Finastra’s Deena Habib on being a woman in IT, and how innovation is a constant

Finastra’s Deena Habib on being a woman in IT, and how innovation is a constant
Published: 18 June 2019 - 8:07 p.m.
By: Ally Portee
Deena Habib. Photo credit: Ally Portee

“Earlier in my marketing career, I remember going into meetings and people saying to me, ‘I’d like to meet the head of marketing.’ And I’d say, ‘I am the head of marketing.’”

On a typical hot day in Dubai, I found cool solace in the offices of Finastra, one of the world’s largest fintech companies. Nestled in Dubai’s Media City, in one of Dubai’s sky-piercing skyscrapers, Finastra is a bustling office with some of the region’s best fintech talent.

Their director of marketing for the Middle East and Africa, Deena Habib is an industry expert. With a background in telecommunications, the Egyptian – born in the UK – has more than four decades of experience in marketing in multinational IT companies, in the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as in South Asia. Having lived in the Middle East for over 25 years, Habib brings a unique edge to Finastra with a background in engineering, coupled with a rich understanding of end users in the MEA region and their expectations. But she does attribute her Egyptian heritage to the success of her professional accomplishments.

She says: “Egyptians are warm loving people and we like to joke and have a good time, and having those characteristics in marketing has helped me a lot. I can talk to anyone or get up on stage, and that comes from being Egyptian.”

Habib always knew she would go into a technical field. That’s just how her mind works. “I was always an applied thinker. Maths and physics came very naturally to me.”

Trained in university as a telecommunications engineer, it wasn’t her plan to go into IT. After her studies, she became a fibre optic sub-sea cable engineer, and spent many of her post university years on ships laying cable when the world was being connected through digital networking.

“It was a fantastic job but I was the only woman on my course doing telecommunications engineering in the UK and I was the only woman on ships for the majority of my time in that profession,” she says.

It was when she decided to settle down, marry, and move to Dubai that her career changed, against her will. In the early 2000s, women weren’t allowed to be fibre-optic sub-sea cable engineers.

“In 2001, women on offshore ships, in Dubai, was not something [usually] accepted. I was very depressed about that for about a year and a half. I felt like my brain had been wasted and all my education had been thrown away. I got over it. I also couldn’t find anything in my career line as a telecommunications engineer, because it wasn’t common here. So, I was encouraged to get a ‘women’s job’ and I wanted to stay in something similar to what I was doing, so I went into IT and switched to marketing. That was more of the female thing to do back then. And I learned it all on the job. My background in engineering provided analytical thinking and I brought that way of thinking to IT marketing.”

With a new career and a job at IBM, Habib settled into marketing, with a focus on IT for three years. From there she went to Sun Microsystems until Oracle acquired them, and she worked for Oracle for eight years as a marketing specialist to regional marketing manager for Middle East and North Africa.

Of this, she says: It was B2B and it was great, but again, I was one of the very few women working in IT at the time in this region.”

From IBM, Habib transitioned to Dell, and it was there where she did commercial and consumer marketing, where she was able to learn about the retail side of things and branding. Having felt like she could all she could in marketing, Habib moved to Microsoft, where she was business group lead for Windows across the North Africa, the Levant and Pakistan.

“I owned the Windows PNL and it was my job to drive Windows across the region. Windows 10 was different from any version of Windows that they had previously. And it was a challenge to get our commercial customers to purchase this new product, as trust in the product had begun to fade with Google products. I did that for three years. It was challenging and demanding – I was always on airplanes.”

But it was when her son said to her “I think you love your laptop and work more than you love us,” that changed the game. Habib slowed down her career to focus on her family. A year ago, she found a job with Finastra, and though it’s a head of marketing for Middle East North Africa job that she’s done before, she’s excited to be in the financial technology sector, a growing and booming industry.

“It reminds me of the days when IT was growing and booming. Now, if you look at the banking industry and how it’s transforming and digitising, it’s exciting times ahead.”

When asked if women can have it all as they move up the corporate marketing ladder, she says: “You can balance life. But no one, men or women, can have it all. You choose your priorities, and at some point, something has to give. Some women do it, but it was my personal choice to focus on my children. Being a woman in the Middle East hasn’t been that much of a challenge in this aspect, even when I travel to Saudi Arabia for work.”

On whether she has any advice for women in the male dominated industry of IT and telecommunications and how to navigate being looked over, she says: “If you’ve got the knowledge, just do your job. Men in leadership will sit up and listen.”

Being Egyptian has helped her to understand the region more, but she says she gets mistaken as a Western woman. “I am as Western as they come, yet I am an Arab woman.”

In talking about the constant innovation in the IT sector, Habib’s eyes light up.

“I’m really amazed. When I look at my son for example, he’s getting his GCSEs in IT. He came to me asking for help, and at the age of 16 he’s learning about cloud computing. And I’m thinking, that was just a few years ago that we were launching it, now it’s in a textbook. IT is a rapidly changing and sometimes my children are teaching me new things. And now my son wants to follow in my footsteps.”

Looking at Finastra, Habib is hopeful on the future of the company and its products.

“What excites me the most about Finastra is our vision for the future. We recently launched FusionFabric, an open cloud platform. We don’t claim to be the experts, but we created this open cloud-based platform for other fintechs to develop on, and we have open APIs so that they can plug their solutions onto our platform. We believe in sharing technology, so if banks have developers that want to develop in house solutions, and they develop them on our platform, they can share the APIs from all the different techs. Collaboration is key for us, and we’re the only fintech that brought this to the world.”

She concludes with some valuable advice for anyone.

“I shifted my career from engineering to marketing, but even in marketing I’ve been changing the way we’ve been doing it. My advice for anyone wanting to go into IT marketing- always ask what you can do better, or how you can do it differently, and seek to understand your target audience, and learn as you go.”

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