Traversing Farah Ali’s journey to become the Vice President of Engineering for Player & Developer Experience at Electronic Arts

By Asra Rizwan on
June 10, 2019
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Back when owning a PC was a rarity in the average household in Pakistan, that too with the internet, Farah grew up in Karachi playing video games. Hours spent on arcade games like Golden Axe with her brother and burning the midnight oil on solving puzzles in adventure games really piqued her interest in computing. She thought the coolest job in the world was to make computer games!

During her O’levels at The City School Karachi, she decided to take up pre-engineering via a process of elimination, the other two options being pre-medical and commerce, neither of which she found particularly interesting. This early lucky choice got her interested in mathematics and computers. After finishing up her A’Levels at The Lyceum School she decided to pursue a degree in Computer Science and dreamed of escaping her life in Karachi for education abroad. She started as a candidate for a Bachelors of Computer Science in LUMS and after a couple of years was able to transfer out the University of Waterloo in Canada and from there to City University in the US after marriage.

After graduating from college, she spent a few months doing unpaid internships in the US while applying for full-time jobs and got accepted into Microsoft as an entry level engineer on a work visa. This is how her journey in tech began as a college hire at Microsoft moving on to become a Director of Engineering at eBay and eventually a Vice President of Engineering at Electronic Arts Inc, (EA).

Farah (extreme right) with her father and siblings

Kickstarting a career in tech

Farah was always most comfortable behind a computer screen. She did not know exactly what field she would pursue a career in, but she was sure it would be something in mathematics or the sciences. She always had an interest in gaming and coding, and therefore, was leaning towards it. It was in LUMS that she first decided to opt for Computer Science for her undergraduate degree and become a Software Engineer.

Finding computing to be fun and adventurous, she fondly recalls her time in LUMS, when during a group project her team developed an adventure game based on a friend named Gullu (GLUMS – Gullu at LUMS). The game was a typical map-based adventure game with a set of clues that determined the story arc as they were solved. For Farah, it was not just about coding a game but also about integrating creativity, problem-solving and most importantly an element of fun altogether.

“Since we had no concept of career counselling or mentorship growing up, all the options we knew were related to what we saw the people around us doing. And there were not many men or women in my circle who were professional software engineers. I am sure there were quite a few people in tech in Pakistan at that time but I just did not have the awareness or visibility growing up” said Farah while talking to TechJuice.

Transitioning between Microsoft and eBay

Reflecting on how she got her start in the field, she attributes a lot of her success in large part due to her early years at Microsoft. The support and mentorship she received at the company, helped her smooth out her rough edges. With their well-established processes and a great ‘new employee onboarding’ program she could really focus on her work without being distracted by minutiae. She reflects,

“I think I would have missed out on that (the experience) had I started off in a smaller company or a startup and I do not think I would have gotten the same learning & growth opportunities. The move from Microsoft to eBay and then to EA has been a great learning and growth opportunity in and of itself.”

Mentorship and support from managers and co-workers have always been a source of career growth for her. One piece of advice that she holds on to still was from a manager in a peer team who reminded her to focus more on her strengths and on taking those from good to great, rather than focusing on areas that she would need to work very hard on just to get to mediocre.

“In my first few months at Microsoft, a very senior manager stopped by to tell me that he thought I was one of the most helpful employees he had ever seen. It seemed to say no was just not in my vocabulary and if I did not have the solutions to a problem in the moment, I would do my research or seek help or work at it till I found a way. It was a small thing to say but it had a big impact on me. To this day I remember that moment as one that made me understand my inner motivation to be a “collaborative problem solver” was a tangible strength and something that I should see as setting me apart from the herd.”

Now Farah has grown into a mentor for others and strongly recommends young people starting out their careers or stuck mid-career to seek out mentors or sponsors who can guide them and help them make identify the right opportunities that will help them grow in their careers.

Overcoming impostor syndrome

“Impostor syndrome is real and yes; it affected me and still does from time to time. The reality is you can never know everything and when in life you are confronted by a problem or a topic you are not familiar with or haven’t solved before impostor syndrome can really make you second guess yourself. As a woman and as a person of colour it is sometimes easy to feel like you are under a microscope and believe that any mistakes you make would be amplified”, shares Farah.

She has learnt that humility and maturity are necessary to know that you can never have all the answers and it is all right to say no sometimes. Sometimes you can tell your peers that you will get back once you have done your research or contacted more knowledgeable resources. She has learned with experience to recognize and quash that self-doubting inner voice. Now when she looks at young women starting their careers she wishes she could put away their negative thoughts and boost their confidence. She does not want women to lose opportunities because of fear or nervousness, but rather to grow from firsthand experience.

If there is one piece of advice I could really instil in young professionals these days is to ignore their inner critic and go forth confidently even if you have to fake it for a while. Experience is the best teacher and pretty soon you will be surprised at your own self-doubt coming out the other side.”

