It can be difficult forging your career and finding the right career path that will keep you passionate and give you the opportunities to work your way up that elusive ladder. Mariam is one of our many driven women at Starling who’s successfully doing just that, so we wanted to pick her brain (after congratulating her on her TechWomen50 Individual Award).
First things first, we’re very proud (and not surprised) that you have been named as one of the We are tech women 50 winners. How does it feel?
To be honest, it still hasn’t sunk in. I have never won an Industry Award before so it is quite surreal but also positively overwhelming (if I can say that!). I am really humbled to have been shortlisted and then to win. It is exciting to be recognised amongst extremely talented women in tech, especially with all our varying backgrounds (I’m sure the judges would have had a hard time selecting the winners) but I also can’t wait to see what this means in terms of my career in tech.
How did the whole nomination process start for you?
It started off as a very casual conversation with my manager, John. He mentioned there was an award that himself and our CEO, Anne, would like to put me forward for. I didn’t really understand what this meant until I found out what the award was and that Starling Bank would have to submit a 250-word award entry on why they were nominating me. I wondered if they would even have 250 words to say about me! The entry was submitted in September and a few days later I was asked to provide supporting information for the award.
There were five questions I needed to answer about my background, significant achievements/contributions at Starling, how I am helping others, why I am a future leader in the tech industry and how I would leverage the award. I thought… Oh my, that’s a lot of questions! But then I took the time to reflect and think about my answers and I submitted in October. The following month, on my way into the office I saw an email notification pop up on my phone titled “Congratulations, you have been shortlisted for WeAreTechWomen’s TechWomen50 Award” and I was both surprised and overjoyed that what I had accomplished so far was worthy of a shortlist by a panel of impressive judges in the tech industry.
Following the good news, the next step was to spread the word and get some votes but ultimately the selection of the winners were up to the panel of judges. There were a 100 women shortlisted and as I read through a few of the nominees biographies I felt a mixture of emotions; they were really impressive and had achieved amazing things (master inventors, entrepreneurs, etc), maybe I should have shown more of my accomplishments in my bio, getting this far is an honour and also humbling and even if I don’t win, this is still a great achievement.
On 11th of December 2017 I was delighted to find out I was one of the 50 winners (hence TechWomen50); it was one of my highlights of 2017!
I feel that winning this award has given me the added confidence to support and mentor like minded women in the industry. So… I do not have a technical academic background, and I am not a developer, but I work in a tech company and I want to help people understand that you do not necessarily need a technical background to become a technologist or to work in technology. Right now I am enjoying the best of both worlds – Finance and Technology aka Fintech – and I want to be able to inspire mine, and the next generation, and to be a testament to the fact that what they do in this industry no matter what level your role, is important and can make a difference.
I am hoping this award will boost my credibility in the technology industry in terms of influence and awareness to those who are unfamiliar with Starling and afford me the opportunity to support others who are looking to provide similar technology and innovation in their respective fields.
What do you think the importance of these awards are in supporting women in tech?
I just started reading a book titled ‘Women, Work, And The Will To Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg – I am probably one of the last people to read the book – but better late than never. So far some of the points raised in the book have resonated with me; just paraphrasing – the majority of women find it difficult talking about their accomplishments and would rather downplay their achievements, maybe because they do not see it as a big deal? (this is exactly how I felt when I had to answer the question about my achievements at Starling for this award). I think the downfall of this is that sometimes we may not feel worthy of recognition or worse may not be recognised at all (because it is ‘Business as Usual’).
The tech industry is still predominantly male dominated and I was going to corroborate this with some stats, but let’s be honest we all know this is the case – it’s a hot topic of discussion! With this, and the above statement in mind, I think awards like these are very important in recognising the achievements of women and encourage more to join the bandwagon. This will create a network and support group that other women interested in working in technology can tap into and also heighten their expectations of what they can achieve as women in tech.
You’re a great example of a woman creating the solid groundwork for a successful career in tech. Was it always your plan?
