Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.
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After graduating university with a third class in 2006, the 38-year-old subject of this week’s #NairaLife moved to the US and got a $50k/year job almost immediately. How did he manage to grow his career to the point where he wants to retire in three years?
What’s the earliest memory you have that’s connected to money?
It’s going to visit my uncle in Kaduna, in 2001, and getting ₦5k from him when we were leaving. I was 17 and that’s the most money I’d ever received up to that point. My parents were civil servants who didn’t believe in the idea of giving pocket money. They took care of us and bought the things we needed. So ₦5k was mindblowing for me — plus, it was a lot then.
He gave my siblings too. We pooled money together and got a puppy. From the rest of my money, I bought shoes because I thought I was going to uni that year.
First, I didn’t make my WAEC papers, but I eventually did NECO and passed. Then I failed JAMB twice. It was in 2003 I decided to get into university through diploma instead. The next year, I crossed over from diploma to 200 level.
What did you study?
Computer science. I liked playing games and thought studying computer science would teach me how to make my own games. In university, I found out that was a lie.
The Nigerian university system is terrible, man. I started failing right from 200 level. Not failing as per getting C’s o. Carryovers.
Lecturers just came to class to give us archaic notes and expected us to write those notes word for word in exams. At first, I didn’t realise what I was doing wrong. I’d take their notes, go to the library, and spend hours reading books to supplement the knowledge I got from the notes so that I could answer exam questions practically. Still, I failed.
It wasn’t until 300 level I found out I was wasting my time.
A little backstory — I was also doing some business on the side. In that same 200 level, I went to the library, and online, I learnt how to build simple websites. I knew a guy who was good at graphic design and was making money from it. I wanted to have my own skill and make my own money, so I chose web development and learnt how to build simple sites. I also did a Microsoft Certified System Engineer certification and a CISCO IT course. Throughout university, I built only about five websites for family members and friends. They all paid between ₦5k and ₦10k each.
One of the people who reached out to me for a website was my class rep. Because I knew he had a good relationship with lecturers, I decided to stick with him. Maybe I’d get some favours. But the way he ass-kissed lecturers was too much. I couldn’t do it. One day, he saw me reading foreign books at the library and just started laughing at me. According to him, I was “studying the American way”.
By 400 level, I realised it was too late to make my courses without an extra year, so I inflated my school fees and used the money to pay lecturers. It was ₦5k for them to bump you up by like 20 marks. I paid ₦10k for one compulsory three-unit course. By the time I graduated in late 2006, I only managed to finish with a third class.
After that, I knew I wasn’t going to be in Nigeria for long. The plan was to go to the US for my master’s but first, I went to visit my cousin on a regular tourist visa in 2007. I went to universities in the area to find out if I could get an admission with my third class, but nothing looked to be working, so I just applied for a job instead.
What kind of job?
Microsoft Windows engineer. The two certifications I did in uni are recognised worldwide. I got a job, but the window for applying for my H-1B visa closed before I could resume, so I went back to Nigeria, did NYSC and returned the next year for the same job. Again, the window closed by March, but I just decided to stay in the US till it opened again in October. In that six-month period, I did odd jobs like cleaning and working at restaurants to survive.
When I eventually got the job, it paid $50k a year.
Funds. Considering your level of experience, that’s huge right?
As someone who finished with a third class in university, it sounds impressive. But as someone who worked in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the US and lived two hours away in another city, it was small. I was spending four hours a day in transit, and after tax, I was left with almost nothing to save. That’s why they could still hire me after a year — I was cheap labour. After six months, I left the job.
My parents were on my case, trying to get me to do my master’s. I moved to another city, took a few remedial courses to cover for the ones I failed in university and started my master’s in Information Systems, funded by my parents, my uncle and me.
So my H-1B paused, and I got a student visa for the duration of my master’s and then Optional Practical Training (OPT) which lasts 28 months after you graduate. The plan was to work with the 28-month OPT and pick up the H-1B when that expired.
After my master’s in 2011, I had two other options I didn’t mind. It was either a job gave me the Green Card or I married someone who did. I got an IT job with an NGO because they help people process applications for Green Cards. It paid $55k a year.
But the NGO folded up after about a year and I had to find another job.
How was that?
It’s difficult to find a job in the US when you want to apply for a Green Card because the company has to pay for the process. So I was getting interviews but when they asked, “Would we have to apply for an H-1B and Green Card for you?” and my answer was yes, they would just say, “Sorry, we’re currently not applying for H-1Bs and Green Cards for employees”.
When I eventually found one, there was a twist. I had to pay for it out of my salary. It’s illegal, but it’s what we did because I was desperate.
How much did the job pay?
$70k a year. The entire process for Green Card filing cost about $10k. I was there for two years and in that time, it increased to $76k.
Only $6k in two years?
Yeah. First of all, because you’re applying for a Green Card with the company, you have to be there until you get it. Companies know this, so they play it to their advantage and don’t pay so much.
But the more obvious reason I didn’t get a big raise is that my skillset as a Windows engineer wasn’t high-value. People with that skillset usually max out at $80k a year.
Living on $76k a year was difficult. First of all, after tax, it was $30-something-k a year. That’s less than $3k a month. Then after I paid rent, car insurance, health insurance, and phone bills, I was only able to save between $300 and $500 a month. Thankfully, my family wasn’t so demanding, so I rarely had to send money to them.
