She’s behind your Android VPN app: I do magic

“I've had occasions where people are going to come straight up to my face and say, yeah, you got this promotion just because, you know, you're a woman,” Iva Nedeleva, an Android engineer from Private Internet Access (PIA), a VPN company, told Cybernews.

But Iva seems like the type of person that can’t be easily discouraged. If anything, all the obstacles and setbacks in life have only made her stronger. I sat down virtually with Iva for an exclusive interview to commemorate International Women’s Day.

Tell me more about how you got interested in tech

The whole thing started back in the early 90s. That was literally the first time that I was introduced to a computer. It was at university because, at that point, people didn't have personal computers at home. I had the chance, well, the luck that my aunt worked at the University of Plovdiv back then. There was that thing that looked like a TV, but you could interact with it. For me personally, that was super interesting. I wanted to know how things work and how this connection is happening. How come you just plug in a mouse or a keyboard, and all of a sudden, you have access to the whole thing, and you can do magic with it?

That's how I started being interested in computers. Luckily, they became more and more popular afterward, so I could spend lots of time on my own in front of the computer trying to figure things out.

In terms of education, I initially got admitted to a Canadian university to specialize in artificial intelligence. However, I didn't get that far. It was the financial crisis in 2009 that brought me back to Bulgaria.

However, at this point, I was already familiar with a few programming languages, and I wanted to explore them further. You know, doing a tic tac toe that can beat you. That was the most fascinating thing at the time.

So I came back home and graduated in computer science. Then, I did a master's in software engineering. Sometime between those two, I found myself a job, which was exciting. Initially, I was after any junior position you could think of; I could do anything. I just wanted to learn.

At the time, there were no apprenticeships or anything like that, and no one really wanted people with close to zero experience working on their projects. But I got lucky. A recruiter contacted me, and they told me that there was an offering for an Android course. You do a month of that course for free, and then the best people, the best performers of this course, are going to get offered jobs as junior Android engineers. I did that, and that’s how it all started.

You already mentioned a couple of obstacles that you had. But I wonder, as a female, did you come across any challenges, or was your gender never an issue?

There’s always this bias, especially when you don't have experience, you know, and we're talking about the 2010s, and we're talking about Bulgaria, which is a very small country and is like a few decades behind every other country in some regards. But no, I don't think at the time my gender was an issue.

However, once you get into a position, that's when things slightly change. Even talking about salary is the most trivial one. I thought everyone was doing the same because we were all in the same position, and then suddenly, it turns out that's not true. I was quite disappointed at the thought. But this only made me more determined to become better.

So it wasn't hard to get in. It's when you’re in the field, that's when you start experiencing all those biases, right? Are people around intentionally biased?

I don't think it’s all intentional. However, speaking from a little bit higher up the rank position here. Imagine that a female works within a team with another couple of females and ten guys. At some point, one of the ladies starts performing well, putting a lot of effort into her work.

Unfortunately, I've seen places, and I've been at places where this automatically triggers a negative response from the male colleagues, as in, yeah, she's only getting those because she's a woman. They feel that if a lady gets a promotion, they're getting it just because of some quotas and not so much based on performance. Luckily, that's not the case at the minute, but in the past, I've had occasions where people are going to come straight up to my face and say, yeah, you got this promotion just because, you know, you're a woman.

What's your job now? What does an Android engineer do?

Oh, my God, we do magic, I do magic. That's how I like to phrase it. I have been a staff software engineer at PIA for the past couple of years. I do everything that has to be done when it comes to Android – basically building the Android VPN client for all our customers, maintaining the current code base, adding new features and new functionalities, revamping design, anything really.

Were you specifically interested in Android, or did you get into the field because you had this opportunity?

It was the very early days of mobile phones. There were still the good old Blackberries. What sort of drove me towards Android was the fact that, at the time, it was written in Java, and Java was something that I felt quite comfortable with.

Since we are having this interview to celebrate women here, are there any women who inspire you?

There is this bridge between literature and computer science. Literature tends to be a girly thing. There is Ada Lovelace (mathematician and writer). I love literature, and I love computer science. She's the perfect bridge for that.

I had role models and companies that I previously worked at. At this point in time, I am not too sure about that. Well, okay, this is going to sound cheesy, but, you know, I tend to be my own role model, and I try to do better and better every day so that, you know, I can be proud of myself.

Do you think that gender even matters? I always used to think that your skills matter, but then some people kept telling me that there's a certain quality that women bring to the table, like problem-solving skills and something like that.

I don't think that this is gender specific. It's rather personality-specific because if my team tells me that I bring a good vibe to the team, and, you know, I'm always trying to be positive, and I cheer them up and everything, it's not because I'm a woman. It's because of who I am. I know many men who do the same. I don't think it is gender specific.

Yet we still talk about it very much, right? It's probably going to take years and years before we stop introducing those quotas, right? And we know for sure that, yes, some people do get promoted because there are quotas, right?

Quotas were introduced to solve a problem. However, I think that they're doing exactly the opposite. They're not solving the problem; they're only deepening the problem. Because at the end of the day, you know, ticking boxes is not the same as let's crop the best talent there is and do something great. And I think this should be the company's mindset to work towards, you know, their hiring process.

It shouldn't matter that much whether you tick any boxes or not. At the end of the day, you're not hired to smile in front of the camera. You're hired here to do your work, and if you're great at it, then no one should care about the rest.

How would you encourage someone who is scared because we amplify the issue of bias?

If we look at the problem from a little bit more of a philosophical point of view, you can never be offended unless you agree to be offended. Right? Because that's all up to you. There's nothing scary about being in tech. It's actually fun. If you think that no matter who you are, if you think that this is your thing and you want to invest your time and future in it, then basically nothing else should be a blocker for that, right?

You mentioned that the tech field isn’t scary. What do you find most fun and interesting about it?

For me, particularly, it's doing my day-to-day work, which doesn't only involve coding but also a million other things, but I tend to think of it as art. So I feel like an artist, a little bit of it, and I express my art through code. At the end of the day, this product is likely going to land on millions of people's phones. And you know, this means a lot.

Also, I do take pride in the way we do code. We write code. The best thing about my current position is that PIA is completely open-source. If you are a techie person and you don't trust me or you want to check what my art really does, you go online and access it, which is great because it means that here it is. That's what I consider art.

If you disagree, feel free to leave me a message, you know, and we can start a discussion there. But I mean, this is really a great opportunity to engage with the community.

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