Sara Khan – The most important thing you need in tech is confidence

Tech sisters for muslim women in tech podcast episode art featuring sara khan

Today on Tech Sisters Stories we’re excited to have Sara Khan

Sara is a Program Manager at Amazon Web Services where she manages MAS2 and all of its services. She especially enjoys using data to convey meaningful stories about consumer patterns, behaviours and business operations

Listen To Sara’s Story

Key Lessons from this Episode

  • How Sara balances working and motherhood (3:07)
  • The importance of having women, especially from minority backgrounds, in leadership positions (7:52)
  • Why the most important thing you need in tech is confidence (19:55)

Transcript

Sara Khan

[00:00:00] Grace Witter: As Salaam-Alaikum, you’re listening to tech sisters stories. tech sisters is a community that connects you with other women who share your story, experiences and goals. So that you no longer have to feel like the only one like you on your team. My name is grace and I get to interview the amazing women in our community.

Share their stories and the lessons they learned. Thank you for listening today. And I hope you enjoy the show.

[00:00:23] Grace: As salaamu alikum today on Tech Sisters stories, we are super duper excited to have Sarah Kahn. Sarah is a program manager at Amazon web services where she manages MAs two and all of its services. She especially enjoys using data to convey meaningful stories about consumer patterns, behaviors, and business operations.

Thank you so much for coming on today, Sarah.

[00:00:45] Sara: Yeah, of course. I’m glad to be here.

[00:00:48] Grace: Yeah. So how about we start at the very beginning? How did you first get into tech?

[00:00:53] Sara: Yeah. So I have a bit of a unconventional background where I did a degree in kinesiology, and then I quickly transferred. I thought my whole life would be healthcare sciences. Culturally, I was like, okay, I’m going to be a dentist or a doctor. And then I quickly decided that wasn’t the path for me. And I did a accelerated.

Other bachelors in business and management information sciences. So I don’t have the typical computer science software development background. And I don’t really work in that. I have done a little bit of work in that, but I’m now a program manager at AWS working more towards, I feel like this is really what I was meant to do be, to be honest, is just organize and figure out.

The business operations behind AWS. And I really got started with my first role after I graduated was with ADP. They’re a large payroll provider, one of the biggest actually, and I. Quickly onboarded with them. As a project manager spent almost two years there. Had two kids moved on to work with Accenture, and Accenture, again, they acquired quite a bit of companies, but I worked in a vendor capacity for Microsoft. And from there I got recruited for Amazon. So it’s a little it’s a lot to do in like three and a half years. I’m really happy with where I am now. And I think it’s a really unconventional story. For most people who end up in tech.

Yeah.

[00:02:19] Grace: Yeah, well, it’s funny. We keep saying unconventional, but we actually have quite a lot of people in Tech sisters who do something similar, starting off in health sciences, and then midway and university going. I’m not feeling it. I think a lot of it has to do with just like, I don’t know about you, but parental expectations, just being kind of with this mindset of I’m going to be a doctor, I’m gonna be a dentist and then life happens.

[00:02:43] Sara: And it’s like the role model thing too, right? Like how many tech women who are Muslim? Did I see growing up? Not too many. I did see a lot of pharmacist, doctors, dentists. So for career driven, that’s probably what our parents saw too was if you wanna be a successful woman, that’s a good field to go into.

[00:03:01] Grace: Right. Yeah. Yeah. But we’re changing that

[00:03:05] Sara: Exactly. That’s why you’re here.

[00:03:07] Grace: Yeah, definitely. you did have so many changes in like a very short period of time. You changed those jobs and you’re in this rocket trajectory of mashAllah and you also became a mom for the first time. So how are you balancing all of that?

[00:03:20] Sara: That’s the best part really of what’s really pushed me to work harder.

I had two under two, so I have two under two. I had Irish twins

[00:03:29] Grace: Oh.

[00:03:30] Sara: Yeah. yeah, it’s nice. But I, I realized how quickly, like, and the problem with me and what I struggle with connecting with other women on and why I wanted to join tech sisters was I’ve noticed once women hit my age or start a family, they back down on their careers.

