Few eyebrows furrow faster than Rizwana Rizia’s when you ask her if she’s ever felt disadvantaged from being a woman in the male-dominated field of engineering.
Rizwana is a software engineer who has not only overcome gender stereotypes but also beaten even bigger odds.
She hails from Dhaka, the megacity in a tiny country of Bangladesh, where people walk shoulder-to-shoulder at any given street. With 7 million people squeezed into 125 square miles, it’s just about half the size of New York City with almost the same population.
Needless to say, the competition for opportunity in Dhaka is ferocious. Rizwana has a couple role models in relatives who got admission into the country’s best public engineering school: Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). Some compare it to the MIT of America or IIT of India. This helped her set a tangible goal: She’d be an engineer, and BUET was the ticket.
Of the tens of thousands of applicants, just about 120 people are selected. The competition is particularly fierce because it’s one of the few opportunities that’s entirely government funded. Since her family didn’t have money for tuition, this was her opportunity…this is probably the only thing that’s ever intimidated her. But after years of meticulous studying, working hard, and staying focused, the acceptance letter arrived. Of the 120 students in her class, Rizwana was one of 20 women.
After that, everything changed.
Here’s what Rizwana had to say about her journey, starting from the crowded streets of Dakha, Bangladesh to working in Seattle’s booming startup scene as a software engineer at Amazon.
Rizwana, could you tell us what sparked your interest in software engineering?
I did my undergrad in computer science and engineering in Bangladesh because I’ve always been interested in engineering since my cousins did their degrees at BUET. And then applied to Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin for my postgraduate degree. I got my Master’s and PhD from Milwaukee. So, I’ve always been in academia and research-related roles, researching improvements in healthcare through mobile technology.
But I got small doses of what it was like building actual software working as a web developer at an outsourcing company in my country before moving to the US. Then, during my postgraduate studies, I also had an opportunity to intern at Amazon.
I just knew I wanted to work with real-world engineering instead of academia, and so I started job searching just before May, when I was nearing graduation from my PhD.
What’s the tech scene like in Bangladesh, and what was it like being one of the only women in your engineering class?
I think the situation is definitely changing. When I first graduated from high school, it definitely used to be that everyone wants a spot in good jobs and there just aren’t enough jobs, not enough schools for education. It’s really tough to get a spot where the government pays of all of your tuition fees–and you don’t have to pay anything. It’s very competitive.
Now there’s definitely more of a technology scene there. It’s a mobile-first country and growing more digital. We might not have a lot of resources for education, but there’s a lot of great talent.
As far as being a woman, I really never thought about it. Yes, there were very few women in my class, but I never thought there’s any reason for me to not go into the software industry. I was never afraid. I never thought of myself as different.
Wow, that’s awesome. So you’ve beaten the odds quite a bit by getting into BUET.
Yeah the only time I was really intimidated was when I had to get into BUET. That was the hardest thing. After that, I think the only other time I was nervous was figuring out how I was going to pass coding interviews. It’s a really hard process.
I mean, I don’t understand how an employer can really understand someone’s skills or potential in such a short amount of time. You might be nervous or you might make silly mistakes. Even if you prepare for a long time, the actual in-person interview can go poorly.
So, as graduation was approaching, how did job searching go for you?
Initially, I was only applying to companies that I knew about. Then I started looking at LinkedIn jobs and just reading through job descriptions. Nothing was really striking.
Then, I noticed that Gayle Laakmann McDowell posted on Facebook about HackerRank Jobs, so I decided to check it out. I thought I found some treasure. There were so many companies posting coding challenges. I wanted to solve them all!
So, I solved many of the coding challenges and two companies gave me a call. Within a week, I was moved forward to the on-site interview with Amazon. I ultimately chose Amazon because this is my first industry job in the US and I wanted to work at a place that I was familiar with.
I do think HackerRank Jobs is a great initiative. Rather than posting job descriptions like on LinkedIn, posting coding challenges is a great way to directly reach candidates who are looking for jobs. There aren’t a lot of coding challenges posted right now, but I think more companies should come forward and add coding challenges to make it easier for engineering candidates.
So glad you were able to land the job at Amazon, congrats! Do you have any advice for other women who would love to be in your position?
First of all, I’ve never once thought that I couldn’t do something just because I’m a woman.
Of course, there are some barriers. For example, women who become mothers and have other responsibilities that could hold them back. But that situation is changing. More and more men are stepping up to help with household. My husband plays a big role in helping out with raising our toddler son. It’s no longer the case that women have all of the responsibility.
My advice would be to stay fearless no matter what anyone says and seize the opportunities around you.
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