Women in Tech: Safia Abdalla πŸ‘©β€πŸ’»

Safia is one of the most inspiring women developers. She's an open source contributor, writer, and software engineer at Microsoft. I got an opportunity to speak to her this week on various topics and I must say developers of all level should hear what she has to say.

1857993 (1).jpegSource: @captainsafia on Github

Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you start coding?

Safia: Depending on how you define coding, my story started in two different places. When I was around ten years old, my friends and I all played on Neopets.com. It was an online website where you kept virtual pets, played flash games, and maintained an online profile. You could customize your profile with HTML and CSS and one of my first interactions with coding was building custom themes for Neopets profile. It was a pretty key moment for me because it was when I came to discover that you could make computers do what you wanted them to do. It opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for me. This interest continued until the summer before high school. I was thirteen years old and spent the summer watching documentaries. One of the documentaries I watched was a series on the history of computing. One of the episodes discussed the rise of the Internet and the early startups that formed from the 70s to the 90s, in particular, Google. I thought it was completely plausible for me to build my own search engine (spoiler: it wasn't) and decided to learn Python so that I could do so. In both experiences, I was trying to use programming to achieve an end goal, whether it was customizing my Neopets profile or building a search engine, and not programming for the sake of programming.

Q: What difficulties have you faced on your way in tech? Have you ever felt like you were not treated as equal?

Safia: I always have trouble answering these questions because they imply that the things that make it difficult to be a women in tech are discrete events that occur throughout your career, like incidents of harassment or denied career opportunities. The reality is that in addition to those things, it also the small moments of defeat and isolation that make it difficult to be a woman in tech.

Q: What do you think needs to be done to encourage beginner developers to learn programming languages and coding? Pursue a career in tech?

Safia: I think the most helpful thing for new developers is opportunities. Opening doors for people, whether by giving them introductions to open job positions or connecting them with speaking engagements, is the best way to help them get started walking down the hallway.

Q: You are an open source developer, writer, software engineer at Microsoft, co-host at the BookBytes podcast and you also find the time to write some fiction stories. Please share some organizational and productivity tips with us, how do you manage to achieve so much?

1_IARFsEwhnb-Fm3iH6_C0mA (1).jpegSource: @captainsafia on Medium

Safia: I've constantly with notions of productivity and achievement. I'm definitely the kind of person who wonders what the heck people are talking about when they say I'm productive. In the past, I've struggled with feeling inadequate about how much I'm doing and simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by all I'm doing. I say that to say this: I've gotten very good about being realistic about what I can do in a day, week, month, and so on. I've learned to say no to things and only achieve what is possible and I've learned to set realistic deadlines with myself and others. So I guess the answer is I've learned to achieve more by doing less. From a practical perspective, I timebox items in my to-do list and prioritize daily to-do lists by what I must do and what I can let slide. I track my to-do lists in a notebook and spend the end of each day planning my to-dos for the next.

Q: If you could change one thing about tech culture, what would you change?

Safia: I'd like to change the culture of perfectionism in software. I often feel that people aren't comfortable with solutions that don't solve all problems or solutions that are only half-way finished. I think there's so many wonderful things that can happen if someone is willing to put a half-finished idea out there and collaborate with others to complete it.

Q: You're actively contributing to nteract. Can you share a bit more about the project?

Safia: nteract is an ecosystem of projects that build on top of the Jupyter ecosystem. If you're not familiar with Jupyter, here's a quick summary. Jupyter Notebooks are documents that contain narrative text and executable code cells. They are used frequently by data scientists, researchers, academics, and analysts to store their analytics. Some of the projects within the nteract ecosystem include a desktop app for viewing and editing Jupyter notebooks, React and JavaScript components for building on top of Jupyter, and tools for building workflows on top of Jupyter notebooks. We're always looking for contributors on the nteract project, so if you're interested in contributing to open source, join our slack (slack.nteract.io) to get involved!

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring programmers who look forward to working for big companies like Microsoft or Google?

Safia: Honestly, as cliche as it might seem, be yourself and don't lose sight of the things that you want to achieve in life. It's very easy to lose your identity and what makes you you when working, especially at a big company. But maintaining that authenticity and that enthusiasm for your ideas makes you the type of person people want to work with, at any company, big or small.

Q: What are your favorite programming tools? πŸ“¦

Safia: I really love the command line as a programming tool. The ability to build complex pipelines and solve the same problem in different ways is wonderful. I love opinionated code formatters, like Prettier for JavaScript, that take the pain away from creating beautiful and homogenous code in open source projects. And finally, I love the LiceCap app for generating demo GIFs that can be placed in PRs or sent to colleagues. It's not a programming tool but I think being able to share visual snippets or reproductions is an important part of being a developer.

Q: What does your programming setup look like?

Safia: I'll confess, my programming setup is not all that interesting or sophisticated. I don't have a mechanical keyboard or a fancy monitor or anything like that.

Q: Why do you think bias towards women is still there, in the 21st century? What are some things people and organizations could do to change this?

Safia-ATO-2017-2-1024x683 (1).jpgSource: peopleofcolorintech.com

Safia: With respect to the first question, many people with expertise in history and sociology have spoken about the topic. I think it's best to look to the experts to understand why these biases exist. Coincidentally, I think that education is one of the most important things that organizations can do to bring about change. A fundamental problem is that people come to the conversation around diversity and inclusion with misinformed or unfounded opinions that they use to guide their decisions. The first step towards addressing biases against women is making sure that people in workplaces and society are educated about bias. After education, comes action. For the intrepid reader, there are a couple of great resources to look into to understand ways to be a more inclusive human in work and in life. Resources like #causeascene (hashtagcauseascene.com) and Ally Skills workshops are great ways to teach people practical things they can do to be more inclusive of all individuals.

Q: Thanks a lot for answering my questions, Safia. Finally, what would be your message to women trying to get into technology?

Safia: Don't feel like you have to try to get in. Acknowledge that the gates exist, but recognize that there is no fence.


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You can reach out to Safia on Twitter @captainsafia


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Syed Fazle Rahman

Bengaluru, India

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3 comments

She truly inspires !:-)

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Love seeing Women in Tech shine!

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I recently came to accept this to improve the way I work and face tasks/things/ideas/etc

I say that to say this: I've gotten very good about being realistic about what I can do in a day, week, month, and so on. I've learned to say no to things and only achieve what is possible and I've learned to set realistic deadlines with myself and others. So I guess the answer is I've learned to achieve more by doing less.

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