EPISODE 5: Diversity & Inclusion Q&A with Sherry List
EPISODE 5: This month, we speak with Nordic Women in Tech, Advocate of the Year 2019 Winner & Azure Developer Engagement Lead, Sherry List.
Sherry shares with us her fantastic career journey to date. The importance of passion, commitment & collaboration. Some powerful advice for anyone wanting to set-up their own tech community/meet-up/conferences. Along with her top tips for public speaking and overcoming the nerves of attending your first meet-up/conference alone!
Hi Sherry, we are so excited to welcome you to our initiative. As Co-Organizer of ngVikings, ngCopengahen & Chairwoman of the Board at Hack Your Future, Copenhagen we appreciate you are super busy, so thank you for your time!
Can you share a little bit about what it is that you do as an Azure Developer Engagement Lead?
“My role is to be the point of contact between Microsoft & developers, almost like the connection. I need to find out what developers want to learn about Azure and reflect it to our skilling plan. My main goal is to upskill developers and make sure that what we are doing is relevant for what they need.
I started my first job as a Web Designer when I was 16 years old and from there became a web developer. Since then this is the first position I’m in where I am not a ‘full-time’ developer. I love to experiment with different technologies, create different demos and try to find out how things work.
Normally, for me to find out how things work, I create my own pet projects but at this time, I do not have a project that I can call my baby, that I can grow & work on day by day.
Although my title is ‘Manager’ I do not have a team directly reporting to me, we are a team of 12 across different countries in Western Europe.
My days are very different. Most of the time I actually work remotely as I do not have any teammates in Denmark. I work in Denmark & my teammates are based in totally different countries. I normally only visit the office if there is an organised event or meetings where I need to be there.”
Thank you for sharing Sherry! Remote working is becoming the ‘new norm’ given the current pandemic. I know a lot of people are struggling with adjusting. What are your tips for staying productive whilst working from home?
“Firstly, invest a lot in your home office. Declare a part of your house as office space (this of course depends on the size of your living space). Having this dedicated space will encourage discipline and will make sure that when you go to bed, your mind is there & switched off from ‘work mode.’
The truth is, when you work from home, it’s easy to get distracted. For example, I have a dog, he sometimes comes into my office and gives me that cute ‘ahh take me out’ face. I often fall into that trap and the next thing I know I’m outside taking him for a walk. So, you see my point, distractions, in the form of cuteness.
A solution for this, has been creating a cosy place for my dog next to my desk. Now, when I’m sitting at my desk working, he is sleeping. This took some time & training of course but it has helped with those distractions.
Every day I dress and act as if I am going into the office. Attending meetings and sitting comfortably on my sofa made me feel sleepy. I found that I would easily lose focus.
Be sure to take breaks throughout the day as it’s easy to forget/get side-tracked. When you are working from home and you don’t go home, your workday may never finish! I’ve spent several days working at my computer from the early morning until late in the evening. So be disciplined and allow yourself to switch off.”
This is very helpful. I’ve recently struggled myself with not being able to switch off whilst working from home.
So, what do you enjoy the most about your current position?
“What I love the most about my role is that it gives me the possibility to empower people. I can highlight people easily and celebrate their achievements. If I hear positive stories, I can feature them within Microsoft or the community. I can make sure people are being heard. Throughout my career journey, I feel like I have been very lucky to have met some really nice people. In a sense, I feel almost privileged. So, in the position I am now in, I try to help, inspire & encourage as many as possible.”
It’s refreshing to see you genuinely care about people and their progression. How else do you feel you empower people in your position?
“My role is quite flexible meaning I can constantly come up with new programmes & projects. This March I started a project called ‘Inspiring Stories’ featuring Women in Tech. It was an interview scenario, allowing women to share their stories to help inspire others. Sharing these interviews through Microsoft, meant we had a big audience.
Our next topic will be people working with the Open-Source community, as we have many projects in this space, but people do not know the faces behind the projects.
Another project is Azure Heros this celebrates the achievements of people using our technology. We have different titles within this project like ‘Inclusive Leader’, ‘Content Hero,’ ‘Community Hero’ so this is another way that I can connect to what I love, my job.”
Exciting initiatives! What motivated you to set these up & be so involved with the community?
“A big part is that I feel like a lot of people helped me through my own career journey. Sometimes, the small things you do (gestures, help, advice) can change people’s lives forever. Seeing those positive results make it worthwhile. So many people are doing great things that are going unnoticed, if you can celebrate those things, it makes that person happy and motivated to do more and this is so valuable. “
We need more people like you Sherry! People who are going the extra mile and encouraging inspiring role models. Similar to what you are creating for other’s what was your inspiration that made you aware of the community out there?
