After a long break, Man Around Town (a working title for the segment formerly known as Man Around Nairobi) is back. First up we have Kipkorir Kirui. He describes himself this way, “My name is Kipkorir Kirui but most people call me Kirui even though it is my surname. I had an “English” name before, but I sort of dropped it at some point. This sort of gives you a glimpse into the type of person I am. I ask a lot of questions. I dropped my first name because I didn’t understand why my African names were insufficient.”
“My career is in tech having started off as a software engineer, then I ran a consulting team from where I transitioned into design. I started my own design company, and eventually ventured into the product management field. The stereotype of a typical techie/nerd doesn’t fit me at all. I am extroverted and adventurous. Techies are often described as introverted and antisocial. I have an adventurous bone in me, and I feel alive the most when doing things that scare me. I have bungee jumped, done a free fall, owned a motorcycle for a couple of years, and hiked (I once did 14 hikes in one year). I used to camp a lot, and I have travelled to four continents and 25 countries. Being someone who loves the outdoors and travelled a lot, COVID was devastating to me. On the flip side, this forced me to travel more within Kenya and get to see how beautiful our country is.
- Are you driven by passion or purpose or both? What drives you?
Early in my life and career, I was almost solely driven by passion. My decisions were mainly based on if I was passionate about something. Combined with my high appetite for risk, this allowed me to take on opportunities most people would not. I remember how I quit my first job without a plan and within a short period of time, I found something new and interesting.
Now that I am a bit older, I am now primarily driven by purpose. There are a couple of things, personal and career-related, that I would like to accomplish and that serves as my primary guide. This allows me to go through the rough patches without giving up. This is important because most of our goals in life will have challenging moments. Passion is important but passion only can’t get you through the tough periods.
- What did you want to be when you grew up? Tell us about your background and how it shaped you into the person you are now.
I grew up in a rural community in a place called Bomet. Growing up in shagz (a rural area) and moving to the city later gives me a unique perspective of the world. My childhood was spent outside. I never watched cartoons nor played PS. We did way more dangerous things like getting inside a tyre and being pushed downhill. I think this is where my love for the outdoors came from.
I also grew up in a family that encouraged self-reliance. My father showed us to solve most of the problems we encountered. He gave us a lot of responsibilities when we were young. I remember when I completed high school, I used to manage his lorries. This involved looking for clients, the loading crew, mechanics, and dealing with the police. This instilled a high sense of self-reliance in me and that has served me very well. Of course, there are times especially when I am dating where I come off as unhelpful, but I have since worked on that.
My parents also valued education and did everything to ensure I got the best education. That is how I ended up in Nairobi. I joined Lenana School (yes us those) and thereafter went to JKUAT. My parents only took me to Lenana the first time I joined and thereafter I had to find my way there. I remember one scary time I got to Nairobi at night and the bus dropped us all in River Road. I was still new to the city then and were it not for a friendly passenger I talked to on the way I would have gotten lost!
Another factor that shaped my life significantly was joining Lenana School. As a boy who grew up in rural Bomet, I had one interesting challenge – an accent. I remember the number of times my classmates laughed at me when I spoke in person or in the classroom. Surprisingly what this taught me was that being fluent is not necessarily a good measure of intelligence. While I had an accent, I didn’t struggle with my classwork. This has helped me a lot later in life as I have learned not to judge people by how they speak or look but rather by what they can do.
- If you had a chance for a do-over, what would you do differently in your life or career?
I would definitely reduce my risk appetite. I have taken so many risks that didn’t pan off and some of them were unnecessary. In as much as I learned from each failure, for some the opportunity cost was too high. I would have seen this from the onset if I didn’t go with the flow all the time. On the other hand, I wonder where I would be if I had a lower risk appetite.
- What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
I currently work as a Senior Product Manager at Microsoft. My work involves coordinating with customers/users, and working with engineering, and design teams to build and ship features for the Microsoft ecosystem.
Before Microsoft, I was an entrepreneur. There are many things you need to learn to do well but if I had to choose three skills they would be great communication skills, attention to detail and curiosity.
Communication is not just responding to emails and writing specification documents. This includes storytelling and selling your ideas or projects. At any point in time, there are competing projects and limited resources and time. Being able to effectively communicate to different stakeholders varying from design to engineering teams and all the way to leadership is critical.
Diligence and attention to detail are critical. No matter how menial a task is, it is important to pay attention to each detail. Planning a meeting? Make sure the agenda is clear and well communicated to the stakeholders. Doing a design review? Make sure the approach is communicated well and the findings well documented and communicated to relevant parties. This should not be confused with perfection. It is common to let perfect be the enemy of good.
Curiosity and an attitude of asking questions will also serve you well. It is very common to assume that it is the way it is because it has always been like that. Such an attitude robs you a lot of opportunities as you will never get the chance to explore other ways things can be done. Be that ‘annoying’ person in the team who always asks why something is being done in a certain way. Being curious also means exploring different ways of solving problems. It doesn’t stop at asking why a team does something in a certain way but also extends to suggesting new ways of doing things and showing why it is better.
