The Artificial Intelligence of Talita

Talitakuum Ekandjo talks to us about growing up in rural northern Namibia, working for the Bank of Namibia and now pursing studies in studying artificial intelligence.

Tell us where you were born and where you grew up?
I was born in Oupumako, a village just outside Ongwediva. I grew up in many different places, but my home village is Oniithima in the Oshikoto Region.

Which primary and secondary school did you attend?
I started my educational journey at Hamunyela Primary School. This is the closest school to my home village. I was there from Grades 1-3 before moving to Oniipa Primary School (Grades 4-5), then Oniipa Combined School (now Dans Namuhuya SSS) for Grade 6. I then moved to Oupumako, where I completed Grades 7 to 10 at Oupumako Combined School. After completing Grade 10 at Oupumako, I went to Oshigambo High School, where I completed Grades 11 and 12.

As you can see, I moved around a bit, mainly because Hamunyela Primary School in those days only had Grades 1-4. We also did not have “combined schools” nearby. Hence, I said earlier that I grew up in many different places but spent school holidays at home (Oniithima village).

You started school at the age of 4, describe this experience to us?
I don’t have much memory of school experience, but I remember having classmates who were well into their teenage years. I also remember our classrooms then were makeshifts of bushes, and some classes were taught under trees. I have fond memories of that school through. I remember it used to rain a lot back then, and on those rainy days, school wasn’t fun because we did not have proper classrooms where you could take shelter. We were happy to just go to school. We had a fantastic principal and one amazing teacher. And, of course, living in the forest comes with its benefits. We had plenty of wild berries and fruits to eat on our way to and back from school, and I remember during the rainy season, the forest was lovely, with beautiful wildflowers of all sorts. Such beautiful times, the best memories of my childhood! We did not have much going on in that area, but we had everything we needed: nature’s abundant provision!

You were awarded a bursary by the Bank of Namibia in 2003, what did you study at the then Polytechnic of Namibia?

I was awarded a bursary to study IT at NUST, and I owe a deep debt of gratitude to uncle Fernandu Titus. Uncle Titus supported and assisted my family and me throughout the application and interview process. Receiving this bursary led to opportunities I never thought I’d have. It’s astounding how one person’s act of kindness, help and support can change the trajectory of your life forever.

You joined the Bank of Namibia after you studied in 2008, take us through your career at the Bank of Namibia?

I started working at BoN as an IT Helpdesk Administrator, then moved into IT Networking, and left BoN as a Senior Business Analyst. Every one of these roles was an opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute. I take pride in saying that because it indeed was. I won several awards during my tenure there, and I was able to do so because I was privileged enough to work with amazing people and a fantastic team. These people supported, challenged, and helped me grow and believe in myself. I always tell people that BoN is like my third parent. This organisation has done so much for my life and career.

In 2011, you decided to go back to school and enrolled at the University of Namibia to study a Bachelor of Business Administration (Honours), majoring in Banking and Finance. How did this help your career at the Bank of Namibia?

Doing an Honours degree at UNAM was a strategic decision for my career. I made that decision for two reasons: First, at the time, I was thinking of transitioning from technical IT roles to more business-focused IT roles. So, I needed a degree that would help me understand how businesses or organisations operate and their core business processes. I chose to specialise in banking and finance because of the organisation I was working for. The second reason was in 2010, I had set a goal to attain a master’s degree in information systems. So, I did some research to find out what knowledge and education I needed to study for a master’s in information systems. So, I knew I needed knowledge about business processes and operations.

So, to answer your question, I didn’t spend much time working at BoN after I completed the honours degree in 2014 because, in February of 2015, I flew to Melbourne to pursue a master’s degree. But I would say the honours degree paved the way for me to finally transition into business analysis. It took me 6 years (4 years for honours and 2 years for my master’s) to transition into a business role, but I was content with it because I knew where I was going and what I had to do to get there. At one point, after I completed my master’s degree, I was offered a promotion to another technical role, which I declined. I wasn’t willing to compromise on my goal and accept any job just because it paid more if it wasn’t what I truly desired. I held out for the perfect opportunity. When it finally arrived, it didn’t offer more money initially, but it provided peace of mind and joy because it was precisely what I desired. I loved that job, excelled at it, and eventually, the financial rewards soon followed. You know, many people desire things in life but aren’t prepared to do the work or exhibit the required patience and determination. Many people lack the self-discipline needed to succeed; they give up too easily and too quickly or do the bare minimum, then wonder why outcomes don’t align with their expectations. Having a clear goal pursuing that goal with a positive mental attitude, and unwavering faith is crucial to achieving one’s desires.

Further on, you enrolled in the Melbourne University in Australia. Talk us through your studies and stay in Melbourne?

