On May 18 and 19, 2015, over seventy computing experts got together at the beautiful New York University in Abu Dhabi, UAE (United Arab Emirates) campus to explore technology and social trends, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and to form professional computing chapters across North Africa and the Middle East.
There were representatives from Algeria, Egypt, France, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Netherlands, Tunisia, Turkey, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK, and the US, including angel investors, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, startup founders, university professors, undergraduates, PhD students, researchers, freelancers, writers, programmers, representatives of governments, and industry professionals. The atmosphere was electric. The participants shared experiences, developed cross-disciplinary bonds, mentored one another, and left the event energized, and brimming with new ideas. All felt that exceptional technology and social changes are underway in the region. The conference attendees were women, along with some male supporters.
The event, NYUAD Women in Computing in the Arab World Conference 2015, funded by NYUAD, was the third in a series. The conference takes place in partnership with other organizations such as Anita Borg Institute Systers Communities and ArabWIC, chaired by Professor Sana Odeh of NYU and co-chaired by Dr Kaoutar El Maghraoui of IBM. The fourth conference is in the planning stages for Morocco in Summer 2015, and the conference committee is eagerly seeking corporate sponsors.
At the event, I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr Manar Abu Talib, Rand Muhtaseb and Dareen Alhiyari. We had some discussions about open source software. It appears that open source is becoming popular in the Middle-East, e.g., I had already met a female OpenStack programmer at the Cloud Conference at Princess Nora University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in April 2015.
Dr Manar Abu Talib is an assistant professor at the University of Sharjah, UAE. Dr Manar mentioned that according to recent studies and statistics, the UAE is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Gulf region and the Middle East, with its state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure. Most homes have access to many kinds of communications technologies that are available in western countries. Although, the literature survey that Dr Manar conducted, shows that there is no significant open source development or deployment strategy in place in developing countries similar to those found in developed countries, there is high awareness and many are using open source software in academic institutions, government and IT companies. Dr Manar said there are promising collaborative efforts with other countries in the Gulf as well as Arab region to establish clear vision for the open source movement. The beneficiaries will be graduate and undergraduate students, academic researchers, law enforcement, small and medium-sized organizations and large enterprises.
Rand Muhtaseb, who builds Web Applications at Hashdoc, a startup in Jordan, said she decided to be a software developer after she learned how to program in her first job, and she realized that she likes coding. Rand uses open source technologies such as Ruby on Rails, MySQL, MongoDB, Git and jQuery. When Rand encounters issues, she tries to understand the context of the problem and investigate the causes, but if she still can’t isolate the problem, she checks the technology’s community Github issues page and other online communities such as StackOverflow. Rand aspires to be an expert in her field. She believes that technology is an efficient tool for social innovation, so she aims to leverage it to solve society’s most pressing problems.There were keynotes and many panel sessions at the conference, e.g., on careers in academia, on becoming an entrepreneur, on issues relating to female computing students. Peggy Wallace from Golden Seeds, an early stage angel investment firm, gave an inspiring keynote, energizing the conference participants. Rana Chemaitelly, told us about The Little Engineer, an initiative she started in a number of countries to educate young people to be hands-on, work in teams, and build things, focusing on robotics and renewable energy.
In addition to giving a talk, I moderated a panel on women working in industry. The participants included women at Ericsson, Liberty Global, Microsoft, OrangeTelcom, and other companies like Focus, MixRadio and Progineer. One of the panelists, Rabeb Othmani, contributes to DZone, a technology community. In discussion, we heard that there are regional variants of the Women who Code group.
One of the activities at the conference was a speed mentoring session organized by Diane Jordan and her mentoring committee Wafia Boubguira, Sabrina Elghers, Alaa Shaheen, and Mai Temraz. Speed mentoring was in three categories: research (including professors, students and researchers), entrepreneurs, and industry. In the industry section, as with the other sections, the scope of the conversations was breathtaking ranging from long-term career planning to how to get a new job or promotion in the next 3 months. Handling boredom and poor managers were also covered. Useful Websites such as glassceiling were highlighted.
Some mentoring topics were specific to the region, e.g., the dominance of government institutions in attracting female employees compared to national and multi-national corporations. Choosing between entrepreneurship and industry was discussed. The importance of certifications came up, and it seems that some countries in the region have more of a focus on professional certifications, and in other countries experience is more important. It also became apparent that open source technology skills are popular in the region.
The 9 year-old daughter, Zayneb Cherif, of one of the participants was thrilled to play a role, jumping for joy at the opportunity. She rang a bell to make sure we switched mentors at the appropriate times during speed mentoring. At the end of the day, she concluded that being a part of the conference for a day was equivalent in fun to going to Wild Wadi (a theme park in the UAE). Zayneb will very likely become a computer scientist like her mother. That would not be a first for the region: There was one participant at the event from Saudi Arabia/Kuwait whose mother and grandmother were both programmers.
We left the mentoring sessions and the conference with new tools and approaches for managing our careers – and outstanding personal connections across the region. The mentoring committee for ArabWIC have a plan to foster mentoring through 2015-2016 especially via the country based chapters. The chapters will run their own regional activities, projects, events, and hackathons. And all are looking forward to the conference in Morocco next year.