Muslim Women in Tech: Ayman Nadeem at Github

Posted on Mar 27, 2017
Alina Din


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 third installment features Ayman Nadeem, a 25-year-old Systems Design Engineering grad who is a Software Engineer at Github.

What does your company do?

Github builds tools to make it easier for software developers to build stuff. Our tools allow users to collaborate and build software together.

What is your day-to-day like on the job?

My primary responsibility is building features on GitHub.com. Usually, I work with designers and other stakeholders to develop products and engineering specs. This involves mapping out requirements, analyzing data to answer questions or evaluating considerations; but I ultimately spend most of my time implementing the plan. This means writing code, weighing trade-offs and designing a system that both performs well and is the right thing for our users. Day-to-day, this involves messaging coworkers on Slack or on GitHub, asking them questions about something we might be working on together asynchronously, opening pull requests to share my code publicly and getting code reviewed by team members. Sometimes bug fixes or other things come up that require more immediate attention. Oh, and caffeine—I've developed a crucial day-to-day dependency on coffee.

When did you get inspired to be a software engineer and what sparked it?

I didn’t start out as a software engineer. I initially wanted to build physical systems and I was interested in robotics, so I focused my studies on Artificial Intelligence (AI). I was always interested in doing something with more social impact and I happened to be strong in math and physics. There were so many infrastructure-related issues I was interested in, such as improving access to clean water, creating better urban designs and environmentally-sound transportation or energy. I wanted to use the hard sciences for things that had a material impact in the world. Throughout my time studying engineering at Waterloo and during my internships, I got into software because the way it can automate and accelerate results was so inspiring. Think of healthcare systems: better imaging technology has the potential to improve or replace existing MRIs and produce diagnoses faster which could lead to faster treatment. With hardware, you're constrained by the natural laws of physics. You can't make an electron go across the metal any faster, but you CAN write code to optimize the heck out of something! You can keep optimizing something and making it perform better which creates the potential to drive down costs. My professor in college was doing research in the area of autonomous navigation and I started working with him to develop algorithms for computer vision that would help guide a robot. It was really mathematical. Fast-forward a bunch of jobs later (I was doing product management for a while, but I missed building things) and I went back into software engineering.

You founded a startup in your home country, Canada. That is incredible! Tell us about that experience.

I founded my first startup when I was 17 years old. At the time, the coal mining industry in Nova Scotia suffered a collapse. I wanted to set up infrastructure and spaces to help local people use their skills and resources to generate a self-sustaining income in lieu of the economic vacuum being experienced at the time. Their community had a lot of empty plants left over from the coal industry’s collapse. I happened to be attending a math and technology entrepreneurship camp during that time and met a lot of like-minded people there. Through that, I founded Valley Innovations. We designed environmentally-friendly appliances for people to reliably compost in their homes in a clean and accessible way. These devices allowed them to grind compostable material. I was in the process of pursuing patenting for it, but since I was simultaneously a first-year student at the University of Waterloo, I ditched it to focus on my degree. So it was kind of anticlimactic, how the project abruptly ended, but we got national recognition and a few awards for it, and we also developed a business plan that I'd probably be embarrassed to look at now.

It’s no small feat to create a company at 17! What did you learn from that experience, and did anything transfer to your first job or internship out of college?

When you’re trying to do your own thing, you don’t know what you’re doing or what goals you're pursuing; it's all very ambiguous and you have to bring order and discipline to it. Through that, you learn to develop new skills and sharpen existing ones. Looking back now, I think the whole experience improved my ability to pitch ideas. It allowed me to cultivate an understanding of how to develop an idea based on an open-ended problem, figure out the scope of impact, and ultimately how to communicate that to the people that matter. It also helped me define who matters and in what capacity they matter. I’ve learned that knowing your stakeholders and how to talk to them was very transferrable and helped make me more versatile when taking on different jobs later on. It was a good experience.

What's it like being a Muslim woman and an engineer in the tech industry?

In many instances, I’ve been the only engineer or woman on my team. The fact that I am Muslim and brown and several other shades of different amplifies the intersectionality of my identity. I often don't participate in certain "extra-curricular," hangout opportunities because they don't feel accessible to women, especially Muslim women. For example, when male colleagues fraternize with each other at a bar or chill and drink while playing Mario Kart till 1 AM, it's a bonding experience that helps them get closer, develop social capital that aids robust professional relationships, and I never really do any of that. All of these things motivated me to try to push team cultures to be more inclusive, especially by encouraging more diverse ways of forming a camaraderie with colleagues. Even talking about this now, I feel like I should host a team chai night or something to further that cause.

Do you find yourself ever having to overcome self-doubt or the need to prove yourself at work? How do you deal with it?

Constantly. Even now. It has different faces. Even though I’m an engineer, I’m joining a new team and it's all new stuff that I am taking on. So I’m not necessarily overcompensating but I have a lot of stress and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m hyper aware of the fact that I’m a newbie. I almost always feel like I’m not working hard enough, even if I'm dog tired for weeks on end.

You’ve worked for some major companies in the tech industry. What’s it been like to work for these big names?

It was intimidating, but I was always learning a lot and tried to focus on proving myself. The flipside of being intimated is seeing yourself grow. You think, “What am I doing here?!” And then you working really, really, really hard using that intimidation as fuel to get better. I owe these experiences to attending Waterloo, where we did a bunch of internships. Also, growing up, I had the quintessential immigrant-hustle family story. When you come from that family background, your motivations tend to be rooted in helping your parents or whoever. It was about, “How do I ensure that I set myself up for success and help out at home?” And it’s still part the equation.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to get her foot in the door at a tech company? If you don’t have big names on your resume, how do you prove your value when it’s super-competitive to even land an interview?

The tech industry is so big and vast right now, it has many different sub-areas and disciplines. I can only speak for software engineering. You obviously need to have some level of competence and exposure to a programming language, and also exposure to some tools. But ultimately it's about your problem-solving ability and how you communicate that. I'd say, the easiest way to get noticed is by working on side projects that demonstrate your skills, like open-source projects. Show you’re doing meaningful stuff by building and creating artifacts that speak for themselves. This is the biggest proof or hard evidence that you can do something when you apply for a job. It’s what stands out to me when I interview candidates.

What were some of your favorite insights from Ayman? Share them in the comments below and check back next week for part IV of the Muslim Women in Tech Series by Alina Din!