International Women's Day: the rise of women in tech

By Soumaya Hamzouai, Chief Product Officer I was born in Algeria in 1984. My country has known a lot of political/social and economic changes. During my early childhood Algeria was a peaceful country facing serious economic challenges, but when I turned six Islamic radicalists took the country to civil war which lasted 10 years. It was period of huge economic instability.

When I reached 16, 70% of Algeria’s population was under the age of 35 and more than 30% of the population was unemployed; there were no government jobs schemes and a university education was no guarantee of work.

Seeing first hand my country and especially women fighting against radicalisation has probably influenced my life more than I realise. It compelled me to become an entrepreneur, because I believed that creating technology for financial services in Algeria would have a significant impact if successful.

In June 2016, I will have been a technology entrepreneur for 5 years. To advance in any career, you need to have a combination of determination, skill, and luck, but as an entrepreneur, these things are essential.

Skills can be learned, luck is about recognising opportunities when they come, but determination is something no one can teach you. It’s the ability to keep going even if everyone is telling you that it is crazy, stupid or have no chance of success.

I wouldn’t say that I have been “successful” in my career; I still have a lot to do and to learn. But I know that the victories I have had so far are thanks to my determination. I would rather try and fail then fail to try.

Leaving Algeria and attending one of the best engineering schools in France wasn’t easy. Most people told me that I was crazy; that I would waste my time and never succeed at such a high level and in such a competitive space. While it was challenging, my determination allowed me to prove them wrong.

After my graduation, I went back home to launch my first business – a money transfer company that also proved to be my first real taste of failure. As a country, Algeria is not a hotbed of “fintech”, and the regulatory environment made it very difficult to succeed. But it gave me the opportunity to co-found RedCloud and to be where I am today.

Why – and how – I got into tech

Going into tech as a woman is not an obvious choice: women are generally more conditioned by society to work in medicine or marketing.

My first contact with technology was through my family: my father was a technology entrepreneur and I grew up in a very tech oriented family, but the real game changer for me was the rise of the internet.

My father founded a pioneering internet firm in Algeria – one of the first to bring connectivity to the nation. It transformed my life. When I was younger, my biggest database was an Encarta Encyclopaedia CD that I used for all my school homework; being able to find some of the data on the web was amazing to me.

The rise of the internet and making technology more accessible has created fantastic economic growth in so many countries. I did (and still do) strongly believe that technology is changing people’s lives, especially in emerging market where the unemployment rate is very high and young populations are looking for new opportunities; technology opening a window to the world for them.

What I wish I’d known

That said, there is some advice I would give to my younger self, and to other young women embarking on a career in technology.

The first thing to do is make sure that your technical skills are unimpeachable. It’s my firm belief that coding and programming should be part of every school curriculum, but they’re not. If these things are not part of your degree course, you’ll want to think about independent learning. Coding is not only about programming it teaches you how to think logically: if you can think rationally and methodically in any context, you’ll have a better chance of success.

Unfortunately, gaps in your knowledge that would be excused with a male co-worker may not always be forgivable where you’re concerned. When your talents are undeniable, gender becomes a secondary concern: look at Marissa Mayer, whose work at Google was beyond reproach – or Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO who has earned a level of richly deserved international renown.

The perception is that tech is an unsexy or boring area. It can be, when you’re starting out – but when you’re mastering it, it becomes fascinating, and (most importantly) fun, so don’t be put off. The industry is already full of opportunities, and it’s creating more all the time. Tech shapes the way we live. It’s doing more to contribute to humanity’s advancement as a species than any other industry – and the more women on the frontlines the better.