In this episode, we talk about accessibility in tech and how tech can be used to empower people from a variety of backgrounds, with Sareh Heidari, Software engineer at BBC News. Sareh talks about transitioning from physics to development, how networking and meetups helped her land her first job, and how the BBC integrates accessibility in their workflow.
[00:00:00] SY: Hey, CodeNewbies! Before we start the show, I want to share a little teaser with you of another show I work on called DevNews.
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[00:00:20] SY: And Vaidehi Joshi.
[00:00:20] VJ: Hi everyone.
[00:00:21] SY: We’re bringing you DevNews. The new show for developers by developers.
[00:00:26] JP: Each season, we’ll cover the latest in the world with tech and speak with diverse guests from a variety of backgrounds to dig deeper into meaty topics, like security.
[00:00:33] WOMAN: Actually, no. I don’t want Google to have this information. Why should they have information on me or my friends or family members, right? That information could be confidential.
[00:00:42] VJ: Or the pros and cons of outsourcing your site’s authentication.
[00:00:45] BH: Really, we need to offer a lot of solutions that users expect while hopefully simplifying the mental models.
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[00:01:18] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about accessibility in tech and how tech can be used to empower people from a variety of backgrounds with Sareh Heidari, Software Engineer at BBC.
[00:01:35] SH: Accessibility can mean so many different things. It can be accessed to resources even.
[00:01:41] SY: Sareh talks about transitioning from physics to development, how networking and meetups helped her land her first job, and how the BBC integrates accessibility in their workflow after this.
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[00:03:23] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:03:24] SH: It’s a pleasure to be on this show.
[00:03:26] SY: So before working as an engineer at BBC, you were well on your way to getting a doctorate in physics, which is very, very different. Can you tell us how that switch in careers happened?
[00:03:36] SH: A few years ago, I was working at a university while studying for nanotechnology PhD, which was mostly computational. There was some like writing scripts and things to do computational modeling. I was well into doing that when I really realized that I wasn’t really enjoying that work environment at all. I was basically working on my own for the most part. I really liked the project, the product is with nanoparticles and things, so really cool, sounds exciting. It was kind of exciting as a product, but just the work environment wasn’t something that I was really enjoying, but to the point where I wanted to find something new. I wasn’t really sure how to get there. I knew that I really enjoyed problem solving and I missed working with people. So those were basically my criteria for trying to find something new.
[00:04:26] SY: And what kinds of things did you try?
[00:04:28] SH: First of all, I was mostly like aimlessly looking online, to be honest. I was trying to find things that spark my interests. I knew that I really like programming with the brief taster that I had in my undergrad. So in my undergrad, I studied maths and we used C for a few projects for a term in semester. I really liked that, but I knew that not many people were hiring people with like one term of coding experience and then looking into other roles and other things that people were hiring for. A lot of people were assuming like a whole degree in computer science, which I definitely didn’t have. I think basically because I was searching a lot online, ads came up, and one of the ads was for a coding bootcamp. So even though ads are really creepy and I hate that how they follow you around, in this case, it was actually kind of helpful. It was for a taster actually, a taster session, and it was for a user experience and design. And I was like, “Okay, that sounds cool. It’s very different.” It was very short. It was like a two-day taster session really.
[00:05:36] SY: So in that two-day UX workshop, what did you learn? What resonated with you?
[00:05:41] SH: So in that workshop, the idea was that we were introduced to what is user research, why is it necessary, and what’s prototyping and like trying that out with paper prototypes and drawing things out, and then using like an app to take photos of that and like create a user journey. So for example like to actually solve a problem, the person that we’d interviewed. So another person on the weekend kind of course had raised. So it was like, “Oh, I’m finding out a problem and I’m trying to figure out a solution and then I’m feeding it back to them and getting their response.” And I really liked that. I really miss having a feedback loop that was quite short because the feedback loop of a doctor is very, very long. It’s like several years. So that feeling of like, “Oh, cool. I get to work on a thing with somebody else as well and then have that type of feedback loop and feedback.” That was really exciting.
[00:06:37] SY: So after that workshop, how did your coding trajectory go on from there?
[00:06:41] SH: The next step after that was quite a steep one, which is like commit to basically a three-month bootcamp, which is quite intense after like a weekend. So I was a bit hesitant and I wanted to do some research basically. I wanted to find out what it was actually like, what the web development industry was like, web design industry is like.
[00:07:04] SY: So in doing all of your research, did you have any concerns that came up?
[00:07:09] SH: When I was doing my research, I had a few concerns. Yes, I was quite aware about how there’s variety of types of workplaces, I guess, in tech, coming from the more sciency end of the spectrum. From my degree, I was aware there are a lot of places that aren’t the most welcoming for women or people from non-white backgrounds. So as part of this, I was thinking, “Okay, cool. So I need to not only learn about the actual technical skills, but also find out what are good places to work and whether I would actually want to move into an industry which I knew could be problematic.”
