ICT professor’s journey from rags to riches
If the phrase ‘rags to riches’ had a face, it would be of Devendra Bahadur Thapa. Well-built, tall and lean body clad in a casual business suit, a cheerful attitude reflected as a perpetual mild smile on his face, his dark eyes exuberating hope and optimism; while it may sound like a cliché, it would not be wrong to say his presence lights up the environment.
Presenting an aura of informality able to put people at ease yet, at the same time, excite their interest, Thapa – in his own words – defied everybody’s expectations, including his own, to become a professor of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway.
Thapa comes from modest beginnings, not from dearth but definitely a far cry from anything resembling wealth. Born in Jaimini Municipality, a remote hilly part of Baglung, his father was in the Indian army and his mother was a home maker. Being the only child of the family, Thapa led a well nurtured and sheltered childhood spent mostly in India; and only occasionally coming to Nepal, due to his father’s job.
His family was extremely conscious about his education from his early life. “My father faced many hardships because he was uneducated,” Thapa says adding, “This is partly why he went into the army, because many other doors were closed for him.” This is why Thapa’s father was determined to give his son an education so that he could have a better life than him.
But having to move around a lot and the army’s humble salary meant there were limits. Thapa received a decent Hindi-medium education in his school and went on to graduate in Bachelors in Commerce (B.Comm).
“After my B.Comm, I realised that I have to become serious,” Thapa expresses becoming stern in his posture, “My first priority now became to find a job.”
It was at this time, in Pune, that he came across an ad for NIIT’s computer courses. Even though he had never pursued computer education in the past and had not even used a computer properly, the thing that caught his eye was that the ad claimed ‘Job guaranteed’.
So, he filled out the admissions form and was called in to interview. Recalling the moment still brings smiles to Thapa, “The interview was in full English and I was a fully Hindi-medium man.” He chuckles, “The interview went so badly that I thought I would surely fail.”
But much to Thapa’s astonishment, he passed. However, Thapa doesn’t glorify this achievement at all, “I did not pass because of my skills, I passed because it was their business. The more students they enrolled, the more money they earned.”
But the time at NIIT Pune wasn’t the slightest bit pleasant for him. He struggled in all the subjects and ultimately ended up failing the course. But what really hit him like a hammer on his head was when a girl, very publicly, refused to work with him in a group project and belittled him in front of the whole class.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was what kicked me up and instilled a grudge in me to prove myself to the world.”
So, bearing that grudge, he came to Nepal and joined a computer centre to learn everything from scratch. After studying at the centre for three months, Thapa’s computer skills improved so much that the very centre that he was studying in, hired him to teach others.
At the same time, he bought some books and started teaching himself English. So gradually, his English and computer skills improved – both of which had been his Achilles’ heel up to that point.
After some time of teaching in the computer centre, Thapa came to Kathmandu. But Kathmandu was not kind to Thapa at all. He had to take up odd jobs like a salesman and doing computer works for a travel agency.
Money never seemed to be enough. “Things got so bad that once, I had to run away from my room because the landlord was coming to collect the rent and I didn’t have any money to pay him,” he giggles after a sober recollection of the unpleasant days of the past.
Thapa further adds, “I even pondered joining the army, but because I grew up hearing tales from my dad of how gruelling and painful the army can be, I never seriously considered it.” Thapa didn’t know what he would be but he was sure that he would not be a soldier.
It was at this time that his old enemy NIIT came back into his life. It had opened a training institute in Kathmandu and he joined to pursue an advanced diploma in computer. By this time, his computer skills had improved significantly and he also had more confidence in himself due to the various jobs he had taken earlier. So, he passed his diploma with good grades. So good were his grades that NIIT offered him a job at their institute in Gorakhpur, India.
This is where the name Juddha Bahadur Gurung pops up in Thapa’s life who taught him a lesson which engraved itself into Thapa’s mind. Gurung was the head of NIIT Kathmandu and was the one who offered the Gorakhpur job to Thapa.
“I agreed to go to Gorakhpur and asked Gurung about my salary,” Thapa recalls, “But he told me that first I should build myself up to a certain stature, then the money would follow.”
This statement stuck with Thapa so deeply that he has never asked any other employer about his salary ever since. His main focus has always been in building himself up.
But going to Gorakhpur did pay off, hugely so, as Thapa met and married his wife there. After marriage, the couple came to Kathmandu and Thapa finally settled in a comfortable job as a system administrator for Nepal Bangladesh Bank.
