KNUST Entrepreneurial Journeys: Jesse Johnson

Selorm Tamakloe
10 min readFeb 15, 2021

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Jesse Joojo Johnson is Chief Product Officer at Asoriba (the 2016 Seedstar Africa’s Best Startup winner). As a co-founder of this church management technology startup, Jesse definitely qualifies to be called an entrepreneur. This interview gets Jesse sharing with us his journey into becoming a technology entrepreneur, along with some insights he has gained from his experience in product development.

How was growing up for Jesse?

It was fraught with frustration. I think it is hard to put a finger on why, but if there is one thing I have noticed in my constant reflections, I would say it has been a struggle to fit in; to both fit in and really understand who I am. On some level, the creative side of me is something I am only now coming to terms with, but my frustration has mostly been existential within the social context.

Walk us through your academic life before university.

Most of my childhood was spent in Dansoman. I was a student at St Bernadette Soubirous school until Class 6. Those were my formative years because, during my Bernadette period, I was very much into computers and the love of science (physics, biology). Even my writing and musical interests were present in those years — I started to notice the staples of my adult life then.

My life as an artist actually started in nursery school, when I wrote my first story. I used the illustration on the Peak Milk can to write a story about some men trapped on an island. I still remember that story because of how I spelt “island”: “Iland” — that was how I spelt the word. My dad trained as an artist, so I am sure a lot of his conversations filtered into my thought processes.

My family moved to Tema, and I was enrolled at Corpus Christi for my junior high school education. JHS was the place where my interests in computing started getting emphasized. Shortly after writing the BECE (Basic Education Certificate Examination), my science teacher called me back to represent Corpus Christi in the 2005 Einstein Year Competition. He called me because earlier in my school days I had shown him diagrams of what I called a “solar thermal power plant”. It was a mix of fantasy and practical science. The main idea behind it was to use a large glass dome as a lens to focus the sun’s heat on a set of conducting rods that will heat water to drive a steam turbine. I prepared that, and a few other things, for the school’s submission into that competition. We were shortlisted for another stage and that made the school quite happy.

I went to Achimota School for my senior high school education. It was my first choice — a desire I had since I was about 4 or 5 years old (principally because my dad attended that school). My time at “Motown” was a bit of a roller coaster. I had applied for the Visual Arts class. But after a fantastic orientation, I was told that I was a General Arts student instead. My mum intervened and had the school change my program to General Science. My parents had always wanted me to study science. I was taken to the smallest science class because of my late entry. That class turned out to also be the most notorious.

We were the only Geography-focused science class — Science 4. The class had earned the name “Da Balls” over several years, because it was always full of boys, with only a handful of girls at any time. And it tended to be quite…different, unlike the “well-behaved” Biology classes. We were always a bit odd. The class, I’ve learned, has since been converted to a biology class, so the legend is now lost. We were the last “Da Balls”.

I got to play cricket in Achimota and injured myself while training for the Livingstone House team. Unfortunately, I never represented the house. But my writing became more public. A lot of the things I write had their formation at Achimota.

After high school, I went to Alliance Francaise for about 6 months, where I took two classes in French — DELF/DALF Certificate. I made friends too, though I’m no longer in touch with most of them now.

I nearly applied for Ashesi for my undergraduate studies. I got to meet Patrick Awuah while I was at Achimota, but I never followed through the application process because I was scared — I guess I was intimidated by the whole thing. For some reason, I felt Ashesi was above me. It is just one of those things. I don’t know if I regret that, but I went to KNUST.

A big part of my life, which is choral and classical music became much more serious when I got to KNUST.

How was your time at KNUST?

It was an improvement over my high school life. Things that I had begun developing in primary school that became emphasized in JHS and SHS fully blossomed in KNUST. There is a lot of stuff about KNUST that I don’t like remembering, but my time there wasn’t useless.

Usually, people look for schools outside the country to attend — I was not interested in that. My mates were looking for universities outside the country to further their education. I just had an apathy that prevented me from considering that.

The only 2 serious career moves I made, while I was in KNUST, were — to apply to work at Huawei for my National Service and to enrol at MEST.

In my first year, I had wanted to apply for MEST when I saw the poster stuck to the door of my main lecture room. The picture was a photo of Ann Amuzu, CEO of Nandi Mobile. The thing about MEST that caught my interest was that they gave you a chance to start a software company. Starting a company in computing was something I wanted to do since JHS, which is actually rare for me because I usually don’t know what I want to do. I learned that I should have graduated before applying. When the MEST outreach team came to my class in my 4th year, I applied that same afternoon. Both applications to Huawei and MEST were successful. I think I made the right choices.

I chose to study Computer Science in Ghana because I didn’t want a situation where I would choose something I absolutely love and be stuck in the past because of resource constraints. I had interests to be a theoretical physicist, but I knew KNUST wouldn’t be able to give me access to the kind of instruments and experiments that will keep that dream alive — at least I didn’t think they could. I chose Computer Science because you just needed a laptop and an Internet connection, and it is easy to be abreast.