- What motivates you to keep going?
Human beings have immense potential. One of my heroes is Eliud Kipchoge. If I had to choose one person to meet it would be him. What he has achieved is phenomenal. I remember when he was attempting a sub-2-hour marathon I was running a training session. We paused everything for the last 30 minutes to witness history being made.
I also remember when he broke the marathon record. I was in Joburg, and I cancelled all my plans to watch the race. My potential motivates me. I know I can achieve a lot, but I will have to put in the time and effort. This keeps me motivated.
- How do you define success?
In my life, I have a number of things that I would love to achieve. On the professional side, I hope to leave a positive impact on the people I work with or engage with. For a long time, this has been in the form of entrepreneurship, but I am taking a break from that for a while. By impact, I don’t necessarily mean just a financial impact. I hope to open as many doors for as many people as possible.
As Africans, we need more earning opportunities so that we can uplift ourselves. I go out of my way to share opportunities I came across with my network. On ADPList, a mentorship platform, I run weekly mentorship sessions with a focus on people starting out in their careers. I am hoping to do more with high schoolers too as I believe that the earlier the youth are exposed to career information the more likely they are to land in places they love.
The personal aspect also matters to me a lot. I always do periodic check-ins with myself, and the key question is if I am happy. If the answer is a consistent no then that means there is something I need to change. This can be the work I am doing or other aspects of my life. If I am able to do this until old age I will consider myself successful. It doesn’t need to be perfect but if I am able to stay intentional about this that will be great.
So, in short, I define success as the ability to find what you love as an individual and keep doing it. It is not straightforward but if you keep seeking it you will find it.
- What makes you happy and gives you the energy to face the day?
A lot of things make me happy. Is that odd? I find joy in so many aspects of life. What gets me out of bed every day are the opportunities life has given me. I enjoy my work and I always look forward to it. Of course, it is not always rosy but isn’t that part of it?
I love working out and seeing myself progress over time. This is a daily ritual, and it gives me that extra kick especially on days I am feeling down.
I love hanging out with my friends. They are all chatty and interesting.
I look forward to road trips which I do almost every other week. I am planning to resume hiking again as I felt most at peace on the trail. I have always felt I have so much to live for and seeing it happening is amazing.
- Advice for newbies in your line of work?
I was joking the other day about the fact that a career in tech is now the equivalent of the careers we were told to pursue. We are increasingly telling young people to pursue one the same way we were told to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers.
There are a lot of opportunities in the space as software is eating the world. However, from my experience, not everyone can be a software developer or a designer. Most of the time it only works if you are really passionate about it. However, the good thing is that there are other roles in tech. This cuts across the spectrum but if we were to focus on more traditional roles, I can mention roles such as digital marketing, UX, research and so on. If you are a newbie, first start by exploring the different roles in the space before choosing one. Find the one you are passionate about, and your life will be easier.
It is also very important to create visibility about your work. You don’t need to be experienced to share what you are working on, learning, or struggling with. This helps in two ways. First, it opens other opportunities for you. Second, there are people going through the same journey and seeing others go through the same is a source of inspiration. I have found LinkedIn to be the best place to do this. What you share can range from long-form articles you have written, content you found interesting, or even posts you write. This is one of the most underrated aspects of life that can propel your career. It has done wonders for me.
- What do you want your legacy to be?
As I mentioned earlier, as Africans, we are still struggling financially. Most of us still contribute to Black Tax as we have to support our immediate families and extended. My father paid his own school fees, but I didn’t have to do that. He pushed himself hard and managed to cover his children. I would love to help my family start the journey towards generational wealth. I push myself hard precisely because of this.
I would also love to do more for my community back home in Bomet. If I can do projects that help create better opportunities for the younger generation, gives them critical information about life, and have a long-term impact I will have built a great legacy.
I am particularly concerned about the fact that we don’t provide adequate information on sexual reproductive health and financial literacy. I hope to make an impact, particularly in those two spaces.
- Where do you see yourself in around 10 years?
On a yacht in Dubai ? I am kidding but that would be nice too. I am currently working on gaining financial independence. In as much as I enjoy work, I believe I shouldn’t have to do it to meet my financial needs. It should be something that I do because I enjoy it and find satisfaction in doing it.
I am very wary of chasing the career ladder as I find it to be a never-ending goal. I envy how easy my parents’ lives look compared to mine. I feel like I am working all the time. I can see the benefit, but it doesn’t stem that feeling. Ten years might sound too short, but I have learned from one of my friends that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it.
I would also love to have a family by then. I am one of those late bloomers when it comes to this, but it never worries me. I hope to do it when I am ready and give it my best shot.
You can find Kipkorir Kirui on Twitter here.
Check out this article on Dealing With ‘Black Tax’ Part 2: Building Generational Wealth To Break The Black Tax Cycle