Interview: Meet Farida Rahman, Hack Day Project Leader

The most important thought that was sowed in my mind was to dream the unachievable and pursue it. This made me very strong and gave me the ability to pioneer in the Indian Air Force later in my life. I am trying to give my daughter similar experiences. I want her to have great role models to follow and pursue her dreams.

This weekend, we are thrilled to be hosting a Hack Day based on the Technovation Challenge curriculum. We are fortunate to have use of the Los Altos Library, one of the few libraries that offers a decent-sized meeting room for groups at minimal charge. There is Wi-Fi that seems to work well for 20 connected computers, and the room is clean, modern and configurable. Being a non-profit organizing free events, having these elements in a public space is priceless!

So what is a Hack Day? What is this all about? Last year, having had Technovation conducting hugely-popular mobile-app-building workshops at our conferences, we had the opportunity to help further the program’s goals of introducing more girls to technology. Because Girls Innovate! brings girls and moms together frequently for learning opportunities, it made complete sense to organize events using a short and concise curriculum that seemed to work pretty well for teaching girls basic drag-and-drop computer programming.

When we opened up our first Hack Day in November, we received incredibly enthusiastic response. The Hack Day itself went very well, given that the organizers were working on it together for the first time. In addition, there was great interest in forming Girls Innovate! teams for the 2014 Technovation Challenge, which has opened for registration and is now in full swing through June 2014, when the final world pitch event will be held in San Francisco where participants get a chance to deliver their app idea in front of a panel of investors and compete for a $10,000 prize.

The Hack Day program has inspired us to produce programs that support girls not just for technology but also entrepreneurship. We will be unveiling this program – which will run parallel to the Technovation Challenge – soon. You won’t need to participate in Hack Days or Technovation Challenge to attend the workshops in this program: just an interest in entrepreneurship. However, if you are on a Technovation Challenge team and you attend these workshops, you might acquire some important concepts that you can apply to your Technovation journey. More to follow.

In the meantime, we would like to introduce you to Farida Rahman, the fearless and inspiring project leader behind our Hack Day program. Having attended a Girls Innovate! conference back in June, she and her daughter, Nafisa, and husband, Sajjad, took it upon themselves to mentor at our Scratch workshop in the fall and then spiff up the Technovation Hack Day curriculum to fit the Girls Innovate! audience, run the Hack Days, and mentor the families that participate. We call them our “2013 Girls Innovate! Family of the Year.” Although we have no tangible award to present, this incredible family’s dedication will be forever memorialized.

Farida at our November Hack Day with a student who was demo'ing an app she just learned to build.

Farida at our November Hack Day with a student who was demo’ing an app she just learned to build.

Nafisa helping a student at our November Hack Day.

Nafisa helping a student at our November Hack Day.

 

Read on to learn about Farida – what her upbringing was like, how she became such a fan of computer science, how she has supported her daughter in STEM, and her words of advice for nurturing creativity and computer programming in girls. And hopefully you’ll get a chance to meet her, if not at tomorrow’s Hack Day, then at one of our future monthly Hack Days between now and April 2014.

Farida Rahman

Farida is a Software Engineering Project Manager and Entrepreneur. She enjoys working with non-profits that contribute to educational causes for advancement of science and technology awareness among children and young adults. She has engaged with KCYDN, DEF and Girls Innovate! to contribute in her area of specialization which is software design. She was a pioneer woman engineer in the Indian Air Force from the first batch of women ever to work in the Indian Air Force. She worked on fighter aircraft avionics, computer networks and airbase communications/radars. She has a Computer Science Engineering degree, Aeronautical Engineering diploma and an MBA in Operations Research. In her spare time she loves to read, paint and travel with her husband Sajjad and daughter Nafisa.

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Question #1. How did you choose a career in computer science? Did you know at a young age what you would like to study and do later on?

While I was growing up back in India in the 1980’s, computers were a rarity at least in day to day life unlike today.  It was a new field of study and that definitely drew my curiosity while I was in High School. I was good at Math and was very creative. I was drawn to Engineering due to these two talents. I had two contenders for my attention, Architecture or Computer science. I picked the latter purely on the fact that it was something new and promising. I actually saw my first computer in my engineering college when I entered the Computer Programming laboratory.

Question #2. What are some of your favorite moments in your professional life?

I have been fortunate to work with an eclectic bunch of professions, a research laboratory, the Indian Air Force, Aircraft laboratory, and more recently a software consultancy startup. There were many defining moments that I reflect upon. As eclectic they are, they had some common thread of creative work with some great mentors and teammates. It was the learning, sharing and building things as a team that still seem to linger on.

Question #3. Can you tell us more about being the first batch of women in the Indian Air Force?

farida air force

I was fortunate to be selected to the first batch of women engineers in the Indian Air Force. After the tough selection process, we had to undergo a rigorous yearlong training exclusive to Air Force Engineers. There was no precedence before us, so we had to set the bar very high for future batches of engineers. It toughened me mentally and physically. We had a lot of academics along with public speaking, leadership, character building classes, military tactics, history, self-defense classes, physical exercises, parade practices to name a few. I graduated from Air Force Technological College with a diploma in Aeronautical Engineering and ready to “touch the sky with glory” (that was the common phrase). Then moved on to be on the field in an Air Base working as an avionics and communications specialist. My computer science background also helped me in leading the computer centers.

Question #4. Who have been most influential in your sense of who you are and how you make life decisions?

