Over 16 years ago, Zaheed Sabur sat through his orientation class at a private university with a dream of becoming an Engineer. He got addicted to electronics in the 4th grade and proudly sees himself ‘a pure product of Bangladeshi education’ system. Zaheed, the first Bangladeshi Principal Engineer at Google, also only Bangladeshi Director at the world’s top tech-giant, shared his thoughts with AKM Moinuddin recently.
DC: Your Facebook wall is flooded with greetings overnight! You have been asked to give reply to each person individually. And this directive came from your mother! Let us know about your mother and the memory you had with her during your childhood.
Zaheed: My mother, Lutfunnessa Begum, was the Principal of Patuakhali Govt. Women’s College until leaving the country to pursue her PhD in Economics. Coming from a teaching background she made sure I was actually learning things beyond simply getting good grades. I got addicted to Electronics in the 4th grade. Back home there is still my wardrobe with circuit diagrams drawn over both its doors, by me when I was barely 10 years old. My mother never allowed them to be painted over. She says it reminds her of me as a kid. At that age I couldn’t have pursued my interest in electronics without her support. She bought me soldering iron, multi-meter, etc and even took me to the stadium market many times to buy necessary parts like resistors, capacitors, transistors, ICs, relays, etc. This was really the beginning of my journey towards engineering. In a nutshell, I would be a very different person today without the huge positive influence of my mother ever since I was a child.
DC: Would you kindly tell us briefly the steps that you have gone through to reach the current position?
Zaheed: While studying Computer Engineering at AIUB I focused on developing a strong foundation and understanding how things function instead of blindly memorizing things. Above all, I learned to learn fast and in this fast paced world and that has served me very well. Also, I had never done any programming at school. I started during the second year of university. Programming contests helped improve my analytical skills. It also developed my ability to think fast and deep for as long as it takes to solve a problem in hand. All these things eventually helped me immensely in not just landing a job at Google but also becoming successful amongst some of the smartest people in the world. As job level 3 in Google, I started essentially at zero as a fresh graduate with no prior experience. As I climbed up the ladder the challenges I was tackling also changed a lot. Once one of the top coders in the Google code base, now I haven’t got to do that at all for the past 2-3 years. Though I miss coding, I really enjoy my current responsibilities, which are more like running a business. I don’t really have day to day duties per see. It’s about inventing new, transformative ideas, and materializing them at scale - thus bringing value to our users across the world. That also involves hiring strong talents, building teams, and creating an environment for them to grow by contributing towards the same goal.
DC: How do you differentiate the education system in terms of quality?
Zaheed: I never had to study abroad. I am purely a product of Bangladeshi education system. Based on my perfect 4.00 CGPA, excellent GRE scores, and impressive programming competition achievements, I got admission into PhD programs in 4 of the then top 10 ivy league US universities in engineering. I had applied to 6 of them. However, I decided instead to not give up on the opportunity to become the first student of any Bangladeshi university to join Google as a Software Engineer. At Google, I have worked with many graduates of top universities in the world and my Bangladeshi educational foundation always proved more than adequate. I would actually claim that I have studied more complex topics and solved harder problems as a student in Bangladesh, than most of them, as part of succeeding in numerous international programming competitions.
DC: How do you see the role of your university – AIUB - behind your current prestigious position though there is a perception that meritorious students only go to public universities?
Zaheed: I completely disagree with the perception. Looking back, knowing what I know now, even if I had a choice, which I didn’t, I would still have opted for AIUB over public universities. The financial aspect didn’t matter in my case because I had full scholarship from my second semester until the very end. More importantly, at AIUB I had some of the friendliest teachers who always genuinely tried their level best to help the students. I’ve friends who went to public universities and I can tell you many horror stories of how the teachers there act like god. They grade however they please and are accountable to none. I have never experienced anything remotely so unfair at AIUB. I could focus on actually learning things instead of worrying about the mood of the faculty or the politics of pleasing anyone for a fair grade. There are of course many great things about public universities and not all faculty members are the same. In the end it’s really about what is more important to a student. Based on my best understanding I would frame public vs private university experiences a bit like “arrogant greatness” vs “humble sincerity”, and I would pick the latter every single time.
DC: We see youngsters are very eager to have a government job and they do concentrate on traditional preparations to accomplish their goal. Do you think the young graduates should think something beyond the box at this age of digitalization?
Zaheed: I believe the best thing about all of us is that we are all different. Thus it should be up to each of us to decide what we would like to do in life. What is really important though is that we make an informed decision. We shouldn’t blindly follow the future others have painted for us. At this age of globalization, the whole world is our playground. We should learn about all the amazing opportunities we have and then decide. I am not here to say government jobs are better or worse than what I do because that’s all subjective. I can only share my journey, where I landed in life, and serve as a proof that it is possible. By no means will I ever recommend that everyone should have the same goal in life. We are not robots, we shouldn’t act like one.
DC: Do you think Bangladesh’s education system is ready to address students’ needs who are interested to study science and technology?
Zaheed: Absolutely. It was already there some 12 years ago when I graduated from AIUB and joined Google. I can only imagine things are even better now after all these years. Out of over hundred thousand full-time employees at Google there are only about 250 Principal Engineers. If Bangladesh’s education system can produce a Principal Engineer and Director at world’s top tech-giant then that itself speaks volumes about its competitive standards and strengths in the global context, specially in the area of science and technology.
DC: You are holding our national flag high at foreign land. How can you contribute to your motherland?
Zaheed: I always believed the best way I could contribute to my motherland is by first becoming successful myself. That has been my mission and now in my mid-30s I feel like I’ve kind of achieved that. But I hadn’t ever really planned or even thought of beyond what I just achieved. So I guess the plan ahead is to create a plan. But first I will give it some time to sink in. I definitely would like to give back in whatever little way I can, specially by sharing my experiences and learning. I would like to carve out time to spend on this on a weekly basis. I already receive messages, questions from many young people. I will start by preparing materials to cover them and also share on my Facebook for others to benefit.