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Thursday, 27 October 2016

For me, family comes first, it is the lifestyle I know -Anglican Bishop's son Yele Okeremi


Yele Okeremi was a thoroughbred Ibadan boy, until fate made a way for him in lagos. The son of a clergy, a former top civil servant who later retired to become a Bishop of the Anglican Communion of Nigeria, Yele's lifestyle today speaks volume of the family value system that once was a regular feature of the NIgerian society, which may not be common place in theses days.

The first child of his parents, first among four siblings of three brothers and a sister, Yele who today is a technology expert, an acclaimed software developer, is the Managing Director of Precise Financial Systems Ltd, who believes that, he has been fortunate to

have a dad who has been his biggest mentor.

Yele
"My dad taught us how to live life appropriately. Career wise I used to be in banking, I had a good rapid upward movement in banking, of course I realised when I became the CIO of the bank I worked, that foreigners were coming to sell softwares to us, and I knew that we Nigerians could do better. So at a point, I started thinking of starting a business that can do the things better. Later, I decided to step out to start a software warehouse. So today I build softwares for financial system."

Yele Okeremi in this interview with Paul Ukpabio, tells us more about how he found fortune in Lagos, his clergy father's influence that shaped his lifestyle, the joy of fatherhood and why he will retire early to build a new future dream job.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ibadan. I am Ibadan born and bred boy (laughs). I came to lagos in the 80s when I started my working career. I grew up in Agodi, GRA, Ibadan.

What was life like for you as a child?


In those days we didn't build a wall around us. I remember in our house then when I was a child, we didn't used to lock our doors at night. I still recall that my friends and I who were mostly in the same age bracket with me, used to meet during the holidays, we actually wake up, look out for one another, and when we meet, we move from one house to another. All we knew then was that, we must be back home before dark. And our parents were usually sure that we were with one friend or another's house.


Also, each of our parents then, knew one another. They kept each and everyone of us in check. And we used to walk long distances away from home. We were that free. I even recall that we used to have street football clubs then. We used to go out playing soccer with people who were not so privileged like we were. But none of us saw anything wrong about that class difference. We were not worried or cautious about threats from kidnappers or people with such dubious character, like it is today. It is sad that today, our children don't even go out to play. Children don't go out to play anymore! Children who live in flat apartments today, are daily restricted to the inside of their homes. Children need to play outside.

I still recall the day that my dad bought the first black and white television for the family. That was in 1972 or 73. And all of us used to sit in front of that television to watch. The funniest part is that, because we used to sit down together to watch, there were certain things that were said on television then that we all laughed at, of which even today, when we meet in the larger family, we use to recall some of those things and laugh over it all over again. 


They have turned to good old memories for us. At times when we recall such times, people around us don't know what we are talking about. But that was the way it was. Families used to stick together, do things together. But today we are building 5 star hotels and calling them homes. Today when you want to speak to your son or daughter in the house, you are calling them with cellular phones. These days all the children have television in their rooms, but they do not even watch them that much again, they are on their computer or mobile phones. So many things have changed. For God sake, we used to drink water from the tap! And we did not die!

Did you see yourself as a privileged child?


Well, at that time we didn't see it as a big deal, because for most of us then, our parents were civil servants. Of course we knew that our parents were not fabulously rich, but of course, we also noticed that there were other children who were not as privileged as we were. But the difference were not pronounced. Most of my friends went to public schools. It was just that my father personally decided that he wanted his children to attend private nursery and primary schools not because of his affluence but out of personal preference. The parents in our neighbourhood then were top civil servants but notwithstanding that, their children attended public schools. And the public schools were just as good as the fee paying primary schools. And the children in the public schools, were doing very well in school. There were no differences and we used to go to the houses of those who one would consider as less privileged to eat in their houses. Their houses may have been different or less beautiful than ours, but we remained friends.

What was your parents occupational background

At that time my dad was working in the Ministry of Agriculture, he later became the Director Fisheries and my mom was a school teacher. Some other parents in the neighbourhood were judges, and heads of other ministries. Approximately same background.