Melbourne was not just a place to study; it was a place to evolve. Pursuing my master’s degree in information systems was a journey of intellectual and personal growth. It taught me that greatness isn’t about where we are but who we become. It also taught me another important lesson: the value of leveraging the knowledge and resources of others made available to you. I took advantage of the postgraduate scholarships that BoN offers (BoN awarded me a scholarship for my master’s), and I was fortunate enough to study with some of the best students in the world and learn from experts in the field. Melbourne University is one of the top universities globally, and I was privileged to be accepted there. It was a fantastic learning experience. It also provided an opportunity to build lasting relationships, some of which are still strong. I was recently reunited with my former classmates and professors at the European Conference on Information Systems in Norway, where I presented one of my research papers.

You performed so well in Melbourne and was awarded the 2016 Johnny Smoes Award for excellence in Information Systems (IS) Strategy and Governance. What did this award mean to you and did you return to Namibia after this?

Initially, my goal was to get into the Dean’s Honours List for the Faculty of Engineering and IT after I came across it in my first year. The Dean’s Honours List celebrates students who have achieved results that place them in the top 5% of their cohort. I worked towards that goal, and I did get into that list. The Johnny Smoes Award came as a surprise. This award is usually awarded to the top performing student in the course IS Strategy and Governance. To me, these awards are more than a recognition. To me, they symbolise what is possible with dedication and self-belief.

And yes, after my master’s degree, I returned to Namibia and worked at BoN for 3 more years before I resigned and came to NZ for my PhD.

You are now a third-year PhD student in Information Systems at the School of Information Management, Te Herenga Waka―Victoria University of Wellington, how did you end up in New Zealand?

Two years after I returned to Namibia from Australia, I felt a strong desire to return to school. So, in 2018, I began my PhD at NUST. However, I felt something was missing, perhaps due to the absence of a strong PhD community or maybe because I was pursuing my PhD part-time. So, I started looking for universities abroad. New Zealand was second on my list of countries I wanted to visit. So, I applied to the Victoria University of Wellington and got accepted. The university offered me a PhD scholarship, which was an attractive proposition. At the end of 2019, I resigned from BoN and moved to NZ. I genuinely believe it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It has been a fulfilling journey so far.

You are now studying artificial intelligence (AI) in organisations, specifically how people integrate and work with intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) in their daily work lives. What is the future of AI in the workplace?

My research is focused on what is called everyday AI. Everyday AI is basically the use of AI built into systems and tools we encounter daily, like recommender systems (e.g., those used by Netflix, YouTube, etc.), customer service chatbots, search engine algorithms, and intelligent personal assistants. My research primarily examines the broader use of AI concerning digital work habits, health and wellbeing, and work-life balance. I specifically investigate enterprise AI-based tools and applications designed to track and harness the vast data generated across various work applications and platforms to offer personalised insights and advice, examples of which include applications such as Microsoft Viva Insights and Limeade. What’s interesting about these AI tools is their incorporation of persuasive design and nudge mechanisms simplifies complex behaviours, and nudges help users make better work choices.

I would say there are many strategic opportunities for AI in the workplace. Organisations are already using AI to automate various routine and mundane work processes, support decision-making problem-solving, and free workers to focus on more creative and strategic tasks. Of course, recently, we’ve witnessed the large-scale emergence of Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, which, when used effectively, I think can transform the way people work, potentially increasing productivity in various industries such as banking, education, hospitality and tourism, and information technology. If leveraged well and the concerns and challenges that come with AI implementation and use appropriately addressed, I think organisations and workers can benefit immensely from AI tools. These are exciting times!

What are your future plans and tell us about the many employment offers that you are getting from around the world?

My plans and hopes are in the Lord, who has been so good and faithful to me. Napoleon Hill once wrote: “The greats of all forms of happiness comes as the result of hope of achievement of some yet to be unattained desire”. I am currently working as a Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. I hope to do some collaborative research with scholars from Namibia. I think there is a lot of potential for AI research in Namibia, but collaboration is vital to successful research and development. I also hope to one-day return home and do my bit to contribute to Namibia society positively. But for now, I am moving towards the future with the hope and belief that I will achieve whatever goal I set for myself. I have amazing parents who are my prayer warriors. I have amazing sisters who support and encourage me to be my best. I have an army of friends and acquaintances all over the world, some of whom I have never met in person, cheering me on. It is a blessed life, and I embrace it right where I am.

Did you go to watch the FIFA Women World Cup that took place there in New Zealand and Australia?

Yes, I watched four games in Wellington. I particularly enjoyed the USA vs Netherlands and Netherlands vs Spain matches. I’m a big fan of Spain, and I’m thrilled they won the World Cup.

What do you do in your spare time, and how do you cope being away from your family and friends in Namibia?

In my spare time, I hike, run, and take walks in nature. New Zealand has fantastic walking trails, and it’s always refreshing to connect with nature. I also read for pleasure and wisdom. Keeping fit both mentally and physically is essential not only for longevity but for success.

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