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“You can either watch it happen or be a part of it” – An interview with Rida Zainab

Rida Zainab is a software engineer working within the space division at SCISYS in Bristol, her code is being sent to Mars to navigate the ExoMars Rover and her dream is to one day become an Astronaut. We met for a chat over a cup of tea and I instantly could feel her passion for what she does, it’s actually infectious – I left feeling more motivated than ever to work hard to achieve my goals, so thank you Rida. We talked about how she got started in her career, which started with moving from Pakistan to England, and becoming interested with STEM through her A-levels, Rida is now the first ever Pakistani woman within the space sector which she is massively proud of and aims to make her Mum even prouder – How amazing is that!!

She is one of the most passionate people I have ever met, when I first started with SR2 and became an ambassador for Women Rock, if someone had asked me “how would you described what Women Rock stands for”, I would’ve said it’s gender equality, diversity, inclusion and encouraging people to reach for their goals and dreams – this interview with Rida pretty much sums up what we are all about. You are such an inspiration to both me and I’m sure a lot of other young girls and boys who are aspiring to be a software engineer! When Rida isn’t sending her code to Mars or rocking out to ‘Super massive black hole’ by Muse (her favourite song), she attends and speaks at different STEM events, encouraging young people to choose a careers within STEM.

I hope you enjoy this blog post with this incredible lady who is determined to achieve her dream, and just like within software development when she is trying to solve a problem and ‘find’ a way – I know she will find a way to become the Astronaut she has always wanted to be.

You work in the Space Division at SCISYS, tell us what that’s like day to day?

I have mainly been working on the data processing algorithms for the ExoMars rover at SCISYS. During a normal day, I could be working on anything from software design, implementation, testing, validation to just writing up some documents for the project. One of the main reasons I enjoy implementing algorithms is because I love maths and this way, I get to use all the complicated theories we learnt throughout university on real life projects and literally send it out of this world. There are days when nothing seems to go right but, on those days, I just take a deep breath and tell myself that my code is going to Mars so it’s all worth it in the end.

Do you remember when you first realised that you wanted a career within technology?

I have always wanted to be an astronaut since I was a child, but to me it looked more like an unachievable dream rather than something I could work towards due to limited career options in Pakistan and mild claustrophobia (so ironic). It was only when I came to the UK in 2012 that I decided to choose Computing as one of my A Levels just so I could try something new. The reason I chose to go for an engineering degree later on is due to a STEM talk I attended during my A levels where one of the presenters told her career’s story and said “There are a million ways you can try to achieve your dream, it’s almost never a straight line and you can change your career at any point you like if it doesn’t satisfy you.” That’s when I realised that a degree in engineering would open a whole world of opportunities for me in space sector which means even though I can’t go up in space myself, I can still send a part of me via all the satellites, rockets and rovers I’d be working on!

It’s so amazing to see that you’re a STEM Ambassador, what’s the story behind it all and how would you say taking part in that has changed your perspective on being a woman in the tech industry?

I first started off being a student ambassador at university because I was passionate about what I was learning and well like every broke student, I needed the money. After only the first event I realised that my words could make a real difference in someone’s life as a lot of younger students didn’t have a clue of what career they wanted to pursue in the future. I was in a similar situation around their age and it was the words of a STEM ambassador that made me choose a career in engineering, so I decided to continue being a STEM ambassador. Luckily, SCISYS supports STEM events as well which makes it easier to balance my work life alongside. It has certainly made me a proud woman to be part of such a growing industry especially when space industry is still largely male dominated. I hope to inspire the next generation of women to invest their time and skills in the tech industry and make a great career out of it.

Why do you think there is such a shortage of females within tech roles and what do you think Women Rock could do to help change this?

I think gender stereotypes have a big role to play in that as a lot of women still think tech roles are just for men and vice versa. During my university degree I was one of the only 4 women in a batch of about 40 men which shows women aren’t confident enough to go for an engineering/tech degree. Also, the fact that tech industry is very competitive, and one must constantly stay up to date with the current and upcoming technologies scares off a lot of women as at some point they want to take a break and start a family. Unfortunately, most of the companies aren’t very supportive when it comes to that and women are made to choose either their career or personal life. Women Rock can provide more awareness regarding the roles in the tech industry and their perks to young school/college students or even adults looking for a career change. I believe having role models they can look up to would be a great positive impact as well.

What is your favourite thing about software development?

My favourite thing about software development is that I can be as creative as I like in solving the complex problems at hand. My main interests are in algorithm development related to data processing, spacecraft engineering and machine learning which needs “outside the box” thinking most of the times. The feeling when you finally write that one command to run the whole algorithm you have been working on for months and it runs without crashing is just out of this world.

If there is one thing your most proud of, what is it?

The one thing I am most proud of is when I joined SCISYS, I was the only Pakistani woman in the space sector (still am). It just shows how far the companies have come to diversify their teams not just to fill in their diversity quota but based on the skills and talents of the candidate. Coming from a background where being a Pakistani national is frowned upon to working on one of the most exciting projects in the world is certainly a win for me.

How do you think companies can attract more women into their teams?

I have been involved in similar discussions before and some of the things that come to mind are reasonable benefits such as maternity leave and flexible working. However, one of the main issues is that there just aren’t enough women studying the STEM courses so even if the companies are looking to fill in their gender gap, they find it difficult to do so. One of the possible solutions could be to provide training for women who have a different career background and are willing to learn and expand their skillset.

In 5 years’ time, what can you see yourself doing within the tech industry?

My plan is to start my master’s degree in Astronautical and Space Engineering at Cranfield University followed by a more specific job role in the space industry. I would like to work in mission control for exciting space projects in the next 5 years’ time with the hopes of starting my own rocket company at one point.

What is your favorite song of all time?

Supermassive Black Hole – Muse

If you could choose your dream squad, who would be in it?

Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell!

Thank you so much Rida, we couldn’t be more proud of this interview and we cannot wait to follow you in your career. You rock, like really rock! #womenrock

Interview by: Steph Jackson 

a voice of diversity in tech.


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