Traversing gender and geographical diversity

“When I was starting out, this conversation about diversity in tech wasn’t as common. If you were the only woman in the room, you did notice it, but it felt like the norm since computer science classes in school before that had similar ratios. The idea was you put your head down and just work hard and things will turn out as they should” says Farah.

Early on Farah was sometimes the only person of Pakistani origin that her fellow employees had ever met and they carried pre-conceived notions about what Pakistani women were like. The most common one was that all Pakistani women covered their heads or had other restrictions imposed on them culturally where they had no agency. Initially, some of the stereotypes bothered her but with time, she realized these conversations could be great teaching moments. It enabled her to further conversations about inclusion and diversity by sharing her story and also helped the people around her get a more balanced view of Pakistan in general.

At Microsoft, she was involved in employee diversity resource groups and participated in events and conferences to raise awareness around diversity and inclusion. With eBay building out a new office in Seattle, she started the local chapter for eBay Women in Tech (eWIT) which still lives on and has a great localized impact. At EA she has been the keynote speaker for Girls Who Code summer immersion program for three years now and initiated company-wide participation in Grace Hopper Women in Computing, one of the largest tech conferences for women globally. She works regularly with HR, recruiting, and the Inclusion, Diversity & Corporate Social Responsibility group to keep a laser sharp focus on employee engagement, retention, and hiring.

“I am lucky to have a much more direct impact at EA as a member of the board for our Women’s Employee Resource Group (ERG) and I am one of the key people driving solutions and programs around gender diversity at EA”, adds Farah.

When asked about any words of wisdom she wants to share with Pakistani women who may look up to her as a mentor she says that she finds Pakistani women to be remarkably resilient and resourceful, and they can do anything they put their minds to. She believes there is nothing intrinsically hard about computer science or technology and that there is a mental barrier due to how we have been conditioned culturally that makes some women think that Computer Science is not the field for them. We all learn differently and at our own pace, she says, so if young women feel unequal to a peer today remember that in the long run, it won’t matter because they can always catch up with practice and hard work. She advises young women:

“Silence your inner critic and focus on your strengths and what you bring to the table rather than focusing on your perceived weaknesses. If someone tells you that you cannot do it ignore them. Look instead for people around you who will support you and lift you up. Find your tribe and channel that positive energy to propel you further.”

Leading engineering for player and developer experience at EA

Farah serves as the Vice President of Engineering for the Player and Developer Experience group that is a part of the EA Digital Platform (EADP), reporting to the Chief Technology Officer of EA, Ken Moss. She leads a team of over 130 employees across seven locations and five time zones!

The structure of EA has a central platform organization reporting to the CTO and all the studios reporting to the Chief Studios Officer, a peer to the CTO. Farah and her team work closely with Studios, Marketing and Analytics and the Strategic Initiatives group to help build amazing games that Inspire the world to play!

EADP builds common cross-platform solutions and central services that games across the company can leverage. Farah’s team has a pretty broad charter focusing on making the platform integration seamless with consistent interfaces and unified SDKs, easy to use developer tools for game telemetry and error analysis and a self-service provisioning and service configuration management framework. Farah also runs a cross-functional team that is responsible for doing a risk-based readiness assessment of every single game that launches at EA through architecture reviews, security analysis and systems testing at scale. She loves that she gets to have both broad and deep impact on EA by providing developer capabilities to enable ease of use and products such as spatial telemetry viewers for games and the knowledge web and crash reporting system for EA that make for some high-quality launches.

“To me, leadership is keeping calm during the storm, empowering others and proactively leading the way to identify challenges and find solutions. Leadership to me..(also includes)..how I show up for others who may be looking at me as a role model, how I can use my voice to lift others up and how I can pave the way for future generations. And I love that I get to do all that and more at EA!”, Farah happily shares.

Leading a team spread across locations poses many management challenges but brings a unique mix of experiential diversity in the team. In a program where once a year everyone at EA gets to nominate someone to receive a Purpose and Belief Award, Farah’s team was nominated and won the Teamwork Award. It signifies that a large percentage of the 10,000 or so employees thought Farah’s team exemplified the principles of teamwork and collaboration across EA. Farah shares excitedly,

“That was kind of a big deal, I got to accept an award on behalf of the team, we got to name a street in Need for Speed after us and we got to donate to a non-profit of our choice. We chose the Malala Fund for projects that are being run to educate girls in developing countries.”

Integrating diversity in gameplay

“This is one area where a lot of the facts can get hidden behind noise and perception. At EA we have both anecdotal data as well as research done that shows there is more appetite than ever for diversity and inclusion in games, and players say they are more likely to purchase games who get equality right. EA recently published their findings online and you can look at actual data around why diversity is good for games”, shares Farah.