Who influenced you most?


Clearly my dad has had the greater influence in my life. I speak to my dad almost everyday now. We usually have something to say. Somehow, God allowed him to understand how to train his children. Ever since I was ten, I have been speaking to my dad as if we are equals, and that is how it has always been. When I look at his life, his life tells a good story, and it makes me to know that, you do not need to read the bible too much to understand this life.

What motivated you into banking?

Serendipity actually. I came out of school wanted to get a job where I could develop software packages. I studied political science and economics but I wanted a job related to computers. So I got a job with Inlaks computers, it was a fairly good job, challenging, we were happy, paid well, and being the young men that we were then, all we wanted was to look good, look tidy and look different among our peers. When I used to see those people working in the banks then, I used to feel sorry for them because they sit down in the banks and operated what other people had built. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to build systems. I didn't think I will work in a bank. I had gone to represent my company in a trade show and some bankers were there to see what we were presenting.


Yele with wife and children
One of them became my friend. After a few months he asked me if I would like to work in the bank where he worked. I replied that I didn't want to work in a bank. He told me that what I was doing was similar to what he was doing in the bank. So I asked a few questions. After which I went for the interview. But because I didn't really want the job, I was a bit cocky at the interview since I was already comfortable where I was working. Somehow I was offered the job. It looked better than what I expected. So it was a bit difficult to take a decision,. I asked a few of my friends who were also working with me at Inlaks Computers. I was advised to take the offer at Industrial Bank. It turned out to be a good decision as Industrial Bank allowed me to develop software. I didn't want to work on packages that had been developed by somebody else. They said they wanted to build their own software. So I was employed as part of the team to develop that software. So that is what I have been doing till today.

So which of the software packages did you develop?


At that time, the popular packages in the banking industry was bandmaster and clarity software. Those were the big ones. We were developing in house understudying how the bankmaster was addressing banking issues. From there we did something that was innovative. I may not say outright that I operated like a whizkid, but I do acknowledge abundance grace of God upon my life. Yes, I went to school graduated top of the class, but then so many people are that too. But maybe God just didn't permit them. But in my case, God made things very easy for me to achieve. I know clearly however that it is not by human power.

At what point did it occur to you while at the University of Ife that you should be developing softwares?
It was when I was in my third year that it was glaring to me. In my second year there was a programme course where group assignments were given but it was easy to copy and everybody got pass marks. It was an elective course for most people but it wasn't for me. So I was determined not to copy even though it was a group thing. So the group programme worked but mine didn't. However, during my internship, I picked up that failed programme, re-did it, and this time around, it worked. That was when I knew that i would stick on programming software. And it was a good decision because by the time I was finishing at University of Ife, I had three employment letters waiting for me even before I went for youth service corps programme. One of them was a company from Lagos. I had never lived in Lagos before. Fortunately, I was posted to Lagos for my youth corps service. Again there was no connection or human influence.

Do we have software programmers in large numbers right now?


We have but we are not developing them. It is very unfortunate.

Why are we not developing them?


That is a question that I will be treating in my doctorate research. If you want to encourage somebody to do somethings well, there must be an incentive. Programming is not a job that you do part-time. As a programmer, you need to love your job, you need to marry it. That is the only way to get it. But what is the reward for that, in a situation where people are makings calls from their gardens and making billions of naira from the faulty financial system? I recall that to develop software, my friend and I used to sit on the floor every night, even after we graduated, we wanted to study more and succeed in developing programmes.


We were not even thinking of buying houses in Nigeria and London and other such places, we were not looking at that, we just wanted to make a change. But today, nobody blames you if you don't do the right thing. People want good things but don't punish bad behaviour. So except people who are good or who have been brought up in good families, where good values have been ingrained in their DNA, those ones cannot succumb to do bad things. That is why today, we do not have many programmers around. Any government that has the population we have and has the kind of zeal we have and does not tap into IT, is a stupid government. I feel appalled when the government says that they will use agriculture to capitalise the economy of Nigeria. Which country can they point to that uses agriculture to do that.

