'You Don't Get to the Top of the Mountain Alone': Assistant IT Director Lamaka Opa Reflects on Rewiring His Tech Career at Columbia

Opa shared how the Columbia Employment Information Center was a launchpad for furthering his career at the University.

Brandee Sanders
March 20, 2024

While coming of age, Congo-born, Paris-raised Lamaka Opa was surrounded by examples of empowerment. His father was a physician who used the practice of medicine to uplift communities and his mother was an accountant who led microfinancing efforts to support women in purchasing land and building their own businesses. For Opa, who had an affinity for technology, those displays of service would remain a source of inspiration.

"It was the idea that you don't get to the top of the mountain alone," he told Columbia Neighbors.

When Opa and his wife moved to Harlem 16 years ago, he was hopeful about advancing his career at Columbia, but the grueling job search and difficulties getting visibility in a wide pool of applicants was frustrating. Determined to change the course of his quest to secure a tech role, he leaned on the resources and support provided by the Columbia Employment Information Center (CEIC). The community-driven career hub—which has been in existence for 20 years—was cultivated to help individuals with job search assistance and provides holistic career training. The CEIC was instrumental in helping Opa’s vision of working at Columbia become a reality.

Now Opa, who currently serves as assistant director of IT in Columbia’s Facilities and Operations department, is putting the focus on ensuring others have a seat at the table through his work with the CUFO Equity and Inclusion Council.

Columbia Neighbors spoke with Opa about his passion for tech, his experience at the CEIC, and his future career aspirations.

What inspired you to build a career in the IT space?

Curiosity led me to IT. As a child, I was interested in anything and everything connected to electronics. I was drawn to different gadgets and wanted to explore how they were made and could be fixed. While growing up in Dakar, Senegal, my cousin and I would use VCRs to tape television shows that were on MTV. When the VCRs would fall apart, we would spend time reconstructing them. At school, we had access to projectors, and I would always step in and help my teachers when setting them up for the class. Those were my entryways into technology.

When the dot-com boom hit, I had just graduated from high school, and I spent time learning how to build a computer from scratch. I learned about new technologies through magazines. I was self-taught and curious. Through exploration and a general understanding that every system has a source and the source has to have a destination, I could learn anything. There was a point in my career when I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my cousin who was a prominent and well-respected lawyer in France, but my love for computers was much stronger.

What led you to Columbia? How did you hear about the Columbia Employment Information Center?

I’ve been in New York since 2007. My wife and I purchased a home in Harlem in 2008. I was a senior engineer at another higher education institution. I wanted to transition to Columbia because to me it was an emanation of excellence. I applied for quite a few positions at the University over a few years and never received a call. It was frustrating, but it prompted me to connect with someone from Columbia directly to gain an understanding of how the process works and what I could do to stand out. I met Elizabeth Jones, the director of Community Employment Programs and Services at the CEIC, in 2013. She was very reassuring. She saw my resume, recognized my qualities, and offered to advocate and be a reference for me if there were any open positions I was interested in.

"I wanted to transition to Columbia because to me it was an emanation of excellence."

Two years after meeting, she and I reconnected at a job fair in the Bronx, and she remembered me. At that point, my previous role at the other school had been eliminated and I was looking for a new job. She encouraged me to revisit the idea of looking into roles at Columbia. I decided to take her advice and applied for a bunch of roles that same day. I later received a call from the then-soon-to-be IT director in the surgery department at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He liked that I had international experience, a solid background in IT infrastructure, and was Apple certified. He called me for a conversation that was supposed to last 20 minutes, and we spoke for over an hour about technical stuff. He tested me, and I had an answer for every question. A few months after our conversation, I got a call and they offered me the choice of two roles, technician and systems administrator. I preferred the technician position because I would be given a chance to interact with people throughout the day. I started the role in 2015.

How was your experience at the Columbia Employment Information Center? Can you share the career guidance the center provided?