Diversity and inclusion have always been significant for EA as can be seen by the games they make. The first ever female soccer team was in FIFA, Sims has always been a very progressive and inclusive game with expansion packs always adding more such content, strong characters like Faith from Mirror’s Edge paved the way for what female protagonists can look like and the most recent hit Apex and how it integrates characters and stories of all backgrounds are great examples of how EA has remained true to the spirit of Inclusivity. Farah truly believes that games should represent a diverse population. The only way we get there is to bring diversity to the development team in Studios so they get a different perspective.

“In my opinion, if it is a good game, and if you have characters and props and plots and gameplay that is representative of the population of the world who plays those games and these elements are well integrated into the gameplay and narrative then you have a game which so many more people can relate to. And isn’t that what great entertainment is all about? It isn’t for any one class of people but it’s for everyone to enjoy and feel like a part of the story and make an emotional connection with the characters and their journey”, Farah’s voice rings with passion.

Gathering Pakistani Women in Computing

Farah (center) featured with other technologists of Pakistani origin at Grace Hopper Celebration

For a couple of years, Farah was trying to bring together Pakistani women in technology residing in the US. Five years back, she met a friend working in corporate procurement and they reflected not knowing of any forums where Pakistani women in computing were given visibility and celebrated at an international level. They also realized they did not have a local Pakistani network to reach out to. It bothered Farah, how they did not know people from their country, while there were other active communities of different regions helping each other out. She shares,

“I thought it was a huge gap and a travesty to the Pakistani community that have remarkable women paving the way in the technology sector. I started to actively mentor junior women in tech and explored ways to build momentum for a grassroots organization. Being an executive sponsor for Grace Hopper Conference and Girls Who Code, I had watched a lot of communities like Indian, Arabic, Turkish Women in Computing. I asked myself, where are the Pakistani women in tech? I knew there won’t be many, but I also knew the number would still be significant.”

She then e-met Huma Hamid, Co-Founder of Pakistani Women in Computing (PWiC) as both were trying to build an online community for Pakistani women in technology. They decided to join forces for a collective action that could be more impactful and hence PWiC was born.

Farah applied to register as a Syster community with the Anita Borg Institute who also organize the Grace Hopper Conference and PWiC met for the first time at Grace Hopper 2018 and we were officially recognized by AnitaBorg. It was there that Huma and Farah met several other like-minded women who were itching to create this global community with us, so we charged full steam ahead.

PWiC has two active chapters Islamabad and Seattle. They are working closely with folks in Lahore, Karachi, Abbottabad, Germany and KP to create more chapters. They want the framework to become scalable and are taking their time to kickstart their new chapters, but seeing the passion on the ground, Farah and her team often find themselves working overtime to accelerate their plans.

Currently, PWiC is entirely volunteer-based and most of the members have day jobs so they are currently focusing to raise funds to execute their checklist. The community had some highly engaging kickoff events and gained feedback to help women who are starting their careers and also those who are looking for returnships.

Giving back to the community

In 2007, Farah started One Good Act, a non-profit welfare organization registered with the State of Washington, to give back to the community. The organization works with partners in the US and in Pakistan, such as the Al-Zohra Welfare Association to focus on vocational training, providing basic food staples and giving back to the neediest in the community. Recently, One Good Act also partnered with CodeGirls and have set a goal of collecting donations to fund 10 laptops per year for them.

How does Farah make time for all these activities while also being a mother to 2 young girls (ages 9 and 4)? She laughs,

“I do not know how I get the time! I think, if you are passionate about something, you make time for it. I do feel though, that I should have been doing more with One Good Act, I wish I could grow it more and hire some people full time. Unless you are working hands-on it is sometimes very hard to achieve the goals you set out and scale to the level you want. But I guess your passion keeps you going. I sort of have this belief that if you can fix something for yourself, you need to fix it for 10 more people who do not have the resources to do the same. Pay it forward. Your tax for living on this Earth as someone said more eloquently than I ever can.”

Farah with her husband and two daughters on a vacation

 

Encouraging young women to pursue tech

This past International Women’s Day, a co-worker shared a quote by Mia Hamm (Mia is a retired professional US soccer player, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion) with Farah that really stuck with her. “My coach said I ran like a girl, I said if he could run a little faster, he could too.”

She finds Pakistani women to be remarkably resilient and resourceful, who can do anything they put their minds to. She believes there is nothing intrinsically hard about computer science or technology. Just like any other subject or topic, it is a skill that can be learnt regardless of gender. We all learn differently and at our own pace so if young women feel unequal to a peer today remember that in the long run, it won’t matter because they can always catch up with practice and hard work.

Farah roots for idealists like those who challenge the status quo and are never afraid of owning their own strength and ability. This is what she hopes she can inspire in others and be the kind of role model that makes others less afraid to follow the path less taken.

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