Level Up: How tech saved the life of this AI Engineer

How Brian Koyundi went from failing mathematics in high school to becoming an AI engineer.

Level Up: How tech saved the life of this AI Engineer

One common phrase in Africa's tech space is “Tech saved my life,” and this statement could mean different things to different people. It could mean it saved them from poverty and depression or gave them a sense of purpose in life.

In a conversation with our interview guest today, he said, “Tech saved my life.” We found out what that statement meant to him, as he shared his journey from failing mathematics in high school to becoming an AI engineer.

 🔎 In the spotlight with Brian Koyundi

If your career journey were a movie, what would the title be and why?

I’d call that movie “Fake It Till You Make It” and it’ll be a dramatic comedy. Here’s why: I started writing code in 2015 and it’s been one of the most complex things I've done. If there’s an option to study the human brain and write code, I’d pick studying the human brain.

I remember failing terribly in high school and it was a challenge getting into university. I had to start a certificate programme. The only subject I did well in was English. I even failed in Swahili, the national language of my country. It was very complex for me to grasp some of these things. I had to learn linear algebra, calculus and other things simultaneously. It was like I was doing high school mathematics again.

The only beautiful thing was that I had extended knowledge of computing. Because the first computer I touched was in 2002, I knew the ins and outs of a computer properly. My peers would come to me and ask me questions about computing, and I’d gladly answer them, but deep within, I was struggling to grasp some of the things, and I wished I could easily explain to them.

I was struggling inside, but I was wearing a beautiful face outside. That’s why I’d call it “Fake It Till You Make It.”

Tell us about your journey into the AI industry. What initially sparked your interest?

I was introduced to the AI industry by an amazing lady, Sandra, I was dating then in the university. She invited me to an AI event at the University of Nairobi event back when I didn’t know what AI was. I only went to show her support.

It was there and then I fell in love with AI and never looked back. Since then it’s been quite an uphill task as the adoption of AI is still critically low globally. We have a lot of companies practising AI, but we have limited numbers of customers.

But I'm thankful to God, my family, and my friends who have supported me. My family did not know I was studying AI until very recently when I started to become a limelight. Before then, all they knew was that I was studying something in computing.

I'm slowly taking up the space of a thought leader within my country, which is amazing. I'm only 30 years old and having a good knowledge of AI is helpful. I've become a speaker, a consultant, a mentor.

Tell us a funny or memorable story from your career.

I’ll give you two. One of the funniest things about my career is that I don't know much about software engineering. People ask me about software engineering, but I barely talk about it. I'm an AI engineer, and I work with Python programming. I do a lot of deep tech, but you'd never hear me talk about software development. In as much as software development is what makes us AI engineers even work, I barely talk about it. I've been invited to talk about writing code to young engineers, and I told them I'm not able to do this.

Another one is I was not making money from working in AI until last year. Despite being in the field for so long, I started studying AI fully in 2017. People look at me and say, oh, you must have made a lot of money out of it. No, I've not made so much money out of it. But, I have met quite influential and significant people within the industry in the field of AI and robotics, both in Africa and abroad.

What’s one action you would recommend someone new to your field take?

One of the first things I can easily tell someone new in my field is to study data science. I recently had a chat with an old client whose son just finished high school, and she wanted to know what he could do. One of the things that I told her was, that if your boy loves computing, he can take a simple course like data science or data analysis, where he graduates to become a data scientist and even a data engineer in the future. That is something that you can easily transition to. But the beauty of tech within the African space is that whether you are a carpenter, nurse, or even a gravedigger, you can become a technologist.

There are so many courses by ALX, ALT, DAC Nairobi. There are so many communities in tech that anyone can join. There are both free and paid courses that someone can take to get into tech. For example, Patoranking has now partnered with ALX, offering amazing courses. ALX has very, very beautiful courses. I did my software engineering course with ALX. I've also done AI career essentials with ALX. I tried doing the Founders Academy ALX, but I failed because I was very busy and doing a lot of things by then.

But you can easily transition into tech; whether you are an astronaut, a doctor, a ship mechanic, a fisherman, whether you are harvesting palm wine or you're driving Keke, you can become a developer, a software engineer an AI engineer, or a data scientist. That is the beauty of tech, and that is the beauty of Africa right now. I'm really glad that the goal of having one million software engineers by 2030 is coming alive, and I'm very sure that by 2030, we'll probably even have more than one million software engineers.

That means that the economic stage for Africa, and even for our households, will have grown because Africa has a lot of issues with poverty right now. I can say tech saved my life because that’s how much I value tech. If it were not for tech, probably I'd be dead or maybe I'd be back in the village mining gold or something. I don't know. But I know I'd be very, very poor.

If you could swap jobs with anyone for a day, who would it be?

I'd want to become a medical doctor. I love medicine so, so much. I love it, especially caring for those that are in distress. I have done a few projects here and there where I cared for people who were in distress medically as a volunteer. And it touched me. In fact, during the recent protest in Kenya, I was a medical volunteer, and we were offering first aid and those kinds of issues. So in another world, if I'm not in tech, I'm probably a doctor somewhere.

What’s something that non-experts believe about your field that they’re wrong about?

Now that I'm in the field of artificial intelligence, people think that because I stand on many stages, I make a lot of money. People actually believe that I'm very, very rich. Also, people believe that I'm here to take away their job. I was talking to an old friend, whose a Hollywood producer, and he asked me, what are you doing? And I told him that right now, I'm fully into AI. He was like, you are the people that are coming to take away our job, right? But it is not true.

We do not make a huge ton of money. We are not here to take away any person's job. We are only here to make working easier and much more competitive.

How do you handle failure, and what have you learned from it

To be very honest, I struggle with the question of failure a lot. I have asked myself whether I will make it. I have asked myself whether, if I am gone, after my sunset days, people will remember me and what I’ve done for the community – Africa. But I can only do that by giving my best to all these communities. That is the best that I can do.

So, failure is something that I'm afraid of. And I hope that I come out as a winner. I pray that I will become much, much better than I am today, whatever it is, whether it is pro bono, whether it is for a fee, but just to have my name printed on a piece of brick and say this guy did this for this community and we are grateful. He was a Kenyan, Cameroonian or whatever. The most important thing was that he was an African and did this for us.