Interview with Lana Al-Salem
Hello Lana! I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. On our website, there is a section called Spotlight. So far, we have interviewed Ms. Nariman Mansour and we have been thinking about who to interview next and I have said that it should be Lana. You’ve been doing Scrum/Agile workshops for us and even did one during Tech Week last year. So, we knew we had to get you!
Basically, I want to talk a little bit about your background, a little about your education and then on your work experience. So, to start, where are you from? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in many countries! I lived the majority of my adulthood in Jordan and hence my education was there, too.
Wow! So, when you came to Canada, was it a particular job that brought you to Montreal or was there a reason you chose Montreal specifically?
I decided to immigrate to Montreal, and there are two reasons for that. I was considering Vancouver, but the sun here is more (prevalent) even in the winter. I need the sun! Also, my parents live in Jordan and so, I have a direct flight to them from here. It’s 12 hours, but at least it is a direct flight … I don’t have to hop from one place to the other. For them to come it is also easier.
Have they gotten the chance to come visit you over here?
Yes, many times and they love it! They’ve been here even before I immigrated. They came here for a conference, my dad, a couple of times.
That’s wonderful! Now, I’d like to ask you a bit about your educational background. I looked up your details on LinkedIn and I saw a lot of really interesting things about you! For example, I saw that you did your Business Administration Bachelors from Jami’at Al-Yarmouk. First off, why did you choose ‘Business Administration’?
Honestly, I’m not sure how much you know about the education system abroad, but the marks that you get qualifies what University you choose from. We don’t have a lot of options and at that time, I didn’t think about it a lot. It ended up a good choice, actually.
That’s interesting! So, when you were placed into Business Admin, you were happy with it and accepted it, or did you have some kind of hesitation?
I didn’t know much about it. At that time, and we’re talking about a long time ago (26-28 years), I had the choice between Economics, Finance or Statistics. These were my given choices to choose from. So, I’d rather go to Business Administration.
I learned also that you were an Events and Field Trips Organizer! What kind of trips did you go on? What do you remember from your “organizing” days?
I organized some charity events. I organized some field trips to other areas in Jordan. Even now I still do these kinds of things. I like to organize events!
One of the best things that I read about you is that when you went to the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Sciences, you did your Masters in Management Information Systems, and your graduation project was developing a software that teaches Arabic sign language to deaf people!
Yeah, do you know ‘Duolingo’? It was similar to that on a computer; a picture matched with a letter or word. You could do tests when you finish some stuff, and that’s about it!
Wonderful! And so, you stayed at the Arab Academy for your PhD in Computer Information Systems.
Yes, it was the first PhD in Information Systems in Jordan, at that time. We were the first group to be graduated as PhDs (in this field)!
You’re a trend setter!
Yeah … you can say so!
You don’t have to be too modest!
(Laugh) I come from a culture where we don’t brag. This is my problem with interviews here, you need to sit and brag about things and you can’t be modest. My modesty did not help at all!
Your PhD thesis title is so long I don’t even know if I can say it one breath; “eWARE Extended WebApps Requirements Engineering- Strategic Focused Requirements Method for WebApps”. What does that even mean?
It’s just “Requirements Engineering for Web Applications”, that’s okay! It came from my work. I did my PhD while working. It was really exhausting! It was empirical research, so whatever I was trying to come up with like a new approach for requirements engineering, I applied it on my project. I got feedback from it and worked to enhance it, and so forth.
You were working full time while doing your PhD? How long did it take you to complete it, then?
It took five years. It was so tiring and exhausting, I was knocked down after that. I had a very forgiving job. Between projects and when work slowed down, they didn’t mind me doing whatever I needed. It was good for me! I was lucky to work in that place.
What I find even more exciting than your educational background is your work experience. The first employer I see of yours is Dakkak Tours and you were a tour operator! This kind of connects with your events planning! Were you a guide on tours saying, “to your left, you see this … to your right, you see this …”?
No actually, you know when there are tourists that come in groups? Let’s say, you have a group of people going to the middle east and they want to go to Jordan, Egypt, and Syria (as an example). We would organize for them their whole trip; the sites, the transportation, the flights, the food, the guide. It was like doing project management for tours. For every incoming group, their trip could be as short as a 4-day trip all the way to 21 days (the longest I had seen). Groups could sometimes be as big as a charter plane full of people only for the tour. Each one of us tour managers were responsible for a different region. I was responsible for Scandinavia and South Asia; Sri Lanka, Thailand, and some people from India, as well.
Your next job was also in Jordan, when you worked for Omnix International …
Yes, I started with them after I started my Masters. I started with them as a Business Analyst, and then I finished with them as a Project Manager/Business Analyst.
And after that, you went to Greece for 5 years! I’m jealous!
It was awesome! The people are very nice! They are full of life. It’s everything; the food, the sea, the culture. It’s a combination of many things.
Have you got a chance to visit since leaving Greece, at all?
Yeah, I went when I was working in Cyprus. I went many times, because in Cyprus I travelled to Greece almost every month for one week. The job in Greece was for a software for ship management, like for cruise lines, vessel containers or the tankers. One of the things that we implemented was an application for SpecTec, so I became very familiar with it. Then they approached me to work with them, so I moved to Cyprus. I started with SpecTec as a Project Manager and I ended up as a Product Manager.
How do you compare Cyprus and Greece?
It was a huge difference. I thought that it was going to be the same, but I realized I shouldn’t make any assumptions, ever! Cyprus is divided into two areas, Turkish and Greek. I was working in the Greek side, so I thought people would be more like Greek culture, but it was different. They were colonized by the English. So, for instance, everyone speaks English. In Greece, everyone doesn’t speak English. In many ways, they’re very different, but I like them both!
Good! It seems like you really connected with the Greek culture!
I am good with all cultures! You will find in every culture, there are good people. Most of the people are good, I believe in that. Like, if you told someone you’re going to Pakistan, they will say “No, it’s scary, don’t go!” I’ve been there so many times, and people are very respectful and kind. I spent five summers in a row in Pakistan, making the total a year. My dad was working in the UN in Islamabad. He was there for five or six years, so we used to visit him in the hot summers there!
Wow, very interesting! So, your position at Jesta, was that your first job here in Montreal?
Yes, I was so lucky. For someone who had just immigrated, I got the job in less than two months! I was more than lucky! Everyone here looks for Canadian experience, so it was really awesome!
What makes you even luckier, is that you worked in Miami!
I loved my experience there, I was working back with SpecTec, the same company I was with earlier. But the project ended and I work now at TekSystems. TekSystems is a consulting company for software development, and I’m a senior business analyst – actually, what I’m doing is a product owner.
So, I guess life is about … accommodating …
Yes, being adaptable. It’s not the survival of the strongest, it’s about who can adapt faster!
I like that a lot! You know, there’s one quick question I want to ask before I forget. After all of this, your education and your work experience, is there a small part of you that wishes you got a full scholarship for your volleyball team back in Jami’at Al-Yarmouk? Do you wish you had become an all-star volleyball player instead?
(Laugh) No! Even now, I work out every day for one and a half hours! You know, you have two things; mental energy and physical energy. For me, it’s not only about physical energy, but about mental as well. So, working in software development is mentally challenging, and that’s actually good!
I agree it’s that’s so important. During our College years, Ms. Mansour really drilled to us that programming and IT related tasks, for school or work, should not be the only things you do in life. You should have something else that really drives you, as well. So, it’s nice to hear that echoed through you.
Yeah, although I don’t do volleyball as much anymore, I’m into other things now. I do a lot of backpacking! I just came from a trip, in fact! I did 75 km of walking at an elevation gain of 3100 meter! It was just my friend and I, so we had the tents/food/water/everything!
Wow! Have you ever been to the Rocky Mountains, all the way to the west? It’s the only place I’ve been hiking, since I grew up near them. It’s such a beautiful place!
No, I haven’t! It’s on my list, actually. I would love to do them!
So, I have a question regarding LaSalle College. I don’t actually see it anywhere on your education or work experience. In fact, there is no connection to the College in your history. My question is, how did you get connected to the College, and more specifically, to Ms. Mansour?
From Mousa, he was a former student of hers. He invited me to come with him for the first workshop that we did on Agile.
Oh! That was the first time you met her? For some reason, I thought the two of you knew each other for a long time!
No, but we just … connected. It’s like that for some people. Like even now, I feel like I know you!
Absolutely, Lana! For sure! Also, it was very generous of you to come give your time for the Tech Week Agile/Scrum workshop, again continuing your connection with Ms. Mansour and the College!
Yeah, you know … I have this feeling that I’ve reached a point in my career where I would like to and have a lot of knowledge and experience to share. That’s why when anyone asks for help, with pleasure I do it!
That’s very nice! When did you get to that point? At what point did you think, “I’m very accomplished and I want to start giving back.”
Hmm … maybe about five/six years ago.
You still felt like you were building yourself up before then?
Yes, I STILL feel that way! I’m a “Work In Progress”!
Finally, I have one last question for you, and thank you again Lana for this time you have given me.
Thank you for inviting me, I am honoured!
Thank you! So, what I really admire about people like you, like Ms. Mansour, is that there is definitely a difference between female and male participation in Computer Science and IT. Traditionally, there has been very few female involvements in the field. You, not being directly from the computer world but more the business analyst side, do you see a similarity in your field, as well?
Yes, but actually just to let you know, the differences are more in North America, surprisingly. I was reading an article recently, where they were looking at females in IT. They discovered that the females coming from North America (born here) are much fewer than females from another country. In other countries you’ll find that a lot of females are going into IT. In North America, I don’t know, but it’s less. For that reason, you have a lot of cases where if it’s you and your colleague doing the same job, and he’s a male and you’re a female, you have a difference in the salary.
Do you have a guess why it is like that, where there is more positive push for women in IT outside of North American? Is it a cultural thing?
No, I really don’t know. I’m not sure why.
You’re such an accomplished and successful woman in your field, what kind of advice could you give to younger women, to push and stay in IT, to break the mold created against them?
IT is an interesting field and it has so many professions, not only developer. Soft skills are a deal breaker for advancement and, for us (women), soft skills come to us naturally (i.e. communication, team players).
Well, talking to you, I’ve learned that this may not have crossed your mind in the same way as it does for those brought up over here. If you were born and raised in North America and if you saw the wage differences and school attendances, then you may have more to say on the topic and perhaps a harder time breaking the mold, yourself!
It shouldn’t be that when you are 18 and in College or University, you think, “I want to study this to get a high salary”. When you enter College/University, you should rather enter something that you enjoy. It’s not about what gives you more money. Plus, the market fluctuates for all jobs, whether it’s architecture or nursing! Maybe there’s a perception of what is IT, that maybe it’s a “man’s role” … I don’t know.
Well, whatever it is, we need more people like you out there so more girls can look at you and think, “I can be a very successful woman in whatever I do!”
That’s it! Again, thank you very much for your time!
It’s no problem! Thank you for having me!