My Pivot Journal is a Ventures Africa weekly series documenting people’s career transitions from one industry to another, especially to tech.
They say career changes are not just a matter of finding a new job but also a new way of thinking about the world. This statement rings true for Precious Kolawole, whose curiosity drove her from pursuing a medical degree in Nigeria to becoming a Dev Degree Intern at Shopify in Canada. And while transitioning can often be complex, complexity seems to be her driving force. Here is Precious Kolawole’s pivot journal.
How it started
When I was in high school, I read about Ben Carson. (By the way, I think he led many people astray because of his books.) He inspired me to become a medical doctor. No one had ever become a full-time surgeon in my family, and I wanted to be the first.
But it wasn’t that simple. First, I got rejected three times when seeking university admission to study Medicine and Surgery. I ended up getting an offer to study Zoology at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU). I was working a part-time job at a bank when I got the admission, and I remember going into the bank’s toilet to cry my eyes out. It was so painful.
When I got into school, I hated zoology. Nothing about the field impressed me, not even after orientation. So I had to make sure I got into medicine. I started going from office to office, lobbying to get into the medical field. And as impossible as it might sound, I got the Vice Chancellor of OAU to sign me out of Zoology and into Medical Rehabilitation. But that was only the beginning.
My brother studied Computer Science and is very big on volunteering and community building. In 2019, he attended a Data Science Bootcamp. When he came home, he told me how he met Dr Stephen Odaibo — an AI Engineer, Ophthalmologist, and Data Scientist. It was fascinating to hear about someone combining medicine and tech. This man got a degree in computer Computer Science, then bagged a Master’s degree in Mathematics and switched to Ophthalmology. I became curious, read about what he said and found it true. So I wanted to learn tech and combine the knowledge with Medical Rehabilitation.
I also realised that tech could be a pathway to travel out of Nigeria when I read about my mentor. She studied Computer Science in Nigeria and left for Italy, where she had her Master’s in AI. That was when I knew how limitless I was.
After my brother told me about exploring tech, he drew me a roadmap, showing me how to chart my learning. By this time, we had entered the COVID-19 lockdown. So I started taking online courses to learn Python. I made a lot of progress on my own with data analysis and even started working on projects.
Later that year, I saw that SheCode Africa called for applications, and I applied. It was a bit intense because that was when I had my first-ever physical interview. But I made it into their second cohort, where I got a mentor that held my hand through the learning process. I started all over with Python, then I went through Data Analysis, Visualisation, and Model Building. Later on, I went through Model Deployment. Meanwhile, I did not have a laptop, so my coding journey started with my phone.
After SheCode Africa, I joined Data Science Nigeria (DSN), following in my brother’s footsteps. OAU had a data science community, and I started engaging and attending events. Then my first win came when the community hosted a visualisation session and I emerged the winner.
SheCode Africa made us write articles weekly to document our progress. And at the end of the program, I wrote one of the most important articles of my career. We were supposed to work on projects, and a loan default case study caught my attention. After working on this project, I wrote about it and published it on my blog. But when I told my story as a thread on Twitter, it went viral. Everyone seemed to be going crazy about the fact that I did so much without a laptop.
A few months later, Hack Sultan wanted to give out laptops. I didn’t even know something like that was going on on Twitter. But so many people recommended me, and I ended up getting my first laptop from that Twitter giveaway.
Then came the next opportunity: a hackathon. Tanzania’s government was worried about a low doctor-to-patient rate, and many women were dying of cervical and breast cancer. So I joined a team to build a solution that could tackle this problem. I was the only machine-learning person on that team. That was my first experience building a deep-learning model. We achieved about 89% accuracy and won the allocation. That was when things started to become rosy.
My first job came when Adedeji Olowe, the CEO of Lendsqr, saw the article I wrote about my project for SheCode Africa on my medium blog. It turned out that was the same problem the company was trying to solve: Loan Default Prediction. According to him, they had even hired people from China, but it wasn’t working. So I joined the team to build this algorithm.
In 2021, we returned to school. But by that time my goals were different. I had a lot on my schedule. Aside from Machine Learning, I was also doing Software Development, Product Management and Customer Support. It was hectic, but there was no way I was going to quit.
Then in October of the same year, someone referred me for a role at Google. The man wanted me to join the Google branch in Accra Ghana. When he reached out, I knew I didn’t know enough math, so I had to start learning data structures and algorithms. I rescheduled my Google interview three times because I wanted to prepare myself. Long story short, it was still a flop.
But after that, I dared to start pursuing big companies. My next target was Microsoft, and I got an interview as well. But they weren’t ready to hire at the time and only called me after I had gotten an offer from Shopify to study Computer Science and work for them.
How it’s going
Where I am is one of the highest peaks I have ever imagined for myself. The build-up to this point had many rejections. At the same time, I was tired of Nigeria’s school system. I won’t lie, it was depressing. But the Shopify offer made up for everything. I don’t have to worry about sacrificing school because my tuition here is covered. Shopify pays me well for my job and provides everything I need to function. All I need to do is deliver. I’m also doing very well in my studies. The school system is nothing like Nigeria: if you put in the work, you’ll see the results. I saw my recent grades and was shocked that they were mine.
But beyond all that, tech has made me resilient. It has changed the way I think about and approach problems. The effects have spilt into my life outside of work. The challenges that would have weighed me down a few years ago have nothing on me now. So I’m excited about the opportunities that tech is bringing my way.
I believe my biggest career hack is that I can recognise opportunities when I see them. I’ve only been active in tech since 2020, but I’ve made so much progress because I never let opportunities slide past me.
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