Sabeen Ali – “Bored” The New 4-Letter Word
Interview conducted and condensed by Aaron Aslin on 12/15/13
Q. How did your talk for TEDxOrangeCoast come to be?
A. Kamrin, on our Marketing team, was actually the TEDx organizer for University of California, Irvine. Amir Banifatemi, founder of TEDxOrangeCoast, was her mentor. Through conversation between Kam and myself, she suggested that I should give a talk for TEDx. I had a couple of conversations with Amir and after getting a sense of what he was trying to accomplish and the theme around the event, I became very invested. Right way, we started thinking about ideas of what I could talk about. It was a really tough experience, it’s not easy talking or writing something for such a large audience when you don’t know who is going to be there and all you want to do is impact everyone with a positive message. The TED brand appeals to so many different people. Obviously, you want to say something that is relevant to the people that are there, but how do you customize your speech when you know there is such a wide demographic? Through 11 iterations of my speech, and an amazing coach, I finally arrived at what you see, but the big turning point for me was when someone in rehearsal said, “It is not about you, it is about the message.” That is when it really clicked and I was like, “Yes!” That has been my feeling the entire time. It was really what I needed to connect with the audience and make the rest of this flow because this message was bigger then me and what I want out of it. It wasn’t about me, what I was wearing, what I was doing. It was about the message I wanted to get across, and that was most important to me. This opportunity may never come around ever again for someone like me and I really wanted to make the most of it. I really wanted to make an impact with what I am saying.
Q. In the beginning of the talk you speak about your mom. In a sense, your talk pays incredible tribute to your mother. So, on a personal level, what did this talk mean to you?
A. It means a lot. There are a couple of different messages in my talk but, most importantly, I have always wanted to share with people what my mom was able to accomplish. Her life’s examples are the code I live my life by – growing up and watching her and seeing her, in her own way, become successful.
Q. Can you peel back that code and give us an insight into what that code is?
A. With my mom, there were some simple rules. In my house, the word ‘bored’ was considered a bad word, a cuss word. We were never allowed to say, “I am bored.” I could see this switch go off in my mom’s head, and her face turning red, if she ever heard ‘bored’ and watching that in and of itself was striking. We would say, “Mom, that’s just a regular word!” But she would say, “No, if you are bored I can give you 10 things to do right now,” and that in and of itself was a clear message to, ‘never be idle.’ Constantly keep moving and do things that are productive and when you’re not then be content with it. Doing things that are meaningful is a part of what she always did. She didn’t have the luxury of wasting time, sitting around, sipping a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning.
I describe the way that I think and the way that I live my life, like a little mouse going through a maze. As soon as you hit a wall you find another way, and you find another way, and you find another way. That was my mom. She tried so many different professions and so many different avenues, not pausing once, not letting any setbacks affect her for more than a few hours, if that. She was very even-keeled with her emotions and that is another thing that I try to do as well. No big highs, no big lows, just trying to stay even- keeled through everything, so that you know that life is all about ups and downs. A little up or a little down or a lot up or a lot down is not going to jar you and not going to throw you off your steady path. Little things like that are the code and the messages I was so eager to tell people.
Q. You talk about your early entrepreneurial endeavors in your neighborhood at age eight, but you don’t say much about the coding. How did you get started in coding and programming?
A. I am not a coder. I am not even technical per se. I got into this programming world through event planning, through Angelhack. It has always been something that I have been super-interested in. Our team at, currently all females at Angelhack is learning how to code together, which is an amazing experience. However, I always believe in strength based leadership and I felt like my strength was finding and accentuating other people’s strengths. So being able to advocate for coding without being the coder, to me feels okay. To me, it’s like if [coding] works for you then go for it, in fact, let me help you get to where you want to go, what works for me is that I am uncovering paths and making it possible for people to learn how to code and showcasing their talent. And if that ends up being your path and your profession, then I am going to help you and connect you with the right people. I am in awe of people who can code. I meet coders and I tell them, “I am in awe of what you are able to accomplish.” And they look at me and say, “What are you talking about? I am in awe at what you are able to do – talk to strategize and make business plan, etc.” And to me, that is a shock!
Q. How did you get involved in Angelhack and coding? Was there a pivotal event in your life where you said, “Yes, this is an opportunity that can change the world”?
A. My brother and I have always been interested in computers, even when we were 8 or 9 years old. We had this big clunky IBM computer in our house, and we would sneak off into the garage and take apart the computer and look at the different parts and try to understand. And I always tell everybody if I didn’t go down this path, I would probably go into engineering. That’s just the way that my mind works. I am very interested in that field- I love how you put together these pieces searching for the right reaction or response. So there has always been this thing inside of me that has intrigued me with this field and one of my first experiences was when I MCed the first Angelhack that’s when I really saw the community and fell in love. I saw the community of developers and I clicked with them immediately. It is a subculture, coding, and that subculture goes back to the olden days. And this is kind of what I refer to in my talk: It is such a new field that people are willing to share. They are willing to teach. They are willing to trade. They are willing to run with wild ideas. It is a very open network. So when you go there and you are saying, ‘Hey, I am just a businessperson. I don’t know if I have any value.’ First of all, they are open to it. They are open to sitting with you, to talking to you about everything they are doing. They are open to teaching you about everything they are doing as well. So that was one of the main things that drew me into it. And then ultimately that culture of hacking, of taking so many different things and piecing them together in a short amount of time, and making them work … I mean, that was my life. That was my childhood. Hacking is a metaphor for so many things in life. There are so many similarities in what I saw in people doing at these events and what I grew up with and how my mom meticulously hacked our life together – how, when she found a door that was closed, she turned around and opened a window. And that is what these computer programmers do. ‘Ok, this didn’t work. Let’s try this. Ok, this doesn’t work; let’s try this. Ok, this works! Let’s build on this.’ And they iterate in such a short amount of time that it just feels so comfortable to me. The way that they learn, the way that they create is something I have always grown up with and I can very much relate to it, I couldn’t help but fully immerse myself into this world.
Q. I have an idea that people are in a big warehouse coding somewhere in a developing country. What can be done to prevent that?
A. At Angelhack, we are starting an initiative called the Whole Developer, because we realize that teaching people how to code gives them a lot of power and gives them the ability to do so many things, but we want to make sure that they are not just these people locked up coding, like a cog. The concept of the Whole Developer is to show them the ecosystem, show them how they can leverage their new-found skills. It focuses on teaching developers soft skills like leadership and making them aware of emotional intelligence. It helps them make better decisions about how they choose to use their knowledge and skills. “With great power comes great responsibility,” coding is an amazing power, but you have to be responsible for what you create, you have to use it responsibly for making the world a better place with it. And for someone like us [Angelhack], that is advocating for coding on such a large platform, we have to take responsibility for teaching these coders; who many not have any type of education, what their responsibility is as a coder and make sure that they are making positive social change, and working for the right vendors, and working for the right cause.