Daring to Dream: My Career Journey

Christian Nwamba

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March 11, 2019

“Obi. Iruo Lagos, kpo m,” my mum said, as her tear glands betrayed her. She was bidding her first son a farewell and sending him off to the ‘City’, as is customary with almost every family from my side of the country. “If you reach Lagos, call me,” she repeated, as if I could no longer understand my Ukehe dialect of the Igbo language. I sat at a corner of a Peace Mass transit bus, while she waited outside with my dad. My mum was holding my hand through the half-open window glass, and with every word of advice, she held tighter. The glass was wet as a result of the early morning dew that was still clearing out. But Mama did not care, she held tightly.

Peace Mass Transit (PMT), Enugu branch

My mum was getting a double-dose of fear on the 4th of January, 2016, as my bus made way for the highways from the crowded park. Her biggest concern was whether I was going to be responsible in Lagos, not even about the risk I faced, traveling on land. She knew I was always on my PC, and she had bought all of them for me, but she never understood what I did with them. She was always in awe of my MS Word and Excel skills and that was more of what she felt I would expand on, in Lagos. She did not understand what I did with computers then, so all she could afford to do was trust me — well, I didn’t leave her much of a choice.

Nigerian (actually, Sub-Saharan African) mothers have always had to deal with watching their first sons leave for the city. It’s a culture. When you come from an underprivileged family, all eyes seem to be on the first son. This is my own vulnerability story, how I was navigating these challenges and how my coding career started.

This article was inspired by Emily’s vulnerability story. This is an attempt to build a vulnerability culture in tech. The more we share our stories of imperfection, the more we help others get over impostor syndrome and depression. And the more people who are also struggling can have more reasons to keep pushing.

Growing up on a Farm

Farm

I was born in the Northern part of Nigeria. Precisely, Jos in Plateau State. My parents sold baked bread for breakfast to see my mum through her Masters degree (MSc) programme at the University of Jos where she was studying Zoology. This is why I have always had gender equality rooted in my bones because there was no gender roles in my family. Anyone could be the provider and anyone could take care of the kids; us. My name was and is Danlami. I am an Igbo boy from the North.

Jos was hard. We could barely survive the day. We could barely eat, but we enjoyed how cheap life was, over there and how hospitable the Northerners are. Terrible that the beautiful Northern region of honesty, and love have been turned by politicians to a hotspot of killings and riots. Till tomorrow, discounting violence, the Northern Nigeria remains the best region in Nigeria. However, we are Igbo, and we knew that we needed more money, not just survival. As such, my parents counted down to my mum’s Masters completion and we (my parents, my sister and I) were on the next 8 hours bus ride to Enugu. Enugu is my state of origin, and the name Enugu means hill-top.

Enugu in 2018

As a Nigerian, no matter how hard life is, you can always go back to your roots and stay in a mud house with your grandparents. This was exactly what we did. While my sister and I were there, our parents looked for alternative homes since we could not get a better education and lifestyle in the village.

Well, we juggled a few homes but ended up squeezing ourselves in Noel’s family home. They lived in Ngwo, a small town surrounded by a thick forest and scary hills; a beautiful site, but a bad place to ‘make it’.

Ngwo forest

Two bedroom apartment, four parents, seven children and a gazillion in-flow and out-flow of aunts and uncles. The irony of this condition is that we were very happy living together.

While our parents struggled for jobs every day, our dads taught us how to farm. It’s funny how people that know me don’t believe this, but I farmed alongside my cousins; Noel and Ekene every weekend using hoes and cutlasses. Ekene and I were 10, Noel was 8. We could cover a plot of corn, cassava, yam and vegetable farm in one weekend. It was a beautiful experience. While Ekene did not cherish the experience, I enjoyed the times I could use computer works to escape farm works, but Noel? He loved farming and still swears that farming is his retirement plan. We knew the part of the farms that yielded the fattest yams and we took special care of those places. One yam from that part of the farm could feed the two families for a week. Magical!

My mum finally got what we could call a reasonable job at Enugu State University of Science and Technology as a Junior Lecturer. Hence, she was able to send us to a good school, alongside my dad who worked with the military at 82 Division Enugu — we attended Command Children School (Military).

My mum has worked for ESUT for 20 years now. Currently, she’s a professor with a doctorate degree but still earns $1800 every month. Well, in Nigeria, that is well above the $40 monthly minimum wage.

The Seminary School

I am a proud Catholic and Christian.

That said, my time at the seminary was hell. Noel and I went to St. John-Cross Seminary, Nsukka, Enugu. As kids, we found the lifestyles of Catholic priests fascinating. This was contradicting to the fact that as poor as I was, I loved gadgets and wanted to know how they worked. Well, at 12, I heard people say you could combine both priesthood and some other profession you love.

