June 17, 2024

Interview: How Solutions Architect Manager Mohammad Akhoundzadeh Leads Innovation And Community At Braze

Braze is hiring on POCIT

Mohammad Akhoundzadeh manages a team of Solutions Architects at Braze, a leading customer engagement platform. Originally from Afghanistan and raised in the UK, Mohammad discovered his knack for technology early in his childhood, solving household tech issues whenever the opportunity arose.

A proud practicing Muslim, Mohammad is also the Vice President and Treasurer for Braze’s employee resource group, Muslims@Braze. He enjoys the collaborative aspects of his work as much as the technical and believes that fostering a community of like-minded peers at his workplace enhances his experience at Braze. 

In this interview, Mohammad shares insights into his career path, compares corporate and start-up cultures, and discusses the importance of diversity in tech. 

Tell us a little bit about your academic background and career trajectory so far.

I studied Computer Science with Management at university and that was essentially my entrance into tech. From there, I did a few internships between my studies and then secured my first post-grad role, before eventually joining Braze.

What was that first internship like?

Interning was a requirement for my degree, but I knew I didn’t want to spend all day programming or coding as a career. I wanted a role which had a good balance of technical, client facing and project management work. I found just that in an internship at General Electric, where I worked in their healthcare subsidiary for a year. Unfortunately, my university had concerns about the internship not meeting the criteria for it to count towards my degree, however, since I was convinced the role was a better fit for my career goals, I decided to take a gap year to pursue the internship and returned to my studies the year after.  

What were your key takeaways from that gap year?

The experience definitely confirmed that I didn’t want to become a software developer and spend my career programming or coding. The work that I did was a great blend of technical skills, consulting, and project management and I realized that was the kind of work I wanted to pursue. I picked up so many valuable skills and great experiences, and was also fortunate to meet mentors I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. This internship was pivotal to kickstarting my career; without it, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. One of my biggest accomplishments was winning the Intern of the Year award within the program.

What was your post-grad experience like and what attracted you to Braze?

During my internship, I worked on projects focused on CRM technologies, which naturally steered me towards that specific technology space. I started as a Salesforce Consultant at Capgemini after graduating, which enhanced my exposure to consultancy within tech. As I progressed, I found the corporate culture less appealing and began exploring other options. Funnily enough, my manager at General Electric had left to join Braze halfway through my internship, so when I came across an interesting position at Braze, I reached out to him, and he said, “Yeah, that role is great for you. I think you’ll be a good fit.” 

“The company’s innovative approach to customer engagement, integrations, and its technology stack really resonated with me.”

I’d never worked in a fast-growing organization before, so that was one of the factors that really attracted me to Braze. As I was speaking to people I knew who had joined the company, I got a good understanding of the culture, specifically the tangible impact that individuals could have and how the company encourages staff to pursue activities they’re passionate about. I was also really excited about the Braze technology. The company’s innovative approach to customer engagement, integrations, and its technology stack really resonated with me. 

How has your career progressed at Braze?

I joined Braze as a Solutions Architect in 2019, attracted by the role’s mix of technical involvement and customer interaction. It offered the right balance, allowing me autonomy to lead projects on my own and apply the skills I have picked up in previous experiences in a great middle-ground role.

My journey within Braze has been fast and fulfilling. I started as a Solutions Architect and soon after progressed to a Senior Solutions Architect. From there, I took on the responsibility of Team Lead, where I had my first experience in people management, before moving into a managerial position. Now, as a Senior Manager, I look back on the incredible journey from being an individual contributor to leading my own team and I am grateful for the opportunity to nurture and coach team members along the way.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?

As a people manager, the most fulfilling part of my role is seeing my team members progress. Whether that’s from a skills perspective, where individuals are developing new skills and experiences, or through promotions and guiding them as they move into roles they’ve been working towards as part of their career ambitions. 

