Technology Is the Heart of Everything
You have to talk to the right people to experience how exciting and creative the tech industry is. Meet Farah Zahzah, a passionate out of the box thinker and skilful problem solver. The Global Senior director at the CX technology office and chapter lead of Business Women’s Network at SAP in Montreal talks about her enthusiasm and the future of tech
You’re talking a lot about your enthusiasm for tech, you also studied mathematics and computer science. Where did this passion come from?
When I had my mathematical bachelor (French high school exam), I hesitated between choosing computer science and architecture. In the end I opted for the latter, because I thought it would be a more creative profession. I learned to look at problems from many different angles, to think out of the box and to create new designs and building. Back then, I did not think of technology as a field for creativity. Later, when I moved to the United States in mid-90s, a combination of multiple factors, mainly due to my new environment, triggered my interest in technology. In those times, the Internet commercialization has just started in the United States. I was very impressed and thrilled to learn more about this new medium of communication. It was exciting! My husband was preparing his PhD in computer science and working on some interesting projects, so I was literally surrounded by tech books and magazines at home. Back then, the media headlines were all about the millennium bug and the foreseeable shortage of IT skilled human resources. I realized that technology would be a fast-moving and creative domain in the future, and I wanted to be part of it, because I like everything that is new and innovative. At that time, I was planning to start my MA degree in architecture, but then I completely changed my mind and started to look for a bachelor's course in computer science, and I made the decision to move to Canada.
And why did you choose Canada? Is it as open-minded as we perceive it?
Yes, definitely. In addition to being a multicultural country, Canada is well known for its diversity and inclusivity. Beyond its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, women also have a strong voice and can manage a good work-life balance. University studies are also much more affordable in Canada, compared to the US. Moreover, it’s worth mentioning the access to a universal healthcare system. When I came for the first time, I really admired it and I felt like at home since day one. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to stay.
Do you see a link between this open-minded and multicultural approach and the development of new technologies and joy for innovation? Is that an advantage?
Absolutely. To feed the need of a flourishing tech industry, Canada has always made sustained efforts in their immigration policy to attract talents and expertise from all around the world. Canada's government is also offering a strong support to the entrepreneurial ecosystem through incentives and access to venture capital. Moreover, education is very flexible in Canada: anyone has the chance to start a new career path to gain and learn additional knowledge and skills. There are programs with evening courses on a part-time or full-time basis. It’s common for people to switch careers after their initial decision. This model is very beneficial for women, as some of them initially prefer to stay home to raise their children. Later, they are given the opportunity to launch a new professional career.
You’ve always worked in rather male-dominated fields. How was your experience with this as a woman?
Honestly, at the beginning of my career, I did not pay a lot of attention to it. Maybe because from as long as I can remember, I have always evolved in a male environment, starting from university. When I was studying architecture, women made up less than 10% of the program. It was exactly the same in computer science and when I started my professional career. Later, I realized that there were even fewer of us in senior positions. In some of my previous jobs, there were only one or two women in the architecture team. The situation is very similar on the customer side. In my global role, I often lead workshops with our customers across the world, and I was most of the time the only tech woman in the room. I think being in this situation subconsciously urged me to put myself under pressure, but in a positive way: to always go beyond what was expected from me, especially in a traditionally male industry like manufacturing. I would always ensure that I understood every single detail of the business: what a typical professional journey would be in this male-dominated environment, the challenges and the pain points. Only then could I gain men's trust, and their confidence that I could help them run the business more efficiently by providing the right solution to challenges.
What can we learn for the future?