IT is one of the fields that can actually take Nigeria out of where we are right now. Take a look at what is happening in America, there are companies there that are richer than nations, probably the whole of Africa. Why cant such companies be in Nigeria? What is their material, is it not intellect? Head to head, Nigerians are probably better than Americans. The difference is that the Americans have a value system that makes their leaders help them to achieve the best. We don't have that. We can develop 40 of Mark Zuckerback of Facebook in Nigeria, but we have chosen to do the wrong thing. Just as long as we keep doing the wrong things, we will continue to get the wrong results.

Can you give us an insight to the kind of money that software developers make in developed countries?

I have schooled in Harvard and I can tell you that if you are an IT professional in US and they are not after you from your village, you will make an impact in society. If you can then even think outside the box like an average Nigerian boy does, then you will will make it big there. That is a country that respects knowledge. There are actually three categories of people who can live anywhere in the world. People who are producing something that the world needs. For instance if Bill Gates decides to close down Microsoft today, the world will scream. The second category of people that can live anywhere in the world are those that have the purchasing power. The third category of people are those that have specialised knowledge. 


So the top nations like US, China, Canada, Germany come up with a parameter that if you have a Phd, or a degree in certain areas you are welcomed in their country. But if you do not fall into those category, then tough luck, you are just one of the surpluses. I had a scholarship to study in Massachusset Institute of Technology. That is a dream of every engineer, but I didn't go because I knew even at that age that if I go, I will not return to Nigeria. I was loyal. I felt that Nigeria had invested money training me. I went to Federal Government College, and then University of Ife, when they were washing our bedsheets and cleaning our floors, giving us three square meals with chicken twice a week. That was the extent Nigeria spent money to train me and I felt Nigeria needed my services a lot more. Its not about me, I am comfortable, it is about the country. We have to give back. That is why I will never go to live abroad away from my country. At least I belong to two of the three mentioned categories above (laughs).

You studied in America, so why didn't you chose a wife from there?


Ha! No, remember that by the time I went to the USA, I was already married with children.

What attracted you to your wife?

(Becomes nostalgic) My wife and I have known each other for very long time. We used to think back then that what a man should look out for in a woman is the projection of what will she be like in 30 years time. Will the things that attract me to her, still be there at that time? Again, I was privileged to have learnt a lot from my parents. I was seeing how my parents lived and it guided my pattern of life, by the time I was choosing my wife, I had no doubt that she was the one God had provided for me. My wife is very beautiful and intelligent, but those were not what attracted me like seeing where she came from and I saw her parents, I saw her siblings and knew she would fit into my family. I also saw her career and projected where she would be in many years to come and I was certain that together we would do a lot of things. We have now been married for twenty three years. I have no regrets. She is the managing director of an IT firm too.

You are handsome she is beautiful, you are comfortable, she is comfortable too, and there are other attractive things as well between both of you, so how have you been able to handle the attention of other women and she handle the attention of other men to ensure that you both still live together happily till now?

You see, (shakes his head and suddenly laughs) if I told you that I have a panacea to this your question, I will be deceiving you. But I will say its God's grace and the background has also help because if I say I wanted to let myself be attracted to someone else, who will I say I want to look like? I know the position of my dad as a Bishop of the Anglican Communion of Nigeria. He has been a clergy man for about forty years, even when he was in the civil service, he was a part time priest, so when he retired he went intro priesthood full time. He became an Arch Deacon, Provost and then a Bishop of a Diocese. When I see men of my age, they don't want to be like their father, because their father probably made some mistakes. But that isn't the same case with me. I am privileged. The biggest compliment you can pay me is to say that I am like my dad, that makes me extremely happy. And again, there are things that are difficult to pick up at old age.

At what point did you decide on creating your style and being a man of your own fashion?


