers would say ‘You’re the only one that can stop yourself”.
Most of the time we grow by mistakes and for me failure is nothing. It’s not the end. It’s a point of view.
People won’t always be as optimistic as you are, they may see you as an obstacle or even question your audacity. But it’s what you say to yourself and about yourself that matters. You have the final word”.
Factorial HR builds human resource software for CEOs and HR departments. Olatokunbo’s work as a systems engineer is to ensure there’s minimal latency in their applications.
During our conversation, she shared some vital information on building and scaling secure products for customers.
“In building applications, there’s always a question of ‘is this app secure and scalable?’.
And for scalability, it’s about the app’s potential to grow with demand, without reducing user experience or performance.
This is super crucial. At FactorialHR, we answer these questions repeatedly through a framework of Recoverability, Management and Maintenance.
So, how efficiently can you manage performance? How quickly can you recover data and how can you easily maintain the app?
Everything we do internally revolves around these three and system engineering as a whole relies heavily on automation and site readability.
Another key thing is data protection.
Every aspect of an application should require the right access. So for example, in Spain, we have various modes of ID records from Social Security Numbers to Tax Identity Numbers and unique IDs which bring out every digital footprint a person has upon request.
Because we have access to important client info, we use role-based access control at FactorialHR.
So just because I work on the dev team doesn’t mean I need access to all parts of an application. There’s too much sensitive data and we do our best to protect it by ensuring you only see what you should see that’s relevant to the info you need at that point in time.
Security starts internally – the right people should have access to the right data.”
‘Work-life balance is a myth’
“I try to apply that engineering framework to my daily life.
Practically, this means frequent one on ones with honest feedback. You should have a strong support system for this. A circle of influence that can give you valuable feedback. And it is accepting that you can’t be everything to everyone at the same time.
That’s how you recover well.
At one point I was sick for a while and even though my line manager was able to help me with some tasks, I still had a daughter to take care of.
I needed someone who could feel what I was feeling and since I couldn’t find one, I decided to start the ‘Coding Mom’, an army of mothers in tech.
A friend encouraged me to implement a lot of ideas and systems. Left to me, I would have relaxed, but because he pushed me, I was able to do more. So you need to find people, you can’t do this alone. You need people to push and guide you.”
‘Success is from the Inside Out’
“Back to my story, to that day I wiped an entire application.
Thankfully we found a way to go back to the old code base without the previous changes of course.
It taught me about failure from a new perspective. That failure is what you name it.
“It happens, it’s your response that matters. Take this moment to study all you need to know about GIT”, my manager said to me.
And that’s exactly what I did…
I read GIT- the version control system, like my life depended on it. I beat GIT to submission. It became a pivotal moment for me.
So whenever I had an interview afterwards, I’d ask for feedback which I added to a central repository and continued to learn and all of that prepared me for FactorialHR when they came calling.
Success is from the inside out. By being consistent and showing up, I made a way for myself.”
With experience working in African tech and now Europe, Olatokunbo Ogunlade also shared her view of the digital identity scene in Africa.
“The data and digital identity industry in Africa as a whole is an emerging market.
Companies like Verified.africa make it much easier to create and access products and services securely by confirming digital identities in seconds, yet we do have a long way to go.
For example, take next-level artificial intelligence recognition in Europe. From your shopping preferences to your interests and disinterests – the ads and experiences I’ll see are what is accurately tailored to me. That’s witchcraft to me, absolutely mind-blowing.
We have so much data in Africa that we don’t utilise. One of our data engineers at FactorialHR is in Nigeria, working from his home office as we speak.
Everything is possible and we could do much more. We need leaders who will see who we really are.”
Finally, as a mentor to hundreds of women across Africa, Olatokunbo Ogunlade speaks passionately about self-development.
“Because I’ve been there – down and beaten, I understand what it means to be and feel low, so I do my best when I see someone in that same space.
I tell people to give themselves permission to grow as they’re the ones standing in their own way.
When you break the limitation in your head, everything else will fall into place.
So how badly do you want it?”
Olatokunbo Ogunlade is a Systems Engineer at Factorial HR with experience in DevOps Engineering, Site Reliability Engineering, and Infrastructure Management.
She has accomplished a lot of work around Continuous integrations, Delivery Pipelines, Containerisation, and Orchestration.
Olatokunbo Ogunlade is also the founder of The Coding Mums, a community that supports Mothers to build the skills, knowledge, and professional network needed to move into the tech industry”
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