The center was instrumental in helping me customize my cover letter; making sure I changed different elements and tailored it to reflect how my skills would be a great fit for the specific position I was applying for. Before coming to the CEIC, that was a step I missed in the process of submitting applications. It was something Ms. Jones and I discussed. The staff at the CEIC is very welcoming, professional, and friendly. They represent the idea of serving the public. At the employment center, they take their time with you. They say “How are you?” They smile at you. They want to know what you’re there for. It’s positive. I haven’t been there for years, but that’s what stays with me. It’s really important, especially in a time when society is lacking human connection.

"The staff at the CEIC is very welcoming, professional, and friendly. They represent the idea of serving the public. At the employment center, they take their time with you."

What has been the highlight of your Columbia career so far?

There’s been quite a few highlights. I’ve had three positions within Columbia since I started my journey back in 2015, and I’ve experienced a lot of career growth. Looking back, I was hired by Columbia as somebody who supervised a small department, and about two and a half years later, I became an IT manager where I made more decisions. I had a seat at a bigger table. In my current job as assistant director of Information and Technology for Facilities and Operations, I’m involved in more projects related to strategy, planning, and project management. I am also part of the Equity and Inclusion Council for the Facilities Department.

One of the biggest highlights was completing my Executive Master’s in Technology Management at Columbia two years ago. I went to class with people who are CEOs of tech companies. One of my instructors was the CBO of Xerox, and we still email each other from time to time. One of my classmates is the head of Google Photo, and another is the head of OneDrive for Business. I never felt I could measure up to people at that level, yet we sat on the same bench and did projects together.

What inspired you to get involved with the Equity and Inclusion Council?

Representation matters. I want to be an advocate for hiring more women and minorities, as well as people with disabilities, especially in the tech department. I also want to advocate for union employees. I felt like if I couldn’t try to resolve the problem, that meant I accepted it. I believe it is my duty as an individual to leave the places I go to in a better condition than it was when I came. That is part of my inspiration.

In tech, and society in general, we need the voices of different people to have different vantage points. My vision and my perspective may be different from somebody else’s because we’ve had a different upbringing and experiences. We’re missing out on opportunities to solve problems or create new products when only the same people have a seat at the table. When it comes to resolving the issue of underrepresentation of people of color in the tech space, it starts with education. We have to get people interested in technology and how things are made. We want to create a nation of people who are builders and problem solvers, not just consumers.

What are some of your career aspirations for the future?

I’d love to teach. It doesn’t matter where I teach, it’s the impact that matters. It is the satisfaction of helping people get into the tech field. I also want to support my kids and their love for the arts. My daughter likes to draw and do video editing. My son also draws, paints, and does video editing. I want to show them how to use these forms of art to tell our stories.

Who do you pull inspiration from?

My parents are a source of inspiration. My father is a physician in Paris, he teaches at a nursing school. He went back to school at a later age to study sleep medicine, and that inspired me because it showed me there’s no age limit to learning. It’s part of the reason why I decided to go back to school to pursue my master’s degree at Columbia. My mom was involved in community-focused micro-financing for women before it became a trend. Her efforts empowered several women to do great things like purchase land and start small businesses. For me, it was the idea that you don't get to the top of the mountain alone.

What are your top three Uptown places?

I'm really fond of West Harlem Piers Park. You can get a breath of fresh air and it’s nice to see people having fun and enjoying their time. You can get some sun. Also, I’m a photographer and a videographer, and I like to go there to fly my drone or take pictures of birds. On the weekends, people from my church community and I would meet there in the morning to pray and have breakfast. I’m a food guy. I enjoy Uptown for the abundance of soul food, Caribbean food, African food, and South Asian food. Lastly, I love the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It’s a must-see to experience Black culture from around the world. My kids and I like to go there to check out the exhibitions.

Learn more about the Columbia Employment Information Center by visiting the CEIC website.

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