“Working as a developer, I was always curious to learn and try different things. I started getting more involved in the community. When I went to my first ever Angular conference — Angular Connect.
The day before the conference started, there was a community meet-up for the Angular developers, at the time I didn’t know anyone attending and the event was in London. I attended and it turned out that it was mostly Meet-up organisers attending. Regardless, I started networking and shared my ideas for a meet-up in Denmark. The people I spoke with started to give me some great tips on how I can be successful, how I can create a good community, all of those ‘how’ things. I had a really great experience there.
The next day, when I walked into the Angular Connect conference, with over 1,000 people who were mostly male it hit me that ‘maybe this wasn’t such a good idea’. I didn’t know where to stand, where to have my coffee, there were so many groups of people together. Then one of the guys from the meet-up the day before recognised me. He approached me & introduced me to some of the conference speakers and the Angular team members, then all of a sudden, I ended up making a lot of friends.
I stood next to these influential people in the Angular space that I looked up to, laughing & speaking with them. At one point I sat with one of the Angular team members’ and he was debugging my code, giving me tips on how to improve the performance of my code. That whole experience made me feel that this is the right place for me, this is the community for me.
So, after that, I was proactive, I started to connect with people. Fast forward one year and I was running my own conference and giving talks at different events. The support from the Angular community was a game-changer for me!”
What an epic achievement Sherry! Meetups can be quite daunting, especially if you do not know anyone. What would be your tips for someone attending their first-ever Meetup?
Coming out of your comfort zone is key for your progression so I’d recommend trying to attend as many meetups and conferences as possible, ‘practice makes perfect’. Nowadays, more events are going online, which is great as it takes away some of the nerves of face to face.
Even though I’ve experienced some positive energy from communities, I want to be honest and say that some communities can be toxic. I attended one meet-up and ended up leaving as I felt completely ignored, I have also heard similar stories from friends. So, my advice would be try to find a community that feels like home for you & gives you a sense of belonging.
If you are in a situation where you feel the environment is toxic because people are discouraging and not encouraging you, then get out of that community! Try and find inspiring, amazing people that will encourage you. You can meet people online, there are also different lists on Twitter.
One of my good friends Tracy Lee has a list on GitHub which is called Fempire. This includes not only females but people who are willing to mentor newcomers and people you can follow on social media to hear their inspiring stories. Remember, there are a lot of nice people out there, do not let others discourage you!
Thank you for sharing! What would be your advice to someone wanting to set-up their own community or meet-up?
“Don’t be a lonely boss! Running a community & conference is not easy, it takes a lot of work. Remember, it is also volunteering work, so it has to be something you are committed to and passionate about. Try to team up with others, for example to start the ngVikings conference we teamed up with the whole Angular community within the Nordics. Projects and ideas grow when they are shared. More people = more ideas = more help = more resources.”
Teamwork makes the dreamwork! You also mentioned you enjoy speaking at different events. What would be your advice for anyone wanting to get into public speaking?
“Practice as much as you can! At my first ever presentation I could literally hear my heart beating, it’s never easy and takes time but practice helps you overcome nerves.
Practice, by delivering your presentation to family, friends, colleagues, local smaller meetups, universities, code bootcamps, anywhere you can!
There is a helpful initiative running globally called Diversity Call for Proposals (Diversity CFP day). The workshop day encourages and advises newbie speakers to put together their very first talk proposal and share their own individual perspective on any subject of interest to people in tech. You will have a mentor working with you on your proposal who will also provide speaking advice and share their enthusiasm to get you to the stage. It’s a great opportunity to observe & learn from others, I would highly recommend. “
Great, thank you for sharing! So, I know you started developing when you were 16 years old. How would you define your technical expertise?
Earlier you mentioned this is the first role where you are not a ‘full-time’ developer. Would you ever consider going back to full-time development?
“It’s funny as only yesterday, I was talking to a friend about this. I have been coding since I was 16 years old and I told him that when you are a Full-Time developer you kind of reach a point, where you almost feel that you are done with it as there are a lot of frustrations like bugs in code. But, once you no longer have coding in your daily work, you totally miss it, you miss the technical challenges that make you learn, investigate and grow.
What I loved about working as a full-time developer was when I presented at conferences, I could talk about the frustrations in a way that I had personally experienced through being hands-on with code, having more of an emotional attachment.
Nowadays, the talks I give to developers are more about how can you be more creative/ how can you use this in your skills. I can’t give those talks anymore that come from the emotional attachment of personal technical challenges. I’m still deciding if I 100% miss coding full-time or not, I guess this will take me some time to figure it out.”
Are you still learning in your current position?
