Dr Almaz Yohannis-Mbathi has more than 20 years of experience as an electrical engineer. She has worked in Kenya and the US where she has held senior roles in strategic innovation, operations management and project management.
At the moment, Dr Almaz is the head of maintenance and support services at the University of Nairobi. She also holds an advisory role at the Ministry of Information and Communication.
Additionally, she played a pivotal role in the formation of the Multimedia University of Kenya, formerly known as the Kenya College of Communications Technology.
Here are excerpts of her Q&A with myNetwork:
What drew you into the technical world?
It happened by accident, although I was good into science subjects in school. When I joined the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, I intended to enrol for a Food Science and Technology degree, but my acceptance letter stated that I had been admitted to the Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering. Since then, I have never regretted this choice. It has opened so many doors for me. It even earned me a place in the prestigious University of California, which is located in Berkeley in the US.
What motivated you to pursue a Master’s and then a PhD degree?
I have always had an inquisitive mind and a thirst for new knowledge, which is why I chose to continue with my studies. Also, as a woman in a male dominated field, I find that I am always required to prove that I am good at my job and capable of delivering on my tasks, so I decided to study to the highest level.
What is the biggest challenge barring most students from choosing computer science and electrical engineering courses?
Most students are repulsed by the effort required to successfully pursue these courses. There is a perception that electrical engineering is hard and demanding, and this keeps many from selecting it. What they don’t know is that the benefits are always worth the hard work, especially for women. There are plenty of opportunities for those pursuing Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses.
What challenges do you encounter when mentoring young people?
Keeping the mentees focused on the task at hand.
Is it important for employed professionals to pursue further education?
Of course. Technology is always changing, and one has to keep expanding their knowledge and developing their skills. Due to scarcity of jobs, you could be forced to start a business, but that requires capital or funding. To stay competitive in the cut-throat Kenyan market, one needs to have the necessary academic qualification. However, academia is not for everyone.
What are your fondest memories about studying in a foreign country?
When I arrived in UC Berkley, I doubted myself. I didn’t think that I could compete with the rest of the students. In the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) class, I was the only student from Kenya, and one of the only four Africans there.
Interacting with students from various countries and from different cultures was such an amazing experience! I learned a lot, and made friends with whom I am in touch to date. I learnt to appreciate everything. The weather at UCB was quite similar to that in Kenya, which made the summer season such a beautiful time.
Who was your mentor?
I wish I had picked someone to mentor me while I was studying and working in the US. In Kenya, my first mentor was Prof Timothy Waema. He was instrumental in helping me decide to return to Kenya, and to take up the job at the ICT Centre at UoN. He is still my mentor. Dr Agnes Wausi has also offered me valuable guidance on how to navigate in the ICT work environment as a woman.
What important lessons did you learn about relationships during your days as an undergraduate student?
I learnt to pick the right kind of friends, those who share your values and desire to succeed. That way you will have fun together, but you will also study together. Good friendships stand the test of time. One of my friends was a Nigerian called Carlos Abraham, another was an American book worm called Naomi and there was also Lashunda, who was like a sister to me. We still communicate regularly.