[00:03:50] Grace: Yeah, this is really common.

[00:03:53] Sara: Yeah. I feel almost guilty for not doing that.

[00:03:57] Grace: Interesting.

[00:03:58] Sara: Yeah.

It’s like, I, I, instead I’m trying to propel myself further and like propel my career to be more independent. You know what I mean? So that I would have that flexibility of not having to tend to them full time.

So it. That’s one thing I’m like, I need to find people who don’t feel like you’re in, in some I’ve even heard people say, you’re neglecting your kids because you’re taking on so much at work or you travel for work and you leave them alone. And they’re so small. How could you, and so honestly, like it’s, it’s a,

it’s an interesting perspective.

I don’t want , anyone to ever be under the impression that I, I do anything at all besides work, which is my main priority. Most of the day, it’s not like, Yeah, the everything else it’s and I have a great husband. Right. And that really helps.

Like I can’t negate that he also works from home. We both work from home. So it’s like, it’s really nice to have that who you marry, I think is really important

[00:05:00] Grace: Yeah, totally. and, and that’s another thing that’s been a really common thread with the Tech sisters’ interviews for the people who are married is having a supportive husband because it really limits what you’re able to achieve. If you have to deal with a lot of baggage at home, right.

[00:05:18] Sara: Yeah. And cultural expectations too, right? With what your husband grew up with seeing,

like he might not have seen his mom work ever, and that’s gonna be a huge barrier if that’s the case.

[00:05:30] Grace: Yep. yep. Definitely. Definitely. subhanAllah. Well, let’s also talk a little bit more about a certain point in a career dropping off, and a big part of it is kids, but another is feeling very tired of fighting against discrimination or microaggressions or feeling at the pace of change is going very slowly.

do you feel about that side of things?

[00:05:54] Sara: You know, it’s funny. I, I rarely tell people this, but I was working remote and I had my first baby right after the pandemic shut down in March

[00:06:03] Grace: Yeah, I was

[00:06:04] Sara: July.

Yeah. And I was

so scared. I did not tell my work. I was having a baby. Both times. Yeah. Both times I showed up and at the end I was signing off and I was like, yeah, I have a one and a half year old and I have a newborn.

I was just so scared that okay. Now I’m a mom. Not only that I’m a minority mom.

[00:06:26] Grace: you didn’t take your maternity leave.

[00:06:28] Sara: no,

no,

[00:06:30] Grace: That’s subhanAllah wow.

[00:06:32] Sara: My first born, I was in the hospital the next day I was on my laptop.

[00:06:35] Grace: Sara!

[00:06:37] Sara: Yeah. It’s and like, I can’t say we get great maternity leave, but it was just that fear of unspoken culture around women taking time off.

[00:06:49] Grace: Yeah. Mm.

[00:06:49] Sara: Even when my husband takes time off for our kids, he’ll always be like, Yeah. my kids are sick. I’ll always be like, I I’m So afraid to just say like, I’m taking time off for my kids because of that. Like, I’m like, they’re going to be like, okay, this is her second priority, which it shouldn’t be like that in any respect at all.

[00:07:09] Grace: SubhanAllah, and now I’m wondering if this is tying in more with like an American slash European work culture, because you can tell by my accent, I’m originally American, but I work. I live in Europe and the company I work for is remote. and I have a completely opposite experience. They are very encouraging of me taking time off for the kids.

I’d walk them to, and From school and I have a time blocked in my calendar. Grace is doing the school run. So, you know, they’re all fine with that when the kids are, have their school holidays, you know, for the spring break and Christmas break and things, I usually shift my hours. So I work more in the morning and finish up around three o’clock and they’re all cool with it.

I think, it depends on the, the culture of the company that you’re going

[00:07:52] Sara: sure. For sure. And now where I’m at, and I’m like, speaking of minorities, the, when I was interviewing for this position, my manager’s actually a south Asian woman.

[00:08:02] Grace: Interesting.

