Muslims and Tech with Ahmad W Khan, Lead Software Engineer
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background (how you got to where you are) and current role?
Ever since I got my hands on my very first personal computer in my childhood, I felt like I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. Turns out, I had little idea of what I wanted to be, but I still had a rough idea about my career. I was absolutely in love with both computer hardware and software. To the point where I found school an absolute drag. But everything changed in high school. That's when I started taking computer programming more seriously and I started thinking about this being a solid career. It is during high school I built the foundation of computer science and programming. After returning from school, I would go online to find more programming resources. I was watching a lot of MIT open courseware lectures. I was consuming any form of content I could find relating to programming. Books, online lectures, podcasts.
But I never thought I would end up as a "software engineer" though. Like every kid, I wanted to be a game developer. During my teenage years, I was really into game modding and I thought maybe I could be a game programmer. But during my engineering years, I explored as many areas as I could, including Visual Effects, game development, 3d modelling and animation
But it's the one whole year of staying at home, because of health issues, that made me go deep into my interest in computers and tech and that's when I started teaching myself different programming languages, including assembly language.
But during my college years, after doing some research, I found out that game development wasn't a viable career for me as there were not many demands for game developers back here. So, I thought I could use my programming knowledge to pursue software development.
I got my first job as a full-stack developer in a local web agency with a really low wage. But that didn't bother me at all because, in my mind, I was living my dream, doing what I love while getting paid for it!
So, a couple of years' letter, here I am, a Lead Software Engineer, working on some of the most interesting products.
Looking back, I feel like even though I had my fair share of burnouts and challenges, I still am as passionate about technology and programming as I was when I was a 13-year-old kid.
2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
My day starts at around 10 AM. I don't usually check my phone or talk to anyone until I had taken a nice cold shower and had my cup of tea. While doing that and getting ready for the day, I listen to podcasts or audiobooks. If I am feeling great that morning, then I put on some music. I start my work in the afternoon. Before that, I catch up on my daily dose of reading. I don't even turn on my computer 5-10 minutes before starting work. Till I start my work, I catch up on reading. After that, I write the to-do list for that day and anything else I have on my mind; I write them down during that time also, so that I have a clearer head during work. If I still have time, then I work on my side project during that time or spend time with my family. 15 minutes before I start my work, I go into my home office and start checking my emails, PRs, kanban board, etc.
When I am ready to start for the day, I schedule a meeting with my team members and discuss what needs to be achieved for that day. I don't like meetings much, so I try to keep that short and to the point. Preparing quick notes and an agenda before the meeting also helps with that. After the meeting, I put on my headphone and start creating tasks on the kanban board. I also track time for each task to evaluate how I am doing each day. At around 6 PM, we have another quick meeting to catch up on progress. After that, I take a quick break. During that break, I either go for a walk or go for a ride on my motorcycle. I feel like this clears up my head and refreshes me for the rest of the evening.
At around 7 PM, I am back again on my desk with a cup of tea. It's during this session that I am most productive and I don't usually like being interrupted by calls or texts during this time, so I put my phone on DND during this time. I tackle the more complicated tasks during this time as well. At around 9 PM, I have another meeting. After the meeting, I have my dinner and go for another bike ride.
I work for another 2-3 hours after dinner. At around 1-2 AM I try to wrap up my work for the night. After work, I take another cold shower. After that, I either watch Netflix or play some video games. So, yeah, that's usually what my work day looks like. I don't enjoy following strict rules. So, I see my routine as guidelines and I try to be flexible and change things up now and then.
3) What does work-life balance mean to you, and how do you work to achieve that goal?
I don't like the term work-life balance. It implies that work is something bad, something we have to endure to enjoy life. Work is a part of life and I am very fortunate to be doing what I love. I look forward to working and I don't think I can function very well with no work. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy other things besides work, but I like work just as much as I like other parts of my life.
4) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
I have always struggled with maintaining a good sleep schedule. I enjoy working during the night and I have always been a night owl. But last year, I changed my sleeping pattern completely and made it a habit of waking up early and going to bed early. But unfortunately, that didn't turn out in my favour at all. So, I decided not to listen to other people's advice when it comes to my daily routine. I know myself best and not everyone is a morning person. I designed my day in a way that complements my sleeping schedule rather than creating unnecessary conflicts for me. So, I am back to my old sleeping pattern again for the last couple of months and I have pushed my work hours to late afternoon, and it has been working great for me. I am more productive and I get good 6-8 hours of sleep Alhamdulillah.
5) What brings you peace during stressful times?
I feel like just taking a step back and taking a break helps a lot. I make sure I take regular short and long breaks. Spending time with family and friends helps me relax and recharge as well. Being an introvert, sometimes simply giving myself some "me time" and spending time alone focusing on something other than work also helps.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you are consuming and like to recommend?
I am very fond of content in the form of audio. I have been listening to various podcasts and audiobooks for over a decade now. Even though I don't get that much time to listen to audiobooks these days, I however love "Philosophize This!" podcast by Steven west. I am interested in philosophy and psychology and it kind of gives me something else to focus on other than coding and tech. I am also reading "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus.
6) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Oh boy! There are so many names that pop up in my head. But If I had to choose only one, then I would want to read about John Carmack's work-life balance. He has been a significant influence on me and I was always intrigued by how he manages a work-life balance or what his a day in life looks like.
7) What’s the one piece of advice you would give our readers for managing stress and creating a healthy mental state?
Take breaks. It is surprising how much peace can be achieved if we just get out of our way. So, instead of trying too hard, if we just take one day at a time and take things as they come, do our best and let fate decide the rest, then we'd be much happier in our daily lives. Sometimes, we don't need to do much. We think we have to put things in order. We have to make these stress and pain go away. But wouldn't we have done that already if any of these were under our control? So, sometimes, not taking everything too seriously and seeing the big picture helps us ground ourselves. So, to put all the above rambling in one mantra: "This too shall pass".