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A Personal Story – CHRISTINA KUPER WINI

A Pacific Women in ICT (PICwICT) Feature

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As a child, I was persistently asked this question. It was one of my least favourite questions. Dreaded too, because I felt it placed an uncomfortable pressure on me to respond with the correct answer. The truth being, I (or any child) had no clue!

Worse, at that time for a girl like me, the consensus or assumption was that girls were destined for certain careers and the education path deemed as appropriate.

For the times that I did speak up and say I want to grow up and do fifty different things, I was reminded and with good intentions too, of the “appropriate” career and education path.

For some people their single answer could most likely be the job they will have for their entire working life. And for the fortunate, this single career might turn out to be their dream job too.

But for the restless at heart, setting goals can allow one to rise through the ranks in any chosen career path or chart many different paths in life.

As a child I always knew that I wanted the exciting education and lucrative career paths that boys got to pick from. And even though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, I knew it had to do with technology.

In retrospect, my parents careers influenced my career choice. My father was a mechanic. Growing up, I watched him fix cars, heavy plant machinery. He looked like he was just solving puzzles. I liked puzzles, analytical thinking and mathematics. But I wasn’t too keen on the  grease and grime of heavy plant machinery.

My mother worked in the banking sector. I remember, she would use a terminal with a command line prompt.  It was fascinating to watch her enter commands at the prompt and it would respond with data. This sparked my curiosity to learn more about what was happening behind the command line prompt. It seemed like a good puzzle to solve one day.

These early influences inspired me to set my heart on IT.

Throughout primary and secondary school, science and mathematics did have their challenges. There were also very few females pursing science and mathematics to look to for inspiration. So for a long time I only had my aspirations and drive to keep me going. By the time I got to the first year (Foundation Science) at the University of the South Pacific’s (USP) Alafua Campus in Samoa, there were only 4 girls versus 23 boys from Solomon Islands who got scholarships from the government.

Graduation 2003, Laucala Campus, Fiji
Picture courtesy of Moffat Ghala Mamu

A year later at USP Laucala Campus in Fiji, I remember walking into the large lecture hall feeling lonely and disappointed that my girlfriends and I were no longer going to be in the same class. There were also fewer girls taking Computer Science as a major – none from Solomon Islands.

Nevertheless, discovering programming languages kept me happy and focused. I had finally decoded the mysteries beyond my mother’s command line prompts.

Some students gave themselves an advantage by buying personal computers. You would have thought that as a computer science student, I would have owned a computer too. I never owned a computer or a mobile phone until I got my first job after university. Yes, its possible to complete an IT degree without owning a piece of the technology. This experience is not unique to me.

The computer algorithms and data structure class was taught by an American. Professor John Hosack was a witty, wily old man. He built on our introduction to C++ by Professor Tony Adams and made the art of programming enjoyable and cool.

He would often use analogies to explain programming concepts that were initially difficult for this island girl to grasp. Beginning with simple concepts such as FIFO (First In, First Out), arrays to more complex object-oriented programming concepts such as recursion – his classes always had some interesting takeaways.

In one of his classes, a student disputed the marks he had gotten for an assignment.  He came up to Professor Hosack and demanded an explanation. Hosack, peering over his glasses responded with a long drawn out “Weeell…..I asked for a dog and you gave me a cat”.

Some lessons were learnt the hard way. In my first year I remember staying up late in a computer lab to complete an assignment. I was deeply engrossed with scripting, compiling and debugging. The script grew long and it was exciting to see the assignment coming nicely to completion. But in all that excitement I forgot to save my work. Suddenly there was a power surge and the computer went blank. My mind went blank too as I struggled to rewrite the assignment from scratch. The lesson? Click on the Save button frequently. There was no Auto Save back then.

Other challenges were financial in nature. IT textbooks were very expensive. Our book allowances were standardized and so many IT students just did not have enough allowance to cover these expenses. We had to borrow or buy secondhand books from other students. While this made it difficult to study at your own pace, it created the opportunity to study in groups. I was grateful that there was always a friend or classmate who was willing to help me work through many of these challenges.

In 2000 and barely into my second year at uni, a coup unfolded in Fiji. We were immediately repatriated only to walk into a “copycat”  coup at the height of the ethnic tensions in Solomon Islands. Those were tough times not only for the country but for students who found themselves caught in a crisis that tore the country and their grades apart.

With no lectures or support for IT students through the local USP centre in Honiara, it became a losers game trying to prepare for the exams. I failed my exams miserably that year. This meant that I would not complete my degree in the designated time. But it never crossed my mind to give up. In fact, the failure fuelled my dreams even more.

After presenting my case at the National Training Unit (NTU), my scholarship was extended.
In 2003 I graduated with a Bachelor of Science majoring in Computer Science and Information Technology.

Outside of academics and the professional life, my quick witted grandma Emily, pointed out something I enjoyed yet my family found annoying at times. She said I was a very lively and talkative child – a chatterbox were her exact words.

But somewhere between childhood and adulthood I stopped speaking up and preferred to remain quiet in the back of the classroom. This didn’t seem like a big problem during university and early years in my IT career. Because at university the lecturer did all the talking and we did the listening. At work, you are expected to bring technical skills to the table, of which public speaking is not a priority.

Today, looking back, public speaking is one skill students should develop simultaneously to support self-esteem and confidence as they build their career.

My public communication skills were first put to the test as a new graduate working at SOPAC in Fiji. USP wanted a demonstration of the map-server script our team was developing at SOPAC. My supervisor, Franck Martin asked me to do the presentation at a lecture theatre. While the presentation was technically on point, I lacked the courage to look the audience in the eye. I gave the presentation while hiding behind the computer.

Many similar incidents followed. One significant one took place in 2007 at the opening of the PICISOC Annual Conference also known as PacINET.

PacINET07 Opening, FFA Conference Centre, Honiara
L-R: Dr. Jimmy Rogers, Rajnesh Singh, Hon. Prime Minister Sogavare, myself and Loyley Ngira

The Honourable Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare opened the conference delivering his keynote address with his usual flamboyant style that caught the attention of the regional and international delegates. But as the Host Chairlady of the conference, I was only brave enough to read my welcome address.

Since then I have overcomed my fear of public speaking and have helped many others overcome too. But that is a story for another time.

Getting back to IT, women more often than men juggle many responsibilities to stay on top of their career.

In 2007 during the time I was Host Chairlady, I was also 7 months pregnant with my first child. Not only was the two week conference taxing, but I had not taken any leave from work. While running the conference, I was also working as the IT Support Officer at the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).

Running between the conference, a full-time job and the bathroom to throw up, it became very difficult to show up each day and greet the world. There were times when I was tempted to go home, shut the door and forget about everything just to catch my breath. But when you are supported by energetic, brilliant and extremely determined people, you return the next day for more. Their high spirits generated a small tsunami of interests from across the Pacific and as well as from international organizations like ISOC and ICANN. It was a pleasure to serve in this capacity and it became an exciting new era for IT enthusiasts in the country.

That role was one of the most difficult, yet highly rewarding. It taught me much about  leadership, collaboration and that great outcomes are achieved by determined men and women who share the same vision. Men and women like Norman Kapun, Bryan Scott, Ramesh Chand, Coley Falasi, Franck Martin, Rajnesh Singh, Loyley Ngira, Gorden Denty, Carlos Tatapu, David Leeming, late David Tapia, Suzanne Moli Orudiana, Joy Papao, Bukah Yai, Glennis Kuper Masaea, Anju Mangal, Gisa Fuatai Purcell and many others I fail to mention here.

Yet there was one significant person who was with me on this journey, who knew a whole lot more about my personal failures and triumphs, my husband Lynnold Wini.

In 2010 when my family came to Switzerland, I transitioned from IT to diplomacy. For eight years I worked with the Permanent Mission of Solomon Islands that was accredited to the United Nations based in Geneva. Diplomacy, protocol and liaising with international organizations like the WTO, OHCHR and the UN was a very different language to C++, Visual Basics or PHP.

At the presentation of Ambassador Salato’s credentials to the UNOG DG Michael Møller, Geneva
Picture courtesy of UNOG

This year as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Europe and our permanent mission closed, I knew it was time to rebuild my IT career.

My journey back into IT has just began. Self learning and tackling online courses at ungodly hours is the part of the challenge. I call it the red eye specials certifications.

Dave Phelan of APNIC said it best, “Christina you jumped into the deep end of the pool as your comeback.”  Indeed the comeback is a new chapter and one that I look forward to writing along side fellow colleagues in IT.

Throughout my divergent career, the one thing that remained consistent was the answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”.

My answer, I want to be able to harness the power of technology to serve a purpose greater than myself.

To the young IT enthusiast dreaming of what you want to be when you grow up, or if you’re looking to make a comeback into IT, here’s a parting advice – design the future by setting goals, educate yourself and hang out with energetic, supportive likeminded people.
In the end, your gender and the economic background where you come from will dim in comparison to the satisfaction of achieving your dreams.

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