Reflections on 19 years as a Muslim woman in tech – Interview with Sadiya Zackria

profile picture of Sadiya Zackria a smiling woman wearing hijab sitting in front of two computer monitors

Sadiya is an energetic and highly motivated IT professional with over 18 years of progressively complex systems development and support experience. She’s also a super active and positive member of the Tech Sisters community. It was a real pleasure getting to know Sadiya and her experiences as a Muslim woman in tech!

Can you describe how you first got into tech? What originally sparked your interest?

My father taught computers at middle school, transitioning away from Industrial Arts or “Shop” as it was called. He would always bring PCs home and fix them and let me and my siblings help. So we grew up loving computers and working with them. I went off to college planning to major in accounting, but I met an Operations Management/Information Sciences major in my dorm. She took a few of us under her wing and got us all interested in IS. Before that, I hadn’t considered a career in technology and programming. She encouraged us to learn about it and answered all of our questions. By the end of my freshman year, I formally changed my major. 

Can you describe a little bit of your work history and what you do now?

I completed my BS and MS back to back at Northern Illinois University before entering the workforce in 2001, where I landed at a major insurance company. They brought me in to join a group of mainframe programmers as the “Windows Kid”. I had to learn how to maintain and enhance some VB/ASP Websites with an MS SQL backend. I was able to quickly learn and pick up maintenance and support for a variety of console apps, VB apps and websites before diving into .NET.

Another company acquired my company and, after helping convert and decommission our old systems, I moved over to a consulting company. I took a pay cut for the opportunity to learn and build on my C# .NET skills. It worked out well because I was able to learn and grow while working with some of the smartest people I have ever met. I didn’t have to travel far in this role; I always stuck to commutable distance from home and I gained a lot of SQL Server experience that I lean on today.

After getting married and relocating to the east coast, I landed at my current job. I worked my way up in a small development team for a SAAS company as a Full Stack Developer. I’ve been there for 10 years now, and I’ve enjoyed working and growing in a smaller environment; there are many more opportunities to be hands-on, making day to day impacts in our products and what our customers see.

As a director, what skills are you looking for from your employees?

A love of learning is key, but surprisingly, its the soft skills that set apart the most talented developers. Anyone with interest can learn technical skills and hone their craft, but its those well rounded, emotionally intelligent individuals that become our most talented high performers. They can cope better with difficult situations, they can earn their peers’ respect with ease, and they can set the best examples for everyone.

What are some of the top qualities someone needs to have to be a great director?

I still develop regularly, but the biggest skills needed at the management level are core project management skills: communication, attention to detail, ownership and accountability. The buck has to stop with you –  so this may mean making tough decisions with everyone’s input and rallying support of the team to build consensus. You need to be willing and able to do anything you would ask a junior developer to do. Management requires you to wear more hats than usual so time management is key. Understanding shared priorities and your critical path for delivery is key as well.

How did the tech environment differ from when you started?

I graduated just after the dotcom bubble burst. While my undergrad years were filled with folks getting nice job offers, during my masters, I saw more classmates struggling to find opportunities as employers adjusted to post Y2K staffing needs. Consulting was the big “hot” career as I graduated, so every one of my classmates seemed to aspire to that.

I think around the early 2000’s tech was a far more formal appearance-based industry. So that made it more challenging for Muslim women, especially those who observed hijab. It was rare to see someone else in IT who was Muslim and female. That may also have been due to just a difference in enrollment in those college programs as well. Even my mom back then was not sure what my major was and what I would do after graduating.

Alhamdulillah, now its far more common to see Muslim women active in IT roles, at all levels of leadership. I feel the tech industry has relaxed from more formal standards and styles to become a more casual workplace, so even attire has diversified across ages, genders, religions. So it’s easier for Muslim women to feel comfortable and cohesive with their workplace while practicing their Deen. The industry has also become younger and more diverse in general, which is empowering and offers more opportunities.

How do you feel as a Muslim woman in tech? Do you know any other Muslims at work?

My current workplace is the smallest company I have worked for, and we have had other Muslims working here at different points in time. I also know several Muslims from college, masajids, volunteer work and social circles who work for different companies and industries.

Did it ever come up in interviews? As a direct question or a more general negative feeling?

I have never had my religion brought up in any question, and I have never been made to feel uncomfortable anywhere. In retrospect, I remember a few points in my career where my employers were always supportive and inclusive of my religion concerning my work duties.

Do you feel comfortable practicing your deen at work?

My current workplace is probably the most inclusive place I have ever worked in. On top of that, I work from home. When I was working in the NYC office regularly, my co-workers were always supportive of my limits of not drinking, observing fasts during Ramadan and respecting my personal space/physical interactions. We also had break rooms and phone booths where I could go to pray uninterrupted. I’ve also seen the company grow overall, by adding spaces for mothers to pump in privacy, so as a mother and a woman, I appreciate that.

Do you feel like being a Muslim woman in tech affected your career growth in any way?

I don’t believe being a Muslim has affected my career growth as much as being a woman has. IT, in general, went through a lot of growth and adjustment to a growing force of women – very talented and driven women who have challenged the traditional paradigm. I think, although I feel blessed for not feeling limited as a practicing Muslim, I experienced more stumbling blocks as a woman. I don’t think I’ve missed out on promotions, but it has been more challenging to gain the respect, command and presence as a woman in a field that has more males in leadership roles.

Do you think more Muslim women should get into tech?

Absolutely more Muslim women should get into tech! Its a great field with lots of logical and business challenges where women can use their many intelligent talents, while also balancing the environment (working from home, working remotely) and practicing their deen. I think if anything being a Muslim woman adds to your integrity, worth ethic, sense of justice and makes you a better employee than most, Alhamdulillah.

What is something in your journey that you regret or wish you did differently?

I definitely wish I had seriously pursued more technical certifications when I was younger and before having kids. The time and mental commitment were more easily available back then!

What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?

I’m most grateful for the many women leaders and role models I came across in my career, including a Muslim woman in a senior manager role when I started my first job. Seeing someone else, who shared some characteristics with me, in a senior leadership role was extremely valuable. I have had the opportunity to work with many amazing and talented women across my experiences and I have taken some key lessons and examples away from them,

Alhamdulillah. Its really interesting when you look back upon your career and education as to who influenced you and what positive skills you may have gained: ability to speak frankly with authority, having a “don’t give up” attitude, challenging ideas with different points of view – these were all modelled for me by other women I looked up to.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us Sadiya! You can catch up with her on LinkedIn. If you liked this, go and read some of our other interviews with Muslim women in tech!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.