Jannat Maqbool speaks at the Innaugural NZ workshop on AI research hosted by the University of Waikato Photo - Isra Yaghi from Through My Apple Eye

The technology industry has grown exponentially in the last few decades, however, only 26 per cent of employees are females. With this in mind, Techwomen was developed in order to encourage a more diverse group of employees. theBitNZ speaks to Jannat Maqbool, who is part of the executive council for Techwomen and has played a huge role in enthusing women into the industry. 

In her second year with the council, Maqbool has been involved in the ShadowTech programme, with Techwomen for three years. The programme allows female students from years nine to 11, to get hands-on experience within the industry.

“I have seen the programme grow over that period to attract more schools and more local tech sector businesses willing to open their doors up for the day to host young women interested in a career in STEM,” she says.

This year a special programme called ShadowTech Teachers took place. This allowed educators from Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Rotorua, Palmerston North and Tauranga to get some insight on “what is really happening in this space in terms of technology development and its application.”

A humble foundation

Thanks to a career, in technology, spanning back to the early 2000s, Maqbool has a good understanding of what it is like to be one of the only women employed in a male-dominated industry. 

Born in Coffs Harbour, she was the daughter of a second-generation family who had arrived in Australia in the 1890s, to work as cane cutters, for the Queensland sugarcane trade. Her father worked long hours as a labourer, then a safety officer at the public works projects. He wanted his three children to make the most of the opportunities that Australia provided and believed that education was their key to success.

Meanwhile, her mother raised the children at home and maintained a strong bond with her community, even though she didn’t speak English. It must have been “a culture shock to come from a small village in Punjab to a small beachside village and stay at home with young children whilst your husband worked from pretty much dawn to sunset,” says Maqbool.

“I get my sense of humour and innovative mind from my mum. She was a whizz in the kitchen and could turn anything growing in the backyard into a delicious meal. She had to be innovative as we didn’t really have much but we made the most of it.”

Innovation was key to the family’s success and along with her two brothers, Maqbool was always encouraged, by her father to pull apart machinery and build something bigger and better. “We learned to wire stuff, fix TVs – and knew how to use soldering irons.” It wasn’t until she came across a Commodore 64 at Grafton Primary School in Australia, that her enquiring mind was pushed into overdrive and she started to show interest in technology.

This strong start in life pushed Maqbool and her two brothers to step into further education, with both brothers going on to become engineers, while she was enthused to study accounting via correspondence at the University of New England.  “I had an upbringing that taught me that really anything was possible if you put your mind to it.”

In 1996, she landed a job as a Superannuation Fund Advisor with Mercantile Mutual (now ING).  She hadn’t forgotten her passion for computers and was soon putting her hand up to become more involved in working with the financial software that existed at the time. The timing was perfect from full immersion in technology as she found herself smack dab in the middle of Y2K panic (where the world was going crazy about what might happen to data once the year clicked over from 1999 to 2000). Thanks to this, Maqbool was given the opportunity to test the super fund software to ensure that there were no glitches. 

“I tried accounting for a couple of years, but it was more the software that interested me.”

Jannat Maqbool

By 2001, she had moved across the ditch, to New Zealand, with her husband and was offered a systems accounting role with Motor Trade Finances (MTF), in Dunedin. “I tried accounting for a couple of years, but it was more the software that interested me.”

MTF was an aspiring Fintech company at the time, with a forward-thinking management team at the helm. Thanks to her passion for computer software, she was soon given the opportunity to work with an internal analyst team, studying the habits of their customers (which included 680 vehicle dealers across the country). The team worked together to develop software that would incorporate data management with client profiles. “We could combine data inputted through the origination system with third-party data feeds to evaluate clients and come up with a base rate for finance.”

From there she began working on marrying up technology with finance. She says if it wasn’t for her boss at the time  she “might never have managed to get under the hood so to speak and land in the roles that I have since then.”

Bright futures

As her experience grew, she decided to complete qualifications in becoming a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and move on to academics, where she was offered a role at Wintec, supervising IT student projects within the tech industry. From there, she moved on to become a lecturer, as well as taking on the role of Associate Director of the University of Waikato’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute, last year.  

With the technology that comes from AI research, comes the possibility of more automated lifestyles, including self-driving vehicles, connected infrastructure, and even the possibility of smart rubbish bins.  Maqbool is an advocate for the positive benefits of smart cities and as Country Director for New Zealand at Smart Cities Council ANZ, she believes there are many ways we can make city living a lot more adaptable. 

Hamilton City Council is one of many cities, worldwide, involved in adapting to smart technology that improves the lives of citizens.  Last year the Smart Cities Council interviewed Hamilton City Council and the University of Waikato about the concept of a 20-minute city (a town that operates in a way that the citizens can access most of what they need within a 20-minute walk, cycle, or public transport trip from home).

“The concept truly puts people first with everything else, that makes up a city, designed around the needs of its citizens to ensure safety, connection, and convenience. It would be great to see that happen with all cities,” she says. 

While she is excited about the speed of our adaptation to new technology, she warns that investment in future technology needs to be open to all. “There is also the existing divide between those in the know and/or in power and those that are not and this divide is just going to get worse. We need to act now to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be at the table to have the conversation when it comes to what is right and should happen when it comes to data for example.”

A passionate advocate for enthusing young people to get involved in tech, Maqbool says her main advice to anyone wanting to get into the industry is to “remain focused on your goals, surround yourself with people who make you feel good and connect with others that can support you on your journey and are genuinely interested in doing so.”