Now, here’s another entry for the ‘unlikeliest of starts’ category; it’s the story of Samuel Zemedkun; a young Ethiopian who started out as a weaver of traditional fabrics – actually the family business – and probably thought that was going to be the story of his life, as it was for his father and probably his father’s father.
Samuel Zemedkum is the name of that young Ethiopian who comes from a long line of traditional weavers but these days, though, he’s not exactly staring at strands and fiddling with threads hanging from a loom. He’s working with his hands and eyes, alright, but with a very different set of tools – most likely a keyboard and a reasonably wide screen.
Today, Samuel writes code for one of the biggest ride-hailing companies in the world. In a move reminiscent of a climb to the other side that happened against the odds, the young Ethiopian has gone on to become a software engineer at Uber despite the fact that he seemed destined for a very different path while still assisting his folks in their small weaving shed in Addis Ababa.
His father made traditional fabrics, weaving one thread at a time, for a living. His mother was also a part of the business; an expert weaver in her own right, and together with his five younger sisters, Samuel spent most of his early childhood in the weaving shed. Each of the children was expected to learn the craft and possibly carry on with it, and Samuel did seem like a willing participant in these informal weaving classes initially.
Around when he turned 12, he had learned enough to merit a sort of promotion – from just preparing threads to actually making the fabrics. Actually, this step-up also implied he’d have to give his undivided attention to the craft as making fine pieces of fabric is not exactly a walk in the park.
To be able to that – that is, give his undivided attention to the weaving craft – there was no getting around the fact that he’d have to quit school. But that was the last thing his folks wanted. Even though they needed all the hands they could find at that point, his parents opted to have him complete high school and instead work twice as hard to provide for the family.
This was the more or less the arrangement for the next three years, up until things took a turn for the worse. It happened that there was a downturn in fortunes for the Ethiopian textile industry during that period and the family business took a hit in more ways than one.
As the funds weren’t exactly coming in, it was always going to be an uphill task to provide for the needs of six children. So, it was more of the effect of circumstance than of choice that Samuel’s parents considered pulling him and his siblings out of school due to the financial constraints caused by the industry wobble.
Samuel was 15-years-old and in the 7th Grade when his parents began to tinker with the idea of having him drop what was left of his schooling and joining the family business. But as a particularly brilliant student, there was always going to be people looking to swoop in and help.
And help did come in the form of his teachers from the school who found a way to help him make some extra income for the family. Their idea was to have him tutor students in lower grades in mathematics and science after school.
With the consent of his parents, he took it up, proving quite adept at not only retaining information but also transferring knowledge. This continued for the next three years, a period during which he saw himself through to the 10th Grade.
Then, the floodgates began to open. An opportunity presented itself about the same period in the form of a scholarship that could see him move to Hong Kong for the completion of his high school education, and he grabbed it with both hands.
He won the scholarship and bade his homeland goodbye for a while. Upon completing high school in Asia, he won yet another scholarship – this time to study Physics and Mathematics at the University of Colorado, in the United States.
While on the college scholarship, Samuel remained relentless. If anything, he worked twice as hard as he was supposed to. In addition to the academic responsibilities required to keep the scholarship, Samuel still somehow managed to carve out 20 hours every week working as a tutor and as a librarian – just as he had done in high school. By doing these jobs, he was able to provide some financial support for his family back in Ethiopia.
Upon obtaining his first degree, he applied for a Ph.D. programme in the same institution and it was during this time that he first came across concepts associated with programming and machine learning.
Oddly, the Ethiopian found he was particularly fascinated by these new concepts, much more than he’d ever been with Physics and Mathematics, and he kind of made it his life’s work from that moment onwards to know as much as was humanly possible about those concepts.
After regular classes, he’d busy himself with Coursera and other online resources, consuming as much information as he could swallow without getting ‘intellectually-constipated.’
And then the stars began to align. In an effort to keep providing for his family back home while taking part in a data science boot camp (a decision that was borne out his new found interest in tech), he took a weekend job as driver-partner for Uber.
“I found driving with Uber to be the perfect weekend job,” he says. “I loved the flexible hours, which allowed me to attend the data science boot camp Monday through Friday and earn a living during the weekend.”
By now, he was becoming skilled in this new field; software engineering was something that came to him almost naturally. He had even become confident enough in his ability that he began whipping up resumes and applying for jobs in the field of tech.
About a week after the conclusion of the data science programme, a call came through and it was a job offer from a small ad tech company in the Denver area. The company was seeking the services of a data scientist.
Well, he wasn’t the only candidate that had been contacted for the job but his degree in Mathematics and Physics, coupled with the immersive data science programme he had undergone, did give him all the edge he needed. He got the job at the small tech firm and that was more or less the launchpad for his foray into the tech scene.
Three years on the job and his stock had risen even further. In 2017, Uber swooped in for him and since then, he’s been working in the Marketplace Forecasting Team of the cab-hailing giant. And to think he was an Uber driver himself not that long ago. What a fitting end to a story that could’ve just as easily ended with fingers on a loom.
Featured Image Courtesy: africa-ontherise.com