[00:08:03] Sara: And to see someone in her role in Amazon, I’ve like, especially not so much in software development, but more in leadership. I was like, this is like, it’s almost like seeing myself in another role.

That’s as a Muslim woman, I’ve never had that. I’ve never worked for a woman. I can identify with whether Muslim or not culturally or identity wise. And it’s just, it’s, it’s a world of a difference to see that. And that’s why, like, I wanted to connect more now and like looking for people through like this mentorship program that I can show that I promise you’ll be okay.

Like as long as you have some guidance on where to go. So it’s different, it’s different for women. It’s different for Muslim women. And the layers, just keep adding up things, get challenging.

[00:08:53] Grace: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. There’s this book that I’ve been reading called first, the few and the only, and it’s talking about people of women of color but applies so much to Muslim women because as Muslim women, we have so many layers. Of being the only at work, right?

The only woman on our team, the only woman of a certain background, the only woman who’s identifiably Muslim, the only one who’s not going out for drinks after work. Right. Layer and layer and layer and It can be a very draining experience, but I think it’s also you highlighted how important it is to stick with it and to, to continue with your career and to contribute as long as you’re doing so in a way that’s safe for you, because that makes such a difference for the women like you, who are coming up behind.

[00:09:36] Sara: Exactly. And it’s, it’s almost like, I, I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown up with like, okay, you should be a doctor because Islamically you’ll help save lives. There’s so much blessing in that, but there’s really, there’s a lot of good that can be done in tech too. There’s a lot of organizations that give back there’s ways you can make an impact without.

Directly saying, Yeah.

I’m in a hospital setting and I think we need to highlight that. Like, it’s not just a selfish motive to get a company ahead all the time. It’s really what you make of it.

[00:10:10] Grace: Absolutely even work itself. So there’s lots of tech for good. There’s lots of volunteering that you can do with your tech skills. There’s lots of, so many charities need the skills that we have and can be a real benefit. Aside from that just, you know, being successful, having know successful finances and having money means that you’re able to give more sadaqah, you’re able to pay more, zakat, you’re able to help more in more meaningful ways than you could before.

So it’s, it’s a good thing. Yeah, the umma, the

umma needs it.

[00:10:42] Sara: Yeah, we definitely do. We definitely.

[00:10:44] Grace: Do you feel like you’ve had challenges or setbacks aside from your maternity leave stuff? yeah.

[00:10:53] Sara: Yeah, I would say that’s the hardest thing really is raising kids and figuring like I did the math and I was. Okay. Daycare costs this much here, and this is again like a us problem, but I, if you have, and Islamically, we like to have big families culturally, so you have more than two kids. That’s, that’s a standard income that’s gone.

And then you have that value proposition. Is it really worth for the mom to work? And the first person to go is always the mom. Nobody says

[00:11:23] Grace: Yeah.

this Is really hard in America. it’s always the one.

[00:11:23] Sara: Yeah.

Is It worth for the dad

to. Like, and, and I’ve had that argument with my husband many times that it’s, it’s almost like, not only does he work, , but there’s moms do so much more than husbands do and then fathers do, and it’s, it’s being a parent is really, really hard, especially when you’re working.

And it’s, it’s so sad. Like, even though we’re both from home, my kid will always wake up and it’ll be like, I’ll be like, I’m going to work now. Like, which is.

my room. And he’ll like, no, mama. I’m like he doesn’t do that to my husband,

[00:11:56] Grace: Yes.

I know. Same, same in my family.

exactly.

[00:12:02] Sara: Yeah. It’s like they’re pulling at our heartstrings

[00:12:05] Grace: My son had a reputation for being just so hungry on all of my client calls. You know, screaming in the background. Mom, I’m starving. I’m going to die. If you don’t feed me.

[00:12:18] Sara: Oh, no.

[00:12:19] Grace: Yeah. It’s like, and, and they’ll like, call it out. It’s not like grace. Why aren’t you feeding your son? I fed him before the call.

He’s he’s not actually

hungry.

