Zainab Ghadiyali’s path to tech has been anything but conventional. While her recent resume is impressive — spanning a rise up the engineering ranks at Facebook, her current role as a Product Lead at Airbnb, and a side hustle as the co-founder of Wogrammer — the inclines and contours of her unlikely path to Silicon Valley are far more remarkable, delineating the cartography of an extraordinary career.
Her journey has been formed by striking transitions: At the age of 19, with $107 in her pocket, Ghadiyali left her hometown of Mumbai to study chemistry at a small college in South Carolina. During her time as a student, she assisted with research on Chinese acupuncture and alternative medicine in Berlin. Next, her work with a public health nonprofit took her to some of the remotest parts of Peru and Nicaragua, before a fortuitous turn of events led her to an engineering interview at Facebook. “I didn’t even know Silicon Valley existed until I was 25,” she says. “Across all of my life experiences, I was just hungry to learn.” Rather than taking a prescribed professional direction, Ghadiyali followed the call of her curiosity. It’s an ethos that, to this day, helps her to maximize her personal growth and carve out an unconventional career.
In this exclusive interview, Ghadiyali chronicles the transitions that have shaped her unique professional course, identifying the key skills needed to excel in any role. She offers advice on how to grow your career in every direction, shares the questions to ask yourself at every juncture, and gets tactical on how to surround yourself with supporters. From pushing past impostor syndrome to powering up a side hustle, her insights — and colorful, circuitous story — have illuminating takeaways for entrepreneurs at any stage of their career. All told, Ghadiyali’s journey serves to prove that the curiosity-driven career might be the most rewarding path of all. Here’s how you can forge your own.
When Ghadiyali was growing up, the tech industry seemed worlds away. “I grew up in a middle-class family in India,” she says. “My parents didn’t graduate from college, so they were very supportive of my education.” Deep in the stacks of Mumbai’s libraries, Ghadiyali pored over autobiographies, captivated by the lives of luminaries whose experiences were so removed from her immediate surroundings.
Between those pages, Ghadiyali discovered the guiding principle that would drive her course for the rest of her life: curiosity. “Books instilled the desire to learn about worlds that were very different from mine,” she says.
While many people are similarly inspired by books in childhood, all too often it becomes harder to protect that spirit of curiosity as pressures to plot out career decisions mount. Here are the strategies Ghadiyali used to nourish that creative spark:
Putting curiosity in the driver’s seat inevitably ensures that uncertainty will be a passenger along for the ride. But Ghadiyali learned early on to embrace the unknown. “People always tell me, ‘It was so brave of you, going to college in a new country with $100,’” she says. “But bravery requires fear, and I wasn’t afraid; I was excited by the possibility.”
To push past the temptation to give in to apprehension, she draws from a framework inspired by Bob Anderson’s work on The Leadership Circle, that has helped her to differentiate between two distinct ways of thinking about uncertainty: the creative mindset and the reactive mindset.
“The reactive mindset is driven by fear. You think of a problem, you see it as a threat, then you react to it. This leads you down a spiral of anxiety, in which you focus on all the reasons why you can’t do something,” Ghadiyali says. “By contrast, the creative mindset is driven by possibility. Instead of fretting over a problem, you emphasize what’s possible. The creative mindset inspires curiosity and passion, which leads to action.”
To shift from a reactive to a creative mindset, Ghadiyali begins by setting an intention. “If I know I’m about to enter into a difficult situation or conversation, for example, I’ll remind myself of the outcome that I want,” she says. “After all, if you’re focused on a positive outcome, you’re implicitly acknowledging that it’s possible. Then, instead of worrying about fear, you can start to brainstorm ways to reach that end goal.”
As you set out in your career, let curiosity be your guide. You'll never know where it might lead you, but that's the thrill — it empowers you to explore possibilities beyond what you could have imagined.
