Wisdom//

From Pakistan to Silicon Valley

How I Found My American Dream

When I reflect on the journey that led me to become an executive in technology, I often think back to the love of computers I developed during my childhood in Karachi, Pakistan. My parents brought home all kinds of computers, and from an early age, I was completely obsessed with tinkering with my family’s Commodore 64. It’s safe to say that if I had not come to America, I would not have had the chance to turn my passion into my career, because it wasn’t socially acceptable for girls to learn how to work with computers.

It should be no surprise that, in my late teens, I had come to bristle at the day-to-day restrictions of Pakistan’s strict culture. I chose to study organic chemistry in college because it was the closest subject to computers that I was allowed to study. However, when I turned 19, I was presented with the opportunity to get married and move to California (arranged marriages are quite common in Pakistan). I was excited, but also scared. What would it be like to live in a new country? Would I be alright, so far away from my family? But, thankfully, I was able to put my fears aside and take a leap into the unknown. I saw the U.S. as more than escape. I saw it as an opportunity to build a better life for myself.

My early years in California were a whirlwind. In the Bay Area, in the 1990s, I was exposed to so many new experiences and life lessons. The marriage that brought me to the States didn’t last, but I don’t regret it, because it was part of my journey. I felt like I had finally gained access to a world of new ideas and possibilities and, all of a sudden, I was chasing down the things that I wanted in life.

I started by taking computer science courses at DeAnza college and UC Berkeley, and from there, my passion for computers only grew. Some friends from school helped me get a part-time job at a small tech company that was developing analog modems for Sega and Nintendo. It was my first job, and I was excited for the opportunity to learn new skills and make a little money. I was working in quality assurance and began to learn how to identify technical issues and how to fix problems. I enjoyed finding patterns that could help engineers and developers quickly and easily solve problems.

That experience eventually lead me to Palm, known best as the maker of the PalmPilot, where I would be for the next 12 years. I climbed the ranks and moved onto managing the development teams responsible for hardware and software integration, and then to managing the entire wireless development organization along with overseeing product integration. In other words, my job was to make sure that the product shipped. It was another opportunity to expand and refine my skillset, and I loved every minute of it.

Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t face barriers in my career. Yes, people often commented on how I was a “woman in a man’s job,” or on how surprised they were that a woman had been so successful in tech. I specifically remember a time when I was passed over for a promotion. When I asked why I had not been considered, I was told that I wasn’t ready yet. At the same time, a male coworker with less experience and less skill was climbing the ranks. Later, when my performance was in review, I was told that I was “too aggressive.” If a man in the same position had acted as I did, he wouldn’t have been called “aggressive.” He would have been called “ambitious.” But, when I look back, I realize that my perspective helped me push through. I didn’t care what these people thought or what they had to say, I only cared about doing great work. I have always believed that I am going to do what I’m destined to do, and no one is going to stop me. I had the choice to play the victim, to let the uninformed views of my peers hold me back, but instead I chose to design my own future. That’s what kept me going, and what lead me to success at Palm. I knew what I could do, and I fought so that others would know it, too.

Sadly, however, Palm was eventually purchased and shut down by HP. I was part of the team that stayed on and handled that transition, and it was very sad. When it was over, I decided to take a few months off to try and figure out what opportunity I wanted to seek out next.

And that’s when I met Trip Adler, the CEO at Scribd.

We were introduced through a mutual friend. I don’t think that Scribd was looking for a VP of Engineering, but after a few meetings with Trip, he offered me the position. I’ll admit that I was hesitant at first, because I had never worked for a product that was software-only.

But, even after mulling over these doubts, I realized that there was something special about Scribd.

Trip had already begun building a diverse and inclusive culture, and everyone who I met at the company was talented and intelligent and eager to do great work. If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that great people make great products, and Scribd has always had great people. I was confident that I could help make Scribd a product that I would use and that I was proud of. I’ve been at Scribd for more than five years now, and in that time I’ve seen the company grow and the product evolve, and I am extremely proud to have had the chance to be a part of that development.

When I was young, I was so excited to get the chance to play around with an old, used computer. Today, I’ve played an integral part in making the world’s best reading app. How could I believe that dreams don’t come true?

It has been 12 years since I last visited Pakistan. The last time I went home, I realized that all of my cousins had grown up and had families of their own. They didn’t understand the choices I had made with my life, and they didn’t understand why I was so passionate about pursuing my own career. They thought I had become a different person and, if I’m honest, they were right.

America really is the land of opportunity, at least for me. I do believe that luck is a part of it, but I think luck is just being able to detect an opportunity and listen to your gut instinct. If you hone in on what your gut is telling you, then it will guide you to where you’re supposed to be. I was unsure of the opportunity with Scribd, but I knew in my gut that it was special. You can call it luck, but I call it hard work and trusting yourself.

And that’s the advice that I would give to anyone — not just women in tech — who have a goal or a dream. Always listen to your gut, and don’t let any barriers deter you. You have to persevere, you have to power through. Don’t give up. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s really true. If there’s something that you firmly believe in, that you know you want, then keep at it. Even if you aren’t successful in the first year or the second year or the fifth year or the tenth, because you will always come back to it if you know that it is what you want to do. Trust me, dreams absolutely do come true; there’s just no debate about it. I went from tinkering with a used Commodore 64 to leading a product team in San Francisco, simply because I refused to give up.

I don’t believe that mistakes are the same thing as failures. Mistakes are simply opportunities to learn, to try again but with a greater understanding. If you’re stuck, if you feel defeated, then all you have to do is take a step back and figure out what your next step is going to be, and the next step after that, and the next step after that. If I can do it, then so can you.

Sabeen Minns is head of engineering for Scribd. She emigrated from Pakistan, where she studied organic chemistry and pursued every technology and math course within her reach. She honed her product development skills in online gaming after college—intrigued by the nuts and bolts of design. Today, in her spare time, she runs a wine bar called Swirl on Castro. She’s also very passionate about making sure young women everywhere have access to education.

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