[00:07:50] SY: And how did you navigate that concern? How did you deal with that?
[00:07:55] SH: So I was quite lucky in the fact that I live in London. So there are a ton of meetups. So I went to like UX special certification ones. I went to ones about like product management, because I was just interested in finding out about that too. I went to like some front end development ones as well, and I found that really exciting because I was hearing about so many different projects and like ideas and fields of work and different types of companies, like somewhat I’ve heard of, like some well-known brands, but like a lot of them I hadn’t heard of. So like smaller companies or just ones in like niche areas that I didn’t know anything about.
[00:08:34] SY: So what was it like going to all these meetups? Because I know that, especially for our community, that’s something that’s been really just scary and this huge barrier to overcome, this idea that you’re going into this meeting, this huge event usually where you don’t know anyone, you don’t understand the topic usually, you don’t understand what people are talking about. It just seems like such an intimidating thing and you did so many of those. Were you nervous? What was that like?
[00:08:56] SH: I totally understand how that is a very intimidating thing, especially when people are basically throwing around jargon that you’ve never heard of and everyone’s kind of like nodding along or laughing at jokes and you’re like, “I don’t understand anything that’s happening.” I think what helped me prepare for that was a particular experience that maybe it was unique, but maybe other people can relate to as well in different ways. When I was working on my degree, we had like a weekly session where a supervisor would set up the session and each of us students would have to present something. So it could be like a paper that we’d read or something like that, but we’d just have to present something technical to do in the field, but then we’d need to answer all the questions from the audience as well. And the flip side of that, when it wasn’t your turn, you would ask other people questions. In that scenario, what was good is that the supervisor set up in a way that like they would ask everything. They would ask the basic questions as well as the more detailed questions and that encourage us to do that too. So I’m just training where initially I’ll be quiet and I’ll just listen in and see what the more experienced people would do and what kind of questions they would ask. And then I just got used to actually like raising a question. So I was like, “Okay. So I can ask some questions too.” I can ask the simplest question. It doesn’t need to be like this whole well-formed like thought process that I’ve like thought about for like hours or something like that and then presenting that as a question. It can just be like, “Oh, that doesn’t make so much sense. Can I ask that?” And so kind of going from that kind of more academic scenario to like a meetup, that training in a way was quite applicable.
[00:10:41] SY: So let’s talk about what you are doing now. You are currently at BBC. How did you end up working there?
[00:10:47] SH: So one of these meetups was a performance meetup in London. I knew very little about performances, like I knew basically next to nothing. At that meetup, there were a few different speakers, but one of the talks was by a couple of people from BBC News and they were talking about what they were doing to monitor how a performance, so how fast their websites were, how well they work for users all across the world. And so I asked a couple of questions to the people there. And then afterwards, I followed up on Twitter. There was something that they mentioned about different languages and language support. So for those of you who are English language speakers, you might just be familiar with BBC News, but the BBC also has a web service, which just means that they produce content news in like lots of different languages, like 40 different languages across.
[00:11:40] SY: Wow!
[00:11:41] SH: So it’s the same website that is being said, but then the content is in all of these different languages. So I speak Persian or Iranian and I wanted to know how I could make my personal site, dual language, because Persian is a right to left language as opposed to like English and other Latin languages that are left to right. And so I tweeted at one of the speakers over the next week asking like, “Hey, do you have any advice for like how I could do this?” And they pointed me to a blog post. Well, one of their colleagues had like written up, at that time it was like a SASS mixin that they used to like flip right to left and left to right. So you’d have like the direction of the texts would be left to right for some languages, for like English, and then you could flip it so it’s right to left for another language like Persian. Kind of fast forwarding a bit, so it’s near the end of the bootcamp and I got a Twitter DM from that same person that I’d asked the question. So they actually linked to a job posting that they had and they said, “Hey, we’re hiring some junior developers. You should apply.” And yeah, I got the job.
[00:12:52] SY: Very nice and you got it so quickly. That’s so impressive.
[00:12:54] SH: Yeah. It felt really surreal. It helps a lot that I basically know more about the company beforehand than the role because I was talking to them a lot. In the interview, they’re asking about projects and things and I’d mentioned that I had used that SASS mixin that they had suggested for the right to left and left or right, and that was like a point in my favor as well. Like, “Hey, I cared about internationalization or how to make a website serve in multiple languages.”
[00:13:26] SY: So what kind of work do you do at BBC now?
