My name is Aya Jaff and I’m 22 years old. I was born in Iraq and grew up in Germany. My family and I fled home as refugees when I was young. Yes, I’ve had my fair share of hardships but actually that’s not what this story is all about. This story is about inspiring you to go after what you want in life even when it is hard. I hope it reminds you to be curious, think big and never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you are passionate about.
You might know me today as “Mrs. Code”, one of the most famous female coders in Germany. But what led me to where I am? Over the last years, I’ve experienced that technology knows no boundaries - all of us can participate and benefit from it. Technology and digitalization are constantly stretching the reality of what is possible. It’s also helping us to be more creative and innovative. If this is the case, then why should I live in the confines of boundaries? Why should you? We are indeed living in exciting times.
Now more than ever, your “crazy” dreams are absolutely worth chasing. I hope by sharing how I’ve made a successful path for myself in the tech world that I can pump up that voice in your head reminding you to stop hesitating and jump square into the thing which inspires you.
Being able to code has helped me tremendously in my life and career. Not only was I able to make my own ideas and dreams come true, I gained a lot of confidence every single time I walked on stage and talked about my work in front of an audience. There’s a really famous quote by Denis Waitley that inspires me whenever I start doubting myself: “It's not what you are that holds you back, it's what you think you are not.” That quote keeps me going.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t learn languages like Ruby, C or Java in school or at home. I’m self-taught. It all started when I when I was about 15 years old and wanted to digitalize our school calendar so I would know what classes I had a day in advance. I was quickly told that creating an app like that would cost me a fortune, and I did not have a lot of money.
Nevertheless, I decided I wanted to create the app myself. For the next couple years I would be learning different kinds of programming languages on my own. Then it was time to put my knowledge into practice.
I used to read Forbes and Fortune Magazine in my spare time. In fact my walls were plastered with dozens of Fortune covers and pictures of successful CEOs that I looked up to. You would find Sheryl Sandberg, Bill Gates and Marissa Mayer next to my bed or my table. Having women to look up to was especially helpful for me back in the day. I felt like anything was possible.
So naturally I researched how and why these CEOs became so immensely successful and found myself drawn to topics of finance. Soon I got to know a couple high-school graduates that were working on a stock market simulation game for young people who wanted to learn how to trade. The project was called Tradity and I became their CTO for a few years.
As I grew older I realized that none of my female friends were interested in tech or finance related topics. Of course they were supportive, but nonetheless, I was the nerdy one in the group. The only girl at tech meetups, part of the 10% of female coders at tech conferences.
I couldn’t help but wonder… why didn’t these women engage in these topics? There are an array of scholarship and funding opportunities when it comes to education and conferences. So what is stopping them?
The way we look at women in tech, be it in movies, TV or even in books, is problematic. Women can’t seem to shake off the picture of being boyish, nerdy, bossy or ugly whenever they have something to do with tech. This could be leading many young girls to steer clear. But it’s important that we trail blaze straight through these misconceptions, one day at a time. That’s why I try to empower more women to learn about tech. They soon start to shed the false impressions and see that there is so much potential to create and grow.
If there’s even just one more woman at the table creating and developing, we have a more holistic view and make better products. For example Siri’s voice recognition was working way better with male voices back in the day because only men had the chance to really test out it’s functionality in the coding team. How crazy is that?
When we connect sport, fashion and tech topics, we can target both male and female interests. That’s what we wanted to achieve at the recent #code4adidas event, which was a day-long innovation challenge where teams were asked to turn an adidas product in to a ‘smart’ one using the Arduino platform.
#code4adidas brought together creatives and coders to work together in teams at the MakerLab. They sketched out different ideas. There were no limits on experimentation. I was able to serve as a mentor and give them feedback along the way. At the end of the day we even got a little help from the Arduino founder himself!
I’m thankful that adidas was so open-minded about co-creating this event. It was truly one of the best days of my life. I saw firsthand that adidas is the place to work for those interested in living out an eclectic passion for sports, fashion and technology in their career.
Lastly, working with digital natives from different countries and backgrounds drove home the point: language, gender and interests don’t divide us. These differences make us richer as a society and embracing it is the key to innovation.
While others may be boasting about past wins or vying for position, what the world really needs now are passionate problem-solvers. Look to improve every day, find solutions to problems and fill a need. It can be practical or grandiose, but the goal is for you to bring your unique value!
I’m always looking for new ways to solve problems that I’m really passionate about. Currently I’m working on a book called “Moneymakers”. Because I’m a big fan of simplifying complex things, I wanted to write a book for young people who want to learn how to trade stocks online. It will be published next January. I’m also looking forward to collaborating further with adidas teams.
So I want to encourage you - thought leaders, rebels, nerds, fashionistas and designers out there – to take a look around you - at the things you love to do - and ask yourself “How can I make things better?” Your quest for improvement will open doors you never saw before and will give you the confidence to follow down a successful and meaningful path.