Woman of the Year in tech

Asia Sharif, named Woman of the Year in the recent everywoman in technology awards, talks to workingmums.co.uk about her drive to inspire others from similar backgrounds to hers.

Woman of the year winner for tech

 

Asia Sharif has taken her own story and turned it into something inspirational to encourage more underrepresented groups into the tech sector. Earlier this month she was named Woman of the Year at the everywoman in Technology Awards, a testament to her success.

Asia, who was fostered as a child, had no previous tech experience when she got her job as a data engineer at NatWest in March 2022. She had previously worked in sales in London for four years, in an environment where she was the only woman of colour. But when Covid started it gave her a chance to rethink her career. She decided she didn’t want to return to sales after the pandemic was over and that she wanted to improve her career prospects.

She came across programming and saw that only 4% of programmers are women of colour and less than 10% are women. The gauntlet was laid down.  Asia taught herself to code through Udemy and Code First Girls. She did a 16-week bootcamp on software engineering, where she worked with NatWest, and decided she wanted to apply to work there full time. She was turned down after a 15-minute interview.

But NatWest saw something in Asia and understood that she just needed some support to learn the ropes of interviews better. Asia had never worked in a corporate environment and had got her previous roles through word of mouth rather than an interview. NatWest called her back a week later and gave her the time to learn a bit more about fintech, corporate culture and interview systems. Three months later she had a one and a half hour interview with NatWest and got an engineering job.

Mentoring

At first she worked as a data engineer with a team of developers in India before she was moved to a software and data engineering role with a UK team after a year. She says her manager has really supported her development and she has also benefited from a number of mentors in NatWest.  Her own route into mentoring began before she started there, however. In 2021 Asia took part in a 12-week mentoring programme and had a mentor through Black Girls in Tech. That experience helped her secure her job at NatWest and also inspired her to become a mentor herself. She has since worked since with a number of schemes including Coding Black Females and MentorMe. She keeps in touch with her mentees and says she loves to hear how they are doing.

Asia was soon invited to speak at events and threw herself in the deep end. She did a number of online events during Covid which led to longer talks, for instance, at Coding Black Females events. Last summer she spoke to over 400 people in person at the Muslim Tech Fest. “It was really amazing,” she says. although nearly collapsed from nerves and the heat before her talk, she spoke about her experience and made her mark. “I was very proud of myself,” she says. 

Asia speaks from the heart and says she doesn’t get so nervous now because she speaks about what she knows so there is no need for a written script. “I see the room light up and that is so satisfying,” she says.  Her work has seen her named an ambassador for Code First Girls and for the social mobility charity LTSB.  Her coaching and mentoring work has continued to progress and she has also worked with Google’s Women Techmakers programme.

Cancer

Last September, however, Asia was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She says she was ‘lucky’ as initially her doctor assumed her cancer was stage two which gave her enough time to have her eggs harvested, given the chemotherapy has made her infertile. Ten days later her cancer was found to be stage four. The first rounds of treatment didn’t work, but Asia has since been put on a more aggressive treatment and will find out if she is in complete remission in the next few weeks.

Despite the shock of her diagnosis and the treatment, Asia has been determined to keep going. “The chemotherapy was horrendous at first and I was in such pain and had so much anxiety. The cancer was in my bones. I wondered what the point of all that pain was, but then one day in December I changed my mindset,” she says. “I decided I did not want to give up on anything that gives me purpose, even if I can only do one thing a day. So now when I have to wait to hear if I am in complete remission I use the time to do things that are fulfilling.” 

Asia has also been doing a few hours here and there for NatWest when she can. This is something she wants to do and it helps her to keep going. “I can’t work much after the morning, but work is good for me and helps me to feel better,” she says. Asia intends to return gradually and can’t wait to walk again after being immobile sitting in her room or in the hospital for the last seven months. 

She is also keen to start using her new everywoman network to help others. She wasn’t able to attend the awards ceremony as she was in hospital, but people sent her videos of the event and people who were in the room messaged her. “It was such a shock to win. It made me cry,” she says. Asia hopes her award will inspire others from her background, who are self-taught and have no previous experience in tech, even if they don’t want a tech-related job in the sector. “The most important thing about my award is the story it is telling – that someone like me can achieve Woman of the Year and in technology. We need to believe in ourselves more,” she says.



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