Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
My name is Laila Bougria, I’m a passionate software engineer and I really enjoy learning new things, not only in tech. As my niece, Dina always describes me: "You’re like the moon, you go through phases".
She refers to how I take on something completely new every few years and go deep. Some of those phases have been photography, handlettering, knitting and crochet, and more… Over the years I understood that the learning journey is what I enjoy most, which is why I always move on to a new challenge.
I was born and raised in Belgium, but have Spanish and Moroccan roots. Being raised in a mixed-culture environment has been challenging at times, but most of all, it’s been enriching in many ways. One of the perks of being multicultural is the amount of languages I learned to speak at a young age.
What is your job (or specialisation) and what does a typical (work)day look like for you?
I work at Particular Software as a software engineer, and mostly focus on distributed systems with messaging technologies. I’ve always had a preference for backend technologies, although I’ve done frontend work throughout my career as well.
My (work) day starts with coffee, and then a refill 🤣. At Particular, we do things a bit differently, we don’t have teams in the traditional sense, but rather work in formations of squads and task forces. Squads are a group of people that prioritise work for the organisation, and task forces are formed to complete such work. We don’t have fixed teams working on a (set of) components, which means that I could be working on any component for a few weeks on a task force and then move on to work on another component in another task force.
My day may consist of some coding on a specific component, analysing possible solutions to a problem, investigating a new technology or even planning a company conference. I also schedule time to manage open work in the squad, support customers, and read through open RFCs which is our process for decision-making… Oh, and lunch breaks usually consist of a quick and intense 30min HIIT training.
What does distributed systems with messaging mean exactly?
Once a system is composed of multiple services or processes that are installed across multiple servers, a system may be called a “distributed system”. A distributed system with messaging, is a system in which messages are used to communicate across those service/process boundaries. Those messages are small data structures containing the required information to process that request, and are stored in a message broker.
Instead of directly calling an API or service, e.g. a REST API, messages are used to asynchronously communicate between components. The main advantages of doing so, is the reliable and durable aspect that comes with it. Let’s consider sending a message to a service to place an order. The only requirement from the sending side for that operation to succeed, is that there is a message broker available to store that message. That means that the Sales service may be unavailable when sending the message, but the message can still be stored securely.
The request will be handled when the service is available and will then respond accordingly. When a system is composed of services or components that connect through messaging, the system is robust as it can deal with partial outages. Another advantage is that each component or service can be independently scaled according to the system’s needs.
How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?
As I mentioned earlier, I have quite a list of hobbies, but since we have 2 beautiful children in this world, I don’t practice them all anymore. I love to spend time with my family doing anything the day brings, they also have quite a busy schedule…
On the weekends I like to do a longer workout session, usually around an hour. If I have some time left, I will usually choose to read a bit, get some knitting in while watching a tv series or listening to some music by the fireplace.
What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?
I had a way with computers early on and just figured things out on my own. However, I had never thought of pursuing tech. At some point during senior year at high school, we had a few lessons in which we had to “program” a car to move from point A to B without hitting any cones on the way. The exercises came naturally to me and this stood out to my teacher.
Although I had chosen to pursue teaching as a career, my teacher made it his mission to encourage me to try to pursue software engineering instead. He convinced me and I never looked back. I encountered him years later and was able to thank him for pushing me. He made a huge impact on my life and I will forever be grateful for that!
If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?
Be a sponge. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had awesome colleagues throughout my career that were five steps ahead of me. Each environment I’ve worked in, I would follow someone much smarter and experienced than me and take in as much knowledge from them as I could.
Find someone to follow. Pair with them. Ask many questions, including the ones you think might be stupid. Especially the ones you think might be stupid.
Find someone to follow. Pair with them. Ask many questions, including the ones you think might be stupid. Especially the ones you think might be stupid.
Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?
There are many women I look up to in technology. I’ve had the privilege to meet (and continue meeting) amazing women in the industry through work, community events and speaking at conferences.
Answering this question from a historical perspective, I’d like to call out the programmers of ENIAC. Their effort and talent went unrecognised for years and years while their work has been nothing short of inspiring.
From personal experience, Indu Alagarsamy has made a tremendous impact on me and my career. It’s thanks to her support (and push in the back) that I started speaking at bigger conferences. I had spoken previously at smaller user groups, but always shied away from the larger conferences. The way she supports minorities in the industry is inspiring. She also runs a user group and is always looking for new speakers 😉
What motivated you to pick up public speaking?
