Kennedy’s Drive for a Fulfilling Life Led Him to Computer Science

by Marcelle Santos

Kennedy Ezumah would have probably preferred to be overseas exploring, but, when we spoke, he’d been spending most days at home, doing coursework for his two remaining classes at Northeastern and interviewing for software engineering jobs. He’d had an interview that day. In fact, between our interview and publication, his work paid off and he accepted a position at Citi as a Software Engineer.

Since he is close to graduating from the Align Master’s program, I asked him if he was nervous about starting his career in tech. He said he was, but he was also confident that it would go well.

He told me earlier: “I have a way of getting through challenges.” He said that in the context of studying computer science without a background in tech, but I can see how that could be true for other experiences in his life, like adjusting to different cultures (Kennedy’s a first-generation immigrant from Nigeria who has studied in India and China); getting through engineering school despite not being a “math wiz”; and, more recently, getting an internship in Silicon Valley after studying and preparing for over a year. (To whoever is curious: he sent over 50 applications, did 12 interviews, received two offers, and ended up joining Lyft for the summer. It was worth it.)

The challenge we focused on during our conversation was his transition into computer science. Kennedy had been working for years as a civil engineer when he enrolled in the Align Master’s program.

He’d started thinking about going into tech long before that. In his freshman year in college, he took a programming course and realized that programming, like engineering, was also about problem-solving and building things.

As a senior, he attended the National Society of Black Engineers’ annual convention, a networking event/career fair for black students and professionals, and noticed that tech skills were in high demand. “Every employer there was looking for someone who studied computer science,” he said.

That’s when he first considered changing careers. “I remember coming back from that conference and going to computer science professors who I’d never met and had never taken classes with. I just went to the office hours and asked, ‘Hey, I studied this, but I think I’m interested in your field. What would it look like if I transitioned?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, why would you do that? You’re graduating. You’re going to have a good job, a good life with this. Go do that.’”

He followed their advice. After spending a summer in India learning Hindi (he won a competitive scholarship from the US Department of State to study a language of his choice abroad), he joined a multinational construction company and spent the next three years helping to build airports, train stations, bridges, and other public infrastructure in the Greater New York area.

Although he enjoyed the work, he wasn’t happy with the long hours or the lack of autonomy. “We were at the mercy of clients. We couldn’t say no. Oftentimes, this would result in me working crazy hours, weekends, and nights, and I just didn’t see that being sustainable. It took time away from doing things that I wanted to do outside of work.”

Meanwhile, he saw that his friends who were in tech had flexible schedules and the ability to build things with few resources. “In construction, most things are done with large amounts of public money that the individual doesn’t have access to. So you have the knowledge, but you can’t really do anything with it on your own.”

More and more, working in the tech industry seemed more in line with his goals and interests, and his view of what it meant to have a fulfilling life. He’d spent the past years strengthening his ties to Nigeria, rediscovering his Igbo culture and heritage, and writing about it. What started out as a personal project turned into a business, NZUKO Brand, which celebrates Igbo culture through content and products. He wanted the freedom to travel more and the skills to grow his company.

When the pandemic hit, he decided it was time to take action. “There was this wind of change blowing around. Everywhere, people were leaving jobs and doing different things. So I was like, maybe this is my sign to go ahead and do this.”

He saw that Northeastern offered a bridge program to enable people from non-tech backgrounds to earn a Master’s in Computer Science; that Align Master’s students gained professional experience before graduating; and that one of the campuses was located “at the heart of the American tech ecosystem”. He decided to enroll.

Two years later, he realizes that the biggest challenge in pursuing his Master’s was discovering how to be a student again, particularly within the context of learning tech skills in Northeastern’s experiential model. “In my undergrad experience, we would study these concepts that were related to civil engineering, but there wasn’t that expectation to put them into practice, whereas, with this profession, there’s the challenge of learning something new and the expectation that the following week, you will know how to do it on your own,” he said.

Applying theoretical concepts to real-life projects, even when it meant problem-solving without guidance and moving forward when he wasn’t sure, helped him at his internship at Lyft. “I was given an intern project — all interns are given one project that they’re expected to complete by the end of the summer. It’s interesting that they don’t give you the steps to do it. You’re asked to go bake a cake, but then you also have to figure out the recipe,” he said.

As he approaches graduation, he knows that he’s gained the knowledge and the skills needed to succeed in tech, and is excited about the kind of life a career in the industry will offer him. “Having the option to work remotely and spend time with my family is something I’m excited about. I also look forward to traveling and experiencing different cultures.”

With the widespread adoption of remote work and asynchronous workflows (his internship at Lyft was fully remote), a good, interesting life is more achievable than ever.

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