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How a PhD grad finds joy in the trenches of software engineering

Maryam Zakeryfar embraces her role as a coder, finding joy in ‘deep work and staying focused’
September 26, 2023
By David Silverberg

A woman with brown hair, gold earrings and a pink scarf smiles at the camera “As a woman in tech, you’re always proving yourself more so than men,” says software engineer Maryam Zakeryfar.

When Maryam Zakeryfar, PhD 14, looks back on a decade of working in the tech industry, three key takeaways come to mind: don’t give in to imposter syndrome; always value learning on the job; and focus on the deep work that is most fulfilling.

A staff software engineer at data intelligence firm Collibra, Zakeryfar has worked in the trenches of coding and programming to propel herself into a career she enjoys, even if she has to work harder than others in her field.

“As a woman in tech, you’re always proving yourself more so than men,” says Zakeryfar, who lives in Montreal West with her husband and two children. “There are often assumptions that female software engineers may not be experts, particularly when they are working with complex programming languages.”

It was within one of those unique languages that Zakeryfar proved her mettle at Concordia. Her PhD thesis focused on analyzing Erasmus, a programming language developed by the late Peter Grogono, a computer science professor at Concordia. She built mathematical models to verify the language’s ability at handling concurrency, which is the ability for a program to execute two or more tasks at the same time.

Working with Grogono became a formative experience for Zakeryfar.

“He had long been known as the author of the definitive books on programming languages Pascal and C++,” she says.

“He taught me some important lessons. He said ‘Don’t publish for the sake of it. Let’s do solid work and worry about publishing later.’ To Peter, rank and reputation were not as important as the projects right in front of him.”

She goes on to say, “He also taught me that my life is not my thesis.”

Maryam Zakeryfar stands on stage for her convocation robing ceremony Zakeryfar pictured at her convocation ceremony in 2014.

A less traditional path

Zakeryfar’s passion for technology began when she was growing up in Yazd, Iran. Taking math in high school felt right for her, and she wasn’t clamouring for the typical Barbie toys other girls enjoyed, she says. She preferred to create cities out of Legos.

Another natural step in her evolution as a technologist was earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from a local Iranian university. During her time there, she helped pay her tuition with a tour guide job where she learned various languages, including French. She then moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to pursue her master’s in software engineering at University Malaya, graduating in 2009.

When she began tinkering with the idea of obtaining a PhD, she looked across thousands of miles to Canada.

“Montreal is a French city, I know some French from being a tour guide — it felt like a good fit,” she recalls.

Learning on the job. That was another lesson she picked up, when she acclimatized herself to the demands of writing her thesis and enjoying Montreal as a city. It all felt so new, but she soon found her groove in Concordia’s Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering and reveled in learning new programming languages, such as Erasmus.

A bold decision to start fresh

Zakeryfar secured a job after graduation as a technology analyst at Morgan Stanley, rising through the ranks to become a senior software engineer. It was intense but fulfilling and educating work. Yet, when it came time for a promotion after eight years that would have seen her reach the next tier within Morgan Stanley, she had a change of heart.

“I don’t like being too comfortable, for my head to get too big,” she says. “It was a tough decision to leave but I felt I was ready.”

It didn’t take long for her to be promoted to staff engineer at Collibra, a New York-based firm focused on data governance and data intelligence that offers remote work for employees.

What Zakeryfar appreciates most about coding is a love of “deep work and staying focused on a project to build what I have to build. Trying to solve complex problems requires extra focus.”

She also says she doesn’t want to stay frozen in place as an engineer. “I always want to learn more, to stay alert to a new database or a new language to understand. That excites me.”

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