[00:12:28] Sara: he just needs attention. Oh man. Yep. That’s exactly how it works.

[00:12:35] Grace: yeah, but one nice thing though, is with everyone working remotely? I think I think a lot of people have gotten more patient around kids at home.

[00:12:44] Sara: Yeah.

[00:12:45] Grace: Yeah. If they can be more patient about like dogs and cats coming onto

[00:12:49] Sara: I know, I know, that’s true. But I feel like there’s definitely, the parenting aspect has been the hardest challenge so far in terms of working. If I was single and I was starting out in tech, I don’t think I would’ve had as hard of a time as I am right now. but I, again, I have a good manager. I have a good team. So alhamdulillah I’m in a good place where I am right now. And that’s why I wanna help other people get there

[00:13:18] Grace: mashAllah. That’s great. And what do you hope for in the future, in your career?

[00:13:24] Sara: Yeah. So I’m actually speaking with my manager right now and going to the next level. So in Amazon, there. Is my what? Fifth, fifth or sixth week. She’s really helping me grow my grow my talent. Yeah. So she wants me on the next level. So we’re working towards getting it’s called a technical program manager.

And I think I wanna stay within Amazon. I love it. Like I know some people give it a bad rep in terms of the tech world, but the team I’m on AWS, it’s, it’s a lot of fun.

[00:13:55] Grace: .The, the team usually makes more of a difference in the overall company, because you can be in a great company, but the team is bad than your experience is gonna be awful.

[00:14:04] Sara: exactly. And your manager has to be good

[00:14:05] Grace: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. It sounds like you have such a supportive one.

[00:14:10] Sara: I do really. And we almost instantly connected and , I’m just in awe of how big of a difference it makes to see a woman you can identify with as a manager. I’ve never connected with my other managers like this because I have nothing really to connect on. What am I gonna say? Socially, I don’t golf or like typical things that I, I’m gonna be honest, Caucasian men that have led me in past do.

so it’s hard for me to be like,

I had beer with my buddies on the week. Like I didn’t, And so that’s something we.

[00:14:43] Grace: Or even just like post Ramadan, where’d

[00:14:48] Sara: Yeah, exactly. And you know, it was so refreshing. This was my first manager who said, like, tell me about Eid. Like, what do you guys actually do

on Eid? And I was like, nobody’s ever asked me

[00:15:00] Grace: Yeah.

[00:15:00] Sara: And so I got a, like a, a minute to really explain what we do and educate and inform, and that it’s those little things that really can change things for.

[00:15:10] Grace: I’m wondering because Amazon is so huge. Are there employee resource groups

[00:15:14] Sara: Yeah, so they have I’m forgetting we have these little internal Amazon groups and they even had an interfaith during Ramadan. That was two hours where everyone was invited to really join and learn about Ramada as a whole. AWS sent out this big Have a great E like welcome.

Muslims are celebrating aids today. So things are really moving in a positive direction and that’s because of Muslims within the organization standing up right. Saying we need to be heard. And so it’s Yeah. they’re, they’re on board and they really encourage that diversity.

[00:15:51] Grace: , that’s amazing. I’m really happy that’s happening.

Sarah, what Is one thing that you are most proud of and why is it so special for You

[00:16:01] Sara: I, I spend a lot of work. In my time off of work, like. they’re my full-time job in terms of thinking of how they’re going to develop and just watching them grow into such kind and , confident little kids.

I almost feel like I’m reliving my childhood. And that makes me really, really proud that even if I’m not there all the time they’re not lacking in any way. And then again, like you said, like having those resources to get them, whatever they need, be there for them, never have them like ever be ever deprived of anything.

I think that’s. I’m so proud of being able to do that. Like I know my husband of course does as well, but as a woman, like being able to show them that women can do this and be part of your life. And hopefully they grow up to be good young men who find good partners And channel that through their life.

[00:16:54] Grace: inshAllah, I think it makes such a huge difference to show our sons that as women, we can still be achieving and we do work and contribute to society so that their expectations for what’s normal in their relationship can be shifted as well. You know,

show.

