This year has been one of the busiest and most rewarding years of my life - which is especially weird because when I started the year I genuinely thought it would probably be the most chill year of my life - with covid still raging and lockdown restrictions just having started, I thought it was unlikely that I would actually do anything of note this year other than just continue with what I was already doing. A bit absurd in hindsight - I have never been the sort of person content to take it easy, let alone for an entire year
Yet again, predictably on the list - I finished last year's reflections with "perhaps I will find myself reading my end of year letter in a COVID-free world." but, in fact, there are literally more cases at the time of writing than there were at the end of last year so that's...fun.
Not much to say about the pandemic other than the fact that lockdown restrictions were much more severe this year, and of course, that was a bit horrible to deal with, but I stay forever thankful that I am in the position to be able to work from home when I need to. Nevertheless, I stay hopeful that perhaps 2022 will mark some return to "normality".
Goals and Progress
2021 was the first full year that I came into with lots of things on the "5-year plan". There were around 30 things on the plan at the start of the year, and even within the first few months, a few things got shelved as I decided that actually they clearly weren't really a priority for me if I wasn't even getting started.
I did (or at least did part of) a fair few of the things on there, mainly the ones around career goals, income goals, online presence etc. not so much the ones around health - mainly because lockdown restrictions meant I was physically unable to get back into the gym until the summer and then various projects and study I was doing meant time was very tight - a poor excuse regardless though.
I tend not to be too hard on myself when I miss goals, as it just meant that there was something else that was a higher priority to me personally, I largely live a lifestyle that I think would be considered quite productive (whatever that means), so I feel certain at any given point in time that I'm not wasting my life away just because I didn't achieve a few things. The start of 2021 had very few changes on the 5-year plan, but I think the start of 2022 will have a much greater rewrite of the plan, always onwards and upwards!
Starting a Master's
At the start of 2021, I had a vague inkling about wanting to do a masters, and it was on my 5-year plan, but I largely considered it a bit more of a 2023/2024 thing than something that I would do this year. But early on in the year, I came across the brand new master's program at Cambridge University in AI, Ethics and Society (LINK) and it had sparked a bit of interest in me, most notably because a few months earlier I had seen this tweet highlighting the islamophobia in GPT-3 and it hadn't sat very well with me.
I truly believe that you should be active in fixing problems that you see around you, and so when a few weeks later this article also came across my feed, I decided that I would do the masters - a good stepping stone to equip myself with the knowledge and language to discuss the problem properly.
A personal statement, essay and interview later, I had been offered a place and decided that the time commitment seemed manageable (albeit quite a lot!) around my full-time work, and so off I went in September to meet my coursemates and start the first week of the next 2 years of studying. Reflections on how I'm managing full-time work and part-time study are a lot longer than will fit into this end of year review but needless to say - it's been an exercise in great discipline to manage both of these things effectively.
Work (aka vaccine booking software and beyond)
In the last 6 weeks of 2021, my team worked on accuBook - a COVID-19 vaccine booking system for GPs across the UK. It was a massive push to get it out of the door so fast (within a few weeks), and we were definitely looking forward to having a calmer time with the product in the new year. But (as is the case with a lot of covid-related things) user needs changed very quickly underneath us within the first few days of the new year, and what followed were many more months of trying to keep up with changes in the vaccine program, and also dealing with the system scaling up immensely (by February we had days with over 300k vaccines being booked in a day).
It's quite overwhelming to think of the impact that a product I helped to build has had, at this point we have had almost 30 million vaccines booked in through our system and had some really great feedback from staff and patients alike, including a patient who came to speak to the team around how he effectively used the system to book his vaccine as a completely blind mobile phone user - this was a big moment for me to see the impact of the accessibility changes that I had pushed to include in the product from the start.
In the last few months of the year, I've moved on to other projects, which was a nice change for me after so many months of being immersed into the vaccine program, and it's been especially interesting to work with users in trusts, as it's given me the opportunity to shadow people in hospitals for the first time (previously I was only shadowing people in GP surgeries).
