My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.
Diyan Oluwasegun’s foray into software development is somewhat serendipitous. But what is more interesting about his story is his decade-long journey with the firm where he wrote his first code and how company cultures, policies and work ethics can indeed keep the best hands for long. This is his life in tech.
When Diyan Oluwasegun graduated with a degree in Electronics Engineering from the University of Ibadan, his mind was set on a career in Control Systems Engineering. Or Network Engineering.
“I had my CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) by then and I thought I’m just going to do my CCIE and CCMP, find a good job and be a network engineer,” he tells me.
Oluwasegun grew up in Lagos, the too-bubbly economic capital of Nigeria where he hoped to serve in the compulsory one-year National Youth Service Scheme alongside a few friends after graduating. Under the scheme, Nigerian university graduates are often deployed to a different geopolitical zone from where they’ve spent their formative years to work and learn about a culture that may be different from theirs. They had, one day, traversed the Lagos island in search of a place of posting in hopes of swaying their deployment to Lagos.
While his friends made it to Lagos and Anchor Telecoms, a company they had all interviewed with, he was deployed back to Oyo (in whose capital, Ibadan, he schooled) and by the time he re-deployed to Lagos, the job offer at Anchor had slipped away.
“I overheard some colleagues at the NYSC office in Surulere talking about rejecting a company they were posted to called Seamfix because they wanted to major in power and Seamfix was focused on IT,” he says.
With no interest in software development, no knowledge of coding, and having picked interest in business following an undergraduate business engineering course, he went down to Seamfix, interviewed for a business role and landed the job.
“On the day of resumption, I met the MD and he looked at me and said – you studied engineering? At Ibadan? Why did you apply as a business person?”
Oluwasegun recalls being handed over to a software developer on the team, being handed a laptop, a book, and 30 days to become a developer. He hasn’t looked back since that day.
“I was lucky enough to learn fast, lucky that I had good resources and good people around willing to teach and help me grow,” Oluwasegun says.
“By my third month, I was already working on live projects and in a year, I was already managing my own projects within the company. In three years I was managing teams.”
Identity tech over the years
Founded in 2007, Seamfix is one of the earliest software companies that launched to tackle the challenges of identity management and verification in Nigeria. From SIM card registration solutions to digitized identity collection and management tools, Seamfix has and continues to serve various industries in collecting, verifying and managing data qualitatively and effectively.
Since its first biometric solution in 2008, Oluwasegun says a lot has changed in the last ten years particularly with regards to the libraries that inform the core intelligence of its biometric systems.
About a decade ago, the benchmark libraries that a fingerprint was validated against in terms of quality, for instance, were often sourced from third parties at neck-breaking costs.
“Seamfix is now building its own biometric libraries and that’s a huge step,” says Oluwasegun.
In the past two years, the company has begun to seek out international accreditations from organisations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to place a stamp of global approval on these libraries.
“Africa is owning its own space,” says Oluwasegun about growth in the identity management space over the years.
“We have realised that the foreign tools are good and they do the work that they were designed to do but we have our own nuances and particular peculiarities. Things that are just us.”
And the continent is quickly realising that it can and should be creating solutions that cater to these nuances not just in identity management but in other areas as well, utilising technology tools to improve upon or create new systems.
From greenhorn to managing multiple teams in a pandemic
At a time where job hopping for salary increases or climbing a career ladder quickly is norm, it is remarkable that Oluwasegun has spent the last ten years at Seamfix. He points to the versatility of the roles he’s had to occupy in this time frame as one of the reasons for his long standing journey within the company.
“In my time within the company, I’ve been a hands-on software developer; I’ve dabbled into systems engineering, architecture, and I’m somewhat now a devops engineer. I’ve gone through several phases,” he says.
About three or four years ago, Oluwasegun was at the brink of joining another top software company in the country but decided against it last minute. The ingenuity required to work at Seamfix and a deeply entrenched culture of dogged self-improvement (mandated quarterly training/seminars/courses to build capacity in a current or future role) are some of the other factors that stayed this decision.
“You honestly do not get the chance to get bored,” he says.
“I’ve not had a day, in the ten years plus I’ve been at Seamfix, I would say was light and I didn’t have too much to do.”
“Seamfix is really not for everyone,” he says when I ask whether this intensity can backfire and become detrimental to the wellbeing of the staff.
“You have to be of a certain calibre to enjoy your work at Seamfix. It really is hectic, I’m not going to kid you. It does get to some people. They come in and they cannot cope and they leave.”
But for those who stay and thrive, the work and the team dynamics are often enough to keep people going. Of course, rest is not for the weak and staff members are allowed to demand time off to recoup their energies.
“We’re not machines.”
Currently, Oluwasegun oversees the activities of four teams: the research and innovation unit and IT operations comprising the devops unit, the database administration & development units, and systems administration unit.
“I think my leadership style makes me more within my team than above my team,” he says.
In the midst of a pandemic, managing four teams remotely has come with its unique challenges. Although having been a proponent for and seeing some adoption of remote work long before the pandemic, the lockdown measures forced things to move along rather quickly and it took some time to adjust.
During the first three weeks, Oluwasegun says there was a lot of concern around power and data affordability, typical shortcomings for remote workers in the country. Management also fretted a lot about whether teams were indeed continuing to work and deliver on their tasks.
However, with a couple of adjustments and concessions both from staff and management by way of incentives, remote team management courses for managers and other digital tools, work has found its rhythm again.
“There’s this harmony that we have reached,” he says, and now many want to continue working remotely even after on-site work resumes. With cases still rising in the country, he is uncertain when that will be.
Oluwasegun is a processes person and believes the ability to create processes with and for his teams in ways that they are understood and imbibed has been key in overseeing all of them effectively during this period.
“The way I see it, if there’s a working process that is understood by everyone on the team, then with or without me, work goes on efficiently.”
And with the team running smoothly, he can continue to work within the team doing hands-on work as is desired and necessary.
The future of identity management
Technologies that inform data collection and identity management over the years have greatly evolved. At Seamfix, what it currently looks like is infusing intelligence into its software solutions so that they move beyond basic command and response programming to intelligent tools that can learn from trends, previous queries and errors to make improved decisions on their own.
One of such solutions Seamfix has built in the recent past for one of its clients, can separate a passport foreground from the background to enable the client’s agents standardize the quality, colour and components to meet the required image specifications when collecting biometric information.
“This was actually a major milestone for the client and did go a long way in solving some of the issues they had and driving down their costs,” Oluwasegun says.
While these technologies mean that it will become increasingly easy to identify and verify personal data for various purposes, data privacy concerns and the narrow spectrum of already existing systems also mean that there is need for increased caution.
We have seen algorithms wrongly profile individuals and we’ve seen data collected and used on a massive scale for purposes not signed off on by the data subjects. We continue to hear about how racial biases and lack of diversity will deepen with identity technology innovation as well as the dangers of Big Data in a world where data has become everything.
According to Oluwasegun, the conversations around these issues today are centered on replacing the power and control of data in the hands of the data subjects.
“Seamfix was at the ID4Africa conference last year in South Africa and there was a full day dedicated to concerns around data privacy and the GDPR/NDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) adoption and compliance. It is a major concern.”
One sure way to go is the decentralisation of data so that subjects not only have control over their data but can determine how, what, when and for how long it is used. Already, countries like Estonia are showing how this can be done through its digital identity or Digi-ID system.
“It will take a while, particularly for Africa,” he says, but largely, he believes this is where identity management is headed in a couple of years.