[00:17:10] Sara: I agree.

[00:17:10] Grace: Our sons, How to cook and how to clean.

[00:17:13] Sara: Exactly. Exactly. Like my two year old runs around with a little desk pan and, he knows how to put things in the garbage and clean

up

[00:17:22] Grace: yeah, to be fair. They do do that when they’re too, they’re more enthusiastic

once.

[00:17:27] Sara: That’s a good point, actually.

[00:17:28] Grace: Yeah. They like copying that stuff. You know, let’s see if they stick with

it.

[00:17:32] Sara: we’re gonna have to figure out a system

[00:17:39] Grace: You’ll get there. You’re a project manager. I’m sure you can

manage your

kid.

[00:17:43] Sara: Yeah, exactly.

[00:17:45] Grace: if anyone can do it, you do it. mashAllah .

[00:17:48] Sara: Yeah. Well,

[00:17:48] Grace: as you were mentioning that there was a

study that was pretty famous. And I feel like I’m only kind of vaguely remembering it, but it it tracked the difference between working moms and stay at home moms.

It was something like with one hour small amount of time, a focus dedicated time where that mom is showing attention and showing love to the child. So you Don’t have to spend the whole day with them attached to your hip. Just giving them a small amount of regular time where they’re 100% your focus, they feel loved.

And then, you know, you can go out and do other things and they can have other people come and take care of them and it’s all good. They still have that nurturing relationship and it all kind of balances out. We don’t have to be there all the time.

And we even have like examples from the seera, like, you know, the prophet saw someone’s mother the, the children were sent away for the first couple years of their lives. So it’s it’s okay. we don’t have

to be there all the

[00:18:46] Sara: I agree. No, and I I’ve heard of that study and I, I know exactly what

you’re referring to. It’s I think it was like 30 to 40 minutes. It

wasn’t

even the full

[00:18:54] Grace: Yeah. I was thinking of something small.

[00:18:56] Sara: Yeah. And

it’s I think It’s more societal expectations and a large part of what women struggle with, but knowing too, especially as a woman in tech, knowing that me going away to have my own identity makes me a better mother.

For these kids, otherwise I would be pulling my hair out because I would be resentful that I’m, I’m having to leave my career behind for you guys. And alhamdulillah, I do acknowledge I’m in a very privileged situation to be able to make this decision and not everyone is like, I understand that. So coming from that perspective I know not everyone has that choice, but just knowing that there is value when you make that argument.

Some, some women do need that to be part of their own identity and some

don’t. But if you do that makes you better.

[00:19:44] Grace: that’s it is whatever path Allah put you on that that’s really what it comes down to. And if you do your best and you treat your kids like an Amana, like they are, then it’s all gonna balance out inshAllah

Sarah, what’s something that in your journey, so it could career otherwise set you regret, or you wish that you did differently.

[00:20:04] Sara: , sometimes I wish I hadn’t Done my first degree in healthcare and I had gone straight into tech. Um, I do, because I Would’ve saved so much time and money, but you know, what had that written for me?

And I did learn a lot along the way, so I can’t say I didn’t need it, but it would’ve been nice knowing that tech is a field that I could go straight into. And that’s what I want. I try guiding people who, who are. undecided at that point in high school with the guidance that I didn’t have. especially girls knowing That, okay.

Like a lot of responses I get is I’m not good at coding. You don’t have to be, I don’t even need coding for my day to day job. Right.

I don’t need it at all. In fact, what I do mostly is just write documents and emails. lots of emails. And it’s just being a good communicator and, and some people are, are good at that and they should definitely tap into that skill, but there’s just this misconception of what tech is and what you need to get started.

And honestly, the biggest thing you need is confidence.

really, once you’re confident enough, you can, you can do

anything.

[00:21:13] Grace: Definitely. And that confidence comes from seeing it. Once you see it, then you can achieve it. Right. You have to see people who are doing this. So if, if young Sarah , had seen someone like you, then that would’ve made it a huge difference,

I think. Right?

