Written by Cait Sarazin
Muazma Zahid is a groundbreaking senior engineering manager at Microsoft, the president of the non-profit organization Pakistani Women in Computing, and the Seattle Community Lead at AnitaB.org.
Our Senior Content Creator, Cait Sarazin, sat down with Muazma to discuss her experience as a woman of color in the tech industry and how she has risen through the ranks at a high-profile company.
Can you share your backstory, as well as discuss your transition from your previous role into a more senior one?
Absolutely. I was born in Pakistan and I am the first woman in my family to graduate from college and pursue tech, and I now have thirteen years of industry experience.
I moved to Seattle ten years ago, but I’ve lived and worked in five different countries across three continents, including in Europe and Asia. My career has provided me an incredibly global experience. One of my favorite parts is learning new things about each culture — for instance, meetings never start late in Germany!
Moving to the U.S. was difficult, though. I came here right after the recession, and hardly any companies were sponsoring visas. I went through a lengthy process and was trying and trying and trying, but jobs were hard to come by — for anyone who moved here.
Once I was back in the industry, however, I noticed a host of other issues. For all this talk about diversity and inclusion, the “inclusion” part seems to be challenging for companies to follow through on — the kind of inclusion where people actually listen to your ideas instead of listening just to answer a question.
I’m often the only woman in the room when I go to work. My role is customer-facing, so it’s usually just me and my 10 to 20 male colleagues. I’ve had to learn how to navigate the feelings of not being heard, talked over, and dealing with mansplaining.
That’s frustrating. Have you implemented any strategies that have proven effective when it comes to being ignored and working in an environment where colleagues don’t take you seriously?
Having the right support system is invaluable. I have wonderful mentors, allies, and sponsors that I can bounce ideas off of and turn to for advice.
For example, they’ve taught me that some things you can do to make yourself heard include talking a little louder, using hand gestures, and going to the white board. People will start to see you as a major part of the conversation when you assert yourself subtly.
It also helps to have an ally in the room who can pave the way for you. The simple question, “What do you think?” goes a long way for someone who is shy or is being shut out.
These are things everyone can do for each other. Personally, now that I’m a senior engineer and team leader, I try to look at everyone in every meeting I’m in and ask myself, “How can I make sure everyone is heard?”
It’s not necessarily gender-related, either. It could be anyone, such as the new person who just joined the team. It’s always important to ask, “What are your thoughts on this?”
It’s also important to not give up. It was hard to get in, but once you’re in the system, you can find all of the right allies, sponsors, mentors, and other people you need to thrive.
I love that. You mentioned before that you were the first person in your family to make this move — can you elaborate on what drove your decision, and what some of the challenges were?
My father has been my biggest supporter over the years. He’s a math professor and was also the first person in his family to leave and pursue an education. He never told me, “You should be doing this,” or “You should be doing that.” He always trusted me, and if I wanted to do something, I would just tell him.
An example of that is when I first traveled alone. People would question, “Oh, you’re sending your daughter off by herself?” and his response was always, “I trust her. Do you have a problem with that?”
Again, having that kind of support is essential. If you don’t have it in your family, though, then it’s important to find it elsewhere. Make your voice heard and make your case for doing what you want to do. The people who will support you are the people who get it.
So, you’ve lived in Pakistan, Germany, a few other countries, and now the States. Can you talk about some other issues you encountered in those places in terms of moving your career forward?
One issue is being a woman of color, as well as one who speaks English with an accent and is culturally very different. Women are supposed to be the nice one in the room. We’re supposed to be the people who say “yes” and accept everything around us.
My experience has taught me that we all need the same support and encouragement. We also all have the same goals: to be heard and known for the work we do. Every place has its own norms that you can adapt to, but being a minority presents challenges everywhere. We need to be there for each other. If we create that kind of support and provide mentorship, then I believe we’ll see more women in senior tech roles.
On the subject of support, what has your participation in Women Who Code been like and what has it done for you, personally and professionally?
I joined last year as the Cloud Lead as part of the track with Anne Hopkins. I actually spoke at two events last year, the Connect Conference and the Cloud Summit.
The Women Who Code community has been great. I’ve met many remarkable women participating in those two conferences, as well as multiple online sessions. I love being part of a platform that is teaching women about different technologies — especially cloud computing, which is growing rapidly — and helping them accelerate their careers.
That’s great to hear. Can you tell me about a time when you had to overcome failure, a setback, or maybe even an instance of impostor syndrome as your career has progressed, especially when you advanced to a senior role?
Certainly. I think women face those challenges more than men do. We feel the need to over-analyze everything and then put ourselves down by placing ourselves in situations where we think we aren’t good enough. I’ve even seen studies that note how women don’t apply to positions if they don’t feel they meet all of the requirements. I also interview many people, and I’ve noticed a difference in confidence levels between men and women.
One thing I’ve done in my career to overcome these challenges is always tell myself that I’m good enough. I can do this. I’ve also realized over the years the importance of actually asking for what you want: no one can read your mind, so what’s the worst that can happen?
From a job standpoint, be open about what you want and make your case. Inform your manager what you are looking for in a particular position and how they can help you achieve your goals. Always keep learning: technology has changed significantly over the years, so it’s imperative to take advantage of mentors, allies, online videos, and other sources to stay updated.
So, to summarize:
One, believe in yourself. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but never stop telling yourself, yes, you can do this. Especially on the hard days.
Two, leverage the people around you. Ask mentors and allies for advice and how they overcame the challenges that they did. Get their perspectives and build a system of support for yourself.
As someone who believes in the value of mentorship, have you had a particular mentor or role model that really sticks out to you? What was one of your most impactful experiences with them?
I’ve had several mentors over the years, and my relationships with them are always evolving. One mentor I have now at Microsoft is named Karen, who has been with the company for over 15 years. I asked her to sit down with me and tell me everything she’s learned after being at the company for so long, and she remains very open toward discussing anything else that comes up.
As for a moment of impact, I once asked her what she does in gatherings where no one listens to her or gives her a chance to speak. She gave me many excellent tools, some of which I mentioned earlier. Karen has now become a person who I can turn to when I need to talk about something technical, work-life balance, or anything else.
That kind of support is definitely crucial at any level. So, what’s next for you? Where do you intend to take your career?
I’ve actually started volunteering with different organizations. I’m the president of a non-profit called Pakistani Women in Computing, which is on a mission to help women connect, learn, and grow together. I didn’t have women in tech to look up to when I was graduating, so I love being able to be a mentor to others and want to take my work there further.
I’m a team leader now at Microsoft, but the second thing I’d like to do is advance to a leadership role where I can drive the overall strategy of the work we do.
Are there any books, articles, or other resources you recommend that have been helpful to you?
One book I appreciated is The Memo by Minda Harts, which is about women of color in the workspace. She discusses her own experiences, impostor syndrome, negotiation skills, and other important subjects. The book I’m reading right now is about leadership by Jo Miller, called Women of Influence.
As for articles, I read lots of content across different platforms that are both tech and non-tech related. I also make an effort to write about some of my own experiences and learnings on Medium, and LinkedIn Learning/Coursera courses are always advantageous for learning new skills.
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Muazma Zahid is now a Senior Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft.