Posted on Apr 03, 2017
Muslim Women in Tech is a series of interviews that highlights inspiring powerhouses who are making their mark in the tech industry, detailing the highs and lows from their career journeys. They offer insight on the day-to-day demands of this burgeoning and lucrative industry and what it's like to be a Muslim woman in Technology. Our fourth installment features Ambreen Hasan, a 26-year-old English grad who is a Software Engineer at Roostify.
Roostify is an interesting name for a company. What do you guys do?
We’re a startup in San Francisco. We build software that helps accelerate the home buying and mortgage experience for buyers and lenders.
You studied English in college, but you work as a software engineer now. How’d you make the switch?
While studying in college as an English major, I looked into a lot of career paths that English majors usually take: teaching, creative writing, journalism, etc. For example, I had a marketing role that involved a lot of creative writing, but also some HTML/CSS work as well because I had to update their website from time to time. Though the creative writing bits were interesting, I found writing HTML/CSS to be much more fun. This is when I began to realize, even while in college, that building and editing websites was something I enjoyed doing a lot. My segue into engineering also felt natural because I grew up with engineers. I found programming to be very engaging and eye-opening, as a way to think of a single problem in multiple ways. So I quit my job and decided to enroll in Dev Bootcamp, which is an accelerated program for people looking to switch fields into software engineering. The boot camp taught me about what it means to be an engineer, how to think through a problem, and how to be empathetic and work well with people, which they don't teach you in college. Dev Bootcamp really stressed the concept of “engineering empathy” in its program, and I was really drawn to that. After completing Dev Bootcamp, I started working as a software engineer.
How was your experience entering the job market as a Bootcamp grad?
There was definitely a bias against bootcamp grads when I was looking for a job in early 2015. It was a period of time when many companies were still coming to understand the idea of a coding bootcamp and what it entailed. They didn’t know how to train and mentor bootcamp grads. When I went into interviews, there was a perception from employers that we didn’t fully know how to code. Furthermore, a lot of bootcamp grads tend to have imposter syndrome because of the fact that they don't have a degree in computer science. This insecurity can also get in the way of finding a job because anxiety can hinder you from pushing forward if you give into it. To combat it, you need to be active, show up, and be present. I made it to a point to network with people. I talked to previous bootcamp grads to understand their job hunting experience. I also volunteered at tech organizations as a Rails volunteer and used that as a way to network. I even sent some cold emails to CTOs of companies. You don’t want to just be a resume in a pile. You have to do things in an unconventional way, which means putting yourself out there and showing how you’re different.
Did you have any programming experience prior to enrolling at Dev Bootcamp?
I took some programming classes here and there. I took a course on Code Academy to get a feel for what programming was like. For learning the basics, Khan Academy helped with syntax. However, these online classes don’t necessarily tell you how to solve problems, and I felt like I struggled there. I tried taking some community college classes such as C++ and Intro to UNIX. It was discovery work; I was getting my feet wet to see if this was something I wanted to do. I almost failed my C++ course but it didn’t discourage me from learning! For newcomers, it can be syntactically hard to grasp, so I thought, “I'll try Ruby, which is more a human-centered language. Let me try learning to program this way or that way.” I didn’t stop trying different things until I found what worked.
What is your day-to-day like at Roostify?
Roostify is a startup, so working there involves a lot of running around. I kind of have a unique position. I was the 3rd engineer hired. At Roostify, we have a daily standup where we all talk about what we are working on and what’s next. We exchange information from product managers and get updates on projects and things. Roostify is a very collaborative place. We practice pair programming, which means we split up into pairs, pick an issue or feature we are working on, and collaborate and work on it as a pair. Day-to-day, things do change a lot, so even if you’re working on one thing, it may get de-prioritized to something else. When it comes to working at a startup, my advice to people is if you are okay with companies that are fast-paced and constantly changing (because it's still new), you'd love working at a startup. If you like bureaucratic processes, stick to working at companies that have been around for a while.
What do you attribute to your career success thus far?
I’ve been programming for two years now, but I've been given responsibilities that are well beyond my experience level. I think this is due to being confident and constantly building on skills I already know. I always find ways of being resourceful when I get new tasks. Another thing is I have a strong willingness to learn. It's important to listen and understand other perspectives for how problems can be solved, and implement them in my own approach to coding issues. I always try to challenge myself to understand someone else’s perspective.
In seeking to understand other peoples’ perspectives, how do you deal with personalities that are not as easy to get along with?
Usually, I let people say what they want to say because you don’t want to bruise peoples’ egos. You let them let it out. I try not to take it personally. In dealing with these situations, I try understanding where the other person comes from. There have definitely been cases where someone’s been really hard to work with. If it got to a point where it was really bugging me, I'd speak up. If someone is being really aggressive or microaggressive, you need to be an adult and deal with it. Otherwise get a manager involved.
Can you expand on the issue of microaggressions at work?
In a group setting, there is always a guy who speaks louder than others. He keeps interrupting. That’s something I’ve faced personally. I’ve also witnessed that if a woman holds a position of authority, there is usually hostility from males who work under her. Or I’ll say something and there could be a guy in the room who repeats it later like it was his
own idea. I’m thinking, “Okay, I just said that!” However, Roostify's engineering management has made an effort to build and maintain a diverse and inclusive team. There are a lot of positions of leadership that are overwhelmingly women at the company. While Roostify makes an effort to provide an inclusive environment, you will find people and/or companies within the tech industry that are quite the opposite. For example, when I was interviewing candidates for a certain position, one person wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. Even one of my male co-workers noticed it and expressed how weird that was. It is nice to have allies at work, those who recognize these microaggressions when they see them, even if it doesn’t impact them directly. At the end of the day, it’s really your group of people who support you who can help solve these problems. We need to also need to keep in mind that this process takes time. You try your best, but you can’t solve everyone’s issues and sometimes you can’t change certain people or the core of who they are.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would love to be in engineering leadership eventually. It's important for Muslim women and just women, in general, to put themselves in positions of power. It’s empowering for others who want to be in those positions one day to see successful Muslim women there. I’d like to be VP of engineering in 5 years. I have a network of people I know now, senior engineers or co-founders of companies who I keep in touch with, and every now and then I’ll have coffee or lunch with them. It’s important to have these connections because you directly see their success and struggles in action. You learn from their experiences and how they solve problems.
Networking can seem so daunting for outgoing people, let alone for introverts. As an introvert, what advice can you give for networking?
I know its nerve wrecking to talk to people. Even for me, it’s hard for me to go up to people and just start talking. But you have to put yourself out there to succeed. And I mean in person, not just on Facebook or social media. Get out to any event you have the opportunity to attend. Take people along with you that you’re comfortable with; that way, you all can meet new people, talk to them, and learn about their experiences. Almost everyone’s willing to tell his or her story. People thrive when they make connections. Get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes going off the rails isn’t that bad.
What were some of your favorite insights from Ambreen? Share them in the comments below and check back next week for Part V of the Muslim Women in Tech Series by Alina Din!