Maryam is a Senior Staff Software Engineer at Achievers. She’s the third Achievers woman I’ve interviewed this year as part of the Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) efforts to highlight female leaders in different stages of their career throughout the organization. Given the fact that engineering is still largely male-dominated, I was excited to speak to Maryam about her journey into the field and how we can push for more diversity in engineering. Maryam shared her inspiring story of perseverance, resilience, and triumph from her beginnings growing up in Iran and falling in love with tech, to her move to Canada and her continued pursuit for personal and career growth.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
My name is Maryam and I’m from Iran. I belong to what is called the Burnt Generation in my country because I was a child when the revolution happened in Iran, and I grew up during the war between Iran and Iraq. I moved to Canada about 9 years ago as a skilled worker immigrant, and started working as a software developer. Now I’m a Senior Staff Software Engineer at Achievers and I’ve been working here for close to 6 years now.
Can you shed some light on what it was like growing up as part of the Burnt Generation?
I was 7 when the revolution happened, and it was a big change for the country. The Islamic government took over and it caused drastic changes on society.
I was in grade 3 when the war happened, and it took almost eight years. The war happened on the border of Iran – my city is Tehran so it is far from the border and I was able to go to school. But then they started sending bombers and rockets to Tehran. I remember once I was on top of a mountain with my friends and family – Tehran is close to mountains – and we saw like 7 rockets coming through Tehran. We were scared because we didn’t know where they were gonna go down; and then all 7 of them came together and, from one point, they started changing direction – pointing to residential areas of Tehran. It was really tragic because we were witnessing people’s death and we didn’t know whether if we went back home it would be our home, or someone else’s.
Because of all these attacks, our schools were not safe and they were getting closed on and off. Once, my parents decided to send me to a safe city to go to school. I was about 15 or 16 at the time, and it was my first experience travelling and living by myself. It was really hard, but I realized that there are some circumstances that you have to be on your own and you have to be able to take care of yourself.
When I graduated from high school, I got admission in a university that was about 6-7 hours drive from my city. I was really passionate about science and technology, so I chose to live away from home in order to study computer science. I found many good friends and we had lots of fun but also had difficult times as we were a few girls living alone in a small city. I remember we were telling each other: we have to make it; be strong – we will do it. And yeah, we made it!
What was your transition like moving here from Iran?
After I finished my university, I started working as a developer. I also really like teaching, so I had a second job teaching – I was a computer instructor. I had a good job and I eventually got a management position. But, unfortunately, there were lots of challenges – especially for women; you basically had to fight for every single right. It came to the point that I needed change. I couldn’t continue; I couldn’t fight every day to be able to get my basic right and be who I wanted to be – which was my right.
So I decided to move to Canada and I applied for immigration back in 2001. At the time, they told me it’s just going to take 3 years. I knew that I needed to think forward and prepare myself, so I quit my job and took a step back in my career; I moved to a company that I believe, at the time, was one of the best in technology back home. I started working as a volunteer at the beginning, and after I got a job there. Meanwhile, I started going to English class every day – I would wake up at 6am, go to class, and then go to work. 3 years after, I expected to get my letter of acceptance from immigration but I got a letter indicating that the rules had changed and I needed to pass the IELTS exam to have proof of my English – without having any idea how long the process will take. I was so frustrated because I had put everything on hold. I changed my lifestyle and my career path, and I felt up in the air and tired of waiting.
In late 2007, I got my interview and I finally got my visa – after seven years [laughs]! I moved to Canada in March 2008. All those English classes and the experience from my latest job as well as teaching somehow helped me to find a job one month after – in the same field! I think all my hard work paid off.
How have your experiences contributed to who you are today?
I think all my experience and what I went through taught me to never give up, accept the challenge, count on yourself, and always have hope for brighter days.
I remember I was in the family court with one of my friends one day – back home, laws are not supporting of women. I saw women who were going through divorce – suffering and fighting to take custody of their children. I asked the judge: what should we do as women in this country when all the rules are against us? How should we protect ourselves? And he was like – when no one is supporting you, when no one is giving you the right, you have to fight for whatever you want. This sentence really helped me and always stuck in my mind. If society is limiting you to have access to your right, then it’s you that has to stand up; you have to fight for whatever you want – for every single thing in your life. So that’s why I’m always thinking there is always a next step; and every single step, I tell myself to be strong. Things will change, but you have to be strong, keep going, and keep fighting.
At what point in your life did you fall in love with tech?
My mum told me when I was a child, I always liked to know why things were happening. I always asked – why this, and what’s inside this? And I remember I always had a screwdriver in my backpack to open stuff and see what was inside [laughs]! My mum had to hide things from me because she was afraid that maybe I would hurt myself! So I was always curious about things, and I think I really liked computers and coding because there is always thinking behind it; you have to go deep to figure out how to do things.
Did you experience any challenges early on in your engineering career? How did you overcome them?
When you’re working in a male-dominated environment, things are different. The biggest challenge is when you start working, many guys don’t trust you. They don’t trust whatever you say, they don’t trust your decisions, and you can see this in the way that they’re talking to you and their behaviour around you.
Even as a teacher, because many people believe that men are better than women in technology, I always had a hard time in the first session of the class because I had to prove myself to the students; I had to try to prove to them that I was good at what I was doing.
So it’s always like that in our field – they don’t believe in women that much. But I think it’s our job to prove them wrong and show them that we can do it. It’s really hard and disappointing sometimes – the way they treat you, the way they talk to you, or even when they totally ignore you. But I think it’s the nature of all the male-dominated fields; so you have to be strong and you have to prove them wrong. As long as you change this perspective, things are gonna get better.
