Huma Hamid — Isolation is the greatest barrier to tech diversity

Huma Hamid Profile Picture
Huma Hamid is a tech-maker by heart and a volunteer by soul, with a passion for building digital products, platforms, teams, and communities. She is currently part of the platform technology group within Cisco as a technical product manager and the Cofounder and former President at Pakistani Women in Computing (PWiC), a USA based non-profit organization and an affiliated global STEM community. 
We’re so excited to welcome Huma Hamid as our latest Tech Sister!

Can you describe how you first became interested in tech?

I remember, in 1995, one of my cousins had a 386DX computer. It was unusual to have a computer at that time in Pakistan, and even more uncommon for women to have access to one. He let me play typing games on it, and seeing that machine and what it could do was amazing for me. That was the beginning of my love with computers.

However, I didn’t have the opportunity to study computer science until university. Before then, everyone expected that I would become a doctor because I was good at my studies. But I ultimately decided to pursue engineering and Computer Science instead of medicine. I loved solving problems and building things. Plus, engineering felt like a more diverse field with more options.

I didn’t have any exposure to programming or computing fundamentals before starting my undergraduate program, and I had a minimal understanding of what computers could do. My biggest motivation for going into computer science was my interest in working with cool machines to solve problems.

How would you describe your career once you decided to pursue technology?

The first hurdle that came up was that there weren’t enough female role models in engineering and Computer Science. My mother thought that CS was a men-only field, and it took a lot of convincing to change her mind and let me pursue it! While I was working on my degree, I felt massive pressure to learn and perform. But without those role models, I didn’t know how to acquire or apply the knowledge I needed. Without knowing other women who went through what I was going through, I didn’t have the confidence to be open about what I was struggling with and ask for help.

Without knowing other women who went through what I was going through, I didn’t have the confidence to be open about what I was struggling with and ask for help. Click To Tweet

I didn’t give up

Those first two years were really really hard for me. I didn’t give up, even though sometimes I felt like going into CS was a mistake!  Once we started learning some advanced computing concepts, I took a greater interest and understood everything better. I loved data warehousing, system analysis, and design and software engineering. Learning about things I enjoyed made the rest of my time at school much more fun.  

After briefly interning in Pakistan, I decided to pursue my master’s degree abroad. I was the first woman in my family to study abroad and pursue engineering. In 2007 I went to Brunel University in London. That experience of being part of an international community was a game-changer for me. The education system was different from what I was used to. There was a lot more focus on doing research and asking questions. Doing my master’s degree made me feel confident that I definitely want to be a part of technology.

I was especially interested in the impact of technology on people: what we should build or how we should use technology to solve global problems. For my research topic, I wanted to study and evaluate enterprise-level application implementation in Pakistan. The Pakistani IT and telecom industry was booming, and I wanted to see how we’re implementing big tech solutions, the impact, and how it was different from other countries. There wasn’t any previous research done because Pakistan was still a young tech industry at that time. This made conducting my own research quite challenging! Thankfully, I was able to finish and publish my findings at the European Conference on Information Systems, a prestigious information systems conference. 

Being part of a globally distributed team

After graduating, I moved back home to Pakistan to be with my family. There weren’t many options in the type of work I wanted to do, technology consulting, and I struggled to find my place. I was happy that I got to join the platform technology team at Bentley Systems. Being part of such a large multinational corporation was my first exposure to being part of a globally distributed engineering team. Eventually, I came to the United States, started my family, and continued working. As my family grew, I had to find new ways to stay relevant without leaving my job or becoming ineffective.

When I look back at the impact I was able to make, I’m sure that I made a great decision to go into tech. With more mentoring, more support, more role models, this journey could have been different. But it’s been a fun journey nonetheless.

You had such a difficult time during the first two years of your CS degree. What made you stick with it, and what should improve to help more people avoid dropping out?

Out of my class, only four of us are still working in tech, and all of us are working abroad. I don’t have a single friend who graduated and still works in Pakistan. Most of them dropped out right after we graduated, or when they got married or started their families. 

I didn’t drop out because I don’t believe in giving up. I thought to myself, “Whatever I need to do, I’ll get through this. There’s no way I will leave it.” For me, it was a sign of failure if I dropped out. 