When I told my parents that I wanted to attend seminary school, they panicked. See, the thing with African parents is, their first child is their pride. This notion lead them to poor parenting in the name of “what’s best for you.” Priests don’t get married. “How will I give them grand kids?” they would later in life confess to their fears.

After some weeping and crying, they finally gave in. I can only summarize my nightmares as a seminarian into three points:

  1. We were beaten like animals. I was once flogged from 8am to 12pm. The teacher’s reason was that I was losing focus. It took Noel’s tears for him to stop. Noel and I have really come a long way, even now, as I am a technical writer, he has forged a career in creative writing(its possible he added this line during editing). He edits my work all day, every day. Back to the story.
  2. Oh! I can’t forget the common mass punishment called The Missionary Journey. 12 teachers representing the 12 apostles would students for 12 times each. Damn, 12 x 12 in one day? High school was hell in the seminary, but for them, they felt we were being trained for the tough life of a priest.
  3. I was an unhappy introvert that every one in school could afford to bully. Till today, this still has a strong influence on my personality. Yes, you heard it here first, I was a victim of a strong ring of bullies, from students, to teachers.
  4. After 4 years of unhappiness, I got expelled for direct disobedience. Well that was the best thing that happened to me since I was getting better at computers and wanted to do more tech-related stuff. I was 16.

I can’t even describe in words how my parents felt about my expulsion considering the fact, that they never wanted me to attend the school. At that point, they had even stronger reasons to make decisions for me.

They sent me to another non-boarding school to complete high school.

(Another) Catholic University

Hell YES! Another one. You would say I didn’t learn my lessons. Stay with me.

The next big fight with my parents was what I wanted to study in the University.

My mum knew how enthusiastic I was about tech. When I was just 12 years old, I typed her Doctorate Thesis of over a hundred thousand words and I had to do it twice. The computer we were using was bad and at some point, I lost the first project. So I had to retype everything again.

As far as my environment was concerned then, Obinna (my middle Igbo name) was badass at computers. Everyone told the magics I did with MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Corel Draw. I beat every darn person’s score at Mavis Beacon as a kid. As an African family, it was a huge deal for my siblings and I to be so tech savvy, at a time neighborhoods congregated to watch movies in the house of one person. In fact, our parents randomly asked us what we wanted to do when we finished school. Mine was to join Microsoft and fix things. I was fascinated with Microsoft packages with which I worked on my mother’s thesis and many books. I loved Microsoft and though I felt it was an herculean task to join them, I kept the faith. Life!

I started at Microsoft in the 3rd week of March, 2019. Dreams do come true.

Well all these talents at that time was bullshit to my mum and as far as she was concerned, this douchebag (me) had made several poor choices for himself and failed badly so why should she let him make another one. I begged her every day to let me major in Computer Engineering. Mama applied for Medicine on my behalf, in the school she lectured in, ESUT. The African home is authoritarian. You get to beg to make choices for your life. My Dad would never go against my mum because for him, he felt my mum was highly educated and knew better about things concerning education. That was rare for an African father, and he would later turn out to be wrong, since a PhD in Fisheries does not translate to a PhD in Life Choices.

I was so sad for months. My sadness quickly turned into bitter-sweet fear when I received my secondary school certification results. Hell, I failed Biology. This is what it implies:

  1. You cannot fail Biology when your mum is a Zoologistst and fisheries expert.
  2. I can’t live my mum’s dream of being a doctor.

Trust African mothers, she almost killed me with harsh words. Till my first job, she kept reminding me of how I failed Biology every time I performed poorly at any task. To put this in perspective, I typed her books (biology-related), her thesis (biology-related), her journals (Biology-related) and I failed biology in a standardized exam across West Africa.

I had two options after she was done being angry:

  1. Wait for one more year at home and retake the exams.
  2. Take another course in a private university.

My mother dislikes teenagers staying at home. She knows this is when they try to be wild and make stupid mistakes. So she took option 2. Guess what? Computer Engineering in a private Catholic university named, Caritas.

School offered me literally nothing but a better social skills and amazing friends.

How I Started Coding

Education in the University was a flat disappointment. I expected better. William and I felt like nerd jerks because we always researched stuff before classes and told our teachers they were not right. Education in Nigeria has a no room for that. You cannot know better than your teacher.

William is stubborn. He persisted with it and graduated fine.

Seminary school messed my social characteristics up so I couldn’t stand the bullshit. I stopped attending lectures, missed most of my assignments and quizzes That’s what a smart student does, right?

