People and Culture

Mohammad’s journey from Syrian refugee to software engineer in Switzerland

6 minutes to read
With insights from...

Insights in brief

  • Hear Mohammad’s inspiring story from fleeing Syria to becoming an advanced software engineer at Zühlke Switzerland.

  • Discover how Zühlke’s development and training programs helped him take his career to a new level. 

  • Find out how Mohammad overcame professional challenges in a new country and what’s next for him.

After fleeing Syria in 2016, Mohammad Altahan found himself in Switzerland waiting for an asylum permit. He had a software engineering degree from Damascus as well as experience as a software developer. He found himself “with nothing to do”, unable to work or take on training.

Fast forward to now, Mohammad is an Advanced Software Engineer at Zühlke. He’s integrated into a new culture, speaks both German and English, and specializes in one of the most exciting areas of emerging tech: low-code.

“Before joining Zühlke, I read a lot about how it’s one of the best employers in Switzerland—and very multicultural,” he said. “I knew they worked in many different sectors and with different technologies, so I thought I’d try and apply there.”

Mohammad took on a huge amount of education and training in a relatively short space of time before beginning his new role. On the last day of his studies in Switzerland, his first day at Zühlke began—and the learning and development hasn’t stopped since.

From Syria to Switzerland

After a nine-month journey to Switzerland, via Turkey and Greece, Mohammad found himself in a refugee camp unable to make anything of his professional experience. Soon after, he heard about a 13-week programme at Powercoders, a programming school for refugees, which gave him his first opportunity to use his skills in his new country. 

His experience at Powercoders was his first taste of software engineering in a new country. “Not all of it was new to me, but the experience was really interesting to understand the Swiss market, build a network and experience new technologies,” he explained. 

After completing the course, Mohammad was able to apply to a Master’s degree in computer science. “I was really surprised,” he said, “because I didn’t even have to do a language test. I got accepted into the university directly as they recognized my bachelor’s degree from Syria.”

During this time, he was officially recognised as a refugee and was allowed to apply for work. He studied his Master’s in English and also spent the time learning German, so now felt ready for his new career path to begin.

The adjustment from theoretical learning to his first practical projects at Zühlke was a challenge, as was working in a new market and culture. “It was my first job in Switzerland, and working for one of the best employers was daunting. I had to adapt to this new culture and the quality of the work.”

Closing the quality gap

Luckily, Mohammad found plenty of help to integrate into his new company and role. “My first three months were onboarding, to get to know the company, my colleagues, and the different systems and technologies Zühlke works with.”

“We were also streamlined into groups based on our technology specialty, so I was part of the .NET team. The team lead there was very supportive.”

On top of this, Mohammad started training on his new job straight away. Zühlke invests 10% of its annual turnover into learning and development. Mohammad was able to benefit as a result. 

“I started a subject called Clean Code, where you learn the basics of quality coding practices to make sure it’s readable and secure,” he said. “I  took courses on security and data privacy, which was awesome. I also took German courses in my freetime, which helped a lot.” 

This formal training, as well as informal mentorships from team leads and internal collaboration, helped with the jump to working in a new culture. “As you can imagine, there’s a huge gap between working in Syria and Switzerland,” Mohammad underlined. “Not only in technology, but in the culture of work.”

He found the quality of the work raised the bar from his previous experience, which suited him well. “I like to work precisely. My colleagues, the company and the courses have all supported me in that.”

The support Mohammad received made a big difference. “I was really happy, because I didn’t expect that Zühlke would be so helpful and I learned a lot from them.” 

Developing a low-code specialism

This level of on-the-job support has helped Mohammad take control of his career progression. “I started as a .NET engineer, but I decided to go in a new direction, which was low-code. It’s a new technology, so I attended a session to get to know the platform and I joined the group.” Low-code removes the technical barrier to development through visual-based tools to build applications and processes.

“I got one or two weeks working alongside my colleagues to get to know the area and they gave me small tasks to do while reviewing my work. Step by step, I got a new project and it went great.” Now an Advanced Software Engineer, Mohammad is glad he got the opportunity to learn a new specialism. “I think the future of software engineering is going in this direction, so it’s great to be involved at such a nascent stage,” he said. 

Mohammad is also now a mentor on low-code for new joiners, and sometimes presents his work on the technology at Zühlke Days, the company’s internal tech talks, which take place monthly on different subjects.

This collaborative culture is also fostered during project challenges, where the low-code community take on a specific problem and present the solutions they’ve found in knowledge sharing sessions. “It’s our chance to bring together everything we’ve learnt and it’s really helpful,” he said. “We’re only a group of eight or nine people but we’re growing and working together well.”

From advanced to expert — and beyond

As well as navigating a new country, workplace and technologies, he also came across an unexpected stumbling block during his time at Zühlke. “At the beginning, it was challenging because many clients speak Swiss German rather than High German, which is completely different. After some practice, I now understand most of it and feel more confident understanding what they’re saying!”

Undeterred by any new challenge, after three years’ experience and a new specialism under his belt, he’s already looking at what’s next. “In the next few years, my goal is to go from advanced to expert level in low-code,” he said. “And to get closer to the customers and meet more of their requirements, as well as improve my communication skills.”

Having been part of his extraordinary story so far, we’re looking forward to Mohammad’s next chapter.

Want to benefit from our growth and development programs?