We’re so excited to welcome Faiza Yousuf 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.
Faiza is a technologist and a serial entrepreneur with a decade long experience in building products and teams. She is the founder of #WomenInTechPK (a women-only community) and runs a consulting company with a focus on helping small businesses to embrace technology. These days, she is busy in co-running a free coding boot camp called CodeGirls, a Blockchain training program for women programmers and analysts and consulting for a couple of local and international clients on Requirement Engineering, Team Management, and Agile Transformation.
Can you describe how you first got into tech?
I always wanted to get into tech because computers were incredibly fascinating to me. My fascination initially came from video games, but then I discovered the web. I loved learning how websites are made, how you can present information, and even how you can access anything and everything at your fingertips. I never had any career plans other than tech.
Would you like to describe your career journey so far?
My career journey was really turbulent. I struggled to find my place at work because I was the first person to work at some companies as well as the most junior person. Between 2009 and 2012, I changed jobs about 4-5 times. Every time I changed jobs, I would get a better position and salary. However, I couldn’t spend more than a few months at each company because of sexist culture and the misogynistic things they would say.
I couldn’t understand what was happening. I’m an introspective person, so I thought the problem might have been me. My friends from university were happily settled in their companies, why were things turning out so badly for me? I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing was part of what lots of women around the world experience in tech.
In 2012, the startup I worked at lost funding, and all of us were terminated with just a day’s notice. The projects we were working on came from our friends, and we didn’t want to damage those relationships by leaving the projects unfinished. So I co-founded a company along with one of my colleagues, and we hired two other colleagues from the startup to develop and deliver the unfinished projects. It went quite well, but after eight months, my co-founder wasn’t in a position where he was able to continue, and we ended the company.
For 6 months, I stayed at home, unsure what was wrong with me. I started so many jobs, started a company, and lost it. Everything was in chaos, and I didn’t know if someone would hire me again. I had a lot of speaking and writing opportunities during this time and eventually got another job in the tech industry. But this time, when it was time to leave, I knew that working as an employee wasn’t for me.
The World Bank had a program for women who wanted to transform their business into something substantial. They picked 50 women for their first cohort here in Karachi, and I was one of them. I left my job and started that program, wanting to start my own consultancy firm. My educational background was all in tech, so learning about starting a company was extremely helpful. I spent around 8 months with the program and completed both phases of it and started my consulting practice a little later. 6 years later, I still love it!
What is your process for developing an idea into a living project that impacts the community?
It doesn’t matter what project I’m working on, technology products, the coding bootcamp, or community projects, my process is very simple. I have an idea, I create concept notes for it and then jump right in. I like to start doing something and then see how it goes.
The best way to validate an idea is to collect data, both qualitative and quantitative. If it’s a tech product, do a small soft launch, give it to some users and see if they like it, if they would want to use it, and if they would pay for it. It’s essential to have some actual data rather than an idea on paper. You know how your product will function in your head, but other people don’t know, and they won’t if they can’t see anything concrete.
With CodeGirls, Shamim Rajani told me that she had funding to train 100 women and asked if I could develop a program. I said that I already had a plan, but didn’t have the money. We sketched out our lesson plans, our objectives, and our decision-making process. This was our basic structure, and everything else came from experimenting and collecting data. We’re always experimenting to improve the program because we want to make sure people still care about it and get value out of it and won’t take it for granted.
How do you maintain balance and not get burned out?
Balance is definitely not my strong suit. It’s a running joke between the people I work with and me. But I learned to be very mindful of my time. I don’t do anything mindlessly: I don’t scroll on social media or waste my time watching random things. My strict approach towards time has helped me do a lot of things while working full time, running a business, and all the community work I do.
Over time, I also learned that it’s ok to ask for help. I’ve hired two assistants and onboarded volunteers to help with my community work. Because of the community and the work we do, we have a very tight group of women who are always there for each other. It helps so much to have a tribe to feel like you belong and are supported.
Taking care of your mental health and going to therapy is extremely important. Lately, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the COVID-19 situation and everything around it. I saw my therapist yesterday and realized that I’ve been very unfair to myself in a lot of ways. Taking care of myself shouldn’t feel like a burden. There’s a cultural taboo about mental health. If you tell someone that you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, people will say that you don’t have enough faith in Allah, and the solution is to pray more. We need to be transparent about mental health so that people know it’s ok to feel that way and go to therapy whenever possible.We need to be transparent about mental health so that people know it's ok to feel that way and go to therapy whenever possible. Click To Tweet
Offering CodeGirls as a fully funded bootcamp is an incredible initiative. What has the reception been like for students and companies?