A combination of knowledge sharing and representation. When I’m passionate about something, I really enjoy talking about it, sharing ideas, and learning even more.
As mentioned before, I previously spoke at a local user group a few times. Pieter Gheysens, who was running the VISUG user group and whom I worked with, saw the potential in me to become a good speaker and motivated me to try it (for which I’ll always be grateful!).
However, I built up a belief and perception that I had to know everything there is to know about a subject before being able to speak on it. That led me to not speak on anything for quite some time, because I always felt I didn’t know enough. Thanks to some amazing friends, colleagues and fellow speakers, as well as time and maturity, I realized that even though I might not know everything, I do offer knowledge that I have gathered over years of experience from challenging projects and exceptional people I’ve been blessed to work with.
Although I might not know everything about a specific topic, I do know enough so that it can make a difference to someone else’s knowledge base. I bring my own perspective when explaining problems and solutions that have the potential to be framed in a way that “clicks” with someone in the audience. In the case there are plenty of people in the crowd that know more about the subject than me, I’ve been granted the opportunity to connect and learn from them.
Representation is another angle. Conference organisers are increasingly paying attention to the composition of their speaking panels. Representation matters. Seeing someone speak on a subject you’re interested in with whom you can identify, can motivate you to dig deeper and pursue your dreams, whatever they are. Unfortunately, biases based on gender, origin, religion, race, and looks continue to exist. I have faced many of them combined.
A female software engineer?! With Moroccan and Spanish roots? But you look so “girly”! If people encounter more people that stand out for whatever reason, the odds of reactions like these significantly decrease, and shift to: Oh yes, I’ve met other X like you.
Hopefully, eventually, what we do combined with who we are, doesn’t stand out at all, and reactions shift to showing respect and admiration for what we do independently of anything else.
Do you have any tips or recommendations for women who want to get into public speaking?
First of all, if this is something you want to do, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone (I’m right there with you!), I would say get out of your head, and set yourself up for success. The first step to getting into anything, is deciding for yourself that you want it. To quote Lars Klint: once you decide that you want it, it’s time to turn your dream into an actionable plan and make it happen.
Once you’ve taken that step, here are a few tips:
Your session abstract matters, a lot. There’s a post with some tips by Niall Merrigan on the subject: "Make me an offer I can't refuse - writing an abstract for a CfP".
Submit your session to multiple conferences, the audience will be different, and you increase your chances of getting accepted. However, be prepared to deal with a scenario in which you’re accepted to all of them, so check your availability before submitting.
Start preparing your session(s) early. Don’t procrastinate. Once your abstract is ready, you can start preparing your session, even before it has been accepted somewhere. That gives you time to think about the content you want to present and iterate over it.
Ask for feedback! Find fellow speakers and colleagues you trust to present your sessions to. Ask for thorough and ruthless feedback.
Never let feedback discourage you, focus on the fact that you are in time to improve your session. I promise the end result will be worth it. If you don’t know anyone, feel free to reach out!
Practice. Dry runs are a must… The more you present a session, the better you will present it. As you practice, you will find ways to improve and strengthen the message you want to bring across, especially if you’re speaking in non-native language.
Speak at smaller user groups to build your confidence and experience. Building a track record will also increase your chances to speak at larger conferences.
If you’re speaking at a conference, keep in mind that attendees need to focus, listen and absorb information for hours at a time, which most of us are not used to. Especially after lunch this can be a challenge 🥱. Find ways to keep the audience engaged, and don’t forget to throw in a joke.
Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?
I mostly rely on a good list of blogs, some of which are compilations of blog posts. The morning brew is probably the one I’ve been reading the longest. Another one I’ve subscribed to more recently, is Architecture Weekly. I also like to keep track of the Microsoft and AWS blogs, as well as the CNCF.
Do you have a favourite programming language to work with or a favourite aspect of programming?
Did you also explore any other sub specialisations in software development or programming before landing where you are now?
Where I am now grew out of interest, more than a clear cut path. It was more like a wobbly sand path with lots of diverging paths that ended up leading back to the main one 😊. I do like to learn many new things, hence the diverging paths. What resonates with me most, and what I enjoy doing most, is what sticks over time.