Ghadiyali found she was in better position to embrace her inquisitive impulses the moment she let go of the notion of a “career ladder.” This traditional concept implies that a career should be thought of as linear, a neat progression along a narrow track. But that metaphor leads to a rather limiting focus on upward growth. In reality, opportunities abound in every direction.
For instance, when she began her career, Ghadiyali didn’t have the luxury of following a straightforward career path. She had studied alternative medicine in Berlin during college and considered becoming a doctor, but winced at the cost of med school. She also graduated in 2009, in the thick of the recession, which limited her options even further. “I applied to over 200 jobs online and got rejected everywhere,” she says. Without a clear next rung to place her foot on, Ghadiyali set off in different directions to hone in on her interest in healthcare in another way. She left the U.S. to work for the public health nonprofit the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, which took her to far-flung villages in India and South America. After close to a year, she decided to go back to the U.S. for grad school, to study health economics.
On paper, Ghadiyali’s moves might seem like a series of missteps leading her astray from her eventual path to tech. But by drawing excitement and curiosity as a throughline, the connections between apparently erratic transitions begin to emerge. That’s why Ghadiyali encourages people to instead think of their careers as a work of art.
“When you look at a painting from a distance, you see a larger, cohesive picture,” she says. “But as you approach the canvas, you see that there are, in fact, hundreds of separate strokes that make up that picture. Think about your career as a work of art — expansive, independent movements that incrementally reveal a whole.”
When we visualize a career ladder, we start putting ourselves in a box. Step back and see the painting — every experience adds a brushstroke to a bigger picture.
The decision to ditch the career ladder opens up the possibility of pursuing other, more expansive areas of growth that are conventionally overlooked. More importantly, it gives you the freedom to define success and growth on your own terms.
Careers aren’t just about rocketing upward. Expanding horizontally gives you a stronger foundation to pursue vertical growth.
Once at grad school, Ghadiyali began to reconsider her professional goals. “It occurred to me that while I loved learning about the subject, I didn’t feel excited about pursuing a career in health economics. I needed a change of direction,” she says.
“I knew that I wanted my next role to be something that I was passionate to learn about,” she says. “At every career crossroads, I ask myself the same two high-level questions: ‘What am I excited to learn next? What’s the next level of learning I want to reach?’ These questions helped me direct my decisions in grad school, and at every juncture since.”
This rigorous, guided reflection enabled Ghadiyali to determine her next play after grad school. “I recalled a question that had fascinated me in the past. When I was I working on the ground in the nonprofit sector, I saw the importance of communities in public health firsthand — specifically online social networks and the powerful impact they had on disseminating health information or connecting individuals in underserved regions. I thought, ‘How can we use a social network to advance healthcare and public health, at the largest scale?’” she says.
“That’s when I first realized I could make my impact in tech, the industry where these platforms were being created,” she says.
Probing questions aren’t just for setting course in a different industry. They’re also useful for all the micro-decisions that make up a career, whether it’s time to switch teams or pivot to a new function altogether. Even now, as she considers new roles and companies in tech, Ghadiyali leans on three targeted questions to assess her next move:
Have I maximized my growth in my current role? While it’s valuable to follow curiosity to another role, there’s danger in moving on too prematurely. For example, when she was a production engineer at Facebook, she accepted a position that allowed her to make a lateral move into software. “At the time, I was eager to move on to software. But life as a production engineer enables you to truly understand how systems fit together, which is an invaluable skill. It’s easy to get caught up in a ‘what’s next’ mentality — take the time to pause and make sure you’ve soaked up all you can from your current role.”
Does my next opportunity align with my values? To start looking for new opportunities, Ghadiyali recommends explicitly writing down priorities in order to make a decision systematically. “I create a spreadsheet and I’ll put all my options in rows, then I’ll list factors that are important to me in the columns,” she says. “I typically look for growth, financial stability, location, a good manager and room for creativity, and then I assign each factor a point. Then I add up which opportunity yields the highest point value. This way, I make sure I evaluate my options according to the values that are most important to me.”
