From Interns to IBMers to PhDs: A Unique Approach To Talent in Africa

By Chris Sciacca

Coffee, anyone?

Not at IBM Research — a place where interns are not expected to routinely bring coffee or make photocopies. At IBM, as one former intern put it, “it’s amazing how much you can learn in such a short time when you’re surrounded by so many smart people.”

The former intern is Victor Akinwande, and he wrote these words in February 2018 during his stint at IBM Research Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. The internship eventually turned into a full-time software engineering position at IBM.

But now, with his manager’s encouragement, he is preparing to leave for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — to begin his PhD studies in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s not an exception.

Victor Akinwande at the IBM lab in Nairobi, Kenya.

“We have a very open-stated goal of preparing full-time developers to eventually leave IBM for competitive PhD programs,” says IBM researcher Skyler Speakman. “It’s sort of counter-intuitive that almost from day one you should already be thinking about leaving in a couple years, but the extra steps are worth it because the research lab is one of the very few places on the continent that is able to scale these successes multiple times over.”

During his time at the IBM lab, Akinwande contributed to the development of the Adversarial Robustness Toolbox(ART). That’s a powerful tool to help AI developers to evaluate, defend, certify and verify machine learning models and applications against the adversarial threats of evasion, poisoning, extraction, and inference.

“Most interns are lucky to have one mentor, I had three,” said Akinwande, referring to IBM researchers Aisha Walcott-Bryant, Sekou Remy and Speakman. “They shaped my direction and did something simple, yet is so important — they listened intently and if something wasn’t sticking in my brain, they patiently reminded me again and again. This experience prepared me to take the next step and apply for my PhD.”

Another IBM intern-turned-full-time-engineer who left for her PhD studies abroad is Elizabeth Ondula. She is currently studying computer science at University of Southern California. Ondula mainly worked with hardware before coming to IBM, but once she joined the company, she learned a lot of new software development methologies. “What I found super cool was taking part in a global hackathon,” she says. She also enjoyed contributing to the Kenya RAPID project that focused on finding safe water for families and livestock in remote parts of Kenya.

Elizabeth Ondula attending the 2019 Lean In Event. Credit: Ondula

“Once I became full time, I quickly learned what I know and don’t know, and this allowed me to focus on the latter,” she adds, and gives advice to future interns:

“Have confidence in your ideas. Just do — and success and opportunities will follow.”

The art of the possible

Speakman knows the IBM program does add overhead on interviewing, on-boarding, and training of talent, but this is quickly outweighed. “Being clear about the idea that we expect our interns and developers to eventually leave for a PhD creates a more open work environment,” he says. “Nobody is sneaking around with grad school applications and managers can be asked to write recommendation letters. This type of open discussion also helps take the edge off a lot of younger talent trying to plan their future.”

It also makes for a great recruiting tool that keeps top talent coming back to the lab for industry experience, to help shape their eventual academic plans as they become the company’s ambassadors. “We are an open door, which is important when building up a community,” says Speakman.

“There are no requirements that students to return to the lab or to IBM after finishing their degrees. However, their diverse voices and life experiences are needed across tech and AI — no matter where they end up.”

That’s the case of IBM alum John Wamburu, in his fourth year of PhD studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was among the first cohort of interns at the Kenya lab in 2014, a year after the lab opened. A member of the human mobility team, his project focused on collecting data from sanitation trucks to spot potholes and speed bumps.

John Wamburu on campus in Massachusetts. Credit: Wamburu

“We were able to come up with an idea, write the code for it, roll it out and then collect the data. I was part of the entire loop. It really taught me the art of the possible,” says Wamburu. “IBM gave me push and the confidence to apply and eventually fly halfway around the world for an education.”

His tip to future interns? “Build networks within IBM, not just in Africa but across all of the global labs, find good mentors and aspire to follow in their footsteps. And then it’s your responsibility to inspire the next generation.”

IBM Research Africa is currently accepting internship applications.

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