Interviews

“These students are professionals” – An Interview with Soji Adisa, Instructor of UI Winning Teams at Huawei ICT Global Competition

On May 26th, students of the University of Ibadan made headlines once more as two teams of six students emerged as grand prize winners at the 2023/2024 Huawei ICT Global Competition which finals held in Shenzhen, China. Inspired in no small measure by this feat, and curious to uncover what went on behind the scenes, I interviewed their instructor, Soji Adisa, who serves as the Deputy Director of the Training, Research, and Development Unit of the university Information Technology and Media Service (ITeMS) Directorate, and the Administrator/Instructor of UI Huawei Academy. He shared many stimulating insights into their journey thus far, gave some cogent recommendations, and highlighted key stakeholders whose contributions were crucial to the whole process. His comments are reported below.

What was the competition about and what was your role in these teams?

The competition aims to develop the talents of the upcoming generation in ICT. Because much of what we do in the world now rides on ICT infrastructure, Huawei ICT Academy targets the upcoming generation in ICT and imparts them with the IT skills to meet the challenge of the new world of work. So, what happened a few weeks ago in China started almost a year ago when we began preparing for the competition. Aside from the competition, the Academy trains students in ICT skills and enables them to obtain certifications that can be used anywhere in addition to their bachelor’s degree. We run courses, train students, and encourage as many as are good enough to write certification exams, which vouchers they could either purchase themselves or obtain via the university’s MoU (with Huawei). The competition is therefore Huawei’s way of eliciting student’s interest in this.

Having gone through the preliminaries, a number of students qualified from UI. We also participated in the national competition wherein six students making two teams qualified, and four of these six received a national award. These two teams (computing team and cloud team) represent different tracks or career paths, and although we also competed for the network track, we were unfortunately unable to make it through. We hope to do well in it in the coming competition.

I was the instructor for the two teams, though at the presentation of the award I had to feature with one. We also have other instructors, many of whom we have been actively working together.

This is not the first time

We started this journey with Huawei in 2019 when the University signed an MoU with them, after which a few of us were trained as instructors and obtained the certification. Our first participation was in November 2019 wherein we had three of our students from the Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering who qualified in the network track. Then, after the national stage, the students were mixed, and the national teams comprised students from different universities (UI, University of Port Harcourt, Ahmadu Bello University) with instructors allocated to the teams. According to them, it was done in a bid to showcase national strength rather than school strength, but since then, each team has comprised students from a school with their instructor.

The stages of the competition

There are three stages of the competition. First, we have the preliminaries to cut down the high number of students that indicate interest, but it’s not exactly considered as part of the competition. After that is the national, which is the actual first stage, then regional. In Africa, we have two regions—the North African region and the South African region, to which Nigeria belongs. The final is the global stage, where we have representatives from each region.

The process and the impact on the team

Since this is not my first time, I won’t exactly say it’s challenging, but it’s tasking, interesting, and exciting. First, one thing I have discovered about UI students, having worked with them (even outside this competition), is that they have it. They just need a little push where you show them the way, and they get it. For me, it’s been interesting and hectic, but our approach hasn’t been the traditional teacher-student relationship but more of a kind of teamwork, whereby I give the students access to myself and we’re free with one another, working together like friends. We develop ourselves by assigning tasks, and I challenge them to do things themselves. I open online classes for them with videos and materials prepared by Huawei, guide them on how to study them, give them quizzes, and challenge them with what I have laid my hands on in my experience in the production environment, having worked in IT organizations. I have a lab, though not well equipped but with some routers, and so on, that when you show them how to do these tasks, it becomes very easy for them.

They can come into my office anytime, ask me questions, and use facilities I have access to that may ease their learning. I also insist on their academic excellence and try to cultivate this father-son relationship with them, and most of the students I work with do well in their departments.

This whole process prepares them for work in the industry and gives them a hands-on experience of work in that kind of setting. I can say boldly that these students are professionals. They have read and laid their hands on the lab, even though in this part of the world we have the problem of infrastructure, and we don’t really have physical labs. So they use simulators, and this competition has exposed them to things we normally wouldn’t have access to here.

Were there any difficulties?

As usual, the difficulty of juggling this with schoolwork has always been there. Don’t forget that this is not the reason why they are on campus, and so combining this with their academics has been challenging, not so much on the part of the students, but on the fact that both the university and this program have their respective schedules and programs, such that managing the two has been difficult. On several occasions, I have had to speak to the HODs on their behalf and get permission from the Vice Chancellor so that certain things can be waived or done for them. For example, there were final-year students among this cohort whose project defense clashed with their bootcamp. So, after the permission from the management, we had to talk to their HOD so they could do their presentation 2-3 days ahead of the others. At times, they were in Abuja while lectures were ongoing, sometimes there may be tests, and we had to stand in for them. We thank God it’s getting better because the university is getting to see the importance of it; as I said earlier, these students are certificated professionals who are competing not only with people around, so they have what it takes to work when they get outside. They are better than people who haven’t passed through such, and the development of their human capital is obvious.

How did you feel when you were announced winners?

I was so excited because my heart’s desire for these students was for God to bless their efforts. They worked, stayed with me late in the office, and asked questions even at home. They made sacrifices, so I was so excited and happy that even though in Nigeria we may not have facilities and labs, we could compete with those who have and outshine them. In the course of this competition, some of them have written professional exams in their chosen career and obtained certification, and without having everything, they could still stand out among students from abroad.

Recommendations for stakeholders in facilitating initiatives like this

To the university management (generally, not just UI): They should see the need to prepare the younger generation for the future. What it took to work 20 years ago is totally different from what it takes to work now. Whether in the Social Sciences, Sciences, Medicine, and so on, everyone needs a level of IT and digital skills to do their job. This is not about becoming an IT professional, but about what is necessary for them to possess if they want to be productive. Management should take it as a serious matter to make sure that students are not just graduating with BSc or MSc but also with skills—certified skills—by implementing policies and investing in the necessary infrastructure.

To industries and organizations: This is the time that giving back is not just about building roads and so on but investing in infrastructure for the university and coming up with initiatives like these that will prepare our young ones for the future. Organizations and government should be focused now on what will prepare them for the future and be ready to come up with the same initiatives. Apart from Huawei, we have other organizations in IT doing similar things—different hackathons, different competitions, etc. These organizations should also be ready to invest in students in sponsoring and supporting them to get some of these certifications considering the high cost due to the poor exchange rate. Thank God for Huawei; because of the MoU there is a level of support where we get some free vouchers. While they may not go around for all the students, we are able to obtain for as many as are good to go. Other organisations should be ready to do that and prepare these young ones for their market since it’s actually a win-win situation—by investing in students, you are also preparing human resources for your business in the future. If you get them certified, they will come back to work for your organization because they have the skills to do it.

Special appreciation for stakeholders who contributed to the success of this last competition

I would like to start with my students who have been cooperating; they are like my children, they are so wonderful, they listen, we scold ourselves and we smile, and have done everything together to achieve this success. I also thank the university management starting from the VC and DVCs; if we were not permitted there’s nothing we could have done. Once they saw that what we were doing was imparting on the university and would bring glory to it, they gave all the needed support. I also thank the Dean and HODs because they had to bend the rules in the departments to release these students, even though they were not statutorily obligated to.

I thank my director, Mrs. Abiodun Alao, with whom I’ve been working together. Because of her, through just a call, mail or WhatsApp message, I have got things done without having to go through the long bureaucratic process. She has given us tremendous support. I cannot forget the Dean of Students. Because we’ve had to deal with students, I became close to him. The university has rules; for instance, I don’t have the power to take students out of the university, but because he does what needs to be done quickly, I don’t struggle with that.

Of course, I appreciate Huawei as an organization for what they are doing, even though we are looking for more. What I am trusting God to achieve with Huawei transcends just going on this competition but actually having them do something for this university, maybe infrastructure or labs, and I think with this kind of feat, we are getting closer. Although they have their policy such that we can’t just turn them to do anything, we are making progress, and we thank them because they are committing their resources to this—though as I said earlier, for them, it’s a win-win.

Closing Thoughts

I believe that with God’s help, we will be able to do more. It would interest you to know that immediately we didn’t make it in the network track we started building the team for the next competition. It’s not yet stable, but with this achievement, we will get more hands both from students and lecturers/instructors, including non-teaching technical staff with certifications, and I believe that’s going to really help us.

I was personally expecting that Nigeria would take the achievement more than they did; we still believe maybe the news has not reached those it should reach, but I think students like this should be celebrated. This will help us to do more. We are encouraged to make sure that we prepare for the next year, especially because this time UI was the only university from Nigeria that featured, unlike in 2019.

There is another track we hope to go for next year—the innovation track. This one is not just about those career paths, but thinking through and solving a problem in your locality or school using IT. It’s not limited to Computer Science, Electrical Electronics, etc. because there are different areas. For example, last year ABU won the grand prize, and a member of the team (the simulator) was a Law student. They had built an electronic circuit that solved a problem, and theirs was judged as one of the best solutions.

From Social Science to Medicine, I want to work with as many. Our network team this last time included a 500L medical student 500L. I was surprised, and I saw he had the passion for it. Last year we didn’t get to the global stage because of the strike, but we got to the national and did well. One of my students then in the network track came from Sociology and he did well. So, this is just to let you know that it is open to everyone who wants to use technology to solve problems. For example, for an innovation team solving a problem in Medicine, once they understand the problem and have professional skills in that area, they can work with one or two individuals from Electronics or Computer Science and we do the presentation there.

So, I am hoping that the next one will have an innovation team, and now that we have more instructors, we will sit down and see how we can raise these students. Tell students that we need students who actually want to solve problems. I’ve had one or two students who came to show interest because of the recent achievement, and I told them it must be for the right reasons (solving problems, getting skills), not just for medals. We must get our priorities right. Some of our past students are working with Huawei now, some are serving—some crossed to AWS, another works in some other cloud company. So, you see it’s not a matter of just winning here; I follow them and discover that they are there in the field doing well.

Conclusion

I had a great time speaking with Mr. Adisa, and it’s encouraging to see stories like this changing the negative narrative about Nigerians in the tech space (cf. cybercrime). It’s also encouraging to see that amidst all the negativity about the nation’s trajectory, many initiatives and opportunities like this exist for as many as are willing to put in the work and take advantage of them. Who knows? You may be the next tech star in UI Huawei Academy.

Igdaliah Otitoola

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