The Python of Thika – Andrea’s Skills-Based Volunteering Experience in Kenya

Meet Andrea Ramirez, R&D engineer at VMWare, passionate agile practitioner, and soft-spoken, tenacious problem solver who successfully swam from Alcatraz to SF and just took on the Python of Thika.

Andrea went to Kenya to expand opportunities for education for children around the world and explore the implications of leveraging technology in communities facing limited access to resources, but came back with much more.

She was part of a team of volunteers sent to deploy their technology and talent in scaling a computer lab in a small Kenyan school. But this talk is less about wrangling the code and more about decoding a powerful human experience.

The cross sector team from VMWare included employees from finance, research and development, human resources, and the foundation. They were joined by volunteers from Intel as part of a Team4Tech program supporting the NGO Orphan Overseas project serving primary schools in Thika.

While using SafariNet, Classmate PCs with Intel processor (ultra low power consumption machines for children K-3), and Waterford Early Learning software by Parsons, she walked away understanding:

“It’s less about the computers and technology than it is about helping a child see future possibilities.” –Tad Kincaid, Program Director of Orphans Overseas

Here are some highlights of her story:

At 10:15 Andrea serendipitously meets Team4Tech at VMWare’s PiDay

12:10 “When we arrived at the orphanage and it felt like paradise –heavenly beauty, angelic babies with joy in their hearts, and wonderful staff who took care of us and inspired us.

12:50 The cognitive dissonance hits as she sees the contrast between the paradise at the orphanage and challenges at the neighboring slum areas.

13:43 Andrea gets to know the project stakeholders and their customers – the local community, local teachers, primary schools. They split into two teams – the Training Team teaching the curriculum to teachers, and the Tech Team – setting up the lab, configuring laptops, providing tech training for the IT staff to make it sustainable.

By 15:38 They have set up 2 computer labs, provided 16 hrs skill-based training, and trained 60 local teachers, many of whom had never touched a computer before.

At 15:55 Check out the before and after pictures of classroom computer lab. “The kids were just overjoyed, the teachers were overjoyed. I’ve never seen so much joy around a computer working in my entire life.

16:37 A daily retrospective explored “what we did that day, what we would do the next day, and things we might overcome,” a process which helped the volunteers grow professionally.

17:19 What Andrea learned that was cool and unexpected: 1. How to assess risk and and trust my instincts before executing. 2. The importance of developing relationships for sustainable partnerships . 3. How to be in the present and focus.

17:43 The importance of trust, building relationships, being in the present, harkens back to Andrea’s swim from Alcatraz:

Before jumping in, I had to have a vision and strategy for where I was going.

But immediately after jumping in, I had to be in the present and develop a relationship with the waves and currents and trust my instincts.

Swimming is a literal way of going with the flow, but in Africa – I had to humble myself, relinquish the manager role, and focus the task at hand, but I still had to understand the project vision and strategy.”

19:50 Andrea shares how she had to trust her instincts when she discovered supplies critical to success of the training program were missing.

21:09 Andrea learns about team building when Intel and VMWare employees come together for the first time, and there is a clear corporate culture gap – “many times more pronounced than that we faced being in Kenya for the first time”. Beyond “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” stages, they “ultimately bridged that gap by VMWare having intellectual curiosity about the Intel PCs we delivered and Intel having appreciation for VMWare agile approach to problem solving.

22:45 Andrea reflects on her personal and professional growth, and thanks all the companies that made the program possible by understanding that skills-based volunteering is integral to leadership development and that Silicon Valley companies have the opportunity and responsibility to give back.

See the full slideshow.