I became top 3 of my class’s worst behaved. I went rogue. With rogue attitude, I started researching what I could self-teach myself as a Computer Engineer. I always wanted to help Microsoft make MS Word better so I started googling stuff.

All my research gave me headache. I was lost in the pool of unadulterated content that my brain could not come to terms with. Unlike now, I did not have the simplified coding websites, which aspiring Devs have now. I had really really technical avenues and that was terrible. I did not have any tools for all of these; I only had the determination.

Here was my Life Changing Event

Random inspiring image

While on my first summer break from school in 2011, something life-changing happened. My mum used to compute final CGPA for students using paper, pen and calculator. She had hundreds of students and this made her life miserable year after year. I got back in 2011 and she was computing with a different device this time — just a computer; no laptop, no pen, and absolutely no paper. She was really happy.

“Mummy!”, I screamed. “Who thought you how to use Excel this way to compute CGPA?” “A smart 400 level Computer Science student in my school built me a software” she replied

I was still in 100 level but for some reason, I was green with envy. I was beating up myself everyday looking for how to start my life in tech and this guy already built a software. Not just that, he built it for my worst enemy in my career.

My mum always told us stories of how teachers got fired for letting their kids get hold of students’ data. So, I did not try to get near her results, I formed my own figures, determined to recreate whatever this student did with a Microsoft Access DB file, and headed to school after resumption.

I applied myself to the idea of rebuilding this product that was making life easier for my mother. 3 weeks later I found myself learning Visual Basic, because I felt, somehow, it would be of help to me.

Roughly six months later, I rebuilt the CGPA software but with better UI. I called it CGPA 2.0 when pitching it to my mother. Mama said as she got furious: “You have started again, right?” “Did I ask you for a software?” “Can’t you just focus on school, this boy?” Those words really stuck bitterly. It became a really bitter career battle between my mum and I.

My First Paid Gig

First steps

Since mother will not patronize her son, I decided to get back at her.

I went back to her competitive colleague who was also a Head of Department like her, pitched CGPA 3.0 (re-written in C#) and he bought a copy for $70. All is fair in love and war.

Months later my mum called and was screaming anger over the roof. Damn she gave me such a tough time.

It happened that she went to her colleague’s office who dared her that he had a better software than hers. My mum was impressed and asked if he can get the developer’s phone number.

There you go woman, have your first son’s phone number. “WTF!”, she would have exclaimed if she was a millennial. She sat me down for a talk and convinced me that she will support my Developer Career if i could focus on my studies and finish school. I bought the bullshit. I stopped and decided to do more school stuff while still improving my coding skills. These guys can go any level to ensure that their sons are called Doctor or njinia, a corruption of Engineer in my language.

Would you blame them? They saw the difficult part of life and education saved them. When they want you to get education, it is not because they do not love us, it is just that they are too afraid for you to slide to the poverty they are coming from. Hey Mama, I will risk it and see if I will be the source of that generational wealth. I know you want education to save me, but I am looking past that. I want to be the savior.

Internship

In the 4th out of 5 years of a University program, Engineering students in Nigeria are expected to complete a 6 months undergraduate internship. Ask anyone who took part in an undergraduate internship in Nigeria about what the program is like. 9 out of 10 will tell you a disheartening story. On the other hand though, for us, it was a good reason to stay out of school for a long time.

I was lucky enough to join a software consulting company that had a research culture. I had the opportunity to work with the research team. We were learning new and shiny web stuff including Angular 1. It was one hell of a journey because I never did JavaScript, neither did I do anything with jQuery. I was a C# developer yet I jumped into Angular with my little MVC knowledge.

I came out a half-cooked developer. It’s like microwaving food and realizing that the outer part is really hot but it is still very cold inside. At this point, I knew immediately, that I needed to go back and start from scratch. This was what I did in the 5th year of school.

First Job Interview

Student

In that space between final exams and final school project defense, I saw an opening in an Uyo-based company and I took my chance. Uyo is the capital city of Akwa-Ibom State, Nigeria. I was in Enugu. I needed to take a 4hrs bus ride to the state for the interview.

Unfortunately, my default financial status in school was “broke”. This was not a shameful thing. It was something we had fun talking about. This time, it was eating me up because I was 100% sure my mum wouldn’t let me go since she believed taking a job would have been a distraction at that time. An ideal life to my entire extended family is to finish from school, take on one or two Masters program, if possible take on a Ph.D program too. Then you can start seeking a job. This was ideal to an extended family that had financial challenges — I still don’t understand.

