Marwa Adawy — My life as tech lead for the UK’s first Islamic FinTech company

Muslim women in tech: profile picture of marwa adawy
We’re so excited to welcome Marwa Adawy as our latest Tech Sister! Tech Sisters Stories is a series that profiles Muslim women in tech and brings attention to the incredible personalities and work we have in our community.
A true polyglot across a number of technical disciplines, Marwa brought her wide-ranging expertise to the company and her tenure has seen a number of young graduates flourish under her guidance. Serving as a role model for those traditionally underrepresented in technology and finance, Marwa undoubtedly paves the way for a more diverse and dynamic FinTech industry.

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

I never thought about technology as a career choice. It was my father who suggested it to me. I was born and brought up in Pakistan and had the opportunity to study in Egypt; my parents are Egyptian. My father said that if I plan to study abroad, I should choose technology. I was confused about why he picked this field; his response was simple, he said “it was the future.” That was nearly 18 years ago, so he was very forward-thinking! In short, my father was the reason why I went into technology. I said to myself, “Why not? I’ll give it a try.” 

When I started university, I thought, “Oh no, what have I done?!” However, it only took a single semester to convert me. It was engaging; I liked the logical thinking, and I was so happy accepting the challenge of writing code to solve problems. Suddenly, coding felt SO rewarding! If it didn’t work, yes, I felt like I was hitting my head against the wall but when it did, I would be rejoicing. I haven’t looked back since then. 

I didn’t finish my studies in Egypt because I got married midway through. After marriage, I continued studying in the UK. I had a baby, my dissertation, and a part-time job all at the same time! Yeah, it was tough but Alhamdulillah, I never looked back. I truly believed in the saying ‘where there is a will, there is a way’, and every day I went into uni with a single focus – I need to finish this degree! I didn’t mess around, I didn’t have many friends. I was such a boring person at uni; I was literally going in, studying, and leaving. My most significant achievement from my time back then was earning the best project award for my dissertation and a first-class BSc (Hon) degree in Computing Software Engineering – with a baby!

Would you like to describe your career journey so far?

I graduated as a software engineer and started my first job as a junior application developer in 2006. I stayed at the same company and became a developer the following year. A few years later after my second child, I decided to take a career break for familial reasons, and everything came to a bit of a standstill other than ‘mommy duties’! I am the sort of person who doesn’t like to stagnate, so I kept looking at different ventures I could do. Eventually, I realized that there were no online multi-brand Asian designer clothing stores and decided to start my own little venture; applying my tech skills but also connecting with my feminine, fashion-driven side. I already knew the tech side of building an e-commerce site, and this gave me the chance to test my business acumen. I learned how to set up and establish supply chains; went to Pakistan, and set everything up from scratch. I was really pleased with it and it did really well. 

I carried on with that business for three years before joining Yielders, which is where I am now. It was a golden opportunity for me to get back into my career and what I love – coding and technology. I couldn’t turn it down! I tried to juggle both; my business and my new role at Yielders, but it was just impossible with a family. I had to let Asian Designers go, and I embraced my journey with Yielders and becoming tech lead with them.

What’s a typical day like for you as a Technical Lead?

It’s interesting! There is tech lead, and then there is fintech tech lead. Everything is so fast-paced in fintech, and not a single day is the same as another. Literally, any day which seems like a relatively calm day turns into an absolute whirlwind. As the tech lead, I need to adjust my approach according to the day. 

I am the middleman between the business and technology sides of the company. First and foremost, I have to ensure that the website is functioning without fail every day. I am the subject matter expert on all the technology that underpins the business, as well as the operation side of things. I literally have to know everything about Yielders – inside and out; a little bit like the Yielders dictionary? I facilitate the daily standups, organize the sprints, execute the releases, work on product backlogs, and organize the team workload. 

Those are a few of the roles I have to fulfill in a day but obviously, that changes depending on if we’re near a release cycle or we are holding a sprint planning session. I may also assist the developers when needed, which can mean having a technical discussion or delving into the code. I also ensure that all incoming tech queries are responded to promptly; this may mean tech issues and troubleshooting them in a timely manner. I am also involved in the strategic building of the product roadmap. I plan not just for here and now, but also for three quarters ahead for the year. 

I am always being pulled from tech to business to ops. No matter how much I want to stick to only technology, it’s just not possible. I do believe that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a great way to accelerate your career. You learn so much every day. It’s the best way to be in the fintech world; you get further a lot faster than a traditional tech environment.

Wow, you’re responsible for so much! Do you think joining Yielders right from the beginning contributed to this?

Yes, absolutely. Because I’ve been involved right from the outset, it became natural for me to be involved in so many different parts of the business. Now we have more employees, so we have proper workstreams and departments – it’s a lot more organized. I envisage myself to slowly and gradually detach from other parts of the business, like operations. 

It’s great to watch your company grow and suddenly, you find yourself able to delegate tasks that you find mundane and not quite part of your role. You can actually concentrate on your own workstream. Something to be grateful for! 

Can you describe what a Scrum Master does and how has the Scrum Methodology helped Yielders?

In simple terms, a scrum master facilitates the scrum methodology of working in an agile environment. This means ensuring that project teams are integrated into the organization, and the goals and objectives are clear. The scrum master will also facilitate communication between the teams and stakeholders and remove any impediments that may pose an obstacle for the team. 

However, as a tech lead, I have a hybrid role between scrum master and product owner. In a traditional scrum master role, you would not be involved in the product road map or planning. You facilitate it but are not directly involved. However, not only do I plan the product road map, but I also break down the requirements into tasks and assign them to sprints. I love giving my development team the tools to flourish, and self organize. I can then take a step back and step in when there’s an impediment to remove. 

