Alia ShafirAlia is the head of Mobile QA within Engineering at Bloomberg in London.

She previously led engineering teams who built collaboration systems and in her early days managed data protection for an investment bank. She’s passionate about improving how we work and excels both in the world of testing and beyond. She believes the secret to success lies in good communication, a positive attitude and our ability to relate to one another. She likes to build things, solve puzzles and drink red wine, sometimes all at the same time.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have a Business Degree with a concentration in Information Systems from Washington State University. Having started in business at university, it was really where I had my first light bulb moment for technology through an “introduction to coding” class I took. I really understood the logic and process of technology as a tool to create things and solve problems.

From university, I took a more traditional route into business via banking and consultancy but always had an interest in tech. After working for an investment bank for several years, I was offered an opportunity to run an engineering team and fully make the jump into tech. It was a bit of trial by fire and – while I made loads of mistakes – I learned a lot. I loved it and never looked back.

I joined Bloomberg eight years ago, starting in New York with a data visualisation team and ultimately moved to London where I am now – Head of Mobile Quality Assurance (QA) at Bloomberg responsible for software testing.

When I first took on the Mobile QA challenge, it was daunting. I had no background managing QA teams specifically.  In order to prepare, I spent a lot of time talking to other QA professionals, my team, my peers and asking a lot of questions. I read as much as I could find, watched videos and presentations from experts in the QA field. I focused on where we were and where testing was evolving in order to put a transformation plan in place.

Four years later, we have completely reshaped the way we do QA for Mobile at Bloomberg.  My team transitioned from manual test analysts to automation engineers and rolled out a testing framework they created using open source tools. They have developed solid technical skills and now write code as a primary part of their day. Their efforts have had a massive impact on the business as we now can test our software more frequently and with more consistency than ever before.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, I have never planned my career, which I know sounds bizarre.

My career has taken a lot of interesting turns over the years, not because I have actively planned the direction, but because I have remained open to opportunities. My goal has always been to find or create interesting work, to surround myself with smart people and find ways to have an impact. I never thought about career progression in terms of titles or hierarchy. That doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious, but that ambition manifests itself in seeking new information, finding new ways to do things, and constantly trying to improve.

An example of this is when I transitioned into technical roles. I wanted to have a role in technology, but I didn’t know exactly what it could be at the time. So, I focused on meeting and talking to as many people as possible to figure out my capabilities, what was interesting and how I could get there.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

My biggest challenges today stem from two things. 1) Because I don’t have a traditional technical background, I need to work a bit harder to make sure I understand the problems we encounter and consequences of the decisions I make. It’s surmountable, but it’s effort all the same. 2) Despite my outward confidence I still feel intimidated on occasion. I’m often the only woman in the room, I don’t have a technical background, what could I possibly offer that’s better than someone else?

It turns out, there are a variety of skills that help make you successful: skills like communication, systems thinking, logical reasoning, negotiation, and empathy. So, while my non-technical background might put me at a disadvantage at first, it’s not the thing that will hold me back. All the things I need for success, I have today and just need to remember to use those skills. I’ve found that the higher you move into management, learning to effectively communicate is a secret weapon I continue to hone and employ as often as I can.

Over the years, I have learned being a developer and becoming a manager of developers requires a completely different set of skills.  Despite this, I still feel an underlying pressure to prove my technical prowess to do my job based on the cultural norms in today’s tech world.  Perhaps that will continue to evolve as we see more people like me enter this domain.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

It’s really hard to think about my own career achievements without thinking about the teams that helped define these moments for me. Because truly, at work, we’re part of an ecosystem and we don’t succeed alone.

Looking back, some of my favourite times were the hard moments where success wasn’t guaranteed. While at Deutsche Bank, my team helped open a near shore development office in North Carolina. We started with a small crew in a construction site. No running water, no formal offices. None of us had ever taken on a challenge like this before. Over the next 18 months, we built the site to 160 engineers, created the operational functions and trained everyone in Agile – before Agile was mainstream. I made mistakes, I learned, and we created something bigger than ourselves. It was exhilarating.

I also often think achievements can be found in the small moments, the breakthroughs you get rallying a team behind an idea or selling a new idea to your biggest critic. For example, my team at Bloomberg knew we needed to make the shift from manual to automated testing. We landed on an open source framework we could modify and implement. It involved learning Python and gaining other technical skills we didn’t have yet. It also meant convincing our development counterparts that not only could we become a more technical team, but we could roll out a system that actually made testing more efficient and effective. We succeeded by communicating our plan and executing on it, asking for help when we needed it and learning along the way.