My only option was to ask for a small loan from my friends in school. If you schooled in Nigeria, you’d know that final stages are the hardest times. We were always broke then so it was really a struggle. Everyone knew about my interview not because I was happy to tell them, but because I was asking for transport fare to go. I eventually got help from my friend, Blessing.

I couldn’t go for my interview a day before because I had nowhere to stay and I could barely afford afford my trip so I boarded a 4 hours bus by 6am that morning to Uyo.

The bus broke down at Ikot Ekpene which was a one-hour drive from Uyo and I was already one hour behind schedule, hence waiting for help was no option. I needed to get to that interview no matter what. I ended up taking a motor bike (Okada) but luck wasn’t on my side. It rained cats and dogs while I was on the bike and I arrived the interview drenched. The interviewers understood my situation and after my interview, I got the job and went back to school. I eventually had to turn down the job because my mum was not very satisfied.

First Article

One way or the other, I needed to put myself out there. I was broke but at that point, I did not care if my employers paid me. I just wanted to get my hands really dirty. At least, doing so would show me how relevant the things I have been learning were.

I learned Node from reading Chris Sevilleja blog posts on Scotch.io. I thought maybe all the things I have learned might be useful to someone else, even if it wasn’t useful to a product at that time. I reached out to Scotch, it took weeks before I got a positive feedback. I wrote my first article which Chris accepted and paid me $150 for it.

$150 for a broke lad was a lot of money for me, considering the Naira exchange rate as at then. First thing I did when I got the funds was to take a good shower, took myself and my friends out for some good food. I just lived in the moment at that point. When I ran dry again, I realized what a fool I was and went back to looking for how to write again. Well, making a case for myself, I needed all those. My allowances from home were measured and tailored to my most pressing needs; no room for ‘enjoyment’.

At first, I thought Chris has accepted my post out of pity so I wasn’t expecting a second chance. It happened that Chris and all the readers had a lot of positive feedback. Chris wanted me to write more. I did and even wrote for Sitepoint too. I realized people loved how elucidate I was in teaching — maybe I got a gift from my mother.

Since, I could teach, my cousin Kenny and I decided to go teach students in schools. We wanted to build a bridge. I can say this was our first attempt in building a dev community, it was no surprise that we failed terribly. Our first day at the event, no one came, my laptop and phone was taken by a gang of robbers, with broken bottles and I had no way to make money even from writing. This was October, 2015 but good news; my state and my country has improved at large in the security of it’s cities. One will hardly, just like every other city in the world, go through what we went through, as at now. Ekene is now a dev and technical writer on scotch and many other platforms.

My First Job

Igbo Man

Since I had no tool to do any work, my younger brother delivered to me, a smart phone they had just bought for me. In fact, I did the unboxing and felt some hot trickle of tears. That was a significant act from my parents and it meant they were buying into my programming agenda. I couldn’t code with a phone but I could read. I needed a reading path that would be useful by the time I got a laptop again. The best choice then was to learn something big and new. I took on Laravel with just very little knowledge of PHP.

I learned for 2 months and by December I started applying for Laravel roles from my phone. I got hired as a graduate intern by a Lagos-based company. Remember the time my mum bade me farewell in a Bus Park in Enugu? That was it. I was going to Lagos, alone and weary, to chart a future. “When you reach, you call me, Inugwo?” she repeated, as the motion of the bus to the congested road separated her fingers from mine.

I did not look back, and I regret I do not have that image of her, because it was rare to see her cry if someone was not dead. My mother is considered as mean and till today, it is surprising that out of my cousins and siblings, my cousin; Noel was the only person in my extended family that maintained an informal relationship with her. For other of my 23 cousins and 4 siblings, my mother was a dictator, but somehow, we were able to figure out that she was human, and she loved all of us unconditionally too.

Back to the Lagos Journey and my mission for leaving my city for the Big City of Lagos. The job was going to pay me $250 approximately every month. This was not a problem. I just wanted to get my hands dirty and get away from home. I resumed working with them on 6th Jan, 2016.

Writing articles was enough to support me, so no big deal. The company was fair enough to give me accommodation and a plan to get me a new laptop. I also wrote a great deal of Laravel articles at that time based on what I was learning at work.

This is a great time to mention that I met Ridwan at this company. Ridwan is the father of ForLoop Africa. He shared the ideas with me while we worked together (actually he was more like my manager). We planned for the first event and some of us from work attended the first event. That was when I met Prosper.

First Remote Job

Job

I have always wanted more and wanted to be better. My father would say to me “Do they have two heads?” If my answer is NO, then I can do it too. Few months later, I was not as experienced as I wanted to be but the company I was with, did not give me that room to grow. I needed something more challenging.