Many people have influenced me along the way, but if I had to choose one, it would be my dad. He is a great believer in hard work and dreaming big. He supported my decisions and facilitated them when he could. He spent a lot of time in my childhood introducing me to the wonders of Physics, Astronomy, Biology and Math. I still nostalgically discuss these things with him as I teach my daughter and fondly reflect on how my dad had taught me some concept.

Question #5. When did you come to the U.S.? What differences have you noticed in the way math and computer science are taught in India versus in America, and how have you bring your observations to bear on your daughter’s education in those areas?

 Math and Computer Science should be drilled into the core curriculum very early on at school.

I migrated to the US in 1999. I did not get involved with the school academics until my daughter was in school in 2004. I wanted to be very involved with her learning, but yet not influence the way it was being taught. It was very insightful and a learning experience for me. I would keenly follow how subject matter is being dispersed to the young minds and how it was being received.  Since I grew up in different era, it is difficult to compare these experiences. I felt it is more participative and goal oriented here in the US. It is not “one size fits all” type of education model. This is a positive aspect. I believe there has to be a minimum learning goal set for the class, which should cover the latest developments in subjects that are becoming indispensable for the future. Case in point stress on Math and Computer Science should be drilled into the core curriculum very early on at school. The curriculum and teaching methods have to keep pace with the technological advances. My husband and self are technology aficionados. We love to follow latest technology trends from all types of resources like NPR, news. museums, conferences, TED shows, documentaries etc. We have tried to augment this learning to our daughter’s learning at school. She has been fortunate to have a school that meets her needs and is open to ideas from parents like us.

Question #6. Are there other life experiences that have influenced how you raise your daughter?

I was given the best education and experiences by my family while growing up. My dad was a military man and a veterinarian by profession. My mom was a very creative and hardworking home maker. I have fond memories of moving every two years across the country crate and barrel with my family. That meant new schools, new friends and new environments to explore. The most important thought that was sowed in my mind was to dream the unachievable and pursue it. This made me very strong and gave me the ability to pioneer in the Indian Air Force later in my life. I am trying to give my daughter similar experiences. I want her to have great role models to follow and pursue her dreams.

Question #7. Is your daughter interested in computer science? What has her learning path in this subject like been over the years?

My daughter first developed liking to gadgets. I remember noticing her tinkering with the PDAs, calculators, cell phones, electronic dictionary and laptops. She got excited with technology as a user first and then as she grew older to learn how they worked (software). The school has played a great role in her continuing to persist in her interest. At school there was computer class from first grade onwards. She picked up using Microsoft tools like word, excel, power point at school. They started using it for school assignments early on. She was then introduced to Terrapin Logo for programming in elementary school. In middle school they introduced them to Basic (a programming language). They are also learning HTML, CSS, JavaScript and AppInventor. She went a step ahead and enrolled herself last year into the AP Computer Science program with MOOC. She is working on this during the weekends.

 Be fearless in using and exploring technology.

Question #8. Not everyone is meant to work in technology or computers. What qualities do you think make someone a good candidate for this field?

The single most important trait is to be fearless in using and exploring technology. Being an avid technology (specifically software products) user or follower can be a quality that will propel a person to make better software products or improve existing software products. That covers a vast majority of us. Computer Sciences is a vast field of study and it relates to every aspect of our lives from online shopping, banking, reservations, hospitals, movies, data sciences, etc. There will always be some associated interest which will tie into computers. Having a basic background in computer science and then specializing a specific area of application is the best way to introduce girls to this field. An example: my daughter is very creative and excels at painting, doodling, animation and photography. She may be looking at a path that is a confluence of Computer Science with graphics/imaging processing/animation. Encouragement to see the future of a certain field of interest with computers as being an indispensable part will definitely help late or peripheral adopters.

Having a basic background in computer science and then specializing a specific area of application is the best way to introduce girls to this field. Encouragement to see the future of a certain field of interest with computers as being an indispensable part will definitely help late or peripheral adopters.

Question #9. Why do you think girls have a difficult time sticking with this subject as they get older, even if they are good at it or was excited about it earlier on?

The application of computer science to different areas of interests is what will help encourage girls to pursue computer sciences or any STEM subjects. If an individual wants to pursue Genetics as a major, then computer science will be a great aid in the vast field of genomics. The examples can be endless. During formative years of middle school thru high school, great mentors should be brought in to expose the girls to the endless possibilities that computer science can bring to their future realms of work. Parents should also follow the child’s interest and see how computer education can aid them in promoting these interests. Further facilitate possible mentoring needs they may require to not lose interest and give up.

Question #10. What made you decide to become the Project Leader for the Girls Innovate Hack Day program? What hopes do you have for it?

Teaching has been my passion. I have always made room for teaching or mentoring where I could. So when the opportunity came up at Girls Innovate, I grabbed it.

I hope this hack day program grows beyond App Inventor. We should pursue girls in middle school age group to adopt programming just as they do Math or English at school. For girls who have already adopted programming or girls in high school, the Girls Innovate program should help mentor them to pursue AP Computer Science. We can conduct workshops to enlighten them about the curriculum and its myriad applications as they step into college. This will be a great way to motivate them and allay their fears about going into unknown territory.

Question #11. What would you say to girls as they participate in the Hack Day program?

Be fearless and try programming just as you do other subjects at school. There is nothing complicated about programming and it is really cool to program.

There is nothing complicated about programming and it is really cool to program.

Question #12. Can you share more about your painting?

I am an amateur artist. I had brief spells of working with some artists when I was in Middle school. But otherwise I have pursued it on my own as a hobby. I love to make landscapes and portraits in oils and water colors.

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