Do I want to expand laterally or dive deeper? When Ghadiyali felt satisfied as a Tech Lead at Facebook, she had to decide: Did she want to continue building expertise, or try out a horizontal move? She opted to try her hand at product at a new company, but is careful to note that horizontal growth is important even if you aren’t looking to switch functions. “I would argue that even if you want to go deep, there are horizontal skills you have to learn,” Ghadiyali says. “One thing I’ve noticed is that people can be held back by a lack of skills outside of their area of expertise. Take communication, as an example. You could be the most skilled engineer in the world. But if you don’t have the ability to communicate that expertise, or to influence people to adopt your ideas, then the actual impact of that knowledge is quite limited.”
At first glance, “follow your curiosity” may seem like bumper sticker career advice. But Ghadiyali turns a vague truism into a tactical tenet by emphasizing the importance of follow-through. “You need to pay attention to your interests and then, more critically, zero in on how to translate that into meaningful work, into a role you can pursue,” she says.
“When the idea struck to work in tech, I had no connection to that world and seemingly lacked any relevant skills. But I was determined to make it happen, one way or another,” she says.
Here are the takeaways that helped her translate curiosity into action:
For Ghadiyali, translating an interest into a role or a career requires carefully spotting opportunities — and then taking advantage of them. In her case, the key that unlocked the door to the tech world was free Chinese food.
“One evening in grad school, I stopped by an event that advertised free Chinese food. For a student living off of pizza, it seemed too good to pass up,” she says. The event turned out to be a hackathon sponsored by Facebook, and just before she could sneak away with a full plate, a Facebook recruiter approached Ghadiyali and asked which team she was on.
“I looked around the room, slightly panicked, and took a seat at the one table with an empty chair. My team members quickly found out that I was useless,” Ghadiyali laughs. “But I stayed and watched them, totally absorbed. My team won the hackathon, and as it turned out, the winning team got a chance to interview with Facebook.”
There was just one caveat: It was an engineering interview. While it was an open door to connecting the public health work that she loved with the power of a social network, Ghadiyali hesitated. “I thought, ‘I should wait six months, learn to code, and reach out again to reschedule.’ When you’re presented with an opportunity, it’s tempting to give into those doubts, to make excuses like ‘The timing isn’t right’ or ‘I’m not ready for this,” she says.
“Especially because, in this situation, that inner voice wasn’t completely off-track — I was quite literally unqualified. But what stuck with me in that moment, was how limiting and immobilizing that fear is,” says Ghadiyali. “We’ve got to stop listening to that voice in our heads telling us we can’t go after that role, ask for that promotion, or switch gears in our careers. Everyone feels unqualified or not ready at some point in their careers — what will determine your success is whether you’re willing to put in the work to prove that voice wrong.”
The reality is that no one is 100% prepared for a job. In the end, what differentiates the star players is whether they can spot an opportunity and show up for it.
“It reminded me of this saying that a family friend and mentor once shared with me: When the train is leaving the station, you need to jump on it,” she says. With the realization that there might not be another car coming along, she accepted the interview. While Ghadiyali’s fluke interview with Facebook could have remained a funny anecdote about a hackathon and free food, her willingness to seize the opportunity made it her launch pad into tech.
Drawing from her experience, she offers these tips on how to beat back impostor syndrome and navigate an interview when you’re “not qualified”:
Amplify your strengths. “There was no point in convincing Facebook that I had extensive knowledge as a software engineer,” she says. “But my conversations demonstrated that I was a logical thinker. I convinced them that I was a quick learner. When you’re preparing for an interview, don’t get discouraged by your weak spots. Instead, focus on how you’ll make up for them with your strengths.”
Minimize their risk. That said, sometimes it pays to explicitly address your shortcomings, especially if your application is a long shot. “I asked myself, ‘How do I minimize the risk to them? What assurances can I give, so that they’re less likely to reject me?’” she says. With little to lose, Ghadiyali confronted the gap in her coding experience. “I emphasized that the internship was only three months long, that I was passionate about it and that I could learn everything that I needed to learn in that time. I made sure it was clear that the interviewer knew that I knew I was the dark horse candidate — and that I was willing to put in all the work to minimize their gamble.”