As a Solutions Architect, one of the most rewarding elements of the role for me is being able to collaborate with really smart and innovative people. I’ve had the pleasure of working with exceptionally talented individuals on some really complex customer use cases and the brainstorming sessions are always so inspiring. Seeing the direct impact of that work in a customer’s environment and in their business is equally satisfying and rewarding. 

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

The biggest challenge is keeping up with the technology. Braze technology just keeps advancing and evolving all the time. So for me, as someone who’s interested in technology but is no longer hands-on in that space, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the pace, but it’s also really exciting.

What are some of the benefits of working at a company like Braze?

First of all, I don’t think I would have progressed as quickly as I have if I continued to work for a big corporation. Secondly, the lack of restrictions in company processes, red tape, etc. allows for a lot more creativity. It’s easier to get your hands stuck in and get the ball rolling quickly.

“Braze also has a people-centric culture that has allowed me to get involved in initiatives like the Muslims@Braze ERG.”

Because the organization is quite close-knit, I’ve been exposed to different perspectives from across the company and developed a range of skills I don’t think I would’ve picked up in a more rigid, corporate environment. Braze also has a people-centric culture that has allowed me to get involved in initiatives like the Muslims@Braze ERG. Coming from the corporate space, I had no idea that ERGs were a thing. 

How did you join Muslims@Braze and what does the group do to support Muslim staff?

When I joined the company, Muslims@Braze wasn’t yet an official ERG. It started growing as I was in my second year at the company, and it was always something I wanted to get involved in. I saw an opportunity to do something community-based that allowed me to build stronger relationships with colleagues. I didn’t just want to take part, I wanted to lead and help make the group a safe space where like-minded people from similar backgrounds could affirm each other and be their full selves. It was important to me to contribute to the diversity of the company culture in that way and make a real impact. 

Muslims@Braze typically does cultural and educational events organized by group members and are often open to anyone who wants to partake. We’ve hosted Eid celebrations in the past, held calligraphy sessions where artists come in and write people’s names in beautiful Arabic script, and educational sessions where colleagues came to learn about Ramadan, the significance of fasting in Islam and how to support team members and customers who are fasting. This year we hosted our third annual Ramadan challenge, where colleagues were invited to fast with us for a week, in whatever capacity they felt comfortable with. The idea was that it would foster empathy and help non-Muslim staff understand how it feels to fast. We had a pretty big turn out for that and at the end held a celebration event where participants talked through their experience and what they’d learned. 

“Technology is built for anyone and everyone right? So, there is a need for marginalized communities to be involved in the development of these products and services so that the end users feel represented, and we end up with products and services that work for all of us.”

Outside of Ramadan, we provide networking opportunities, mentorship, and coaching for our members as well as just facilitating spaces where we can all speak about the challenges we face within our community. We’re also heavily focused on community engagement through partnering with local Muslim organizations, volunteering, and raising money for charitable causes. 

Why do you think it’s important for members of marginalized communities to pursue careers in tech?

Technology is built for anyone and everyone right? So, there is a need for marginalized communities to be involved in the development of these products and services so that the end users feel represented, and we end up with products and services that work for all of us. Tech is also such a big space. There are so many different roles you can go into and so many different experiences that you can have, so it provides great opportunities for individuals from marginalized communities to pick up new skills and experiences, and be impactful in shaping the future of the industry into something more inclusive and representative.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

Do what you love and always look out for opportunities for growth and development, even if that means stepping outside of your comfort zone to try something new. You will see many doors open for you by exposing yourself to new experiences. This is something I have tried to do as much as possible; whether that’s pursuing an internship early in my career or exploring people management roles at Braze. Those experiences have helped me discover more about my strengths and provided me with great opportunities to develop and grow.

Braze is hiring on POCIT

Image: Courtesy of Mohammad Akhoundzadeh

Memuna Konteh

Memuna Konteh is a journalist and multidisciplinary writer who specializes in the intersections of identity culture and politics.