When you are a leader, it’s in those moments when the decision isn’t obvious you still need to choose a path anyway and keep moving forward.  It’s these moments that really define your character as a colleague and as a leader.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Having a growth mindset has taken me further in life than any other skill I possess. I like to focus on what’s possible and where I can have an impact. I spend time learning and feel strongly that I can figure out solutions to just about anything I encounter. Having this attitude changes your entire approach to solving problems and it also changes how you interact with others. I’m open to possibilities, I’m open to being wrong and trying again and I’m listening for ways I can learn from others. Continuing to try new things, without the fear of not getting it right the first time, has paid off in so many ways. I enter most problems thinking I can do this, it is just a matter of figuring out how. 

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Remember that at its core, technology is a tool to be used to solve real problems. Problem solving is the real job and tech is the way in which we get to do that job. If you shift your thinking to that perspective, you start to realise that there are also other tools you can use to solve these problems alongside the technology and how you wield those tools that will help make you successful.

This is why when we interview people at Bloomberg, we don’t just ask them to code, we ask them to talk the problem through, to show how they use communication and logic. Can we understand their main points? Do they listen to us in return and ask thoughtful questions? Do they exhibit a willingness to learn and experiment? How does the problem they are solving create customer value? These are all skills I see in outstanding candidates and these are the kind of people I love working with day to day.

The best developers I’ve worked with over the years have continued to grow their own written and verbal communication skills. They care about solving problems and they take time to establish rapport with colleagues. They listen, they engage, they iterate on solutions to achieve the best result. These skills aren’t unique to the technology world but are sometimes overlooked in favour of the technology itself. My advice s to make sure you have a solid foundation in technology but also focus on soft skills that will help you communicate effectively. 

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I think there are fewer barriers to women in tech than there were 10 or 20 years ago. But we still do not have enough women leaders to act as role models for the younger generation. I know many companies are actively working to change this balance, but it will take time. Embracing and celebrating a variety of leadership and communication styles will help accelerate this transition.

I hope after this tumultuous year, a shift towards flexible working for both men and women will also help encourage more women to join technology companies. This isn’t a problem companies can solve alone as there are societal pressures that put the burden of family on women more so than men. Even women who choose not to have children are impacted by this imbalance. As a society, we have chosen to celebrate long working hours and time away from the home as symbols of modern-day success. Although men often feel the pressure to perform and provide, women won’t engage at all if they know they can’t meet the demands of those extended hours. If we create a working environment that supports flexibility for both genders and doesn’t stigmatise it, we will encourage more women to enter the workforce at all levels.

Lastly, through my own experience, I know that building and maintaining a professional network is important. I’ve read networking accounts for half to 80% of all hiring. This means we are more likely to hire people we know and like, not strangers. It’s very easy to interact with people who are similar, who share the same education, upbringing, work experience.  We can do better. I think we can challenge ourselves to expand our networks to include others from diverse backgrounds. I believe if our networks contain a variety of people, our hiring will follow suit.

What do you think companies can do to support / progress the careers of women working in technology?

Companies can create more flexible roles for both men and women and must ensure these roles have a defined career path and are fairly considered for promotion. In practise, this means not penalising women for choosing a flexible role or, taking this one step further, encouraging men to do the same.

I often hear that it’s hard to hire qualified women leaders because they are a scarce resource. I struggle with the word “qualified”. There are many ways in which to succeed in a job. I wonder if some skills are overvalued for these leadership roles. Are we rejecting candidates because they don’t meet a set of impossible criteria because they come from a different background or have followed a different path? I would challenge companies to think critically about what they mean by “qualified” and start to hire with diversity (in all aspects) in mind. A diverse leadership team will have a massive impact on their ability to hire and retain future generations of technologists from all backgrounds.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Promote more women into leadership roles. Not only will they provide a different voice at the table, their seat at that table means there’s a path for all women. This in turn will help attract the younger generation of women to join and provide a stronger support system for these women when they get there.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

My recommendations for women are the same resources you’d recommend for men. Find blogs or newsletters who write in a style you connect with and on topics you care about. One thing I would passionately encourage is networking.

As a woman and mother, I feel pulled in many directions and these out of work-hours events are not a frequent option for me. So, it’s about making time for networking in a way that works for you, just like you would to go to the gym or your hobbies. That means going to lunch or coffee, or agreeing with my partner to watch the kids so I can make it to an evening event. There are many ways to do this both internally and externally and some organisations like Women in Agile London regularly run phenomenal networking events. The Lead Developer has a collection of in person and online workshops and often hosts conferences during the day. If you can find these events locally, you will build connections with interesting men and women in our industry.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here