For example, I had a period of time where I tried to focus more on the front-end technology stack because I felt out of touch after a long project focussed on back-end. While I did learn a lot and worked on successful projects, I ended up being pulled back into back-end technologies and that eventually led me to where I am now.
The most important tenets for me are to enjoy what I do and to never stop learning (which also means stepping outside of my comfort zone regularly!). That has helped me find my path, and I’m still figuring out where it continues to lead to.
How do you approach if you get stuck during programming or have a bug that just seems very difficult to tackle?
At Particular, we work collaboratively by default. This is the first company where collaboration has been this intensive. It does come with its own challenges, but being able to think through ideas in group has been an amazing experience so far.
If I were assigned to solve something alone, here are a few things I try: Google. Obviously!
Find a rubber duck. Just explaining the problem to someone else leads to aha moments. If you have no one to ask for help, try writing the problem down. Thoroughly understanding the problem is 70% of the work!
Step away and let it simmer.
Sleeping over it also helps. When I’m really stuck with an issue, I sometimes dream the solution, as I’m still working through it unconsciously. I will wake up in the middle of the night with an aha moment, write it down, and go back to sleep. Luckily, it’s not something that happens every week 😅
If you were a pizza, what kind of pizza would you be? (Question from Aline L)
Hmmm, I would clearly be half half. One half would be topped with scampi’s, onion, black olives, and garlic, lots of garlic. The other half would be carpaccio, rocket and parmesan. 😋
What made you join the women.code(be) community?
I found women.code(be) through LinkedIn. I was excited to meet fellow women engineers and support one another.
How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?
I strongly believe that the inclusivity problem starts at education, and in society’s beliefs and habits. To this date, I continue to have conversations with women that are surprised at the fact that I’m a software engineer. “I would be very surprised and quite worried if my daughter chose to be a software engineer. Isn’t tech a man’s world? That would be very challenging for her.” When I hear such comments, I can only think of how many young girls are being (knowingly or unknowingly) discouraged from pursuing a tech career at a young, impressionable age.
Most young adults will turn to their parents and role models for advice when choosing a career as they are making one of the most impactful decisions of their life. Therefore, schools, teachers and study counselors have a huge responsibility in educating not only students, but also parents on the options available and the pathways they may open.
When it comes to the workplace, we need to continue working on equality. That’s why I’m a big proponent of open salary policies. Minorities should not have to wonder, or even find out by gaining coworkers’ trust, whether they are receiving an equal pay. They should just know. Salary is not the only aspect. Another important aspect is equitable access to opportunity.
Women are often denied opportunities due to being mothers (or the possibility thereof), working a shorter workweek (4 out of 5 workdays), or being less outspoken. People in management positions should be mindful of these biases and ask the person whether they think they are up to the challenge at hand.
Have you introduced any of your kids to coding or any cool technology projects?
Both my husband and I are software engineers, so we would be over the moon if our kids would want to pursue a tech career. At the same time, we don’t want to push anything and want them to choose whatever makes them happy.
At their age now (5 and soon to be 8), we’re focussing on STEM toys and educational games and respecting what they enjoy. We gifted our son a small robot which’s movements could be programmed, but he wasn’t too excited about it at the time. We let it go and will reintroduce it to our daughter, which might also spark our son’s interest too. Ayden has a great passion for math and logic, and enjoys games like chess and sudoku.
My younger daughter Nora loves tangrams and enjoys Smart Games. We also like to invest in books that introduce certain ideas and concepts, and are looking forward to see whether they develop the love for code we have.
Any suggestions what non-programmer parents could do together with their kids to stimulate an interest in tech or coding?
When they are rather young, focussing on logic lays a good foundation for later ages. There are more and more STEM games available to choose from, so it’s a well-used keyword for us when looking for toys. I also came across the author Chris Ferrie recently, and I love the collection.
We especially enjoy the “My first 100 X words”-series and have them for technology, mathematics, space, science and engineering although we haven’t read through all of them yet! They can contain words we don’t commonly use at home that spark discussions with the kids.
I also use them to teach the kids those same words in Spanish. Once they are older, even non-programmer parents could try a programmable toy with their kids. Who knows, it might even spark their interest in coding and cause a career shift!
If you want to catch a glimpse of Laila's public speaking in action, she can be spotted at the following upcoming events: