Walking into his office on the fourth floor of block A, at Makerere University’s college of Computing and Information Sciences (Cocis), one is immediately struck by his friendly nature.
“You are welcome, Samuel! I’m Engineer,” he says, and as if expecting me to wince in surprise, he added, “Engineer Bainomugisha is my full name.”
Yes, you read right, he is Dr Engineer Bainomugisha, the newly-appointed head of the computer science department, School of Computing and Informatics Technology at Cocis. While for many, ‘engineer’ is a professional title, for Dr Bainomugisha, it his given name, and he thinks his parents, ‘wanted me to become an engineer’.
Until he first joined Makerere as a student in 2003, he felt himdelf close to achieving that dream. He was admitted to study for a degree in Computer Science, when it was still a nascent programme at Makerere. However, he was opposed to joining the course, believing as many of his peers did then, that the only jobs available were secretarial.
“At the time people thought that computer science was learning how to type with Microsoft word. They would ask, ‘you are doing computer science, what are you going to do [after graduation]?”
Since he had passed Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Biology at St Joseph’s Vocational SS in Mbarara, he considered asking to switch to Civil Engineering. However, a friend’s aunt, who was also pursuing an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, intervened, eventually enlightening him about the true nature of the programme.
And just like that, he started out studying computer science, never having touched a computer before in his life.
“I remember when I arrived here in the first week, because some of us were not used to computers, we thought if you are going to use those university computers you can cause a problem. “In my first week I could say let me … talk to people in the secretarial bureau, and go there at least you learn how to type before using a university computer because you were like if I break those computers, I may be made to pay,” he says, with laughter.
However, he soon caught up with the professionals. By the end of his first year, he had not only developed an online SMS (short message service) tool but post graduate students also consulted him. At the time, online SMS was a reserve of telecom companies. His biggest regret about those days is that he lacked the skills to promote his tool, which would have earned him a handsome payday. Bainomugisha would graduate as the best overall student with a CGPA of 4.88 in 2006.
Before he could graduate in 2006, Dr Bainomugisha got his first job offer worth Shs 500,000 on the day he went for an interview at Southern Solutions, a software development company based in Kololo. He would later transfer to Eskom Uganda after the then faculty of Computing recommended him in September.
The new offer was Shs 900,000. Informed of the development, Southern Solutions tried to match the new pay but Bainomugisha declined, opting for a change of environment. But that too would not last. He worked at Eskom from October 2006 to June 2007 when he was recruited as a teaching assistant at Makerere.
His return to Makerere earned him a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Computer Science at Vrije Universiteit in Belgium, later that year.
Just like at Makerere, Bainomugisha graduated with distinction, in 2008, and was offered an opportunity to do his PhD at the same university, graduating with the greatest distinction in 2012.
For his PhD research, Bainomugisha developed programming languages to ease the development of mobile software applications. He would later emerge among the first people to provide an alternative programming language, separate from what Apple provided through his tool i-scheme.
After his PhD, Bainomugisha had two options; to stay in Brussels and pursue a post-doctoral degree or return to Kampala. He chose the latter to ‘serve my country’.
“I am looking at how I can use my computer science knowledge to improve people’s lives; how I can use computer science research and technological innovations to impact on society,” he explains.
Dr Bainomugisha is currently working on projects, some with his students. One of these is a project to help Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) in early detection of potholes. Through this innovation, Bainomugisha hopes motorists will be able to use their smart phones to detect and report potholes so they are fixed.
Some of this work and subsequent research attracted the attention of the authorities in Cocis, a college not averse to promoting young talent. This is the same college that saw Dr Venansius Baryamureeba become a professor at 37. Bainomugisha was recently promoted to associate professor and made department head, a move he views with mixed reactions.
He says he prefers teaching and research, not administration. “When I came back here [from Brussels], I was worried [that I would be asked to take up an administrative position]. And I often discuss this with my friends; because we would look at professors there actively involved in research,” he says. “But the big percentage of professors back home are in administration and forget about teaching and research.”
Undoubtedly one of the youngest associate professors at Makerere, Dr Bainomugisha prefers to be judged by what he has done, not what he knows.
He also wants age limits on some administrative positions scrapped.
“I don’t look at age; I don’t want to be looked at as the youngest associate professor because in the end it’s not about how much you know but how much you have done with what you know… Old age does not necessarily mean wisdom and being young does not mean you are the opposite of wisdom.”
And yet all that almost never happened. Born 30 years ago in Rubaare, Ntungamo district, Bainomugisha is the first born of five, and attended Kishenyi and Muhito primary schools in Kitagata, Bushenyi district before joining Sacred Heart SS Mushanga for his O-level and St Joseph’s Vocational SS Mbarara for his A-levels.
He says that throughout his primary and secondary he never went beyond the second position in class, while at his A-level, he was the fourth best overall student in Mbarara district. However, tragedy struck early, claiming his father when he was in senior two, and later his mother, while he was in his second year at Makerere.
Through all this, he credits his grandmother’s advice for continuing the journey.
“Now you are the person in charge of the family; you should stop feeling sorry for yourself,” he quotes her as saying.
Bainomugisha says that because of this advice, he set goals for success and achieved most of them. He would later shoulder the family burden, supporting his siblings’ education. He paid for his two sisters’ tuition from senior three until they graduated last year. Currently he pays for a brother in secondary school and another one at Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
Looking back, he advises students not to think of themselves as disadvantaged, orphaned or from poor backgrounds but, rather, to change their attitude and believe in their abilities.
Looking to the future
Against the common contention that universities teach more theory than relevant practical knowledge, Bainomugisha says the industry wants people who are skilled in the current technology and yet this kills innovation.
“The best we can give our students is fundamental skills so they can think about solutions ... Sometimes the industry wants us to churn out graduates who know how to use the technology of today and now-now. But if the university works like that, then, we are killing the university,” he says.
“I think that should be the role of vocational schools. We don’t want to teach people who will come back a year later because what they learnt is no longer applicable.”
He also wants secondary schools to focus more on teaching for innovations by inspiring learners to be innovators rather than users of existing technology. In his free time, Dr Bainomugisha changes role models just like his innovations. But he cites Bill Gates, whose quotations are frequent on his website, and Steve Jobs as key influences.
He likes hanging out with friends, watching football (he is an ardent Liverpool fan, who thinks the team should have won the previous champions league). He also loves travelling (and dreams of one day travelling the world by road). He would want to be remembered as an approachable person, both to his students and colleagues, especially where they need help.
Though he can not rule out rejoining industry, Bainomugisha insists he will now concentrate on teaching. “I want to make sure that I dedicate a number of years to teaching, research, community outreach, and some administration.”
About marriage, Bainomugisha chuckles before announcing “You will see her when the right time comes. It’s not the right time.”