My Pivot Journal is a Ventures Africa weekly series documenting people’s career transitions from one industry to another, especially to tech.

There’s a saying: “if you shoot for the moon, you’ll land among the stars.” That’s the story of Ruth Ikegah, only that this time, the stars are on GitHub.
Ruth Ikegah’s transition and growth in tech seem quick and spontaneous. It only took her one year after starting her tech career to be the first African woman to become a GitHub Star. She also wears many hats — four, to be precise. She combines being a developer, technical writer, open-source advocate and community manager into her persona. However, there’s more than meets the eye in her story. Here is Ruth Ikegah’s pivot journal.

Growing up, I wanted to be a medical doctor. I always admired how serious they looked whenever I was at the hospital. The Good Doctor and Grey’s Anatomy were among my favourite shows on TV. As long as a program/movie was related to the medical profession, I would watch it. It was my dream. My parents desired it too. I mean, who wouldn’t? So I pursued it with high hopes.

But when I wrote my JAMB exams, I didn’t meet the cut-off marks for medicine at the University of Port Harcourt. So I needed to either pick a different course or accept whatever the school chose. I did the former and studied microbiology since it was still in the medical line.

However, I wasn’t satisfied at school. I wasn’t happy that I was settling for something different. So my early years in school were not so great, and I struggled with my grades. (I should add that I was pretty young when I got into school). It was until the third year I met Dr Blessed Agba, who encouraged me to do well in school. I listened and started making friends who helped me do better. From that year, I aced nearly all my courses.

My quest to improve my grades made me meet friends, Peace Ojemeh and Alabo Briggs, who were into tech. We were reading partners. Before meeting them, I had no interest in coding, not even when we had a coding course in school. On the contrary, I found the subject annoying. But these people changed my perspective towards tech. They were good at it, successful and inspiring at the same time. For the first time, I wanted to do something outside medicine.

Ruth Ikegah Github star
Ruth Ikegah

I didn’t start learning to code immediately. I waited till I was done with school because I needed to fix my grades and finish strong.

Then in 2020, I decided to start my tech journey. But I wasn’t sure of where to start. Becoming serious about my academics made me start liking microbiology. I only practised microbiology briefly as an intern in a medical lab. The doctor, Dr Jerry Igunma, who supervised me encouraged me to pursue a Master’s degree, and I wanted to study virology. But when the lockdowns happened, we all had to stay at home, and I couldn’t make any plans to go further my education. That led me to start learning data science and coding with Python. I got on DataCamp to learn python and did 100 Days of Code. I was thinking of ways to combine microbiology with tech.

There was no money for a laptop or paid Bootcamps and courses. But I had access to my Dad’s computer, which I previously used for my school project. I also looked for free online courses. At the same time, I started meeting people who would help me grow. I spoke with my tech friends, used a shared workspace at a point, and started following tech people and topics on Twitter. Then I started talking about my learnings on social media and attending conferences.

Learning to code without a technical background is not easy. You have to be kind to yourself so you don’t get overwhelmed. I had to get familiar with a lot of terms and concepts I had never heard of before. But eventually, the people I knew became my leverage. There was usually someone to explain something I didn’t understand. I also got better at finding resources and learning by myself with time. The barrier to entry is really low, since you don’t need a technical degree, or even any degree at all to get into tech.

Then I joined She Code Africa, where I got a mentor assigned to me. I started writing about things I learnt from my mentor and other platforms. I had also heard about Open Source from my school friends, so I became active on that front too.

One of the biggest benefits of getting into tech for me is that it changed how I think of problems. It also changed my perspective towards money. I used to be rather complacent about money until I realized I could make a lot of money in tech. Now I know I can simply sit down, learn something and make a lot of money out of it. I didn’t love doing multiple things until I got into tech. But I realized that the deeper I immersed myself, the more skills I picked up. Tech roles are often intertwined so you can be a developer and a community manager or writer at the same time without losing focus/direction. (It can be stressful, though.)

When I started tech, I shared my knowledge with everyone who cared to listen, even though I was a newbie. Then people started reaching out to me with questions and I would answer to the best of my knowledge. In a short while, I was speaking in communities, conferences and workshops. Then in October 2020, I got an email from GitHub Stars. The GitHub Star award is an open nomination where anybody can go and nominate you for the good work you’re doing. And it turned out that many people (most of whom I didn’t know) had been nominating me because of the things I shared. I got that award and became the first African woman to receive it.

Over the past two years, I’ve gotten two other awards from them, one of them being the Pioneer Award. That one came because of my contributions towards the GitHub Africa virtual meetup. Then GitHub named me Star of the Year when we grew that meetup to more than 3000 members.

Sometimes, it’s okay to live on your island and work in silence. But one of the reasons I’ll always advocate for public learning is that it helps others. If I didn’t have people to ask questions, I wouldn’t have grown this much. That’s why I keep committing myself to helping others grow in tech. Besides, when GitHub nominates you, you need to show what you’ve been doing publicly before you can be awarded. People need to be their own advocates. Because I shared the work I was doing online, I got a lot of opportunities  gigs, job offers. People would reach out because of what they see.

Anyway, that’s the rosy part. I still have unanswered questions. I still get confused and scared sometimes. Early this year, I quit my job to focus on open source. I believe the open-source ecosystem in Africa has so much potential. But till now, I haven’t gotten a new job. It makes me look like some sort of “Joseph the dreamer.” However, I still participate actively in communities and add value as much as I can.

Nonetheless, I’ve had people speak for me in rooms that I wasn’t present. That has been my edge. And that’s why I believe in supporting people. It’s not about getting an award. It’s about making sure the next person moves forward. It will make people nicer to you, and can make the world around you better.

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