Where magic happens: (from left) Mohato Lekena (master's in computer science), Anja Venter (PhD in media studies), Sarah Brittan (master's in computer science) and Professor Gary Marsden (director of ICT4D Centre) at work in the lab.
Monday Paper (MP): Why did you choose to enrol for your PhD at UCT?
Shikoh Gitau (SG): When I finished my BSc (Computer Science) in Kenya, all I wanted to do was change lives using technology. I had experienced and seen so much poverty, and I knew deep inside me that I wanted to do something about it. I looked at various institutions for a graduate programme that would offer me both the social and the technology angles. I remember coming across some work that Edwin Blake had done, and started reading some more, so I just applied. The fact that UCT was among the leading universities in terms of Computer Science research added the extra weight. I first joined UCT for my MSc, so when it came to doing my PhD it was really an easy choice. I wanted to do my research in Africa on solving an 'African Problem', and with Gary Marsden's help I got the HPI scholarship that enabled me to embark on my doctorate.
MP: What did you find was the most fulfilling part of your studies and research?
SG: My research was very fulfilling. In the two and a half years I was running it, I saw people's lives literally change in front of my eyes. There is a lady, who I will call Nancy, who from learning how to use the internet on her phone, went on to learn how to use computers, then went back to high school to matriculate. She passed, and she is raising her fees to go to college through a business she started. That, for me, is 'impact'! Even if my contribution was minimal, it gave her hope, and that is the most important thing any human being can ever have. I have so many other stories of this kind; but Nancy stands out, as she still emails me on the email address that I set up for her four years ago!
MP: When did you start working for Google, and could you briefly describe your current role?
SG: I started working for Google in December 2010. I was their first User Experience Researcher in Africa – that in itself was a great 'first' for me! I have since transitioned to cover the emerging markets, and my work entails talking to users, getting insights either to inform new products, or to improve current products. It is an awesome opportunity to take a shot at changing the world using technology.
MP: How did you manage to balance your studies with your career?
SG: I started working after I had completed my research and had a full draft of my dissertation. The work was really intensive, and it took two years to rewrite and review the work with my advisors before it was ready for submission, it took a lot of commitment to actually get everything done. The finished output was something I am proud of.
MP: How does it feel to be graduating, and what is the best part about coming back to your alma mater?
SG: Getting a PhD is a dream come true, it is one of those things that I've wanted since I was a young child, so I am looking forward to this very much. I visit Cape Town every six months or so, and I love the city – okay, probably not during winter, but all the other times I love it!
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