My name is Raesetje Sefala, I am from a township in Limpopo Province called Lebowakgomo. I went to an all-girls high school and after that I studied Computer Science in my undergrad, Data science in honours and currently I am completing my computer science masters focusing on Machine learning and working as a data scientist at the Data Intensive Development Lab at the University of California Berkeley in the U.S.
For me, it all started in the beginning of my high school year when my cousin came home one day and said he had something cool to show me. He said I should make a drawing of the letter “A” using the paint application in Microsoft and colour it. I did that and then he took it and used it to create a webpage which he ran in the browser with other details about me, like my name and other things; which I thought was a very cool thing and I wanted to know more about it. He gave me material to study and then I practiced under his supervision for a while after that.
When I got to grade 10, my parents refused to change the school I was going to because they did not offer I.T as a subject but when I went to university I already knew that I wanted to do Computer Science. Although my parents didn’t want me to do Computer Science, I got great marks and a scholarship and then I was able to make my own decisions.
I registered into a fixed curriculum degree at Wits called Applied Computing which incorporated Computer Science, Information Systems and Electronic Engineering. I thought it would be very cool to know how everything worked from the hardware, software and then finally how to sell it to a client. As part of the degree was a compulsory 12 weeks’ Vacation Work requirement and for that, I interned at a company called Sentech which is the main signal distributor in the country. At Sentech, I was introduced to a broader perspective of the tech industry. People who work with the hardware, Software, the business side and I.T support within the company and others who did research. This was really mind blowing for me to just see it all work together like that to an extent that I could see things I was a part of at work playing on the TV. My supervisor at work recommended a mentor who worked at the CSIR towards the end of my internship and he introduced me to the idea of research, which I found interesting.
During my honours degree I interned at the CSIR and there I started applying the Data Science and Machine learning skills I’d been learning in my honours degree to solve real world problems. That is when I decided that Machine learning and Data Science applied to ‘for social good kind of problems’ was something that I wanted to do going forward. Now I am completing my Masters degree and also working at a research lab using Machine Learning to map poverty in developing countries so that their governments can do something good about it.
My typical day involves finding creative ways to create datasets which are representative of the current ground truth, train machine learning models and evaluate the results, communicate the results, get feedback and then improve the models/data sets accordingly.
Our goal is to find alternative ways to represent poverty as best as we can so that the government can know where the regions which are the poorest are, so they can prioritize them on their Covid19 relief programs, currently It is very difficult to track poverty, especially in developing countries also because it is very expensive.
Yes, I have. The two main challenges I have experienced were: being excluded from getting information about opportunities which could have been very beneficial to me and another one was that my teammates(who were often men) always needed someone else to validate my ideas before they could consider them although it was unnecessary and the men in the team didn’t have to do that.
The solution to both these problems was calling them out on these acts which were unfair. Although it was very uncomfortable, it was necessary because otherwise you end up losing out on valuable time because you are most likely trying to convince them or complaining to someone else about it and nothing changes.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?
It is okay to call people out on acts that make you feel uncomfortable or are unnecessary. I believe that you teach people how you want to be treated and (given these stereotypes and biases in this industry) if something is making you uncomfortable, you need to address it because it is more uncomfortable to just sit with the matter.
What is your advice for other girls considering getting into the tech space?
I would just advice that you sit down with yourself, block out all the noise (like that it is male dominated and blah blah blah) and just evaluate what makes you happy and what you are good at. I like to describe myself as a problem solver because that is what this field is all about. We get problems in a broad range of fields like finance, health care, geography, agriculture etc. and we must find creative ways to solve them efficiently. Everything else is a skill that we learn along the way but inherently, we are problem solvers. If you feel like that is more of who you are as well, block out all the noise and consider it.
“You can’t be what you can’t see”.
During my journey, there have been countless times when things were difficult that I would even consider quitting but there is always a woman in the field who inspires me to dust myself and carry on or to dream bigger. I would like to be that woman for other women in the field. Especially those who are upcoming in this field, that as they see me doing my own thing, they need to see their greatness reflected in my eyes, a reflection of themselves; of their worth and of their boundless potential.