After she was offered the engineering internship, Ghadiyali entered Facebook eager to learn. But she quickly discovered that while it’s admirable to take a leap of faith, executing on the follow-through is the true challenge.
“Even though I had prepared myself as much as I could, I genuinely didn’t know what it meant to be a software engineer in Silicon Valley,” Ghadiyali says. In her first few weeks at Facebook, she felt overwhelmed and out of her depth. “I didn’t know what Python was. It was a disaster.”
Frustrated and fighting back tears, she told her manager that she wanted to give up. To her surprise, he stopped her. “He told me to stop worrying about my deficiencies and comparing myself to others with more experience. His support and that reality check really meant a lot to me,” she says.
“Everyone says that mustering the courage to take a risk is the hardest part. But the work is just beginning,” says Ghadiyali. “A risk won’t actually move you forward unless it’s followed by a dedication to progress.”
After that conversation with her manager, Ghadiyali got to work. “I spent the remaining weeks of my internship cramming in as much coding as I possibly could. I was even sleeping at the office.” By the end of the internship, she not only completed her project, but also earned a full-time position as a production engineer.
Cranking up the dedication and putting in more hours aren’t the only things you can do to follow through on a risky move. If you’ve just jumped onto a moving train, here’s Ghadiyali’s advice for sticking the landing:
Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. “When you’re struggling with something, it doesn’t help to keep it to yourself, especially if that weakness impacts other colleagues’ work,” says Ghadiyali. “Let others know that you recognize where you need to grow and that you’re working on it. If you’re lucky, they’ll help you build a plan to get there.”
Don’t rest on your laurels. “Just because you were successful in one role doesn’t mean you can apply those same skills to another. For every new opportunity, evaluate what you can apply from the past and what you still have yet to learn,” she says. “Even though I had done well as a software engineer on one team, I really struggled when I transferred to another team. Initially I was frustrated, but I needed to take a step back, understand my new environment and adapt.”
Stay open to feedback, even if you disagree. If you’ve just made a risky career move, odds are, you’ll receive a lot of feedback. Take it in stride. “When I first started managing, I was given tons of feedback on my style and strategy, some of which I agreed with, and some I did not. But even if you disagree with the feedback itself, strive to understand the ‘why’ behind it and ask a lot of questions to make sure you understand. If people perceive that you’re listening, it leaves both of you open to discussion and growth.”
For intrepid pioneers of the unconventional path, there aren’t always pre-existing targets or institutional guideposts to support you along the way.
As Ghadiyali advanced in her career, she accumulated a skill set that allowed her to chart a course from acupuncture to Airbnb. Here’s a closer look at the toolkit of everyday superpowers that have kept her agile, adaptable and constantly accelerating:
Since she’s moved from engineering at Facebook to product lead at Airbnb, Ghadiyali has noticed another unexpected benefit of the meandering career: the wealth of transferable soft skills she had acquired over time.
“Whether you’re researching medicine, building an international nonprofit, or coding in Silicon Valley, the ability to analyze and solve problems is the most important skill to have,” she says. “Skills like the ability to present your work and to collaborate well with your team help you to stand out as a candidate.”
When starting out at Airbnb, Ghadiyali was particularly struck by the power of persuasion. “Shortly after joining, it was clear that we needed to invest in re-architecting our technical stack in order to scale, build more reliably and improve developer experience,” she says. “It would be an extremely time- and labor-intensive undertaking, so I had to get people on board with me. I wasn’t the VP of engineering. I wasn’t the CTO or the CPO. But since I was so passionate about this project, I had to learn to influence not only my peers, but leadership, from a place without authority. In the end, you don’t need authority written into your title in order to exercise influence.”