The scrum methodology has provided Yielders with a framework that is structured through which the release cycles are more efficient and agile with an iterative approach. In turn, this has increased our productivity with clear milestones and objectives per release cycle; allowing Yielders’ product range to scale up and improve the overall productivity and effectiveness of our technology. The technology which underpins Yielders has enabled us to streamline the entire process of onboarding to investments to portfolio management and even dividend payments all with a click of a button! Yielders have paid out dividends to all their investors for 44 months consecutively on the 1st of each month without fail; Alhamdulila!

In another interview, Amany Killawi mentioned the rise of Islamic companies. Considering that Yielders is the first fully Sharia-based Fintech company in the UK, are you now seeing more companies entering this niche?

First, I want to clarify that we call ourselves “Sharia-based” because we’re entirely built on Islamic fundamentals. That’s very different from “Sharia-compliant,” which means tweaking existing products to make them halal. 

We were the first Islamic fintech company to acquire a license from the FCA in 2017, and the UK IFC, overseen by a prominent scholar, awarded us our Sharia certification. It was an untapped market then, and I feel like we paved the way and gave people a model of what is achievable in Islamic fintech. We didn’t see it as a challenge, we saw it as an opportunity. Having other people come into this niche will boost the Islamic economy, and we welcome that very much. 

The other hurdle is educating the community. Unfortunately, the traditional crowdfunding sector has previously been tainted by a small percentage of people within the ethnic minorities who have tried such ventures in the past without any regulation or legalities in place and then disappearing with investors’ funds etc; this skepticism is what needs to be removed. It’s about education, inclusion, and not alienating non-muslims in any way. We use terminology that is accessible to everyone. For example, we use “ethical investing” rather than “Sharia-based investing” because “sharia” is quite a heavy word for some people to digest. We’ve seen a lot of non-Muslims investing on the platform, which is a big win for us!

You previously said that you’re “juggling raising a family without compromising on my career or my role as a mother.” What does a good work-life balance look like for you?

Well, I actually apply my sprint planning to my home life! I take each day as it comes and plan my days for work and home. If I didn’t meet my targets for a day, then I defer my tasks for the next day. It really is like a daily sprint. If I don’t get something done during the day, I do it at night while the kids are asleep.

You were recently awarded a place on the TechWomen100 2019 list mashAllah. How did it feel to be recognized as a remarkable woman in technology?

I was actually not expecting it at all. I was really humbled and delighted to make it to the TechWomen100 list. Everyone is trying to be more diverse and inclusive, so as a hijabi, being included in that list made me feel very pleased and content; if it inspires at least one other woman to join tech, then my job is done!

As a hijabi, being included in the TechWomen100 made me feel very pleased and content; if it inspires at least one other woman to join tech, then my job is done! Click To Tweet

Do you ever struggle with your identity as a Muslim woman in the tech space?

I am fortunate that I’ve only worked with people who have judged me by the quality and merit of my work rather than my identity. I’ve worked in non-Muslim companies, but I was never felt like I stood out or was excluded. Obviously, the culture is different, such as people typically go out for drinks, and it’s very male-dominated. I’ve been the only woman at all of my jobs, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes I have felt a little bit lonely for some female friends. Still, everyone has always been very respectful to me as a Muslim woman and just generally as a woman, in my career path.

I have heard negativity about the gender gap and women not being treated with respect in our field. I find that hard to digest because I haven’t experienced it. I’ve also had some younger women speak to me about getting past male figures who think they’re incapable of being ‘good’ developers. I always advise them to remember that you’re not inferior in any way; you’re a developer just like they are. The quality of your work will speak for itself. 

The environment you’re in plays a significant role as well. How do people in that environment perceive women? Will they judge her ideas by how sound and viable they are or just by the fact they’re coming from the only woman in the room. If this is still a significant issue in the UK, it’s even worse in developing countries. It will probably stay that way for a very long time.

What advice do you have for Muslim women entering your field?

Pursue your ambition and erase your fear of being a minority in a certain sector; if you love it, pursue it!

What’s the thing that you’re most proud of? What did you do, and why is it so special to you?

I think that the word “proud” is too strong. I rarely ever use that word. What’s more appropriate for me is fulfillment and contentment. Having a career in technology and bouncing back from having a career break, bridging the gap in my knowledge, makes me really content. And I feel fulfilled in knowing that I am a mother, I have my struggles each day, I juggle a lot, but I’ve made it happen. That, to me, is an achievement in itself. Working comfortably in an ethical environment is also a big win for me. I love being in Islamic fintech and knowing that I am working on something that will benefit my community and hopefully, the Muslim ummah.

I love being in Islamic fintech and knowing that I am working on something that will benefit my community and hopefully, the Muslim ummah. Click To Tweet

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

I don’t believe in dwelling on regrets but I did have doubts and regrets when I quit being a developer to take a career break, at least at first. I only regretted it for a short while and then picked myself back up by creating my own business and always searching for the next opportunity. I’ve always looked at challenges as opportunities and moved on.

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

My father, mother and my husband. My father paved the way for me to commence my career in technology, my mother’s relentless prayers and support and my husband ‘persevered’ in supporting me to climb up that ladder in my career. Like with anything else, there have been ups and downs in my career when I felt like things were too hard and wanted to quit, but he would cheer me on and say I can do it! Alhamdulillah, I feel like I am back on track and feel totally comfortable being a solid techie for life! 

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Marwa. Jazakallahu Khair! You can keep up with the incredible things Marwa’s doing on her LinkedIn. If you liked this, be sure to check our other Tech Sisters Stories and get to know the amazing talent we have in our community.

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