When asked about her early interest in STEM, Huma’s mind flashes back to being a young girl, intrigued by a 386DX computer owned by her cousin who encouraged her to use the machine to explore and play games. That simple exposure to typing games sparked a life-long curiosity.
“I loved playing video games (Atari) at a very young age. None of these things were common, especially where I lived, and if they were they were typically provided to men. I always had to find a male figure who owned the games, cars, bicycles, and get access that way.”
This wasn’t always so easy for Huma as she grew up an only child with a single mom, her mother taking on the role of both parents. On the positive side, Huma was not exposed to traditional gender roles in the house. Her mom, one of her key role models, demonstrated how women’s work was valuable both inside and outside of the home.
“Inside of the house, if anything was broken we would get it fixed. I grew up with an understanding that there were no limitations to what I could pursue. I think that made me eager to get my hands dirty.”
During her senior year in high school, Huma finally got her first computer, which led to her pursuing a degree in technology later on. A bright child matured into a smart student, focused on learning for the sake of learning rather than getting top grades. (Which did sometimes anger her traditional Pakistani mom!) While Huma was motivated to defy some gender stereotypes, she wasn’t able to escape others. In Pakistan, doing well in school often translated to becoming a doctor.
“I started out pre-med, but within 2 weeks switched to engineering. I realized I was a hands-on person and I wanted to build things.”
Making that switch definitely set Huma off on the right path. She went on to receive a Bachelor’s in Information Technology from National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), one of the top engineering schools in Pakistan. Later she received a Masters in Information Systems Management from Brunel University in London, which built her understanding of a global tech space while focusing on the challenges of technology adoption in a local setting. While she knew engineering was the right choice, she had to overcome a myriad of challenges along the way.
“Though we had basic engineering backgrounds, we didn’t have a lot of exposure to computers. I started to notice that girls in my classes, myself included, were losing confidence in our abilities, especially in writing code.”
Since graduating from NUST 15 years ago, Huma’s peer group of ~20 women in her STEM class dwindled down to 4. She observes how women leave STEM for a variety of reasons, however the biggest challenge for Huma was the job search process.
“Finding the first job in a young tech industry that was heavily dominated by men, where for the most part women were not expected to be career-driven, was tough. I had to learn a lot from my failures, from getting my first internship to the various roles I’ve held over the years.”
Then, moving from Pakistan to the UK and later to America presented its own issues.
“I also had to re-launch my career more than once, which exposed me to another set of challenges around intersectionality in tech. With every step I took and every mistake I made, I gained a lot of perspective about navigating my career into the tech industry and overcoming a variety of challenges related to switching roles, transitioning teams, learning new technologies and later bringing harmony to my work and family responsibilities as a working mother with a demanding job.”
Huma’s curiosity to learn new things helped her to wear many hats as she transitioned into multiple roles in software engineering. In computing, she has worked in several R&D engineering groups focused on building digital platforms to serve industries like infrastructure and construction engineering, network and communication engineering, and eLearning. It was not uncommon for her to be the only female engineer on the team, which created a sense of isolation.
Recognizing the lack of support network fueled Huma’s passion to partner with Farah Ali to build a global community that empowers and lifts each other up, providing important guidance to persist through difficult times. In addition to building digital platforms and solving complex engineering problems, Huma’s clear point of pride is creating the non-profit Pakistani Women in Computing (PWiC), an AnitaB.org affiliated community designed to provide the mentorship and guidance that she was looking for along her STEM journey.
“I’m proud of how PWiC is building a tribe that is taking care of its collective learning and growth, creating opportunities for each other and celebrating each other’s wins.”
Several mentors played key roles in guiding Huma along her journey, including Ather Imran Nawaz and Carlene Kyte. In reflecting on advising other young women in STEM, Huma credits her persistence and grit for making all her successes possible.
“Many people tell me that I’m very persistent. I’m never short on ideas because I always go back and rework a problem until I find a solution that works. It’s important not to get intimidated by failure or not finding the right answer on the first try.”
In the future, Huma looks forward to using her knowledge of building products, diverse teams and thriving communities in support of creating a more inclusive world.
Wogrammer is proud to partner with PWiC to showcase women in their community. PWiC has 4 active chapters in Seattle, Silicon Valley, Berlin and Islamabad. These chapters are running a successful series of events around their local communities’s learning and growth needs. PWiC is in the process of ramping up their Abbottabad chapter, as well as expanding to other cities in Pakistan and also to other global locations that offer a high concentration of women in technology fields hailing from Pakistan. The community is curating a community driven list of scholarship, career and returnship opportunities and learning resources through a GitHub repository. In less than a year, the volunteer run organization has created ripples that have inspired many young women, engaged a number of male allies to come forward and support women, and also gained the attention of several local and global community partners who are collaborating with PWiC to combat the gender gap in STEM fields. Connect with PWiC at firstname.lastname@example.org.