Obianuju Okafor is a software engineer and researcher who designs and implements mobile and web applications in various languages with expertise in UX research, machine learning, and data analytics. Read more about her work in human-computer interactions and software engineering for accessibility at leah-u.github.io. Okafor also happens to be a computer science PhD Candidate at the University of North Texas.
Here’s what she had to say in a recent exchange with Design World on her work in natural-language processing and the more general topic of women in engineering.
What first drew you to engineering?
I have always been science-inclined, and in school I excelled in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. I’m also a problem solver by nature — and I enjoy solving complex problems … especially mathematical problems. It was only natural that I eventually became a software engineer, which is all about using technology in the form of applied mathematics to solve problems.
Were there any influences who helped shape your decision to become an engineer?
Although not an engineer, my Dad played a huge part in my decision to become an engineer. He knew my skills and aptitude and he knew how remunerative a career in engineering could be … and in fact, that’s why he suggested engineering would be the right career path for me. I have to say — he was right!
At the time, my brother was also in a computer-science program… and computer science is quite similar to the field of engineering I pursued — that of software engineering. So going into my field, I already knew some of what to expect.
Describe your current area of research.
Before I joined the project, my team had incorporated accessibility into Blockly using keyboard shortcuts and screen readers. My contribution to this project is incorporating speech as an additional form of input in this environment.
Describe your biggest engineering challenge to date.
My biggest engineering challenge has been continually staying up to date on all the emerging technologies in my subspecialty of engineering. That’s because the algorithms, software tools, and languages we software engineers employ are constantly changing and evolving. So as a technologist, I have to constantly work on improving myself and staying current. That’s why I’m incessantly reading books and articles as well as taking new courses and acquiring new programming proficiencies.
What can be done to increase participation of young women in engineering?
I think a lot can be done and propose that our industry attack the issue of limited diversity in engineering at its roots. From an early age, girls should be encouraged to take interest in computing-related activities … and we shouldn’t give girls only dolls and cooking sets while we give boys only computers and video games. Such rigidity reinforces the stereotypes of yesteryear that engineering activities are only for boys and grooming and nurturing activities are only for girls.
We should also promote, encourage, and create spaces for women engineers. A lot of times younger engineers especially feel overlooked or isolated — and I’m sure this feeling has led a few women to either give up on or lack motivation in engineering.
What unique perspective do you bring to engineering?
I think being an African American woman in engineering enables me to look at things from a different standpoint. My diverse background also motivates me to constantly seek inclusion in all the products I design and implement.
Any comments on learning from mistakes?
To anyone new to engineering, I would say: Nobody has it all figured out — regardless of how many years an individual may have been in engineering. The truth is that we’re all constantly learning. So don’t be too hard on yourself … and trust in your ability while giving yourself space to grow.
Of course, mistakes are inevitable — and everyone (whether woman or man) makes mistakes. Here, it’s important to avoid beating yourself up too much over flawed actions already made. The most important thing is what you learn from a mistake. In the world of software engineering, we minimize mistakes by always going over our work and testing it multiple times — and having someone else go over it and test it as well.
With unlimited time to apply engineering, what global challenges would you tackle?
One challenge I’m interested in tackling is the problem of accessibility for those who have a disability of some type. This also happens to be the research problem on which I’m currently working. With unlimited time, I would work on creating an accessible and inclusive world for all — regardless of ability, gender, nationality, race, and religion.