Once I got my Green Card in late 2015, I quit and took two months off work because I’d been applying for jobs and knew if I was going to increase my earnings, I had to improve my skills.
I took on courses to become a Linux engineer because that’s what seemed to be in demand. As I continued to apply for jobs, I realised saying I had two months of Linux experience wasn’t enough to get them. People were even asking if I knew Python. So I did what people in America do — I lied on my CV. I backdated a lot of my skills to make it look like I was more proficient. In my past jobs, I put that I did things I didn’t do. Once I did that, more people started reaching out to me.
I remember one interview that ended up being a disaster because they tested me and I failed so terribly. Imagine four people joining an online interview and three of them leaving because you were so bad, you were wasting their time.
Shortly after that, I did an interview with a big company and got the job as a DevOps engineer. The pay started from $92k per year. After my probationary three months, they increased it to $100k. Till today, I can’t tell you why they hired me. Everyone was better than me.
They were probably just trying to diversify their mostly-white team..
You were there how long?
I quit after a year.
I struggled so bad. It was obvious I was working way above my skill level and I saw a layoff coming. I just quit before they fired me and destroyed my confidence. Also, my commute to work was two hours every day and it affected my performance.
What did you do after that?
I stayed home and worked on a few personal projects so I could achieve something and build my confidence back. I also didn’t stop applying for jobs. In one month, I got another DevOpsjob.
This job required me to know Python, but they were willing to let me learn on the job. When they asked how much I wanted, I told them my range was $110k to $130k. They paid me $130k.
Did this one go well?
Not at the beginning. On my first week, I had to go to a client’s office to solve some problems that needed me to write Python. I didn’t know jack, so someone else had to help me. But that only happened the one time.
I took a two-week crash course on Python. I got a bit better, but work was still overwhelming for me. My boss saw that if I kept getting overwhelmed, I would quit so he took me off some tasks and organised a Python boot camp for me. That’s how I became really good at the job. I was there from December 2017 to October 2019.
How did the move from $76k to $100k to $130k affect the quality of your life?
At $100k, things got much better. I was able to move to a bigger apartment on a better side of town. At $130k, I got married in 2019, and, I moved into a three-level townhome with my wife.
Why did you leave in October 2019?
I got a new job and resumed in November. $120k. It was less money, but it was less stressful. At my old job, I had to travel out of the country to attend to clients and it was too much for me.
January 2020, I got another DevOps job. This one was remote and paid me $130k. For the first few months of 2020, I had to manage both jobs. If I had a meeting for my remote job, I’d go and have it in the bathroom or hallway of my in-person job. But COVID struck and I was able to conveniently do both at home.
Then I had a bright idea. What if I took a third job?
Yep. This one paid $160k a year. I had a fourth job offer, but I didn’t want to push it so I rejected it. Along the line, I got another contract-type job that paid $100 an hour for some time. In total, I made about $550k in 2020.
That couldn’t have been easy
Oh, it was crazy. On some days, I had three meetings at the same time and I’d have to listen in on all three — one on one earphone, the other on another earphone and the third on speaker; all from three different computers. Once, they asked a question in one meeting and I replied in another. I had to play it off as a mistake.
I gained a lot of weight, I barely slept, my back was killing me — it was terrible.
But still, it was good money
Oh, for sure. Between 2020 and 2021, I bought a new car for $40k and paid 90% in cash and the rest in credit to boost my credit score. I bought a $50k car for my wife the same way and cleared her $65k student loans. I also cleared the credit card debt I’d accumulated over the years. $45k.
What does your wife do?
She works in finance. During that period, she also took an extra job. Between 2020 and 2021, we earned a combined yearly income of about $800k.
Does your family know how much money you make now?
That would be a huge mistake. The black tax would be too much. They know I work in tech and make good money, but they don’t know it’s that much.
Do you still have all three jobs?
No, I have two remote jobs now. I dropped the third because having three jobs became overwhelming. It’s tasking taking on multiple jobs, but a lot of people are doing it now that the world is working remotely.
My two jobs currently pay $170k and $180k. That’s a total of $350k. Sometimes, I get extra jobs too. So on an average month, I make about $20k after tax.
I’m curious about how you approach savings and investments
In Nigeria right now, I have three farms, a house I use for Airbnb, a cosmetics store I own with my wife, and I’m working on a tech startup. I travel to Nigeria from time to time to oversee the businesses. I have property in another African country and in the US too. In savings, I have $100k, crypto is like $10k and stocks are like $40k.
I’m 38 now, and I want to retire when I’m 41 or 42. The farms would be a steady source of from Nigeria. In the US, my friend and I are working on starting a company that gets government IT contracts. That’ll be income too. i; d get to give good opportunites to other Nigerians with my startup, but I’m sure it’ll bring money too.
What do you want to do when you retire?
I want to travel and spend time with my family. I’ll also try to mentor young people.
Let’s break down your current monthly expenses
Is there anything you’ve recently bought that changed the quality of your life?
Maybe not the quality of my life, but people’s reaction to the car I bought in 2020 changed how I saw myself. I get so many compliments whenever I’m out, and it boosts my confidence. Also, I got $1k watches for myself and my wife recently. I know they’re not expensive-expensive, but wearing mine just makes me feel good. Then there’s the fact that whenever I travel with my wife, we fly business class. It’s great.
How happy are you? The scale is 1-10
Now, I’m on a 9. I need more money to get some projects off and running, but apart from that, I’m happy and content.
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