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Career opportunities and challenges as a woman in technology with Zdravka Dzhaleva

In a recent interview with media outlet, We Are Tech Women, Zdravka Dzhaleva – a Senior Software Engineer at Paysafe in Sofia – shares her experience of being a woman in technology, and talks mentoring, career development and gender parity. Read on to discover what she had to say.

At work she is passionate about code and process quality, tackling and analysing product requirements. Zdravka enjoys implementing both client and server – side tasks. In her free time, Zdravka practices Latin dancing at different festivals around the world and hosts dance classes. 

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role 

I am Zdravka Dzhaleva and I am a Senior Software Engineer at Paysafe. 

My career journey started in a quite different direction from tech. During my high school years, I used to love maths, which is why I chose a master’s programme in civil engineering. After graduating I started working as a civil engineer, designing the steel structures of artificial climbing walls. My initial plan was to gain some knowledge in the that field which would eventually help me in pursuing a career as a building designer, but that obviously didn’t happen! I was then given the opportunity to become a project manager, responsible for several international projects. 

In just one year I learned so much – what I’m able to achieve and what satisfies me in a job, but most importantly, I also learned what I don’t want for my career. I was ready for a change, and it didn’t take long until I decided to make it happen. Recommended to me by a friend, I applied for a transition course for civil engineers wanting to pursue a career in software engineering. The ideal applicant was described as a ‘maths lovers with civil engineering education’, which sounded perfect! I joined the course in parallel with my project manager position and it only took me a few weeks and one inspiring and motivating teacher to realise that software engineering would turn into one of my biggest passions. Therefore, I decided to leave my job and focus entirely on coding. 

As well as switching my career path, I also took up a master’s degree in project management for IT projects. Diving into an unknown domain meant starting almost from the bottom again, but my project management experience, my interest in maths and my analytical thinking helped me follow this path. Through the following years I grew from a person who was solving beginners’ problems during the tech course to the software engineer I am today. 

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

The early days of my career were a bit chaotic. I knew what I was good at, but I had no clue what industry would suit me best. That is why I decided to follow the trial-and-error strategy and give myself time to explore, observe and reflect upon what was working for me and what wasn’t. Making the switch between two different  career fields helped me gain an insight into the path that would inspire me and support my professional growth. 

Once I discovered my true interests, it became easier for me to be more strategic in setting my career goals. Studying a second master’ program in project management for IT projects has greatly benefited my career. It’s helped me gain a broader overview of the whole business process, from analysing and understanding business requirements, crafting them into technical solutions and seeing the final product in the hands of the customers. This knowledge was crucial for my career growth. 

Have you faced any challenges along the way? 

I would be lying if I said no! The main challenge was always the fact that I’m a woman in a field dominated by men. Before switching to tech there were situations where I was not given the same tasks and responsibilities as the men at the company in similar roles. Speaking out on why that was the case was not always welcomed either. As a result, I was challenged with even harder duties, but I think this experience pushed me to look for something greater and better for myself. 

I fell in love with tech as soon as I made the jump into the industry, but that passion came with even more challenges. I had to learn not only the coding itself, but also the tech terminology, processes, and at the same time I had to keep up with the fast-paced dynamic of the industry. Looking back now I can say that everything was worth it and while the challenges haven’t disappeared, the way I tackle them has definitely changed. 

The tech journey wouldn’t have been the same without all the inspiring people I met, who helped me grow, gave me their support and motivated me to continue pursuing my dreams. Even though women are underrepresented in the tech field I found supportive women communities in my company and at conferences such as the Women of Silicon Roundabout

What has been your biggest achievement to date? 

Whenever I am asked this question, the first thing that always comes to my mind is switching my job field completely and starting a career in tech. It has had such a profound impact on every aspect of my life. 

I can honestly say I love every aspect of my job, from how it makes me feel to the way my brain works when I’m solving a coding problem or analysing the requirements for a new feature. My current role at Paysafe allows me to go beyond my basic needs and be a better person – participate in charity initiatives, support my family and friends, give dancing classes just for the pure passion of dancing and bringing joy to other people. 

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? 

One thing that has been affecting my confidence throughout my journey, is thinking that I should be perfect at what I do to be worthy of expressing my opinion, asking for a promotion or putting myself forward for  new projects. I missed opportunities because I didn’t think I was the best person for them, and it took me a long time to comprehend that not knowing everything about something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give it a try. 

So, my advice for my younger self would be to be more forgiving of myself, focus more on what I’m good at rather than on what I’m not good at, and dare to try something out. 

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee? 

Mentoring is a powerful tool that helps you tackle problems easier and guides you through your professional or personal journey, and can speed up your career development. I always wanted to have a mentor, but I haven’t found the right person. Of course, there are women I admire and follow, but having a personal connection with such people is crucial and is the part I value the most. 

I recently joined a ‘speed mentoring’ event organised by our team at Paysafe and it helped me see that the challenges I face on a daily basis are common problems and mentors have also experienced them during their career . Hearing that I’m not alone was a relief for me and motivated me to further explore the possibility of being guided by a mentor in my career journey. 

Thanks to my passion for dancing, I stepped into the position of a mentor. Recently I decided to build on it and started teaching classes for women to empower them through dancing. My goal during classes is to provide them with a safe and friendly environment where they can improvise, share feedback, improve and grow together while enjoying music and movement. My future plans for this project are to keep developing it and create a network of women who support each other. 

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be? 

In the light of the recent acts of violence and oppression against women across the world, if there is one thing I could do to accelerate the change it will be adjusting the laws. We live in an era of incredible technological advancement and yet we struggle to provide women equal rights. Somewhere Alexa is switching the lights on in an apartment, but in another country women aren’t allowed to pursue education. Autonomous cars are driving on the streets of European countries, but in other countries women can’t open a bank account. The Internet makes all information accessible within seconds, but what do we do for all the countries obliging women by law to obey their husbands? 

Levelling up the laws in every country so that they are equal  for men and women could be the first step towards Gender Equality. We shall all have the same human rights and opportunities. 

While nearly nobody has and should have the power to change the laws of a country single-handedly, we can all contribute with our actions to a more gender-equal society and mindset. 

This interview was originally published in We Are Tech Women, the technology arm of media outlet We Are The City, and can be read here: