Google’s Parisa Tabriz Is A Hacker’s Nightmare

By Julie Wurth
The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Forget all your stereotypes about computer engineers.

First, Parisa Tabriz is a woman. She doesn’t make a big deal about it, but she’s still a rarity in the upper echelons of the computer hacking world (the legal version).

Tabriz, 31, is head of computer security for Google Chrome, leading a team of about 25 hired hackers who find vulnerabilities in the browser to keep other hackers (the illegal kind) from messing with users’ data.

But the University of Illinois alum, who is being honored today by the Department of Computer Science, is about as far from the stereotypicaltechno-geek as you can get.

She likes rock climbing. She played soccer and tennis in high school. She swims with stingrays. She makes gingerbread houses every year with her grandma. Her family didn’t even get a computer until her senior year of high school.

And then there’s her title: Google’s Security Princess.

Officially, on her resume, she is Chrome Security Engineering Manager. But for Tabriz, that’s a bit … well, stuffy.

A few years back, she was headed to a security conference in Japan, where exchanging business cards is a big deal. At the time, she was an information security engineer, but “Security Princess” sounded more fun. Plus there was a bit of irony.

“I’m not very girly at all,” she said.

“I wasn’t trying to make a strong statement. To me, it was more whimsical and less boring.”

Her manager didn’t care, either. Google is a meritocracy, she said, where influence and authority come from your accomplishments, not your title.

“I don’t think people know what I do, but that’s fine. I’m not really a big proponent of titles and lots of executive-sounding things.”

The road to the UI

In fact, lots of people have noticed what she does. Besides profiles in Elle, and WIRED, in 2012 she was named to Fortune’s “30 Under 30” list of tech pioneers. And a 2011 study from the information security firm Accuvant concluded that Chrome stopped cyberattacks more effectively than the three other mainstream browsers.

“It was easy to see the potential in her when she was a graduate student,” said Nikita Borisov, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering and her graduate adviser. “She was very highly motivated, and she’s very personable, so the fact that she’s in a management role, I think, is not surprising.”

Tabriz earned her bachelor’s and masters’s degrees in computer science at the UI, doing research on wireless networking security and privacy technology. She graduated in December 2006 and joined Google two months later.

She grew up in the southwest Chicago suburbs, the daughter of a Polish-American nurse and an Iranian-American cardiologist who worked for a time at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.

She liked math and science, and settled on the UI because of its in-state tuition, its “world-class” engineering department, and its location, “far enough away from home that I could get the college experience, but close enough that I could go home conveniently to get homemade food from Mom.”

Tabriz initially chose electrical and computer engineering because of its high rankings but got into web design, oddly enough, because of her longtime love of art.

“It was a quick and easy way for me to make art. You didn’t need paints or a lot of space or expensive supplies,” she said. “It was a creative canvas for me.”

After taking an introductory computer science class, Tabriz decided she liked programming more than hardware design, so she switched majors.

She’s proud of the fact that she “was not born with a computer at my fingertips. I learned how to program my first year of college. I’ve been able to learn a lot and do really cool things at one of the best companies to work for. It’s not something that you need to be born knowing how to do.”

‘Do what matters’

Tabriz was never intimidated by the scarcity of women in the field. The percentage of female students in computer science at the UI is currently 16.5 percent, up from 11 percent the past few years.

Tabriz had two brothers, and “was a bit of a tom-boy growing up,” so she felt comfortable around men. “I knew what to expect going in. I just didn’t think about it.”

But she added, “I do remember someone questioning whether I got my job at Google because the bar was lower for women.”
Tabriz thinks about the issue more now because she’s asked about it frequently, and she hears about negative experiences from other women in the industry.

At conferences or other events, people often assume she’s in sales or public relations.

“I enjoy taking the opportunity to bust someone’s assumptions and stereotype,” she said.

She feels some pressure when she’s the only woman in a meeting, worrying that whatever she says will be seen as representing all women, not just “Parisa the engineer.”

“When it’s two or three women in the room, it doesn’t matter. You’re not representing the outlier,” she said.

She’s happy if her experience inspires others but is uncomfortable describing herself as a role model because she hasn’t had too many struggles.

As a manager, Tabriz keeps gender in mind as she makes hiring decisions “so we never get stuck in a single mindset,” noting her team is not yet terribly diverse.

Her advice for young women thinking about a computer career?

“I think technology is really empowering. I remember when I was really little, I wanted magic powers. Technology and engineering and going into computer science and learning how to program is probably as close as you can get to magic powers. The ability to create things is just really powerful.”

“I think it’s a very exciting field that has been dominated by a male perspective for a long time and really does need a fresh perspective.”

At the same time, she said, people should pursue their interests. While it would be great to have more women in technology, she would tell an individual “to do what matters to them.”

“We have so much pressure on us as women to be successful professionals and also amazing mothers and put everything first. That’s a little bit unfair.”

She was encouraged by the number of girls who took part in the “r00tz” program for kids last year at the annual DefCon hacker convention in Las Vegas. The girls were just as confident, and asked just as many questions, as the boys.

“It was so clear that women were excited about technology, and that’s not the case at my age,” she said.

‘Life is too short’

Tabriz loves her job, partly because she loves working at Google, partly because Chrome is something so many people use _ from “super geeks” to online shoppers, as she put it.

Part of her team tries to find bugs and vulnerabilities that sophisticated attackers would try to exploit. Another group works to make security features easier to use so that everyone can have a safe experience, she said.

A third group works with the outside community on potential security issues, as Chrome is an open source project. The idea is to get “more eyes on the problem,” she said. Google, in fact, pays people $100 to $150,000 to find bugs in its programs.

Outside of work, she frequents a nearby rock-climbing gym or visits Yosemite National Park, about four hours from her home. She started the sport in high school when she worked at the local community center, which had just installed a climbing wall.

“For the grand opening, they needed a Spider-Man. The Spider-Man didn’t show up, but the costume did somehow, so I subbed,” she said.

Tabriz also enjoys glass-blowing, building terrariums, woodworking and welding _ essentially working with her hands, which she doesn’t get to do in her day job.

When she was growing up, the day after Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday, known as “craft day.” Everybody in the family would make a holiday craft or build a gingerbread house. She still makes them, with a different theme each year, including a Pac-Man house or one in the mid-century Eichler architectural style that she hopes to buy someday.

Tabriz plans to apply her handywoman skills when she finds her dream house with her fiance, a neuroscientist at Stanford. They want something they can fix up, to “make it exactly what we want.”

What’s her long-term career plan? She’s doesn’t really have one, but it might not always involve computers.

“I’m really happy at Google right now. At Chrome, we still have a lot of problems to solve,” she said.

As more people around the world go online and more devices are connected to the Internet, security challenges will only increase.

But she recently took a gelato-making class and can see herself opening a gelato shop someday.

“Life is too short to do the same things forever,” she said.

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