Working remotely wasn’t a thing we were crazy about then. I just wanted a better job. I applied to Auth0 through sponsored ads, got the job after series of interviews but that was not the exciting part of the process.

My naive mind had absolutely no idea how much more I could earn from what I was earning. All I wanted to do was double my current $250 salary and ask for $500 per month. A bird whispered possible salary ranges to me which I won’t state here because that was what I got. All I can tell you is, I didn’t know what tears of joy felt like until that day. For the first time in my life, this dude born in a farm in Jos, is going to be earning an amount he considers far too much for confort.

My First Job Loss

Tearing

Life is not rosy. We don’t always get the happy endings we watch in movies. I lost my job at Auth0. Not misconduct, not performance. All I can say to you is that if you want to keep being relevant, you cannot stick with only what you currently know. You have to grow and make yourself indispensable. Losing my job taught me this lesson.

On the bright side, it was the best thing that happened to my career. I became more energetic, more open to learning, I learned how to actually listen to people, and a whole lot of people related skills. I moved back to ground zero and started building from scratch once more. The good thing about this kind of experience is that it showed me how stupid I was with money, though no one had the guts to tell me; even if they did, would I listen?

First Talk

First talk

On December 14th, 2016, I was on a call with Ridwan planning a forLoop meetup for December 2016. Before the call was over, I told him my birthday was on 17th December. Ridwan, with so much energy in his voice, said “Oh! Why don’t you speak?” “What’s the harm — the event is on your birthday so the audience might be nicer on you.”

I turned it down. I was super scared but Raphael wouldn’t take that. He kept pressing: “nothing could go irreversibly wrong” he said. I gave in to the peer pressure and gave speaking at the event a shot. Actually, I went with my birthday cake, had a great talk, audience loved it so much that they sang me a birthday song after my talk. Well, they might be trying to be nice to the birthday boy, but for all I care, I got an ovation right?

This kind of community love pushed me into trying more opportunities to speak and forLoop Africa gave me a platform. It’s safe to say that this experience coupled with writing, paved way to my path as a developer advocate.

My Relationship with My Mum

I had to give her a whole section because I did not want you to get the impression that she was not supporting me. It was always a bitter-sweet one with her. She wanted the world for me and my siblings but it had to be her way. Other than that, my mother is the only reason I could attain this height.

Her love is genuine just like every other mother you meet. She did not allow me take jobs those times because she felt it was a distraction, and not because she did not want the best for me. The proof to this is that every time I got a gig and the pay was not good enough, she would tell me to still take it. “Your father, your siblings, and I will be fine, manage the offer, learn from it because what matters now is growth not income”, that’s exactly how she puts it.

Final Words

I did not write this to motivate you (though I would be glad if you got motivated). I did not write this so you would feel bad about my story — as a matter of fact, I enjoyed most part of the hardship. I wrote this because I was inspired by Emily’s post. She wanted us to put our vulnerabilities out there — at least the ones that won’t come back to bite us. Share the stories that shows your career struggles. These stories help beginners understand that the people they look up to also went through the same hell they are going through…now.

Someone on Twitter once asked me to buy him a laptop so he can learn how to code. When I didn’t do anything about that, he went on to insult me that I had a great background and does not know what it feels like to be in his shoes. Now he can read this and know that I have worn his shoes a thousand times. Now he will understand that what he is going through is just a phase, and he will come out stronger.

When I reached Lagos that day, I called my mother who put the phone on speaker and I talked with my father and siblings. We ran a big extended family where everyone supported you like they gave birth to you. No competition, just support and sacrifice. I called my aunt; my mother’s elder sister who is also Noel’s mother. She was like the bigger mum to me. She is more liberal and hypes me on Twitter (my mother is too conservative that Facebook is a big deal for her). I always went to her to help me convince my mother about a career path. For all the times my mother supported my programming career, she influenced about 50% of it. She also augmented my allowances from time to time, in school, and at some point, her daughter; Chinedu, helped with my fees.

I called all of them, and told them I was in Lagos, and would not be back if I was not working in Microsoft. They knew about Microsoft, Google and Facebook and seeing my career path, they only prayed that I ended up in one of all, preferably Google. “Ijeko ar’ le’ Google,” they said over the phone. You will work in Google, they prayed. Honestly, I have been back home a lot of times, while working in other companies. I did not keep my promise of ‘not coming back’, but I guess I kept my promise of working at Microsoft. They have learned to adapt to my decisions; Microsoft or Google, all they care for now, is my happiness (and the bag).


Christian Nwamba

Written by Christian Nwamba.
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