Even as a child, I used to love looking good. At this age it is not about me anymore, it is about what I want to be known for when I am no more alive. I want to be known as a man that has helped the black race look for another level. So for that, I need to live an inspirational life. I just don't know how not to look good.

How about sports?


I used to love playing soccer but now I worry about who to play with. Some years ago when I was still in Harvard, some of my classmates and I decided to go play soccer with some younger people. The average age of their team was 20-25 while the average age of our team was 47. So I'm sure you can guess what the result of the match was (laughs). It is more challenging to play soccer. So these days I play lawn tennis. I love to golf but I am a lazy one at waking early. I have bought all the kits and what remains is to create the time. But no time. However, when my girls are around, I play table tennis with them at home.

How about socials?

My work is my socials. It takes me around and by the grace of God, I have sat one on one with Presidents of this nation and other nations by virtue of what I do.


If you were not into software programming, what else would you have loved to do?

Well, that has not really occurred to me. But the truth is that, I do not know what else I would have done in life that would have given me the kind of joy that I have now, doing what I do. However, what I am going to do right after this is to teach. I love to teach. By the grace of God, I am going to conclude my doctorate next year and it is all in the view of going to teach in my retirement. I am definitely going to retire after some point. I am actually already planing a semi retirement, with the hope that I will leave here in another few years.

What do you value most?

Character, you must never lose it. Reputation comes from character, that to my mind is what I am concerned about. It is important that we don't change from who we are. I see some men who all of a sudden run into money or possession that they never thought they will attain and suddenly they change! I do not think it should be so. For me, my childhood friends are still my friends. We still get together from time to time. The Deputy Managing Director of this company and I have been friends since 1989. It matters to me. I what to be very predictable.

What is the future of your business?


I do not intend that my children come up to take over this business. However, I am not blaming anybody that wants his children to take over their business, it is their choice. Mine is that, I didn't start a business because of my family, I started it because of the black race. The essence is to improve the black race. I have a prayer, the way  my parents are proud of me, I want to be proud of my children too. And that way, what I pray for is for my children to say 'dad, we are so proud of you, but your vision is too small for us to fit into, we want to do something that is bigger.' Of course, they have more than it takes. The kind of things I didn't have, they already have, how many people can pick their phones and call the MD of multinational companies? I do that and can do that for them, so they already have a good platform to move to another level.

Do you take holidays?


I do, I just returned. Holidays for me is about family and vacation too. But these days, things are changing because my girls are getting more and more older. The first one has already graduated, the second one will soon be and there is only one at home, who will also get out of the home by the grace of God next year. So to plan a holiday together this year for instance, is to find out the availability of all the girls. The first one has to tell us when she will be free from work, the second has to say where she wants to go and do her internship Europe, Canada and so on. I want my girls to always know why some things may be popular and tolerable to some people but not acceptable to them became of their name. 


That is why a times we go someplace all alone with no gardener, no house helps, no driver, we stay there 24/7 and I tell them all the stories, so that they know their roots. And I am not criticising anybody who doesn't do that and I am not saying that mine is better than others, I am not one to say that during summer, madam has gone with the children, no, I don't do that, we all go together. If it is only for 5 days that  I have the time, then we do just that, because to me, holiday is about being together. I also always insist that during Christmas, we are always together, during summer too, until they start getting married. I take four vacations in a year, two with my wife and two with wife and children. It is mostly holidays to the Caribbeans, Europe, America and then in December we all enter the car with our International passports and drive around. Once we did that and we ended up in Ghana.

Do you miss Ibadan?
I do miss Ibadan. My parents still live there. I speak to them often and I wish I could go to Ibadan more often. But the road is discouraging. This year, I almost bought the dream property in Ibadan, beautiful scenery, lawn and all that. When i saw it, I loved it. I really wanted to buy it. But then, I felt to myself, it will be a waste, because how many times will I go to Ibadan, My home in Lagos, is comfortable for everything I want to do.

 

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