The fear of admitting we need help

One thing that held me and the other women in my class back, was the fear of admitting that this was hard and we need help. We were already the first or only ones in our families studying computer science. So we couldn’t get any help from home. The men in our class used to have study groups and were less ashamed to admit that they didn’t know something. They would work through problems together and help each other. The women in the class weren’t doing that. 

It’s so important to provide a safe space where it’s ok to feel vulnerable. It’s ok to ask for help and see what other people are doing. Or even just ask what their plans are for after graduating. I had no idea what I was going to do after graduation, what my path would look like, or who I would be. So not having any role models or mentors and thinking I was the only one struggling were the most challenging parts for me. 

It's so important to provide safe spaces where it's ok to feel vulnerable and ask for help. Click To Tweet

I got to see all the possibilities for women in tech

Once I came to the United States, I was able to attend my first Grace Hopper Conference, the largest women in tech conference. For the first time, I got to meet so many women who were doing really incredible work. These women were scientists, researchers, coders, developers, designers, and architects. I got to see that these are all the possibilities for my field. And being around so many other women felt like home. 

The women at GHC spoke about how they felt isolated and how it impacted their journey and made them feel like they were in the wrong field or weren’t good enough. I was shocked that I wasn’t the only one who felt isolated; lots of other women also felt that way. 

How we can help women stay in tech

Thinking about what should improve to prevent women from dropping out, it’s essential to not gender stereotype technology. Education in any field should be gender-neutral. Once women get into degree programs, we must acknowledge that they might not have the same level of exposure to tools and concepts as others. We must provide them with support and mentorship at a very early stage to focus on learning instead of feeling isolated or doubting themselves. 

I’ve seen that a sense of isolation is the biggest challenge to diversity in tech. If we can address and fix that, we’ll take care of half the problems. This doesn’t just apply to women in tech, it’s true for every walk of life. If you’re a minority of any kind in whatever space, not having like-minded people around you, not having that acceptance, will impact your journey. You’ll be forced to rely a lot on self-motivation, resilience, and hard work. If we can make the surroundings favorable, that journey will be less abrasive, and people can excel and thrive even more.

Feeling isolated is the biggest challenge to diversity in tech. Click To Tweet

You’ve been working from home for three years. You’ve also experienced working from home as a result of a crisis in 2008. How do those scenarios compare with our current situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Because I already adjusted to working from home, my experiences are totally different from people who are responding to a situation. My work hasn’t changed much. But everything else around me has changed. So my husband and a lot of my friends find it challenging to detach themselves from whatever is happening in the house and focus on work. I learned how to do that when I first transitioned to working from home. 

One of the issues I saw with our current situation was the panic about working from home. People felt like they needed to outperform so their managers could see they’re working hard enough. There’s an element of job security at risk here as well. As things are settling down, I think the realization is sinking in that we won’t go back to ‘normal’ for a long time. Now we can start exploring the new normal. Many people discovered that they really like working this way because it works better with their activities and family life.  

When people were first forced to work from home, there was a feeling that it was temporary; they can push through it by working really hard. There’s nothing wrong with that; finding balance working from home is a general process. I was able to go through it at my own pace when I first transitioned. I used to work crazy hours and couldn’t detach from work. Now I know I need to set some time for work, some for family, and focus one what I’m supposed to be doing. 

Working from home post-COVID

I see two things coming as a result of the current situation. First, I think there’s going to be a significant spike in monitoring. Your manager can’t physically see if you’re working or not, so they’ll want to monitor you to make up for that. Second, performance reviews will focus on productivity and not hours spent working. Many people believe that the more hours you spend at work, the better worker you are. I think that hurt people, especially working mothers, who had to finish their work during work hours and not stay late.

Our definitions of trust, engagement, and productivity will definitely change. It might be a while before we come up with something good for both sides. There might be some disappointments depending on how adaptive and open to change your company is. This is absolutely a time of change. 

It’s essential to watch out for your physical and mental health. Watch out for detaching and disconnecting. Disconnect from home when it’s time to work and disconnect from work when it’s time to be with your family. Balance tasks that can be distributed with your partner, especially when both of you are working. 

One of the good things about more people working remotely is that it opens chances for people who aren’t able to physically come into the office, for whatever reason. It opens jobs to more women, parents, people with special needs, or people who have anything preventing them from going to work or to a specific location. Geographical barriers will go down, which will increase competition and make the playing field more level for minorities who have suffered in the past. 

What were some lessons you learned from starting PWiC and growing it to such an engaged global community?

Many of our initiatives at PWiC started as an organic response to the pain points my co-founder, Farah Ali, and I experienced. Even though we had different journeys, we went through many of the same challenges. We both moved to the United States from Pakistan. That transition and navigating our way through the tech industry was a struggle. We questioned ourselves every day if we’re doing enough or if we’re smart enough. 

Not having the social circle or group of friends I was used to when I moved to the United States had a massive impact on me. I needed to find ways where I could reach out and still feel connected. That’s why PWiC is a global community instead of a local one. 

I believe that a lot of success isn’t about hard work or what you can do, it has a lot to do with the opportunities life gives you. Someone can work really hard, learn, and perform great, but they might not go as far as someone with better opportunities. If I never decided to pursue my master’s degree abroad, I might not have the perspective or opportunities I have today. 

Some people definitely have an advantage over others in terms of their opportunities. I realized that that barrier needs to be broken by people who have that advantage, like people working in the west or at big tech companies. It will go a long way towards bridging the gap if we can connect people like that with people who are still behind and looking for education or mentoring. 

PWiC Chapters

The idea for local PWiC chapters came from acknowledging that technology is a global field, and it doesn’t really matter where you live. It doesn’t matter if you move from Pakistan, to Seattle, to Silicon Valley, to London. You should always have access to a group of people who are there for you. The same network that was available for you back home. 

When people living in the west go back to Pakistan and want to speak or mentor someone, it’s easy for them to find the right network and share their knowledge. It’s equally easy for any student from Pakistan to go to a country with a local PWiC chapter to come and be a part of it. Being immigrants and minorities, some of the challenges we go through are different. We have to balance building our careers while fitting in socially and culturally without losing our identities. A lot of people struggled with that, including me. We’re helping with that by building a network where people can move from one country to another without losing your tribe.

A Self-Driven, Self-Sufficient Community

Once we started building the platform, we realized that there were so many people just like us. They have the same energy, same passion, same fire, they were just looking for someone to start. Everyone in the leadership team brought an incredible level of energy, enthusiasm, knowledge, and expertise to the global team.

What it means to be a Pakistani Women in Computing can vary between countries like Pakistan and the United States because of local cultural and social values. But the vision never changed. It was always about building a community of Pakistani women in tech that connects them with global opportunities. We help them take charge of their own learning and growth without waiting for anyone else to come and do it for them.

What are you most proud of or makes you feel fulfilled? What did you do, and why is it so special to you?

I would say that being able to bridge gaps between different entities by making PWiC excites me the most. It feels even more exciting than doing some of the programs. It feels great to connect people and focus on our similarities rather than our differences. I don’t think a lot of people realize how important that is. 

With PWiC, I was passionate about connecting the different locations. Once that happened, the next step was connecting different communities. PWiC has a lot of partnerships with other institutions, companies, communities, and volunteer groups. I’m a firm believer that joining forces amplifies impact. 

I try to bring people together and find common ground in everything I do. I was able to do that with PWiC and PWiC Partnerships, and I would love to do that at a larger scale. Even when I’m not part of the leadership team, seeing community members engage, connect, and learn from each other makes me feel so proud. 

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

Doubting myself. It’s a natural part of not knowing where something will take you or if it’s the right thing to do or not. But self-doubt can consume you until it’s impossible to move forward. You end up wasting so much valuable time and energy doubting yourself. When I look back at the results and outcomes of my decisions, I can see how I should have trusted myself, the cause, and my choices.

Self-doubt can consume you until it's impossible to move forward. Click To Tweet

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

Many people actually. I’ve worked with some excellent people, and they still mentor me. There are at least four people who have significantly impacted me. My cousin gave me my first exposure to a computer; it was life-changing. Then at my first job, my mentor was my manager. He was instrumental in helping me build up resilience against self-doubt and do my job really really well. Moving past my fear of failure was really important.

My research supervisor from Brunel has been really instrumental in enabling my curiosity, even today. When I had my second baby, I was on the verge of leaving the industry altogether. My manager was so supportive by being a part of those conversations and helping me get through that stage. Those four people have touched me in a very direct manner. But I’ve been indirectly positively influenced by very very many people, including the community itself.

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Huma. Jazakallahu Khair! You can follow Huma Hamid on Twitter to keep up with the incredible things she’s doing. The PWiC community is seriously impressive, and you can follow what they’re doing on their Twitter account. 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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