In today’s Tech Sisters interview, Rahma Javed joins us to tell you her story and how to accelerate your tech career by always challenging yourself.
Rahma is the Director of Engineering for the Restaurants group at Deliveroo. She focuses on helping Deliveroo becoming the best partner for its restaurants and driving growth and profitability for restaurants. Prior to this, Rahma was a senior engineering leader at Wealthfront where she led the financial services area.
Can you describe how you first got into tech? What originally sparked your interest?
I got into tech accidentally. I wanted to do medicine my whole life; however, when I was about to apply for medical programs at university, I realised that I didn’t honestly want that. I didn’t have a strong motivation to do medicine, and it didn’t align with my interests. After getting a lot of advice and support from my family, I decided to try electrical engineering because I always enjoyed analytical subjects, like physics. I got my first introduction to computer engineering because it and my engineering program were linked; it perfectly aligned with my interests.
Teachers have a huge role in making computer sciences feel exciting and accessible. I didn’t like my first programming course and just put in the work to get it done. The next year, I had a different teacher who made the class fun and engaging and I loved doing my projects. Teachers you have in your life have a massive influence on you and can awaken interests inside of you that you didn’t know you had.
Can you describe a little bit of your work history and what you do now?
While I was an undergraduate, I did two internships that helped to expose me to what to expect in the real world. The first was at IBM, and the second was at Research in Motion. IBM was a large corporate environment, and Research in Motion was smaller, but very popular at that time because of their Blackberry product. It was a great experience to work at a company where there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about the product.
Starting my career at Microsoft
After graduating, I interviewed at Microsoft without any expectation of getting the job, but more for the experience of going through a Microsoft interview. They offered me a role, but while I recognised that it was a great opportunity, I felt like there was no way I could move from my family in Toronto to Seattle. It was a similar feeling to when I was deciding to go into engineering, and I ended up taking three months to accept the offer. I’m grateful that I had strong support from my siblings while I was making my decision. My parents had a hard time understanding why I would want to move so far away, but they trusted me to make the right choices for me.
I only intended to stay at Microsoft for a year to get the experience, but I ended up staying for two-and-a-half years. My team very foundational and I loved working with them; they had a significant impact on my personal growth. We were working on Windows and just launched Windows 8.
Leaving Microsoft to work with startups
Microsoft, at least at that time, had a more long term work culture than what we’re used to now. Most people stay for 10-15 years, and if you feel like you need a change, you can apply to move to another team. When my sister moved to California, I decided to explore opportunities at Microsoft in the Valley and got a position at Bing. I stayed there for one-and-a-half years and decided that I wanted to move away from Microsoft entirely and make the most out of living in the Valley by joining a startup.
My sister was working at a fin-tech startup called Wealthfront and told their recruiter that I was looking for an opportunity. Although I wasn’t thrilled to potentially work with my sister, I agreed to go through the interview process. I mostly did it for the sake of my sister’s reputation and so that I wouldn’t look like the “dumb sister.” Once again, it took me a long time to decide to accept their offer, two months this time.
My current role at Deliveroo
After six years of being in the Valley, I was starting to get bored with the homogenous environment where everyone was associated with tech. I always wanted to live in Europe for a few years, and London was my favourite destination – so I wanted to give that a try. I got introduced to a few people based over here and eventually spoke to the CTO of Deliveroo who offered to fly me out here to interview. When I walked into their offices, I felt impressed that they’re a legitimate startup, and the role was more in line with where I saw my career going.
I’ve been working here for about a year and a half and do engineering for the Restaurants group. I lead about four teams in my group right now; some directly some indirectly. My job revolves around building the tech needed to make Deliveroo the restaurant partner of choice.
My family is a tremendously supportive influence on me, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them. My siblings and I are all close in age, so that probably helps. I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.
There’s a theme of you initially rejecting an opportunity and then taking a few months to decide to go for it. What’s your decision-making process?
I would always do istikhara; I think that’s important. But I think it’s also crucial to talk to lots of different people and learn their perspective of the situation. I always have several key people in my life, outside of my family, whose opinion is important to me. It’s essential to have people who have seen you through your life and know you well enough to give good advice. However, you can get as many inputs as you want, but you’re the one who has to make the decision. Sometimes that means taking a leap of faith.
Accepting that these decisions are reversible gives you a better head-space and perspective; it’s not the end of the world if a decision turns out badly. Sometimes people think that only good decisions are what makes us better people, but experiencing bad decisions and living through them truly enriches your character. You learn what you’re capable of, what situations you thrive in, and which ones don’t suit you.Experiencing bad decisions and living through them truly enriches your character. You learn what you're capable of, what situations you thrive in, and which ones don't suit you. Click To Tweet
One of the least enjoyable positions in my career was working at a satellite office. The workload and atmosphere were so different from working at the main office like I’m used to, and it had a massive impact on my motivation. I learned that this wasn’t the type of work culture I thrive in, and I’m grateful I learned that lesson early in my career.
What do you think were some of the key reasons you were able to advance from software engineer to director of engineering so quickly?