We graduated around 500 girls in the past 2 years and will graduate 180 more from the latest cohort. Our target audience is young women from low-income families who have graduated high school from 15 to 35 years of age. We were looking for women who were sitting at home and wanted to experiment with learning how to code. And if they like it, we’ll help them build a career in tech. A tech career brings in more money and can be life-changing for a lot of these women. The reception has been incredible. Initially, our students were nominated by different organizations. Now, we get a lot of walk-in registrations due to former students telling their friends and family about the program.
Out of our students who have finished the bootcamp, 84 were hired in the tech industry. A lot of them got hired by local tech companies, some of them got hired by companies based abroad as remote employees. Pakistan is very much a degree-based economy. Companies are less willing to take a chance on someone who came from a bootcamp compared to someone with a software engineering degree. Finding paid internships for our students was very easy. However, it’s been a challenge turning those positions into full-time jobs. I’m sure we would’ve gotten more women hired if it wasn’t for that barrier.
About 40% of our students are married, and 36% are mothers with young kids. They’re looking for remote opportunities where they can work from home and take care of their families. COVID-19 has been horrible, but good things still happen in small pockets. More companies are becoming comfortable with their workers working from home, and that’s something that will definitely benefit our students.
For women who are unable to outside to work because they have responsibilities at home, being able to work from home is life-changing. Women in these situations need to know that there are avenues available. They can learn these skills on their own without a teacher; all they need is an internet connection and a computer or even a smartphone.
For women in abusive relationships, if they’re able to sustain themselves, relationship dynamics change. They don’t have to be victims any more; there’s a way out. We see women in abusive relationships who want to leave but have no financial independence and no qualifications or skills to provide for themselves. They need to know that there’s a community that will support them in learning new skills to take care of themselves and their children.
One woman came to us who got married very young and now had two small children. She told us that she wanted to learn how to code so that her children would respect her as someone who knows things. She said that she might not work after the bootcamp, but she still wants to learn so that she can teach her children.
What are some of the other barriers facing women in tech in Pakistan?
People here are more comfortable with the idea of women getting an education than they were a generation ago. However, they’re still not very accepting of women having careers. Especially in an industry rather than a teaching job, and especially after getting married. In our #WomenInTechPK community, we see that women get about 3-5 years of work experience, and then they get married.
Once they get married, they face many expectations from their families about household responsibilities and having children. Companies aren’t equipped with the right policies to accommodate women with these responsibilities like being able to work from home, maternity leave, medical insurance, and childcare support. When these policies aren’t there, women know that working will negatively affect their family life, and they leave their careers.
Arfa Farooq mentioned government initiatives in Pakistan to help women transition into freelancing or small businesses so that their skills can still benefit the economy. Have you seen that as well?
Yes, we have a lot of government and private initiatives for women that came out in the last few years. There are loans available for women in the informal sector; they don’t have registered companies but are running businesses from their homes. The government is doing a lot to help women become more financially independent, like removing restrictions on women opening their own bank accounts. This is another cultural issue here. Men don’t like their wives having a personal bank account, and banks will often ask for the husband’s details if a woman comes in to open an account. But by law, anyone can open a bank account if they have the National Identity Card.
I was one of the Mentors in WorldBank’s Women Entrepreneurship program. I then worked with USAID to provide seed money and training to women working from home to develop their own businesses. We went to many cities all over Pakistan, including Quetta, which is small and conservative but a lot of women came forward everywhere we went. They were already doing things, but we helped them strategize and run their businesses better. It doesn’t matter if they’re living in a more liberal or conservative area, women everywhere want to be financially independent.It doesn't matter if they're living in a more liberal or conservative area, women everywhere want to be financially independent. Click To Tweet
What’s the thing that you’re most proud of? What did you do, and why is it so meaningful to you?
I think the first woman that got hired from CodeGirls was a fantastic feeling. When we started the bootcamp, we weren’t thinking about getting them hired. We just wanted to experiment with the idea of teaching women in Pakistan how to code without going to a university. But when they started graduating, organizations began asking if they could interview them. We realized that we need to go all the way and create a complete pipeline. It was an incredible feeling when companies interviewed our students and messaged us, saying that the student was brilliant, and they would love to hire her.
What is something in your journey that you regret or wish you did differently?
At the start of my career, I did not have a lot of female friends or mentors or was part of any community. I was usually the only woman in companies. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about what was happening at work or how I was feeling about switching jobs so fast. I really wished I had a mentor or role model at the time. But I’m glad I was able to create a community that provides that kind of support to other women.
What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?
I’m extremely grateful for Shamim Rajani’s support, her ability to listen, and for her willingness to call me out wherever required. We’ve worked very closely on community projects over the last 2-3 years, and our organizations work in partnership on CodeGirls. It’s essential to have complete transparency, trust each other, delegate, and talk things out. I’m really incredibly grateful for her.