For the most part, the kind of stuff I was exposed to in Computer Science at KNUST was sufficiently current. There are the obvious things, like lecturers not being up to date whereas students are more abreast, but since we were doing Computer Science, it was relatively easier to be up to date.

Although my education in KNUST was lacking in some areas, to be honest, it was less painful and more manageable. Hindsight tells me that our math lecturers were really good — at least our pure math lectures in first year. They developed a more than casual interest for pure mathematics in me.

Another thing I quickly learned about the education in KNUST was that it didn’t really cater for students who would get carried away by their interests in the sense that it was more focused on examinations. When I developed interest in pure maths, there weren’t a lot of avenues to delve deeper into that in the school because we had assessments and all.

Jesse Johnson (blue striped polo-shirt) in a MEST group photograph with Bono

How was your time at MEST?

MEST was like — it was huge for me.

It was one of those instances where I felt like I had actually done something. Getting into the school was tough — at least that’s what we were told. And there was some truth to it: it was a fully-sponsored program with continent-wide recruitment that saw thousands apply, and just about 25 make it into the class. I was able to get into the program and that meant a lot for me.

KNUST taught me to write code. But MEST taught me to build software. It is something I have said a couple of times because it really highlights something about the school environment and the business environment. 2 years after MEST, I realized most of what I was doing in KNUST was mostly academic — and I don’t mean to be disparaging.

At KNUST, you learn the kind of stuff that a Computer Science student should learn, but at MEST, you use these same principles to build applications. The whole problem-solving concept becomes apparent when you are in the MEST environment. You are thinking about helping an individual in the real world achieve something using software. That difference really hit me.

I realized one huge flaw in KNUST’s Computer Science education when I got to MEST; KNUST is a university, belonging to the world of academia, research and theory. The first year of Computer Science tried to give us a good grounding in actual Computer Science, but it didn’t go very far. In my opinion, it wasn’t enough to let you call yourself a computer scientist. The later parts of the program tried to get you ready for industry, learning encryption, software engineering etc. But it didn’t go far enough with current industry practices. In my opinion, it wasn’t enough to let you call yourself a software engineer. You were a sort of well-informed generalist if you took the program seriously.

The education was trying to do 2 things but not doing them particularly well. I wasn’t confident calling myself a software engineer or computer scientist after my undergraduate studies at KNUST. The training kind of makes you a generalist. And you quickly realize that most people learn a lot on their own, and not necessarily from the school.

How has it been serving as co-founder and a Chief Product Officer for Asoriba?

It hasn’t been much different from being a rank-and-file developer, most of the time. We’re a small startup with a small team. One moment you put on your executive hat and make strategic decisions, the next moment you take that off and get to work. And most of the time those decisions happen in the middle of work, because things move fast.

It’s been fun, and a worth-while experience. I stepped down from that role for two years when we restructured the company, and though I still maintain a leadership function when it comes to mobile apps and devices, I don’t use that title.

What are 2 key things you have come to learn in product development?

This is actually a tough question. Well, one thing I have learnt is certain intuitions being proved through experiences.

  1. Innovation is very hard. It has a social aspect that makes it hard to predict. For example, Zoom is an innovation. Zoom has become the default thing that people connect with during this pandemic. That almost makes no sense to me because there is Skype and other legitimate ways of conferencing without Zoom. I believe there is a social dynamic to it where things simply catch on. It’s like fashion. Or memes. It is the reason a few people get famous even though there are many others who are equally good. It’s the reason popularity is distributed normally. Ultimately, you can try to engineer that, but it is hard to do. You can innovate all you can, but it gets hard when society doesn’t call you innovative.
  2. Innovation is very easy. Honestly, sometimes, innovation is blindingly obvious. An example would be chatbots e.g. WhatsApp chatbots. As soon as WhatsApp made it available for businesses to use that, it became a significant innovation. Sometimes, it is just a matter of making something that is already in existence available. With the scale at which this world runs, even if 20 percent of your market latches onto something because it is cooler, you still have a plus. There are solutions the world is waiting for: that’s an easy pathway to innovation.

Any final words?

If there is one thing I have learned about developing technological solutions, I think you should always start with people. The focus must be intentionally on people. I think it can be hard to do that — if it were easy, everyone would do that. You must build things with people in mind. Whatever solution you are building must reflect empathy.

The more I build technology and the more I use technology, the stronger I feel that people form relationships with things. If they feel their technology solution understands them, they have an inclination to become loyal to that software solution. That is it — always touch on the human being. Be absolutely humanist when it comes to software development.

Nominate someone for me to interview.

Alex Titriku — He works with Texas Instruments. He was in KNUST while I was there. Last I heard, there is a patent with his name on it, so he’s probably got an interesting story.

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Selorm Tamakloe

principally an interviewer, consequentially a poet, and occasionally voicing opinions