Airbnb wasn’t the first place where Ghadiyali learned the skill and art of influence. “In retrospect, I’d been developing this from the very beginning of my career. I was practicing influence when I was trying to convince Facebook to take a chance on me as an intern,” she says. “Even though I didn’t think about it that way at the time, that’s the skill I was starting to build. Most people have exercised influence in some area of their lives more powerfully than they probably realize.”
We think of influence as a superpower. But the truth is, everyone is an influencer. You convinced your parents to let you see that movie. You talked the flight attendant into upgrading your seat. Influence is a life skill — and we should all exercise it more deliberately at work.
Now that she’s a hiring manager herself, Ghadiyali has gained new insights from sitting on the other side of the table. She’s hired close to a dozen employees in her career, and with every process she’s run, she’s advocated for looking at a candidate’s skills more holistically.
“When I hire, I ignore checklist items such as ‘three to five years of experience.’ That doesn’t work for me,” Ghadiyali says. “Instead, I define the three things that are most important for each role. For example, on some teams, the ability to persuade is more important. For others, I might think about cross-functional support or technical ability.”
In Silicon Valley, we tend to over-index on a rigid list of qualifications, when in reality, softer skills have far more impact than a sequence of specific titles on a resume.
There is, however, one quality that Ghadiyali looks for in every candidate. “Especially for startups and for leadership roles, managers should hire for hunger,” she says. To define and discern hunger in candidates, she poses these questions:
Are you willing to learn more about this problem? “It’s easy to confuse hunger with passion and motivation. But simply being motivated to work in a particular role or solve a particular problem is not enough. Hunger means a desire to learn about what it takes to solve a problem,” she says. “It’s readily, eagerly seeking out that challenge.”
What do you geek out about? Ghadiyali picked up this tactic from Kristen Hamilton, CEO of Koru. “Does a candidate exhibit hunger in their personal lives? I look for people who work on side projects. It could be baking, fishing, building apps — anything that shows a zest for learning in your free time,” she says.
When was the last time you had to learn something new? “I look for patterns in previous experiences that show someone’s willingness to take risks, and their aptitude for following through,” she says. “Do they push themselves out of their comfort zone to explore new things? That’s the person I want on my team.”
Ghadiyali is also quick to note that a curiosity-driven path is paved, in no small part, by the people who support you along the way. As a reminder, she relies on these words of wisdom she heard from Mary Lou Jepsen: “There are two types of people in this world — those who build sandcastles and those who smush them. I try to surround myself with people who are builders, not smushers.”
To identify the builders in your own life, Ghadiyali recommends paying attention to your emotions. “Who leaves you feeling inspired or excited about solving a problem after a conversation? That’s the mark of a builder. They’re invested in your growth,” says Ghadiyali.
By contrast, smushers make you feel depleted and discouraged, by drawing attention to the ways you might fail. “I was looking to transfer to a new role within my team, so I went to the hiring manager for advice. I was told to leave the company, get experience somewhere else, then rejoin later,” says Ghadiyali. “I was taken aback by the feedback, because I was so invested and was already working toward that role. It took me a while to get over the feeling and recognize that it wasn’t great feedback.”
For when you inevitably encounter a smusher in your career, Ghadiyali says, “Don’t let the initial shock derail you. Over time, I’ve learned to ignore the naysayers and stay focused on the next step I can take to achieve my own goals,” she says.
Surrounding yourself with allies, while tuning out negativity, is particularly impactful advice for those who choose to follow an unconventional career path. “Unconventionality makes you more susceptible to impostor syndrome. You might be more anxious about how you might fail or all the ways in which you don’t belong because you don’t fit the mold,” Ghadiyali says. “Surrounding yourself with builders is the antidote to impostor syndrome: They don’t let you give in to fear.”
Sometimes passion and curiosity can’t be satiated with company moves and new titles alone, which is when the side project is born. Ghadiyali felt this itch four years ago, when she was a software engineer at Facebook, and she first began to question the narrative around being a woman in tech.
