Welcome to our December edition of Carpe Diem, our monthly segment featuring role models across CiscoEWN. We all make resolutions and set goals to improve ourselves– but somewhere along the way, life interrupts our plans, we find ourselves juggling different priorities and invariably things get dropped. What you will find in this segment are experiences of some ordinary people who went on to achieve extraordinary results. Each person featured in this series has faced challenges and opportunities that the rest of us can identify with. Let’s draw inspiration from the choices they made and aspire to the outcomes they created.
Interview with: Bouchra Bouqata, Senior Analytics Product Manager, GE Renewable Energy – Wind Dr. Bouqata has a PhD in Computer Science in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
Cisco Empowered Women’s Network (CiscoEWN): You’ve wanted to be a research scientist in the U.S. since you were six years old. How did you stay true to your childhood dream and see it through?
Bouchra: I’ve always loved sci-fi movies, and knew early on that I wanted to be involved in the science behind what the future holds. Growing up in Morocco, I was given all the support and backing by my parents. However, there were a still few people who believed at that time, that a traditional engineering path, was a field better suited for men. One of my teachers advised me to take on something easier, like becoming a “high school” teacher. I remember my father telling me, ‘your teacher doesn’t define who are you are and what you want to become. Take any challenge you want, but do it well. Whatever you want to be – a teacher, an engineer, a scientist – do it, but be the best at it!’ With an eye towards my end goal of using technology to impact and change people’s lives; I found an alternate path to get to it, by studying math and physics, instead of engineering.
CiscoEWN: What were some of the headwinds and tailwinds that you faced?
Bouchra: Ironically, one of the biggest headwinds was the fact that I had a successful job in Morocco after I finished my Master’s degree. It was a coveted role at Oracle and I had multiple other offers as well. But I told myself that if I got too comfortable in that role, I would never be able to leave to pursue my research aspirations in the U.S. So after a year, I kept my focus and made the change.
The tailwinds in life have always been my support system, starting with my parents. My mother didn’t get a chance to finish higher studies, so education was a priority for her. My father has a degree in French literature and continues to educate himself. He nurtured this curiosity for knowledge in us. Another strong influence comes from our peers and friends; they can also help shape what we become. We should control whom we allow in that circle or else they could become headwinds.
CiscoEWN: Have you made decisions that didn’t have the outcome you intended?
Bouchra: Yes. The concept of ‘Fail fast, fail forward’ does apply here. I came to the US for my PhD with a professor who had recruited me in the Electrical Engineering Department. Within my first semester, I realized that working in Electrical Engineering would pull me away from my passion for research and for staying true to my Computer Science and Algorithms background. I approached my advisor at that time with my concern, and he decided to pull my scholarship. It was disheartening, especially because I was new to the country and had pinned my hopes on this program. But I decided to learn from this experience, and took the risk and challenge to set about finding other programs in other universities. I didn’t compromise and stayed with my original plan because I was secure with the knowledge that I had a safety net (I could always go back to Morocco and get back to my career), and I had successfully faced challenges before. A lack of self-security impacts the choices we make in life. I told myself that I could take a chance and could start over again, and I did. So I got a scholarship from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science.
“Different paths can lead you to your end goal. Don’t be afraid to pivot on the small goals to achieve your larger vision.”
– Bouchra Bouqata
Recently in my career, I took another risk and tried something new. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in pure research and moved into business to gain perspective around creating customer value. In this new role, I was faced with harder deadlines than in research. I had doubts in the beginning, but then I reminded myself that I can lean on my network. I learned completely new facets of bridging the gap between researching technology versus productizing it. You can’t say you don’t like something without trying it. And now that I have tried business, I realized that I love research too much to leave it totally behind, so I moved forward once again, and have found a happy medium in my current role.
CiscoEWN: What was your most fulfilling achievement?
Bouchra: Giving back, getting involved and leading the Women and Technology group part of the GE Women’s Network; as well as being on the committee for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, and co-founding Arab Women in Computing (ArabWIC). It is hard work but it empowered me, gave me support and guidance, and gave me the platform to pay it forward. While we learn every day, the experiences we gain keep changing with changing circumstances in life. We have to adapt and make dynamic shifts. We can’t do it by ourselves without leaning on our networks. I am grateful for the opportunities to pass on this learning so other women can evolve and develop.
Another amazingly fulfilling moment came through my 6-year-old daughter. I have a photograph of myself in an astronaut suit taken during one of my research projects with the Air Force. My daughter took that to school and told her teacher that she wants to be an astronaut – ‘just like her mom.’ It brought back my childhood memories of sci-fi and robots and wanting to be an astronaut. I explained to my daughter that I am a scientist and that one can do great things with science. She loved the possibilities of science, and said she wants to be like me. I am so humbled that she considers me her role model.
CiscoEWN: What would you write in a letter to your younger self?
Bouchra: I have thought a lot about this, because while it’s great to keep your eye on your final goal, you have to realize that different paths can lead you there. If you get stuck on one and only one way to get to the end, you lose out on other opportunities. So continue to have end goals and a vision but then also have smaller goals and deliverables to get you there. Smaller milestones can get you to your goal through multiple achievable paths and you can change and pivot on them. We are the masters of our destiny; by controlling things we can control, and dwelling on opportunity instead of hardships, we can excel in whatever path we choose to take us to our end goal. The other point I will tell my younger self is to take it easy and not make it hard on yourself if things don’t go exactly the way you planned in the short term. Keep focus on the longer-term goal and do the best you can.
CiscoEWN: If you could redo one thing in your life, what would that be?
Bouchra: I would start giving back earlier to the community and others. We think that we can only give back once we have reached a more senior position in life. The reality is that people and girls in particular can benefit from your experiences at each step of the way. If you are a Ph.D. student, there is someone just starting their bachelor’s degree that can get inspired by you to go for higher education and aim high. If you are a junior professional, there is a student who is just starting to make decisions on what field to pursue, and can learn from you.
I would also not stress about making my personal life perfect at the cost of my professional life, or vice versa. You can strike a balance between your personal life and professional life, even though it might not be balanced at every step of the way. Don’t worry about making things perfect; things have their way of falling into place.
I guess these are two things and not one. 🙂
CiscoEWN: Leave us with your favorite Carpe diem statement.
Bouchra: Believe in yourself, and reach out to your support team. You may be able to do it on your own, but you don’t have to. Find your anchor, and keep in mind that small, changeable goals can lead you to your dream.
Thank you, Bouchra!