[00:21:28] Sara: a massive difference that

would’ve probably changed my life. I think I wouldn’t have stressed as much.

[00:21:35] Grace: subhanAllah like, cuz that’s such a difficult position when you’re a student and you have to like figure out your

life. I’m like, I don’t

know.

[00:21:44] Sara: yeah.

It’s I really feel for them now looking back, I’m like, well, don’t miss that at all.

at

[00:21:53] Grace: yeah.

And it’s hard like with the, the mentees as well, cuz it’s such a common question and it’s sort of like, well, you know, just try your best and level sort things out really in the end. Cuz once you have enough of a timeframe, it all works out but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s it’s

quite stressful.

Yeah.

[00:22:11] Sara: Yeah. It’s so tough hearing that when you’re you’re in it, like, that’s the last thing You wanna hear

it’s gonna work

out. They’re like but it’s not

right now

[00:22:19] Grace: it’s funny, like, as you get older, you start giving the advice that you thought was annoying when you were young.

[00:22:24] Sara: Eventually we all become our

in

[00:22:26] Grace: in one way

or another.

Yeah. Good excellent mashAllah. And the last question that I have for you tonight, Sarah, is what is something or someone in your journey that you feel grateful for?

[00:22:39] Sara: I, I would say my mom. So my mom. I went to a Islamic school growing up. My mom is a principal of an school now. yeah, in Canada. And so she. Pulled me out of public school to Islamic school. And at the time I suffered academically but, and in high school I had a really hard time and then going into university and I used to be so upset.

I was like, if I stayed in public school academically, I would be a doctor by now. And like, that was my end goal. I was like, I would’ve been like the biggest doctor I would’ve done so well. And then going forward, alhamdulillah career wise, I look back and I’m like, I’m 27 and. I’m at Amazon. My mom put her beliefs in the right place.

She knew that this girl needs a good Islamic foundation. And she even says it to me today. Like, she’s my best friend. She’ll say it all the time that you have the foundations and the spiritual guidance that every day gets you through these things. Like you have to have tawakul to know that if I have a hard day, it won’t always be like this.

Knowing that when you interview for these places, Maybe I won’t get it somewhere, but I’ll get it somewhere else. Not crumbling and giving that support is really the foundation that our faith gives us. And it’s really hard to have that. It’s very hard and That’s such a blessing that she’s provided me with that.

Like her and Allah, mainly like decisions and just the support that I, I could do it otherwise.

[00:24:06] Grace: Subhanallah, that’s so beautiful. And I love how you were saying that that firm foundation of tawakul when things get hard, we fall back on what we know. And if that foundation is shaky, then , we just go to pieces. Subhanallah that’s perfect. Allah bless your mother for giving that to you. It’s wonderful. Such a blessing.

Sara. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover or any last words of advice that you’d like to give?

[00:24:36] Sara: My LinkedIn is open. If you’re listening to this, you can always reach out to me. I’m constantly referring people internally. Our AWS is always hiring. I’m more than happy to help through. I know it’s a very thorough and hard interview process, but I’ve gone through it. So always, always reach out to me.

I’m just a ping away.

[00:24:56] Grace: Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much

for coming on. And I

really

[00:25:01] Sara: Thank you for having

[00:25:02] Grace: Yeah.

[00:25:03] Grace Witter: And thank you again for taking the time to listen to Sarah’s story today. If you’ve liked this episode, or if you like anything that we’re doing at tech sisters, please consider following us and leaving a review or sharing our content with your community.. Anything like that really helps us to grow and reach more women who had benefit from the stories that we’re putting out. And if you are a Muslim women in tech, please go ahead and join our community. You can reach the membership form on our website@tech-sisters.com. It’s always going to be free and the slack is really fun and supportive. You can ask your questions and get help in there. And it’s great.

That’s all for me. And I’ll see you next week in Sharla as Salaam-Alaikum.

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Sara. Jazakallahu Khair! You can connect with Sara and follow her on LinkedIn.
If you liked this story, 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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