Ghadiyali and her colleague Erin Summers were concerned about the limited ways that women were being portrayed. “People routinely came up to me and asked me how it felt to be one of the first female production engineers at Facebook. That always surprised me,” she says. “I didn’t want to talk about that, I wanted to talk about this cool feature I was building or the fix I just shipped. I was talking about this with Erin one day, and she was experiencing the exact same thing. We suspected other women were, too.”
To remedy this disparity, they launched Wogrammer as a part-time Instagram project in 2014. Since then, the platform has flourished and found new ways to further its mission. Wogrammer now publishes profiles of women in technical roles, hosts workshops and runs a fellowship program for journalism students who will shape the next generation of narratives about women in tech.
And after interviewing over 200 women engineers, Ghadiyali and Summers noticed an interesting trend. “We found that when we asked women what they’re proudest of — no matter if they’re a CEO of a tech company, or a high school student — they’re likely to say they’re proud of a relationship, whether it’s being a mom, sister, daughter, friend, mentor, or manager,” says Ghadiyali. “Those are all great things that we should be proud of. But we believed women should feel equally comfortable talking about their technical accomplishments. We wanted to encourage women to take ownership of their professional achievements, then amplify those wins to a greater audience.”
You don’t ask a man what it’s like to be a male product lead, so don’t ask a woman what it’s like to be a female product lead. Ask her about her accomplishments, what she’s building now, or what she thinks the future will look like — those are far more interesting questions.
Regardless of the passion you’re pursuing, balancing a side hustle with the responsibilities of a full-time role isn’t an easy feat. When you only have a couple hours in a day to work on a passion project, you have to be methodical about maximizing your time to yield the greatest impact.
“My advice to anyone who wants to expand their side project is to manage it how you would a business,” Ghadiyali says. “The same principles that apply to business and productivity also apply to social impact. Ask yourself how you want to build scalable, sustainable fundraising models. Since Erin and I can’t work on Wogrammer around the clock, our team structured the non-profit processes with scripts and automated systems in place to lighten the workload. We also brought in an amazing executive director, built a business model to generate some revenue, so that we could minimize our reliance on donations, which are harder to guarantee. It allows us to scale ourselves and produce a lot more impact with a limited time commitment.”
Where will the winds of Ghadiyali’s curiosity take her next? “Some of the areas that I’m interested in right now are around aging, migrations, and gender equality,” she says. “In the future, I think I’d want to join a company or start one of my own that addresses these issues.”
From early years traversing the globe, to her touchdown in Silicon Valley, Ghadiyali’s meandering journey has been shaped by key transitions and decisions. In fact, her career ethos echoes a line from Steve Jobs’s now-storied 2005 Stanford commencement address: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Looking backward, Ghadiyali has amassed a constellation illuminated by curiosity. By centering personal learning and seizing opportunities to grow in diverse directions, anyone can apply her takeaways to design a career that’s unique — and most of all, meaningful — to them.
To the young grad just starting out, here’s what I’d say: Don’t worry too much about building a resume. Focus on building your repertoire of skills, and most of all, on creating a really great life.
But perhaps personal happiness and fulfillment aren’t the only benefits of taking the career path less traveled. As Ghadiyali notes, if you design your professional transitions around inquisitiveness, adaptability, and investing in a diverse set of skills, you can effectively future-proof your career.
“There’s no doubt that technology is changing the nature of jobs,” Ghadiyali says. “I would encourage anyone in the workforce, from those early in their careers to startup veterans, to remain adaptable to changing nature of work. Whether it’s side projects, working with a nonprofit, or doing something within your company, do something that allows you to develop soft skills,” she says. “The jobs that will be even more valuable in the future will require a high level of creative problem-solving, empathy, communication and influence. Those are the qualities that we won’t successfully be able to train computers to do for a long time. That’s what will make you invaluable, no matter where you go, and always.”
Photography by Bonnie Rae Mills.