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From Childhood Curiosity to Cisco’s FIFA Women’s World Cup All-Female Dream Team

By Emma Reid

From Childhood Curiosity to Cisco’s FIFA Women’s World Cup All-Female Dream Team

By Emma Reid

Published 03-13-24

Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.

Noor Zafar installing a piece of equipment.

This blog is by Noor Zafar, a Cybersecurity Cadet Risk Advisory Analyst at Deloitte in Australia and a former member of Cisco’s FIFA Women’s World Cup all-female Dream Team. We’re excited to have Noor join us as we go backstage with the Cisco Dream Team on our next Women Rock-IT event on February 29, 2024. 

Noor holds a Bachelor of Science (Chemistry) from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and a Diploma of Mechanical Engineering from TAFE NSW in Wollongong in Australia. She is currently in the UOW / Deloitte Cyber Academy traineeship and studying her Bachelor of Computer Science (cybersecurity) and Diploma of Information Technology (IT). Her multidisciplinary study in various fields in Mechanical, IT and cybersecurity has led to a strong passion for artificial intelligence (AI). 

The Women Rock-IT Program addresses the gender gap in STEM-related subjects. Established in 2014, the program has reached an audience of over 2 million people, featuring 156 female speakers, 91 live TV broadcasts and 78 blogs. As a result, more than 974,000 people have enrolled in technology courses.

There are two principles in life that I have learnt; if one door closes, another door opens, and everything is related and interconnected in some way or form. No knowledge can ever be wasted it—it can always be utilised—whether it be imaginative, creative solutions to real world problems, or simply the curious machinations of our mind’s own imagination.

However, never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined that I would be part of helping to capture and broadcast an iconic event in women’s Australian sporting history across the world. This is my story.

Inner workings of a creative child’s mind

As a child I was fascinated with the inner workings of a computer, robotics and technology in general. In fact, one of my earliest memories is helping my father building and fixing computers in our home garage. Tinkering with computers is a passion that I seem to have inherited and have since built upon. As a child I quickly gained knowledge and skills to trouble–shoot operating systems from old manuals that were the size of telephone directories! And for those of you who don’t know what they are, they’re huge! As an adult, I now look back and realise that my childhood obsession and interest in technology was a part of my undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder trait that would form a key part of my identity later in life.

Upheavals of migration 

My parents migrated from Pakistan, upheaving their entire lives just to educate their daughter. My mother gave me a strong sense of conviction and the foundation to pursue hard challenges and set targets. As a woman, she embedded a strong belief in me to pursue education, to be independent and most importantly, to lead a life in purposeful service, leaving a good legacy for future generations. My parents wanted me to pursue medicine, which I directed my studies towards. But I had no idea that one day I would go back to my original dream and passion of technology.

Delving into programming

During my teenage years, I delved into programming when my teacher enrolled me into the inaugural Google Python competition. This involved creating html and CSS websites which exposed me to technical challenges and problem solving. As students, we were given Lego robotics kits to construct robots with a small touch censor and a black and white camera for the robot to look at targets ahead. Our goal was to code a sensor program so that the robot could turn and avoid obstacles. These experiences not only honed my technical skills but further instilled in me a sense of curiosity and a love for hands-on problem-solving. The passion for robotics naturally led me to develop a very strong interest in AI. At high school, I loved science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and applied for a bachelor’s degree in science at UOW after I finished my final year.

Coding, COVID, and cyber career change 

At UOW, I majored in chemistry and I did a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering at TAFE NSW Wollongong. At the time, I only continued coding and pen-testing courses as a hobby. After graduating, I had a brief stint as a chemical engineer which I enjoyed immensely. However, after I was laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to go back to my old job as an early childcare educator and considered teaching as a career change.

I had started doing a Master’s in Education until one day an advertisement on Reddit caught my eye. The ad promoted a UOW / Deloitte Cyber Academy Program for new school leavers and mature age students, paying them to study a degree in computer science at UOW, a Diploma in IT at TAFE NSW and to work at a big four company. Such possibilities seemed insurmountable, yet I applied for it and after the year-long application process, I finally got in.

The program consisted of a two-week bootcamp before coursework commenced. I completed the Fundamentals of Networking [Networking Essentials] course through Cisco Networking Academy, one of the world’s longest-running and purpose-driven IT skills-to-jobs programs. My teacher, Shan Ansari, nominated me for the Cisco Dream Team as I was able to pick up networking concepts quickly, asked a lot of questions, and was very quick to problem solve the Cisco Packet Tracer lab exercises. He wrote me a wonderful recommendation letter and I applied for the Dream Team; it was a very last-minute application!

You’re dreaming!

Honestly, I was gobsmacked when I heard that I got into the Cisco Dream Team. My TAFE teacher told me that I was the first TAFE student to make it into the Dream Team and that is a highly coveted experience to obtain in the IT industry. The Dream Team went to three workshops where we gained hands-on experience of how to do cabling and basic troubleshooting. It was the first time for me to meet the all-female Dream Team which included the all-female Dream Team which included six women from all across Australia. The workshops were very informative as we were all enrolled into Cisco Networking Academy’s CCNA course, and we physically learnt how to do cabling and work with Cisco equipment. This was my dream coming true:

I had always wanted to study and apply my technical knowledge but this was at a whole new level, at a major sporting event!

The Dream Team event went over seven days. We were split into two teams to cover the cabling at both event stadiums: Stadium Australia and Homebush Stadium. The Dream Team shadowed the Swisscom team which was in charge of planning and installing the IT infrastructure using Cisco equipment. We were given the schematics of the media tribune area, and we spent our time setting-up the equipment in order for the media to have reliable high-speed internet throughout the coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Dream Team also set up wireless access points near the area of play. On the day of the opening match of France vs Jamaica, the Dream Team gathered with the Swisscom team to troubleshoot the match in real-time. Seeing how a major event is put together behind the scenes, from the infrastructure and planning and sheer scale of people working, was a life-changing experience for me. Fortunately, the opening match coverage went smoothly without any issues and it was a fantastic learning opportunity.

Cisco recognition

The feeling of contributing to such a monumental event brought a wave of emotions over me. The camaraderie among the Dream Team members and the recognition from Cisco executives made me realise the numerous opportunities and pathways for women in IT.

Cisco’s all-female Dream Team received coverage in the national newspapers, industry press, and my local hometown regional newspapers. I even got the opportunity to share my experience on the ABC Illawarra radio station. This opportunity has opened-up so many career pathways and recognition that I am truly grateful for. My advice to anybody starting in IT is to seize the opportunity to upskill and retrain. IT is a pathway for women that can provide more options and greater flexibility than many others, and all your knowledge that you gain throughout your career can be utilised to solve the most unique problems and create innovative solutions. Always be curious, be resilient under the face of challenges and always have a creative flair in your work.

I hope this story serves as an inspiration for those navigating the tech landscape. As I reflect on my own path, it’s heartening to know that the skills I developed in my formative years played a crucial role in my more recent success. The FIFA Women’s World Cup made Australian TV history. The Cisco Dream Team journey stands as a testament to the limitless possibilities that unfold when childhood passions meet curiosity and resilience.

Register to hear Noor and others on Women Rock-IT 

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