“For sure! I am currently sharpening my Cloud (Azure) skills. I’m also very interested in Enterprise IoT, Machine Learning and constantly improving my public speaking skills. Microsoft Learn is my main place to go to learn new technical skills but I’m a big fan of Pluralsight.”
Did you always know that working in technology was what you wanted to do?
“Yes & no, according to my parents, as a child I had the following as my future career goals:
- TV host (For children’s show)
Some great career variety there! What inspired you to get into tech?
“I was born and grew up in Iran. Back in the late 80s & early 90s, right after the revolution and 8 years of war, it was not common for middle-class families to have computers at home and my parents were not so much into tech. But, we had friends and relatives who had computers. My parents noticed I was into playing games, so together with my aunties they bought me a PC as a birthday gift when I was 12. From the moment I got that computer, all I wanted to do was to be able to write my own game!
So that birthday gift changed my whole life. I started to learn basic programming together with my brother, Farzad Aziminia, who is 3 years younger than me. I am forever thankful to my family, especially Farzad Aziminia & Troels List, who’ve always supported me and never discouraged me from pursuing my dreams!”
It’s amazing that you have such a supportive family! Do you have any other role models or mentors?
“Ana Cidre, Carmen Popoviciu, Chris Noring, Kenneth Christiansen, Lars Knudsen & Wassim Chegham. These are people who have pushed me to come out of my comfort zone, who I have met through the development community. Ana is someone I first started public speaking with. We discussed the idea that if it’s scary to go on stage, how about we go on together. So, we did, it was a great partnership and a lot of fun! “
Awesome! I’d love to hear more about your position as Chairwoman of the Board at Hack Your Future, Copenhagen…
“Sure! Hack Your Future is a not-for-profit foundation that started in the Netherlands. It is a free 7-month intensive web development program for talented refugees and other disadvantaged groups with limited access to education and the labour market. After this, they offer support in sourcing internships for the students. I’m involved in the Danish chapter of Hack Your Future as Chairwoman of the Board. With immigration rules changing in Denmark, there have been some slight changes, so we generally focus on disadvantaged groups, who have zero access to education.
Here you can find more information on Hack Your Future: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo953iRSBN8
What an incredible initiative that is truly making a difference! How was your journey to becoming Chairwoman of the Board?
“I moved to Denmark in 2012, one year later the unfortunate crisis in Syria started. We had a lot of kids in Denmark, some with no parents! My friends and I joined a project in collaboration with Red Cross, which was teaching these kids the basic skills of working with Google Doc’s, computers etc. I first heard of Hack Your Future on the news and I immediately reached out to them, I explained my passion for this initiative and that I wanted to help in any way I could. So, I started collaborating by helping them find mentors & spreading the words about this initiative. It’s difficult to find such mentors as they have to commit to a 7-month programme, committing their time every Sunday. Fast forward to now, the board nominated me as the Chairwoman.
This initiative is pretty special to me because of the direct, positive impact it is making to people’s and family’s lives.”
Last year you were the winner of the Nordic Women in Tech, Advocate of the Year award. Congratulations, what an incredible achievement! What factors do you feel contributed to you winning?
“To be honest, I do not know! I guess a factor is that I’m helping a lot with Women in Tech groups with my friends. We wanted to create not only technical focused events so last year we decided on a Women in Tech pub crawl which was fantastic. This created a different vibe to the community and really got people connected. I’m trying to inspire, motivate & encourage wherever I can on topics that I really value.”
I’d love an invite to the next event! What would be your advice to other young women wanting to become influential leaders in their career?
“Come out of your comfort zone! Try to connect with the right people by constantly growing your network. Attend events, connect through LinkedIn, Twitter, Slack etc. I mentioned earlier the story of when I attended my first ever Angular Connect event — When you see influential people at these events, people you look up to or speakers (for me it was John Papa) go and talk to them. Connect with the speakers, do not be scared. If you like their talks, go and tell them and start a conversation from there. Those influential people can, later on, connect you with other people and give you tips. You get to know people by talking, don’t be afraid!”
Thanks, so much Sherry so building your confidence is key! I’d love to know a fun fact about you…
“I ALWAYS either lose/forget my passport! My hobby is arranging non-profit conferences ☺ I love wearing dresses, I have loads of them but it’s always too cold for me to wear them in Denmark 😉 ”
Be sure to tune in next week where we explore Sherry’s ideas on how as a collective, we can appeal and attract more women in tech!
Are you a woman in the technology field too? How has your experience been similar or different? Do you have any questions for women in the technology industry? Would you like to get involved in this initiative? We would love to hear from you, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
By Ellie King - Principal Talent Partner - Data / AI - Nordics