June of this year officially marked the longest that I've ever stayed at a single job (finally leaving my freelance days behind me), and it's been interesting to see myself settle into a role properly for the first time. It's also been amazing to see accuRx go through a huge period of growth - 2021 was the year that we launched the paid version of our product, raised a Series B and had almost 80 new people join the company (a big jump from the ~50 people we had at the end of last year).
Outreach and teaching
Something that I had missed since leaving university in 2019 was the opportunity to do more community outreach and teaching projects. Doing more socially-focused things has historically been quite a fundamental part of my life, but I hadn't been very pro-active with finding these opportunities in 2019, and the pandemic meant that last year a lot of organisations had stopped doing so much of this sort of work.
With this in mind, in the summer I was an instructor on the inaugural nanodegree course with Code First Girls - an organisation dedicated to providing coding courses to women, including a nanodegree - a 12-week bootcamp aiming to produce junior developers by the end. I had taught a few of the short courses with CFG, including at university, and with a few of my colleagues from accuRx in 2020, so I thought this was a great opportunity to do a slightly more long-term outreach project while I had some time before starting my master's.
I had an absolute blast teaching the course - it was definitely a massive time commitment, taking up almost all of my weekday evenings, and usually a bit of time on the weekend when I would meet the other instructors on the course to have a chat and do marking (mainly chat, some marking), but it was also hugely rewarding overall.
At this point in time, I've done a fair few outreach/teaching projects, and yet I'm always taken off guard by that moment when the project culminates and you're hit by just how much people have learned over such a short period of time. A few weeks into the course, we had a bit of a "retro" session, where a lot of the women shared how much they were struggling to balance study with work and how they felt convinced they wouldn't learn to program within the 3 months, so it was particularly rewarding seeing fully-fledged final projects being presented at the end, and to see everyone pushing past those hard moments to become much more confident in themselves.
Since 2014 (i.e. the start of my career) most of my "professional online presence" has been on Twitter (and a bit on LinkedIn), and although I knew there was more personal branding I could be doing, I largely already had a very good track record from Twitter so hadn't really branched out more.
This year I wanted to be more intentional about using social media to showcase myself and my work a bit more, and to connect with more people in my industry, particularly others from similar backgrounds that are underrepresented in tech. I'd also been thinking over the course of 2020 around how effective outreach would also include some kind of consistent social media presence, and since YouTube seemed to be a bit of stretch in terms of time commitments, over I went to "tech Instagram".
Up until the start of 2021, I didn't really have a strong sense that there was much of a tech community on Instagram, until I saw a few "tech TikToks" make there way onto my Twitter feed and starting having a bit more of a dig around what the tech scene was on different platforms.
Joining tech Instagram has been a massive blessing for me this year - I've connected with absolutely loads of people, had a great time posting bits about my life, and even made some reels, including some "day in the life" ones. It's especially exciting as I haven't really done much to actually try growing the account, so it's nice to see how even with very few followers you can make quite meaningful connections, which is what I found on Twitter over the years as well.
Alongside social media, I've also done a bunch of speaking engagements, which was quite surprising to me, as I had thought that the pandemic would have meant less chances to do this sort of stuff. I gave a talk "All About Frontend, Backend and Fullstack" for Deen Developers, and talked about my work at accuRx on the Silicon Roundabout Podcast and at an Oxbridge Muslim Alumni healthtech panel
In another unexpected move, as the year comes to a close I'm taking part in more discussions on Twitter Spaces, which is odd as I almost entirely rejected the Clubhouse phase of tech Twitter in 2020, but have really been enjoying talking about various things, including salaries and software engineering reflections
Unlike the start of 2021, I am very much predicting 2022 to be a really packed year, so I'm sure my goal-setting from the 5-year plan will actually involve reducing some of the goals to make it even vaguely realistic.
This year will be the first year that I'm going to actively try to push some personal branding online, although my annual "start a YouTube channel" goal will most likely be shelved once again as I realise I don't have a spare 10 hours a week, so will be relegated to posting a few photos on Instagram every week instead.
I'm also keen to do a bit more writing and blog posts than usual - for the last few years I've written bits of long-form and short-form but never really pushed them online too much, but I actually think it would be cool to write a few things for proper publications, maybe even do a conference talk or two - internet fame here I come!