Challenge what “qualified” looks like, says Bloomberg’s Alia Shafir

Are tech firms rejecting candidates due to a set of "impossible criteria" which could be stalling diversity?

Alia Shafir, Head of Mobile Quality Assurance (QA) at Bloomberg, didn’t start out in tech; she had to network and meet the right people to move into what is still an underrepresented sector for women. She explains why promoting and hiring diverse talent is key to creating more equitable and innovative workplaces and why tech employees will need soft skills in the post-pandemic world.

What made you get into tech?

Having started in business at Washington State University, it was really where I had my first light bulb moment for technology through an “introduction to coding” class I took. I really understood the logic and process of technology as a tool to create things and solve problems.

From university, I took a more traditional route into business via banking and consultancy but always had an interest in tech. After working for an investment bank for several years, I was offered an opportunity to run an engineering team and make the jump fully into tech.

I wanted to have a role in technology, but I didn’t know exactly what it could be at the time. So, I focused on meeting and talking to as many people as possible to figure out my capabilities, what was interesting, and how I could get there. After networking with the team manager I ended up joining, I was hired at Bloomberg eight years ago. I started in New York with a data visualisation team and ultimately moved to London, where I am now – Head of Mobile Quality Assurance (QA) at Bloomberg, responsible for software testing.

Why should tech companies welcome candidates from non-traditional backgrounds?

At its core, technology is a tool to be used to solve real problems. One of the key advantages of hiring people with non-traditional backgrounds is it brings a different perspective to the table on how their traditional counterparts may not. Diverse thinking is critical to organisations, particularly because of its role in driving innovation. More backgrounds mean more ideas, and this increases the likelihood of better and more variable solutions from which to choose.

Does that help improve diversity and inclusion in the wider organisation?

Opening up roles for those with non-traditional backgrounds is a start, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to make organisations truly diverse. Embracing and celebrating a variety of leadership and communication styles will help accelerate this transition. But critically, we need to both hire and promote more diverse candidates into leadership roles. Not only will they provide a different voice at the table, their seat at that table means there’s a path for all diverse candidates. This will help attract the younger generation to join and provide a stronger support system for others when they get there.

Why are soft skills important to have in STEM?

Over the years, I have learned being a developer and becoming a manager of developers requires a completely different set of skills. I believe understanding problems, communicating effectively, setting priorities and motivating a team towards those priorities are more important than simply knowing how to write code. It turns out there are a variety of skills that help make you successful, skills like communication, systems thinking, logical reasoning, negotiation, and empathy.

The best developers I’ve worked with have continued to grow their written and verbal communication skills over the years. They care about solving these problems, and they take time to establish rapport with colleagues because they know they will need to work together to succeed. They listen, engage, and iterate on solutions to achieve the best result. These skills aren’t unique to the technology world but are sometimes overlooked, favouring the technology itself. My advice to you is to make sure you have a solid foundation in technology and focus on soft skills that will help you communicate effectively.

2020 has shown us the importance of soft skills. Will that attitude stay?

Absolutely, we are seeing a shift in how we engage. The more we work online and at home, the more we need to focus on good communication skills. To build an inclusive workplace, we need to cultivate the values of belonging and empathy. We need to celebrate growth mindsets and take moments to really listen to each other. These aren’t technical skills, and they aren’t unique to tech, but they are vitally important to how we feel at work and our satisfaction with our careers.

Today, working hours are blurred, we are always on, we work across global boundaries and time zones. Our laptops are in our living rooms, and our children are in our home offices. We are part of each other’s lives like never before; now work, and home no longer have clear boundaries. We have felt stress and loneliness and craved attention and hugs. These new processes will leave a lasting impact, and the connections we’ve made will help us work even better when we’re back together again. It’s important we honour the connections made and seek to maintain them as we re-enter our offices again.

Bloomberg has great upskilling and reskilling programmes; can you go into how they work?

At Bloomberg, we prioritise the growth mindset. In technology, and particularly within the Mobile team, many of the skills we currently use every day will be totally transformed in five or 10 years because of the industry’s ever-changing nature. As such, we value employees’ ability to learn and be resilient and host training on various topics that are open to all employees.

A member of my team was recently looking to move from QA into a more formal developer role. I learned we could help guide him on which courses to take and enrol him in some of our new hire engineering courses. As a company, we are willing to help support him through mentorship and guidance to prepare him to successfully interview for this new role.

Bloomberg values long-standing relationships with its employees. We have many people who have been here throughout their entire career in a variety of roles. I have personally taken on three very different roles in two countries while working here.

Why should companies commit to upskilling their employees?

There are many ways in which to succeed in a job. I wonder if some skills are overvalued in today’s workplace. Are we rejecting candidates because they don’t meet a set of impossible criteria because they come from a different background or have followed a different path? I would challenge companies to think critically about what they consider to be “qualified” and start to hire with diversity in mind.

Committing to upskilling employees will help to champion diverse leadership from within the business and create a culture where employee contributions to the business are valued. Ultimately, this will pay dividends back to the business as a diverse leadership team will have a massive impact on their ability to hire and retain future generations of technologists from all backgrounds.
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