Today’s interview is with Zuhair Mahmoud, an information technology specialist within the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) of the Library of Congress.
Describe your background.
I was born in Amman, Jordan, and adopted the U.S. as my new home at the age of 17. I attended high school at Chelmsford High in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, then went on to attend college at Florida Atlantic University, and later moved to MSU Denver. Just like many kids my age, I had to work to finance my studies, but unlike most, I did not qualify for any type of scholarships or financial assistance because of my status as an international student. While it made for long days and sleepless nights, it allowed me to finish college with nearly four years of professional experience under my belt.
I started my career in the early 1990s working for a small company in Denver as a computer technician, assembling computers, installing software and answering customer’s technical questions. I then moved on to briefly work for a GTE contractor (GTE is now part of Verizon), where I assisted Internet customers with their Internet connectivity issues, which was mostly via dialup at the time. I then moved on to IBM Global Services (now renamed to IBM Services), where I worked for a couple of years before moving to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where I started my own company in 2001.
In 2002, the company I co-founded managed to release the first fully integrated screen reading, magnification, and braille output program in Arabic. The challenge we faced was that, unlike Latin-based languages, Arabic is read from right to left and heavily relies on context-sensitive, unwritten diacritics. This meant that teaching a computer to speak Arabic would require it to understand context, something that computers still have difficulty doing even today. As if this was not complicated enough, we realized in the middle of our project that computers often use a combination of Arabic and English text, each of which is written in its own character set and in the opposite direction of one another, which meant that speech needs to switch languages and reading direction mid-sentence, on the fly. We were able to accomplish this by leveraging research in linguistic computing from various universities and private companies in Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Egypt. This gave millions of Arabic-speaking blind and visually impaired persons, for the first time, an opportunity to be part of the digital revolution just like their sighted counterparts. As a result, I was invited to the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 2003.
In 2004, I returned to the United States, where I worked as a freelance accessibility consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and several local, state, and federal government agencies.
In 2008, I took up a position as an Assistive Technology Specialist for the State of Washington, and two years later, I moved to the other Washington to take up my position here at the Library of Congress.
How would you describe your job to other people?
The easiest way to describe my job here at the Library of Congress is as an information technology accessibility evangelist. Over the past thirty years or so, technology has served to revolutionize access to information for people with disabilities. To ensure continued equal access to such information, international web accessibility standards known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were developed to allow for web sites to be designed in a manner that would make them easy to access for anyone with a disability. My job is to be the Library’s resource on such standards. In addition to testing web sites for accessibility, my work also involves increasing awareness of accessibility throughout the Library.
What is your role in the development of Congress.gov?
My primary role is to work with the amazing and talented Congress.gov team to make sure that the site is accessible for everyone. This is accomplished through testing new features before they are released, as well as adding specific accessibility features such as the ReadSpeaker Listen button.
What is your favorite feature of Congress.gov?
At the risk of sounding biased, I would have to say that the ReadSpeaker Listen button is one of my favorite features. Studies have consistently shown that when information is presented through visual and auditory channels simultaneously (also known as bimodal presentation), speed of processing and memory recollection are enhanced. Not only can our site visitors listen to Congress.gov content while reading it, they can even download such content to listen to wherever they go – in their car and on their favorite headset. What information is more worthy of being so well understood than our laws and the process through which they develop?
What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the legislative process while working on Congress.gov?
While I thought I already knew quite a bit about the laws and the legislative process as a result of the interesting path I took to become a U.S. citizen, I realized how little I knew when I started working on Congress.gov. What was most interesting for me is how much work it took for laws to be made. Of the enormous number of bills introduced in each Congress, few make it out of committee to the House or Senate floor for a vote. Of those that do make it to a vote in one or both chambers, fewer still make it to the president to be signed and thus made into law.
What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?
That is always a difficult question for an introvert. Having said this, I think very few people know that my voice was once used to produce a commercial computer text to speech engine. Due to the rapid change in technology, however, this quickly became out of date, and was replaced by much better sounding voices.