Can you describe how you first got into tech? What originally sparked your interest?
I was going to high school in San Diego, and my counsellor suggested that I take a computer science elective. I was always into math and science, but I never had any experience with CS. I thought it was similar enough to my interests and gave it a try. Taking that class was a pivotal moment in my life and helped me decide to be a Computer Science major.
I had a great teacher who was engaged and gave us lots of challenging projects that captured our imaginations and pushed us. The fact that she was a woman teaching computer science was very inspiring to me, and she was one of my first female tech role models. She was aware of the gender imbalance in our class and would do things like seat the girls together to make us feel more supported. Those girls became close friends, and some of them went into the CS program at UCSD with me.
MashAllah you’ve had a lot of amazing internships at places like Facebook and Google. What was the most impactful thing you learned through them?
I was so scared and nervous during my first internship, too afraid to ask questions and risk looking stupid. The most important thing I learned through my internship experiences is that learning how to ask the right questions is the best skill you can have. You need to know what you need to learn and what you need to do your project. I also became more confident in myself and my abilities and became more open to learning. No one expects you to start a job already knowing everything, but they do expect you to be able to learn and improve.
Having internship experience speeds up the learning process. Studying CS in school and working in the industry are so different and taking time to be an intern helps to lessen that shock. Not having an internship doesn’t put you at a disadvantage, but it does make the transition into working harder
I was able to land an interview with Google and subsequently getting an offer to intern by initially applying online. After that summer, I knew I was interested in Facebook and was able to reach out to a recruiter I met about setting up interviews. It’s really important to learn how to ask for what you want and taking initiative, these are characteristics that are really valuable. Landing an internship is less about applying and more about who you know. Applying for something online, especially a competitive position, is futile because you’re just one in a thousand submissions. It’s best to go out and network and get to know people who can advocate for you, like recruiters or people that can refer you at the tech companies you’re interested in.
We hear a lot about a “leaky pipeline” of women in STEM fields, especially in Computer Science. What’s your opinion of this as a CS student?
A lot of people dropped out of my computer science program. My class had 300 students at first, and now it’s just 12 people in my master’s program. There are only two women – myself and one other girl, and I wouldn’t be doing this without her.
I think that the dropoff is because it’s a notoriously challenging program and there’s a big learning curve. You need to have very strong self-motivation to keep going despite being highly challenged by the courses.
The classic stereotype of computer scientists as nerdy white guys still exists. I think that stereotype is changing, but it puts additional pressure on women and minorities that white male students don’t experience.
I’d hate to lean into stereotypes, but studies have shown that women are less confident in their abilities than men. To succeed in computer science, you need to be comfortable with not understanding your courses and feeling confused all the time. Women will usually think that not being able to understand is a problem with themselves, while men don’t typically see it that way. So women put even more pressure on themselves.
There is a significant lack of female role models, especially in Computer Science programs. I didn’t know many other women in my field at all before I went to the Grace Hopper Conference. I met so many inspiring women in the industry there and at the ArabWIC meetup. Seeing so many women with backgrounds like mine who are so successful in tech was profoundly inspiring and motivated me to keep going with my studies.
I think it’s essential for women and minorities in tech to make themselves visible and be role models to others like them. But I feel conflicted between wanting to be a role model myself and not wanting to be in the limelight too much.
MashAllah I love how proud you are as “an ethnically Egyptian, hijab-wearing, Muslim American woman born and raised in California.” Did you ever struggle with this identity in the tech world?
Yeah, I’ve always been very proud. That’s one of the reasons I wear hijab, to show that I’m proud of being visibly Muslim. Though, I did feel like I was living in two worlds.
I was active with the Muslim Students Association and had lots of other Muslim friends, but there was no overlap with the tech side of my life at all. While I know we need to bring our whole selves to work; I would mentally push away anything that made me different from my team while I was working. I was very aware that I’m very different from everyone else at work, and I just wanted to do my work instead of dwelling on those differences. That meant that I have two identities, as a computer scientist and as a Muslim woman.
What would need to happen for tech companies to be more inclusive in general, and specifically for Muslim women?
I think that there’s a big difference between diversity and being inclusive. Diversity is just about filling quotas, making sure to hire a specific percentage of women and minorities. Inclusion is about creating a space where people can feel welcome and comfortable, and where they can do their best work.
Building an inclusive work culture takes time. People need to become more aware of the implications of their words and actions. That’s a slow process; they can’t be forced. A company is only actually inclusive if those values are felt at the team level. If a team member feels uncomfortable because her teammates don’t share those inclusive values, the company-wide values are meaningless.
I’m unsure what exactly tech companies can do to change, but having more women and minorities in leadership positions is meaningful. It’s hard for people to change if they’re assumptions aren’t directly challenged by someone they know and respect. And it’s difficult for women and minorities to see what’s possible for them to accomplish without the examples of those who came before them.
What prompted you to co-found Muslim Women in Tech?
I started MWIT last September. I already finished three internships at that point, and I felt uncomfortable at each one because I was the only woman. I wanted to create a space where women could connect so that they could have a better chance of getting those internships. I always made an effort to build my network and knew that I had a lot of advice and experience to share, especially about internships. I created the group and just started adding people I knew; I was surprised when I added 80 people myself! They added other people they knew, and the group grew from there.
The group is mostly younger women, and a lot of our audience is students. We’ve benefited a lot from the addition of more experienced women to the group because they’re able to give helpful career advice from a perspective the rest of us don’t have yet. I’m very proud of the mentorship program I started for MWIT. I never had a mentor, and I’m happy so many women can have one through this group.
I feel so happy and proud when people post things like, “I work at Facebook, and we’re looking for developers. Let me know if you’re interested,” or, “I have an interview with Microsoft, does anyone work there or have any advice?” That’s a community genuinely helping each other out. These positions go to people who are well connected, which is usually men and their male friends. By building connections with other Muslim women, we help more of us get hired and level the playing field.
What’s the thing that you’re most proud of? What did you do and why is it so special to you?
I’m most proud of starting MWIT. Building a community is something that transcends just you. The success of the group goes way beyond any of my success.
I’ve always loved tutoring and teaching. Supporting others is something that gives me purpose. I feel like I’m able to live both of those through the group.
What is something in your journey that you wish you did differently?
I’ve always been very goal-oriented and focused, which is good, but sometimes I get tunnel vision and can’t see what’s around me. I would have liked to be more open to exploring other things like hobbies or activities, instead of just focusing on school.
I also should have focused more on my health and building up good habits. I went through a period where I felt burnt out because of school, and it was hard to recover from that without those habits in place.
What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?
I’m sincerely grateful for the CS department at UCSD. Everyone there is so supportive and encouraging. They’ve been a great support system for me.
I’m also very grateful for my parents. They’ve always been passionate about education and working hard, and I’ve learned those values through their example. They’re incredibly supportive of me; even if they sometimes don’t understand my work!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want people to understand that tech is a learning curve. Don’t quit because it’s hard or you don’t understand it. Everyone feels that way. Just keep working on it and learn as much as you can.
I also want to emphasise that we need to advocate for ourselves. Go out and meet people and build our network. Be our own cheerleaders. Put ourselves forward even if we don’t think we have the skills. We have more to offer than we think.
Nadah Feteih is currently completing her Masters degree in Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego with a specialization in systems and security. She has experience in industry through various internships and is passionate about mentorship, education, and outreach.