[00:13:28] SH: So right now I am a senior software engineer working on the BBC News website, I would say focusing on the world service sites at the moment. So there are over 40 different languages that BBC News service is broadcasting online, and yes, I’d say I’m a web developer on that.
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[00:15:14] SY: So let’s switch gears now and talk about accessibility and people of different backgrounds. You’re a big advocate for accessibility in tech. How did you get into it?
[00:15:22] SH: So accessibility has been something I’ve cared about for a long time in different venues, so not just in tech. When I interviewed for like BBC News role, accessibility was something that definitely came up in the interview as well, something that I was aware that the BBC cared a lot about. So there are accessibility guidelines that are on the website that are publicly available. It’s quite well known, like when you read like blog post and things online, BBC has quite high standards because it’s like a public service organization as well and there’s like a very high standard that they hold themselves to. That was really appealing. I was like, “I want to learn how to make accessible websites.”
[00:16:05] SY: When you think about your biggest accomplishments or projects, either at BBC or outside of BBC, what are some of those accomplishments?
[00:19:19] SY: So what are some of the most important things that you’ve learned from working at BBC? Because it sounds like they’re very accessibility forward company. So I’m wondering what lessons you might be able to impart on our audience as they develop their own products and features.
[00:19:34] SH: I think the most important thing is that the accessibility isn’t owned by one person. We’ve used the term “accessibility champion”, but if it is just one person, that might be a good place to start, but really what we need is understanding for people from all different disciplines. It’s not just a tester’s responsibility or an engineer’s responsibility. It’s really getting everyone in the team together from product managers to testers, to UX designers, to developers, to testers, anybody from all disciplines. There are different disciplines who we have in our team. Other teams might have more or less and things, but the idea being is that anyone and everyone can chip in and they really should because my main thing that I’ve learned is that accessibility isn’t something you can shoehorn in at the end of a product or a project. It’s kind of like performance in the fact. If you spent months and months building up an application and you’ve built components and you’ve built like interactivity and all of this and then you spent ages like going through the feedback loop, you’ve gone through scoping out an idea and then writing code and then like code reviewing it and then testing it and then going back and you’ve gone through lots of loops of work involving lots of different people and having that signed off, like doing a UX review, like to review whether it’s looking as you wanted and interactivity is working. And then if you set aside like two days at the end of all of that after several months, just time right at the end, that’s almost too late. And so the way to do that is to really disperse time that you’d either do right at the end and pull it up front. And so really have those discussions before you give them any line of code, and really this might be easier for new things that you’re building and I’d really recommend that, even if you’ve got like this huge code base that isn’t accessible in some ways and you don’t have time to fix that, okay, but considering anything new that you build I think is a good way to start because that way that’s kind of self-contained versus we have at the moment is something that I think has evolved to be pretty good for our team at the moment. So at the point where designs for features are created like right out front, so the designers will be using sketch and uploading them to like a shared space for everyone to see. At that point, one person on our team sits down with the UX designers to write where the accessibility acceptance criteria will be. So let’s say when you click on this button, this should happen. When you click on a link, you should go to this page. So this is like general acceptance criteria and then accessibility acceptance criteria are things specifically to do with accessibility.
[00:22:30] SY: So what are some resources our audience should look into if they want to learn more about accessibility?
[00:22:35] SH: There are lots of resources that are available online. BBC website had so much of free accessible. If you’re curious about what specific testing we do for our BBC News site, we have a link, it’s like a site that we have that has really specific information about how to test using tools on a Windows laptop and other things like that with very specific instructions. It’s documentation that we’ve kind of added to at the time. So that can be a really good way if you’ve got like a device. If you’ve got a mobile phone then you want to try it out, that could be a cool way to try it out. So you don’t need like a fancy software to try things out. There’s lots of different toolings online. There are some more in-depth tutorials that you can do. There’s a whole host of them. But the thing is that accessibility is something that affects everybody. So it could be the case that, yeah, color contrast is an issue that might affect people with visual impairments, but it can also affect people if you’re in somewhere that’s sunny and you don’t have that contrast working on your device on your mobile phone or your laptop and so you can’t read the text very clearly. A website that is accessible can benefit a whole host of people.
[00:23:50] SY: So switching gears and talking about empowerment on your website and your profile description, you talk about how you’re also passionate about how tech can be used to empower people from different backgrounds. What does that mean?
[00:24:02] SH: Technology’s a very powerful tool. It enables us to share so many things. So whether it’s to do with the work that we’re doing or like the things we’re learning, all about our life experiences, like things that we are excelling in, like problems in our community that we want to be raised with other people, like bringing people together on platforms, creating safer spaces where people can be supported and uplifted. There’s like so many ways that you can use technology to bring people together and I think that’s the most powerful thing about it.
[00:24:43] SY: So can you give me some examples where tech has done that well?
