Alia Poonawala always has a moment to share a smile and a kind “how are you?”, but don’t be surprised to find out that she’s actually the badass boss and General Manager behind Ironhack, a bootcamp offering intensive courses in web development and UX/UI design, with the goal of preparing the next generation of digital creators. She spends her days (and many nights) alongside her dedicated team, making sure that Ironhack classes are running and growing like clockwork and that opportunities for future coders and designers are always expanding.
We sat down with her for a few minutes to learn more about her story.
You’ve had quite a varied career! Tell us a bit about how your path led you to Ironhack.
My parents are complete opposites, and so as a result I’ve always felt both intensely analytical (dad’s side) and wildly creative (mom’s side). I chose my college program because it was the only top-ranked drama conservatory in the world that would let me direct but also let me double major in biology at the same time and that felt like a great fit for me. That happened to be at Carnegie Mellon, where I luckily also got a lot of exposure to computer science.
The tough thing though, was that when I graduated, I felt completely unprepared for a career in anything. I was a very quixotic person — I thought the world was an extension of college, and that I could just keep learning and someone would pay me to do that! That’s not how the world works, and that was a hard lesson to learn. To add to the pain, I saw how all my CS friends were the first ones to snag 6-figure jobs at venerable companies like Google and Facebook. I didn’t even know what HTML + CSS were in those days!
My first job out of school was teaching MBA students at Tepper and from then on I’ve only ever worked in education — which is a surprise, because I definitely did not plan that. But I am very passionate about education. I come from a religious community that highly values education as a way to control your destiny and contribute to the world and that’s been ingrained in me since I was a little girl.
That being said, I’ve also been intensely disappointed that there has not been enough innovation in the way we teach and learn, so I was drawn to start-ups who were disrupting that. After spending time at an EdTech startup here in Miami, I joined Ironhack.
Ironhack’s mission to transform the way we learn, teach tangible skills relevant to the digital economy, and give people an ROI (return on investment) for their education really lit me up (and still does!)
How do you think a multidisciplinary career & education has helped you build strengths as a professional and as a leader?
When I became GM last year, I had so much to learn. And it’s been olympic activity on my left and right brain lobes! I’ve had to really hone my analytical skills in managing P&L,and other scary-looking spreadsheets (which I’ve recently come to love). The other side has been learning how to deal with and manage people in a new way, how to engage people differently based on who they are and what needs to be done, and handling conflict.
There are a lot of humans in our business — we can’t just sell the product and peace out. Our product involves people all day every day, so my role has required really intense efforts both analytically and in management. The theatre background definitely helps with that one.
My brain actually takes a lot of pleasure in both; sometimes I’m happy to sit down quietly and work on a spreadsheet because it’s a break from dealing with humans; other times I’m quite happy to talk to a person because I’m tired of looking at numbers!
But honestly, my college degree did nothing to prepare me for working in startups and tech. Those things you learn by doing.
Now you’re GM of Ironhack. What part of the mission of Ironhack speaks to you and gets you up in the morning?
At the end of the day, it comes down to the individual people we get to know as a result of working at Ironhack. It may sound tacky, but their dreams for the future are what truly inspire me every day. It’s really mind-blowing how many life changes I witness on a weekly basis.
I’ve always been a big dreamer too but dreams are nothing without solid strategy, intense work, and a commitment to excellence and I see people really putting those things together when they come to Ironhack. It brings me joy to see people cut through bureaucracy, hack the system, and get kickass opportunities they wouldn’t have had before the bootcamp. It’s meritocracy at its best.
The other side of my work that really gets me up in the morning is my team. We have incredibly passionate, people-loving staff members who have a “can-do” attitude with anything you throw their way. I feel a lot of dedication to a team like that- especially because we are united by those characteristics across 5 countries!
Tell us about your most rewarding moment at Ironhack so far.
We’re constantly climbing mountains and as soon as we get to the summit, a bigger mountain emerges, so witnessing Miami’s team get smarter and faster and grow professionally feels so good.
But my hands-down most rewarding moment? When an alum comes to campus to hang out with us and tell us about their jobs and all the things they’re accomplishing at work (or when they come to interview new grads!) That’s the best feeling of all.
What advice would you give to other women and young leaders in the tech field?
Tech is very male-dominated, and that means that there aren’t as many obvious female leaders or role models. This means that many of us are going through our own journey to learn how to lead in our own way, without as many compatible-feeling examples to model ourselves after.
To other women in tech, I would tell them to work on finding their own voice and build confidence in using that voice. So much of the time there’s so much pressure to be a cookie cutter leader and do the things you’ve seen done, but the truth is that leadership can take on so many different forms — at the end of the day, you have to do what you think is right and what feels right to you. You’ll probably make mistakes along the way, but no one starts off perfect anyway! Leadership at the end of the day is just human. It’s about finding ways to inspire and lead people, but that’s only going to be effective if you’re authentic.
I’d also tell them to find other female leaders, colleagues, and friends who they can surround themselves with, who can support them and remind them of what’s important and who they really are.
Lastly, and this is just advice for any leader male or female: when the pressure is on, and there’s anxiety, panic, and stress starting to lead the show, find a way to step back and focus on the facts at hand. Take lots of deep breaths and focus on getting centered. We forget that as leaders, our attitude, actions, and feelings have ripple effects on our team and we have to be responsible about managing ourselves, too!