Muazma Zahid, a senior data engineer for Microsoft’s Azure Global team, struggled to find a mentor who could help her grow when she graduated in 2006. “From a country like Pakistan, there’s not many role models, especially when I was graduating. Computer science was really starting off,” she said. “I had nobody to connect to or ask questions.”
Now that she works at Microsoft, Muazma has made it a priority to help serve as a mentor, ally, and sponsor for the next generation of women in technology. “I did not have this opportunity, but I always felt that there was a need,” she said. She’s partnered with the Windows Insider Program to help mentor some of our Grace Hopper awardees as they begin their careers in tech, as well as the nonprofit Pakistani Women in Computing that matches her with women and girls around the globe on a mission to learn, connect, and grow together.
Daniela Ridel, a PhD student in computer science with a focus on long-term trajectory forecasting at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, has stayed in touch with Muazma since they were paired at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) in 2018. “It is so nice to have someone close that you can be inspired by,” she said.
They talk regularly, especially when something new happens in Daniela’s life. Muazma gives Daniela advice and connects her to resources and a network of people in the field. “Day-to-day, I am usually independent,” Daniela said. “However, I take Muazma’s advice very seriously, because she has already been through this path I’m currently walking on.”
Muazma was also paired with a 2019 Grace Hopper Awardee, Chinonyerem Obi-Egbe, or Nonye. Nonye recently left her home country of Nigeria to pursue a master’s degree in data analytics at Johnson & Wales University. “I am truly thankful for Microsoft’s gift of GHC, but perhaps the greatest blessing to have come out of it is my mentor. A mentor in general is a great guide, but Muazma is in a class all her own,” Nonye said. “Given her experience both in life and at work, she knows all the tricks of the trade. That her work now is at Microsoft is the icing on the cake.”
Nonye and Muazma aren’t just limiting their talks to professional topics either. “We talk every month, about everything under the sun,” Nonye said.
“She had a lot of other questions about work-life balance,” Muazma said. “She has a 4-year-old daughter. I have three girls, including twins, so we talk a lot about that and how we manage.”
“She truly has an answer for every question but is also willing to go the extra mile, do some research, and send me information she thinks will help,” Nonye said. “I have gained a friend, and I hope she can say the same.”
For both Nonye and Daniela, attending GHC was an eye-opening experience. “It’s unique to see so many girls in computing together and realize that you are not alone,” Daniela said. “I have never felt so safe and free before.”
“I had never seen so many women in one place in my life. There were CEOs, women with non-profits, businesspeople, and so many students like me,” Nonye said. “I came away believing there is room at the top for anyone who dared to reach for it.”
Connecting with the other awardees was also powerful for them. “WIP’s 2019 awardees are a group of amazing women, from those who love Disney princesses and comics, to those who work selflessly for non-profits and intern at Google,” Nonye said. “Each one of them is a super-achiever, and they were all wonderful.”
These connections and the spirit of the event have served as a reminder of the importance of getting more women into STEM fields. “Women grow up learning how to juggle, and this multi-tasking trait allows us to bring a unique perspective to STEM,” Nonye said.
“We don’t even know that some problems exist because we are not hearing everyone,” Daniela said. “We need diversity in tech, not only to get better solutions for our current problems, but also to solve the problems that are not being solved.”
Daniela and Nonye are now looking to the future. Nonye will graduate and, with Muazma’s help, will start looking for jobs in computer science and data analytics soon. Daniela is a co-founder of the startup 3DSoft Autonomous Vehicles. Many of the algorithms that make self-driving vehicles possible were developed in the U.S. and don’t translate well to the roads in Brazil. Her startup is helping to build algorithms and hardware that would make autonomous driving possible in developing countries. As part of her PhD research, she’s also using deep learning to build predictive models to prevent collisions in autonomous cars.
Mentorship like this is a key part in bringing more diversity to the technology field, and studies have shown that mentoring can help lead to greater career success. “The journey gets smoother when you have someone to share your dreams, plans, hurdles, and aspirations with,” Daniela said. “And when this someone is a person that you admire, it becomes even better.”
“I can look at the achievement of other successful tech women and think, if she can do that so can I,” Nonye said.
Muazma encourages everyone to get involved with mentorship. She believes that anyone can be a mentor, regardless of their level or title, as long as they’re not afraid to share their experiences. “It’s a two-way relationship in a sense, you will learn from their experience as well,” she said.
Her mentees are already modeling her actions. Daniela has helped set up local hacking events and believes one day, every child will learn coding. “You should be proud to be the first girl, but not to be the last one. Engage with your community to bring more girls to tech and be sure there will be more girls there when you leave,” she said.
Nonye is also sharing guidance with women back home. “I’ve made a few mistakes in my time and learned a few lessons,” Nonye said. “If I can share those lessons with even just one person to help them on their journey, then I would consider that a true blessing.”
Their best advice for the next generation of young women looking at a career in technology? “Don’t give up. Find the right support around you. If you have those kinds of relationships around you, you’ll never feel alone,” Muazma said.
“You are not alone. Many have gone before you, and they will help,” Nonye said. “The best things come from blood and sweat, and everything you’ve experienced in your life has only prepared you for it.”