[00:26:43] SY: Coming up next, Sareh talks about whether empowering people of different backgrounds is a subset of accessibility and what the tech industry is missing when it comes to thinking about accessibility and empowerment after this.
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[00:28:21] SY: So when you think about empowering people of different backgrounds, do you see that as maybe a subset of accessibility? Is that related?
[00:28:30] SH: Yeah, definitely. I think that they intersect definitely. Accessibility can mean so many different things. It can be access to resources even because codebar is free. So that actually drops that, that barrier makes it more accessible to people so that you don’t need to have tons of savings to be able to have an in-person community.
[00:28:54] SY: So when you think about the tech industry as a whole, what do you think it’s missing right now in terms of thinking about accessibility and empowering people of different backgrounds?
[00:29:04] SH: First of all, it’s visibility of the resources and support network that currently exists. I feel like sometimes once you knew they exist or once I knew about codebar, for example, then I found out about this whole host of other things as well, but initially finding that can be difficult. So that’s kind of like almost outreach to the wider immunity in a way is very important. And then another side of things is, I’m actually grappling with it at the moment, it’s like, “Okay. So I’m in tech. Who would’ve thought? That means I’m like lacking in tech or learning about tech and I’m almost in this bubble. I’m in this bubble where the things I’m working on, yes, they do matter. But are they actually impacting people in the wider community, the people on the same street I’m living in, the people I encounter when I go to shops. What problems are they having in their everyday lives?” And I feel like there is a way to go to really connect the tools that we’re building in things to solving like real issues in our communities that like transcend like just technical issues, but actually empower people and enable them to really tackle problems that they’re having and raise them and raise awareness in some cases, but also bring people together to tackle some issues. I feel like that is an area that I see is addressed in a few different spots, in a few different projects and things, but there’s a long way to go, I think.
[00:30:42] SY: So when you think about the work that you’re doing and talking about how you’re a champion of accessibility, are there any other projects that you’re working on to fight the good fight and further the cause?
[00:30:52] SH: So one of my aims when I first started this interview with BBC News is that I wanted to learn enough about accessibility and performance and building websites and things like that so that I can help out nonprofits and charities. That’s something that I’m still looking into how to do that best that there is a meetup that I found that basically pairs up developers and project managers and UX designers with local charities to basically solve their technical issues. So like in one case, there was one charity that was working with families who are carers. So parents who are carers of children with particular long-term disease and they wanted like a support network that wasn’t like Facebook or Twitter or something that was quite public or they wanted to have like moderation, like basically in a supportive environment. So that’s like a really cool project that is using like technical skills to solve like your real world problem. And there’s tons of things like that and so I’m just kind of scoping them out at the moment, but I’m really excited and I want to basically continue with that and hopefully get more people on board too.
[00:32:13] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Sareh, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:32:20] SH: Sure.
[00:32:21] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:32:24] SH: The worst advice I’ve ever received is that this industry is meritocratic and that just doing your best is going to get you to the same place as everybody else’s.
[00:32:36] SY: Yeah. Tell me more about that. Where did that come from?
[00:32:38] SH: I was taught this by people in person and also just like reading posts online and I feel like they’re mostly from perspectives of people that are quite privileged and they don’t really consider the intersectionality. They don’t consider that people have biases in how they hire and how they retain and how they promote people. That is very systematic throughout the industry and also not just tech, but working life in general.
[00:33:09] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:33:12] SH: That you should believe in yourself, because if you do, then others can follow.
[00:33:17] SY: I like that. Where did that come from?
[00:33:19] SH: I have been quite lucky to have really good managers in my time working in BBC and some of their consistent feedback has been that I should believe in myself more and that’s like second guessing myself and things like when it’s critiquing work is good, but like just trying to have that self-confidence is something that is really important and that feeling more confident when talking about whether it’s technical things or other things can help a lot.
[00:33:50] SY: Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:33:53] SH: It was about actually a project at university, which is a very particularly weird thing. We had to program something that was modeling calculations in a really simple way for like universe expansion and things like that. So it was like a super, super, super simple model of it that was just introducing us to like for loops within for loops and in computation and it was like using C. And I’ve never used C ever in my life after that course, but it was quite cool because it was like vaguely, tendentially related to space, and that seemed really awesome.
[00:34:32] SY: Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:34:36] SH: The people who’ve been doing this for years and years and ages still find things difficult. They still encounter situations where they don’t know what’s happening and they are lost and there’s no Stack Overflow answer to the question. And so that continual learning, that continual state of like, “Oh, I’m not sure what’s happening here,” is something that happens throughout your career.
[00:35:03] SY: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Sareh.
[00:35:06] SH: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been really fun.
[00:35:16] SY: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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