Can you tell me a little bit about your current role?
I’m part of the Architecture team. Our responsibility is to think about the whole platform, have a vision and think ahead to see what’s coming up, and improve how efficiently other members can develop their code. If there are any new technologies coming, we start doing research to see if it fits our needs. We also continuously monitor and improve the scalability of our platform.
For example, one of the recent projects we were working on was the API. We wanted to have a new version of API so we started by doing some research, then we implemented the new framework based on our requirement that other developers could extend on or use.
What are the biggest engineering challenges you’ve tackled or helped tackle? How did you approach these challenges?
There are two projects that I really liked. First, I was working on a project and my task was improving the page loading time of the website. It was totally challenging, so I went through lots of research and I figured out that by making little changes in different areas of the application, we can improve the page load time and have a huge impact on end users’ satisfaction.
The other project that I really liked and recently worked on was implementing the authentication of our API with a framework called OAuth. That was challenging too. At the beginning, it seemed easy; but when I went through, I realized there are lots of different flows so I had to figure which one we should use. After working on it for 2 or 3 weeks, I felt like I was making little progress. One day I was reading about other developers’ experiences, and I found out that it takes at least 1 month – even for the best developer. You know, there are some times that you feel like it’s just you – especially as women. You’re always thinking something must be wrong and you’re always blaming yourself.
I really liked those two projects because they were challenging and I learned a lot. And I think this is what I like about my job.
What do you get from engineering as a career that you wouldn’t get from any other job?
So as I said, I get challenges and I’m learning everyday. When we are going through technical problems, we first try to understand them then try to solve them step-by-step. As a developer, you have to be a good problem solver; you have to be quick in finding issues and fixing them. This process is helpful in our real life too because when there is a challenge, you can use the same thought process.
How do you think we can encourage more girls to go into STEM careers?
It’s actually surprising for me because even friends of mine who went to university with me and studied the same thing don’t encourage their daughters to go into technology. They believe that it will be hard for the girls, or that they’ll have to work for long hours. So they’re mostly recommending their kids to choose other fields. But I think these are just excuses, you know? At least you need to put your girls through one of these coding and science bootcamp classes to see if they’re interested or not. You can’t just make a decision on their behalf.
I think it’s important to see more women in technology and they can help make our future. Technology is changing so quickly, and women should be part of this change.
There are many studies that have shown that more women than men tend to quit tech. From your experience, what are the things companies can do to encourage more women to stay in tech?
My manager is always supportive. He’s always sending links of all these women leadership conferences and asking me if I want to attend. I’ve been to the last two Art of Leadership for Women conferences, and I find that it’s very helpful hearing other people’s experiences. When you hear women talking about their own challenges, you know that you’re not alone because others are in the same situation. So I think encouraging women to participate in all these talks, seminars, or any opportunities to listen to other people’s experiences is really helpful because it can help women to change the way they are approaching their problems. Maybe when you’re in that moment when you wanna quit, someone who’s been in the same situation can give you advice. So we should give women support, especially when they are working in a male-dominated field.
For example, in one of the conferences, there was a talk by a woman who was working in the White House as a reporter. She was sharing how it’s always hard for women to talk in a meeting where most of the people are male, because they are afraid that whatever they’re saying is wrong. She told us about a story where she was part of a meeting with 20 men and just 2 women, and she wanted to ask a question. She asked herself what would happen if she asked; maybe they would judge her, but so what if they did that? So she pushed herself to ask the question and nothing happened! The roof didn’t fall [laughs]! So whenever there is a meeting and I’m asking myself whether I should talk, I try to use her experience. So it’s gotten a little bit better; I’m not a totally different person, but I try to push myself.
What, to you, is the future of feminism? How do you think it will evolve, especially in this political climate and beyond?
If you look at the history of how women got the rights we have now, it’s because other people fought for their rights. So I see all that’s happening now as positive because we can bring change. Women are being loud about what they want and, for sure, there are people who are hearing it. It might not change right away, but I’m sure we will see the change eventually. Even back home, there were lots of restrictions for women. But now I see that more women are speaking, they are challenging, and stepping forward. And I’m sure one day they will all get their right.
Have you faced any challenges particular to the intersectionalities that constitute your personal identity i.e being a young, immigrant, woman?
As an immigrant, I think the most challenging part of the immigration is language. With immigration, you are losing the ability to communicate, which is the basic skill you learn when you’re a kid. I always feel like I can’t communicate well; I can’t tell people what I really mean. This is sometimes frustrating. I’ve taken some courses and it’s been helping, but it’s a long way to go. Eventually, it gets better, but I think it’s something that’s always going to be challenging.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
They have to be determined, passionate, and they need to know that there are always going to be some difficulties. You have to prepare yourself for that; if you prepare yourself, going through them will be much easier and they are not gonna be a big deal for you. They should also define their goal, and just work through to reach their goal. You may not get it immediately, but I’m sure you will get it or you will find the better version of that. In my case, just immigrating to Canada, I traded almost 10 years of my experience to be here. Although I love my home country and the people there, I thought it was worth it, so I did it. So just be clear about what you want, accept the consequences, go for it, get it, and enjoy it.
I also think, overall, women need to be bold. It doesn’t matter which position they are in, or which field they are working; they just need to be bold in whatever they’re doing, and they should prove to themselves and others that they’re capable of doing anything.
Any book or blog recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in engineering?
Reading about all the forgotten female programmers who contributed to tech – like Grace Hopper – and what they went through is really inspiring. Also listening to talks, reading blogs, and following successful women and leaders on LinkedIn and Twitter; all these stories, comments, and tweets that people share – especially successful women in the field – are inspiring and motivational.