But a peculiar hunger remained, a hunger that could only be satiated by higher education. So, after a 10-year hiatus, Thapa joined Masters at PN Campus, Pokhara to study Management Information System (MIS) while still maintaining his banking job. This course was not fully available at PN Campus alone and he had to come to Shanker Dev Campus, Kathmandu to study portions of it. So there was a lot of to and fro from Pokhara to Kathmandu.
But the hunger remained even after he completed his Masters. So, now he thought of going abroad his PhD. He even applied for the UK but was rejected.
“I made the same mistake that many Nepali students tend to make,” he exclaims, “I focused too much on getting the documents and completing the process.” Thapa is not at all shy about pointing out his own mistakes. “I hurried and didn’t take time to research and flesh out my approach. That is why I got rejected.”
Joining a PhD was also a big risk for him in the family front. He had a wife and two kids to look after, he could not just quit his job willy-nilly and leave the country. This decision was not his alone to make. But his family were supportive and he joined a PhD in Industrial Engineering with a full scholarship in South Korea.
“Oh man, was it a struggle,” Thapa is able to joke about it now but exclaims how hard it actually was for him then, “I did not do any mathematics, I found myself lost in the technicalities of engineering and I really had to force myself to complete the course.”
And Thapa did complete in three years and also landed a job in Korea. His grudge was fulfilled. Thapa proved himself to the world, he had reached the epitome of education that his father always wanted for him and his family was happy. Yet, that nagging hunger just did not go away.
“I always felt that engineering was not the area I wanted to work in.”
So, he made up his mind to pursue another doctorate. He had completed a PhD for the world, now to do the real PhD for himself. But this idea did not sit well with his company at all. His friends severely criticised him.
“But I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it and that it all that mattered.”
He himself also felt very guilty that he was putting undue pressure on his wife. She was the one working and bringing in money for the family, all the while taking care of the kids, and he was off always studying. Therefore, he felt that it would almost be sinful to ask her to keep doing that for a few more years.
“But it is at this point that my wife said something that shows just how big her heart is,” Thapa takes a brief pause, “She stood like a rock behind me and told me to go chase my dreams and that she would take care of the family.”
The immense gratitude and love that Thapa feels towards his wife is clear. “Any other woman would have left me because what kind of a man puts his wife in a position to work outside and also take care of the home for years and then finally, after completing his PhD decides to ask her to do it all over again for him,” he expresses, “If the saying ‘Behind every successful man is a woman’ was ever meant for somebody then it was meant for my wife.”
So, with the backing of his wife, he applied for PhD in various countries like Australia and Japan but ended up choosing Norway because his proposal was accepted and because it paid a very good stipend. His second PhD was on Nepal Wireless Networking Project being implemented by Mahabir Pun.
In his opinion, people like Pun demonstrate the real-world relevance that ICT4D holds for a country like Nepal. It helps overcome geographical, infrastructural and even legal challenges (because the Maoist conflict was going on at that time and wireless communication was illegal) and connects remote people with the outside world.
In Norway, Thapa credits Prof. Maung Kyaw Sein and Prof. Øystein Sæbø, co-supervisors of his thesis, as his mentors. Sein pushed him, pressured him, never compromised on the quality whereas Sæbø gave critical comments that challenged his worldview. “They guided and moulded me and turned me into who I am today.”
After the completion of his PhD, he moved to Sweden and started working at the Luleå University of Technology but in 2015, again moved back to Norway and has been a full professor at University of Agder.
Central to Thapa’s life is the field of ICT. He says that it was ICT that helped Europe reach the pinnacle of development and it is ICT that holds the key to Nepal’s progress as well.
“ICT holds a universal perspective and can be applied everywhere, just the approach needs to be different,” he says.
While a country like Norway, which has already developed its infrastructures and has created a foundation, is using ICT in fields like climate change, the same approach cannot be replicated in Nepal.
“ICT is very human-centred and hence, its application must be based on the existing needs of the people of a country,” he illustrates, “To talk of blockchains and robots would be futile in Nepal, for us, ICT needs to enhance the capability of the farmer or help the average worker in his labour.”
He opines that ICTs need to gradually add to the existing technology otherwise risk alienating and confusing the people. “The first step is to introduce ICT in the basic-level education so that in the next 50 years, we create an ICT-literate generation.”
ICT helps realise human desire and mobilise the social capital of a country. It is not just a buzz word and an interdisciplinary and multilateral subject holds very real scope for real world advancements. “Countries like Korea and Japan that were devasted by wars rose up due to ICT4D, and I see no reason why Nepal can’t do the same,” he says adding, “For this, professionals like me are more than willing to share our knowledge and invest in the Nepali society and academia.”
Thapa was in Nepal from 3 April to 19 April for the Erasmus+ Global Mobility project.
(Mishra is intern at The Rising Nepal)