I believe that just as human beings are a product of their environment, my career acceleration resulted from the sort of chances I’ve taken. If I stayed at Microsoft, I would have had a more typical career progression. Working at a startup exposed me to higher-level problems and responsibility that would have taken me several years to achieve at Microsoft. Putting yourself in situations where you can grow, learn new skills, and leverage what you learned from other places is the best way to advance in your career. It makes you better at solving problems, finding patterns, and handling responsibility.Putting yourself in situations where you can grow, learn new skills, and leverage what you learned from other places is the best way to advance in your career. Click To Tweet
The skills that you need to leverage go beyond technical skills. Technical skills give you a core competence, but softer catalytic skills are what differentiate you. These are skills like working with a diverse set of people, managing teams, and creating high-level goals that work for both the team and the company.
I see myself as an engineer, someone who solves problems, rather than a developer, who mainly writes code. My responsibilities now focus on developing the product roadmap and setting the principal strategic direction of my group; I don’t do any coding on a day-to-day basis anymore. My job right now is so different from anything I learned at university. That’s a good thing – as you progress throughout your career, your job role should change. If your job isn’t evolving every six months, you’re in a phase of stagnation. Use passion and work ethic to push yourself out of your comfort zone and learn new things.
How can someone improve their catalytic skills?
You can’t improve your technical skills by doing the same thing over and over again. You need to expose yourself to new problems so that you can become better at breaking big problems down into familiar chunks and recognising patterns. Even learning different classes of languages, like Java and Scala, will help you more intuitively understand programming patterns. It’s the same for catalytic skills.
One of the best ways to improve your catalytic skills is to expose yourself to different people and personalities and situations. We don’t have the option to only work with people we like and get along with smoothly. Practice putting personal feelings aside and staying objective and goal-focused. Remember that everyone on your team is working together and find ways to use your different strengths to come together and achieve your goals.
Be open to new situations, within reason, even if you feel apprehensive about it. If nothing else, you’ll come out of it with new insights and a different perspective. You can choose to go through a difficult time focusing on bad things and feeling miserable. Or you can have a much more positive mindset and decide to see everything as a learning experience. Sometimes we get hit with the same difficulty again and again because we didn’t learn a lesson we were supposed to before we can move on. Remember that you can’t control the events that happen to you; you can only control your reaction. So it’s your best bet to find the lessons within a difficulty, learn from them, and move on so you don’t have to repeat it.
Why are so many women leaving tech?
Tech is an unequal environment. It’s not about women in tech taking less risk in their careers than men; I believe that despite limitations, women are trying to take risks to advance themselves. The tech environment is not very supportive of women in what we need professionally and how it impacts our personal lives. There’s still a lot of sexism and “tech bro” culture; my friends talk about how exhausted they feel after coming up against these barriers for so many years. It’s better than it used to be, but still nowhere close to where it should be.
Companies who are intentional about supporting and sponsoring women and have policies supporting that intention are an excellent environment for women. Companies who don’t put inclusive systems in place or only hire women to fill diversity quotas aren’t nearly as supportive.
Part of the solution is more diversity at all company levels so that inclusive policies get remembered and carried out. For example, Google introduced maternity parking after Sheryl Sandberg, an executive there, became pregnant. Representation is essential in having real inclusion across all levels of a company.
What’s your experience as a Muslim woman in tech?
It’s honestly been positive across the board. Maintaining my daily prayers is essential for me, and it’s something I’ve able to do everywhere I’ve worked. Once I explain what I need, people are very willing and happy to offer support, like a prayer space. I think it’s also helped that so far I’ve only worked in liberal, diverse cities.
In our interview with Sadiya Zackria, she said that she believed being a woman affected her career more than being a Muslim has. What do you think?
Yes, that resonates with me. There’s definitely more stigma in the tech world around being a woman than being Muslim.
Some people are apprehensive that their colleagues will think they’re weird if they openly practice their deen at work, like by praying or fasting in Ramadan. In reality, no one has an issue with what you’re doing if you’re open and explain things. It goes back to perspective. Do you let being different from everyone bother you, or do you feel proud of your diversity and grateful for the chance to educate others? Be comfortable with who you are, don’t try to make up for it or feel embarrassed. Be proud of the fact that you’re doing this for the sake of Allah and people will respect you for it.Do you let being different from everyone bother you, or do you feel proud of your diversity and grateful for the chance to educate others? Be comfortable with who you are, don't try to make up for it or feel embarrassed. Click To Tweet
Do you think more Muslim women should get into tech?
I think that more Muslims should get into all types of industry. There needs to be more Muslim exposure everywhere. We need to see strong, successful practising Muslims. There’s a stigma that if you’re a practising Muslim, you don’t care about your career or you have no ambition. All you do is get up, go to the mosque, and only work for the sake of doing a job. Allah loves ihsan and ihsan is about doing things with excellence. Many people think that worldly success doesn’t fit with being a practising Muslim. I would love to see more examples and role models of people who care about their deen and their career to challenge that perception and inspire our youth.
What is something in your career that you wish you did differently?
I don’t think I have regrets. There are parts in my career where I feel I could have pushed myself more. There’s been difficulties and trials, but I use all of those as learning opportunities. The only things I can probably regret are all of the times I didn’t learn a lesson the first time around.
What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?
All the people. I have a handful of people, my family, various coworkers including my first manager and mentor at Microsoft, the people I met at Wealthfront, the folks at Deliveroo and my set of close friends. They’ve all had such a significant impact in shaping me into who I am. I’m very grateful to have met them and still have them in my life.