Dev Chats is back for season two! This is a series where I speak to an awesome developer or techie every week or so. You can read more here. Let me know if you know someone awesome I should chat to next.
My name’s Mahsa - I’m a computer engineer, and I came to NZ from Iran 11 years ago to study PhD in natural language processing – a field of artificial intelligence. I’m currently working as a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, in the School of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences. I teach several papers, including a new postgraduate paper I have just developed on Internet of Things. I also supervise several PhD and Masters students, and am involved in a variety of research areas including Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Future of Work, Natural Language Processing, and Machine Learning. I also run a charity called She Sharp – a networking and learning group for girls and women studying, working, or interested in technology.
Ever since helping my dad build a computer when I was 7, I have had a fascination for computers. I didn’t know it at the time, but for me that was the start of a long and exciting future in technology. By the time I was ready for university, I had developed a significant interest in computer engineering, so after graduating high school, I began a Bachelor of Computer Engineering. The challenges engineering addresses, and the practical application of theory really appealed to me. It’s such an exciting, fast-moving, ever-changing industry, and I’d never look back on my choice.
Ever since I began studying technology, I was part of a minority of women in this field. Even now in my role as a lecturer, I see the same gender imbalance that I did when I was studying. Today I consistently have only 5 – 10% females in the classes I teach. Some women manage well despite this, but the reality is that a lot of them can feel almost inferior, simply because they’re part of this minority. Since I’ve experienced this situation myself, I understand the challenges faced by young women in this area. After an inspirational trip to Google in Sydney in 2012, I was determined to do my part to reverse this trend.
Five years ago I founded She# (www.shesharp.co.nz), a non-profit networking and learning group primarily for high school girls and female tertiary students. The objective of the group is to address the gender imbalance in tech, to remove virtual barriers and stereotypes, and provide equal opportunities for all genders to study tech. She# now has over 800 members, and we hold about 8-10 events each year, usually hosted at ICT companies. As well as providing a platform for women in tech to network, the events also help promote STEM fields to high school girls, helping them to make contact with female role models in the industry. They show students the reality of day-to-day operations in an ICT company, what kind of people are really there (as opposed to who they might think is there by stereotype), and overall encourage young women to consider possible future study options and career paths in tech.
What lead you down a lecturing/academic career vs industry? What would be your advice to others weighing up that decision?
It was during my Masters in 2006 that I first experienced teaching at tertiary level. I had the opportunity to teach several Bachelor-level papers at my previous university, and quickly found that the ability and responsibility to share and impart skills and knowledge to others appealed to me. Also during my PhD study in 2010, I took up a part-time lecturing role, and after a year, I applied for the position of full-time lecturer.
From my position in academia, my advice for anyone weighing up academia versus industry is to decide what you feel you would find greater satisfaction in. Academia involves a significant amount of research and writing, and supervision on students. There is a lot of excitement knowing you are on the forefront of technology research, and also a great sense of achievement in mentoring and guiding students through their pathway to success. The biggest positive for industry is probably the potential to earn much more, however you might not be presented with the same opportunity to be on the forefront of research in a new area.
The tech industry in Iran is very advanced, and also very competitive due to the high number of graduates entering the industry.
Technology moves so fast, and it was initially difficult for me to maintain contact with industry in the areas of technology I was interested in purely due to the time cost, however over the years I have learned that this is probably one of the most important things to do from an academic perspective.
Be flexible and adaptable – this approach mirrors the industry, and is necessary to succeed. Be proactive, and search for new advances in your specialisation – staying ahead this way can be the difference that allows you to gain an edge.
I enjoy home decorating, and spending time with my family – taking a break away from work completely does a world of good, and often I go back with fresh ideas and perspectives that I wouldn’t have come across without time away from work!
Stanford online course platform - there are some really great online courses available here that are up to date, and are based on Stanford curriculum.
Recommended book:Dare to Lead, by Brene Brown. Very motivating, practical and encouraging.
Visit www.shesharp.co.nz, find out more about what we do. Join our She# Facebook group to hear about upcoming events that you can get involved with. We’re not girls/women only, since we maintain that everyone will benefit from gender diversity – everyone should get involved to do their part!