Technology is at the heart of everything we do in our personal and professional life. The pandemic crisis has also created a sense of urgency for technological innovation that we had not foreseen. I think it is important for us as women to be part of this digital transformation, as it will continue to impact all aspects of our lives. It is important for us to bring our perspective and view to problem resolution. This is what girls need to understand, technology is not about just coding, that’s only a small part of it. Technology is more about solving problems and challenges that our evolving world is facing and will in the future. It is about how we would educate our children, how we would ensure that people living far away from hospitals can have access to healthcare. It is about how we can better preserve our environment; it is about how we can avoid, or at least reduce equipment (medical, transportations, etc.) downtime. It is about how we would drive autonomous vehicles, how we would provide a better customer experience. Technology is a key enabler for it all. However, there are a lot of organizations that tackle these problems. At SAP, gender equality is a core company value and a priority, so that we can become the most inclusive software company. We hit our objective to have 25 percent women in C-level positions in 2017 and working on the 50 percent objective by 2030. With initiatives such as WiT (Women in Tech) and BWN (Business Women Network), we help women to develop their skills and advancing in their careers by building strong relationships and seizing career opportunities to drive SAP’s success.
Women are said to be more intuitive and empathetic. Is this an advantage, in terms of understanding the customers’ needs better and designing the customer experience?
I don’t know if it's about more intuitive and empathetic, but having more women definitely brings diversity and increases productivity and creativity. It helps analyze and solve problems from various angles, brings more solutions and perspectives. In customer experience, it’s all about how the customer is impressed by the brand and how we engage with them. A diverse team is better equipped to connect customers to brands.
Years ago, we didn’t talk about customer centricity. Why did we underestimate it for such a long time?
I’m not sure whether we underestimated it or it is more of a business strategy shift. Companies moved from being product-centric to customer-centric. The customer is at the core of each business to provide a positive experience and to build long-term relationships with brands to ensure their loyalty. This can only be achieved by stepping away from siloed solutions that were enabling customer relation in the past to customer-centric consolidated solutions. It is also about employee centricity.
This is a new perspective.
Definitely. I think that an employee who is deeply involved in customer experience also enriches the process, because if the employee feels that they are important, at the center of this operation, the customer is definitely better served.
The next big tech-trends:
Consumer experience for B2B customers. In this competitive, changing world and with the pandemic context, businesses will become more customer-centric, including traditional industries. B2B customers will look for a more tailored and personalized customer experience just like the consumer/B2C experience. B2B space has been behind the curve but companies are realizing more and more the importance of it.
Artificial intelligence. As customer expectations increase, businesses will need to keep up by using machine learning and AI to offer a tailored experience beyond the first impression by empowering service agents.
Omnichannel experience. In a customer-centric strategy, customers are looking for a consistent experience through all channels, including gaming platforms, which I consider as an important channel in the future.
New business models. It is important to support new business models, such as the subscription model, revenue-driven models and so forth.
Blockchain as a new payment method
Embedded 3D visualization and augmented reality. I am talking here about virtual fitting room.
Data privacy and security to avoid any security breaches will help to build trust in businesses and their brands
Information data is the powerhouse of our time. Do you have advice on how to deal with the overwhelming amount of data and filter out relevant information?
This can be achieved only if data is classified and filtered to deliver the right information at the right time and in the right context. For several decades, technology has augmented the human capabilities to filter out relevant information to attain those objectives. Artificial intelligence is taking it to the next level.
Therefore, it is very important to select the right technology/solution. It takes more than the traditional data classification, indexation, and all features to retrieve and filter out data and information. Nowadays, it's also about providing a customized information to offer a customized experience and smart services. This will help companies get one step ahead of customers’ rising expectations.
You work for a German company (by the way, the only world-class tech company). What is your view on Germany?
I widely admire how Germany’s successful reunification has overcome all identity and political divergences, and how they have been converted into economic models. Germany made both diversity and inclusion major catalysts for a highly positive change and a great model for democracy . I don’t know if this was also the trigger for the reconfiguration of gender roles. A woman holding the reins of power also created this role model for women not only in Germany, but worldwide.
This article is part of a content cooperation between FemaleOneZero (F10) and SAP SE. In the newly established “Tech Agenda” category on #F10, we aim to present interesting women from SAP Labs worldwide, publish major interviews with thought leaders and background stories on digitization and innovation.
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