Thank you! This is something I say often but I have always been fascinated by – the pivotal role technology and innovation plays in our world. How Tesla, Netflix, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Starling (of course), the list could go on – have disrupted / are disrupting the traditional way of doing things. I knew I wanted to be a part of this disruption one way or the other! So after completing my Masters I decided that I wanted to work for IBM because of the many case studies showing how they use technology to solve complex challenges in our society.
I guess you could say that the successful career in tech is a result of wanting to learn as much as possible, and using what I learn to make an impact. It’s important to recognise and exploit opportunities when they arise – for me this took the form of joining two start ups – initially a management consultancy, and most recently, Starling. I know I still have a long a way to go but having a great support system at Starling and putting in the hard work has set me on the right trajectory.
Do you have a plan of where you want to be and when?
Well… the sky is the limit and I do have career goals and a plan to achieve them. I won’t give away too much in terms of what and when but watch this space!
What’s your inspiration in your career?
In a nutshell being able to enjoy what I do whilst continuously learning and applying what I have learnt.
I am also extremely passionate about what we are trying to achieve at Starling. We are changing the world of banking and payments for the everyday consumer and this might sound really cliche but this is what gets me out of bed every morning. I truly believe that we are trying to make a difference and as I mentioned previously, I have always wanted to contribute to the disruption. I enjoy the challenge and working with very intelligent and great people to realise our goals is very important to me.
Have you had any difficult moments in your career that you’ve had to overcome?
Of course! But I think that the difficult moments build character and resilience especially when you overcome them, and ultimately makes what you do more fulfilling. If I had to list all my difficult experiences then we would be here all day – I think it’s all part and parcel of your working life and everyone has difficult moments, but to give you some examples (in no particular order):
- Not taken seriously because my title is not senior enough or because I look young ( And I do look much younger than my age!).
- Dealing with unconscious bias and being a minority, but also learning that this should not stop me from doing my job and doing it well.
- Taking over a role on a billion pound project with limited to no handover.
- Managing multiple stakeholders with conflicting goals and guiding them to reach a consensus.
- Meeting extremely tight deadlines with a small team of people.
At any point have you reached a crossroads and had to make the decision of which route to take? How did you decide?
One of the hardest decisions I have had to make during my career is leaving one company for another. What I found helpful when I have felt that it was time for me to move on from a company was having supportive people around me asking the right questions rather than telling me what they think I should do.
I make a list of the pros and cons to help me weigh up the options, and so far that has successfully informed my decisions.
For women looking at the tech industry from the outside and considering getting into it, what advice would you give them?
Don’t be dissuaded because you don’t know Java! (or you’re not a programmer)
There are so many transferable skills that we pick up during our careers knowingly and unknowingly and these are industry agnostic. So it does not matter if you do not know anything about coding or your academic background is not technical, there are other roles required to make any company within the tech industry function. Think about what your strengths are and let that work for you. It can be anything from great communication skills to the ability to pay attention to detail. The opportunities are endless. Take Starling for example; we have Contact Centre Superstars, we have Product Managers, we have Finance Gurus, we have Operations, we have Legal, the list goes on… As long as you are passionate about the industry then you definitely have a shot!
Don’t be afraid to take risks
It may seem daunting at first leaving an industry that you are comfortable with or even if you are just coming out of academia but sometimes high risks have high returns. You may make mistakes along the way but your willingness to learn from those mistakes is what counts. I think it is better to have tried than not tried at all. My favourite quote from Nelson Mandela sums this up – “I never lose. I either win or learn”.
Plus you may even surprise yourself! In my early days at Starling I remember Anne encouraged us to take risks and to think outside the box. I think this is how we disrupt rather than always erring on the side of caution.
Use your network
You might know someone who is already working in technology or you may know someone who knows someone and it does not have to stop there (six degrees of separation and all) so reach out to them. They might just be able to help you get your foot in the door.
Don’t complain, instead try finding a solution
I have found throughout my career that it is very easy for people to complain or point out what is going wrong. The hard part is actually finding a solution and that is what technology is to me – it is simplifying complex issues, it is solving a problem, it is exploiting an opportunity, it is constantly evolving and it is change! Apply that approach to everything.