By Nazanine Nouri
Parisa Tabriz is one of the most sought-after executives in the cybersecurity world. Her business card identifies her as Google’s “Security Princess”– a title she came up with herself. She is the company’s senior director of engineering for Google Chrome.
“I do think it challenges probably what a stereotype of a princess is. I love giving it to people when I meet them, because I think it catches their eyes,” she told the ‘Fierce’ podcast in an interview in May. “We can do very serious work, but I don’t think we have to take ourselves seriously. Life is short.”
At a time when hundreds of millions of people around the world have been the victims of cyberattacks, Tabriz does very serious work at one of the planet’s top tech giants. She was listed among Fortune’s ‘40 under 40’ most influential young people in business in 2019, Wired’s ‘20 Tech Visionaries’ in 2018, and Forbes’ “Top 30 People Under 30 to Watch in the Technology Industry” in 2012.
Tabriz manages Google’s Chrome security team, a globally distributed group of engineers whose goal is to make Chrome the most secure browser, and keep users safe as they surf the web. Her job has involved hiring hackers to look for bugs in Google products.
As she told the University of Bonn’s Cyber Security students last October: “The world’s dependence on interconnected systems is only increasing and so I think that it’s one of the most important missions you could work on to really keep people, our friends and family, and businesses safe, as people use the internet.”
Born in 1983 to an Iranian father and a mother of Polish-American descent, Parisa spent her childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, together with her two brothers. Growing up, there was no computer in the house, and no access to the internet.
As a little girl, she wanted to be an artist — to draw and paint and just create things. She also played a lot of sports, competing hard with her two brothers.
Talented in math and science, she chose computer engineering at college before discovering her disposition for computer science, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2004 and her Masters in 2006 from the same university.
“In college, it became really apparent that once I had taken on an engineering degree, the gender ratios were very different from what I was used to in high school, which was very balanced,” she said on the podcast.
When she first entered the workplace, a male colleague said she had been advantaged by the fact that she was a woman, and chosen to meet gender ratios. “That stung, made me question whether I belonged,” she recalled.
Following a summer internship with Google’s core security team, Parisa joined the company in 2007 as an information security engineer, a few months after graduating. She was among a small team of 10 hired hackers in charge of software security for the company.
Using the webhosting application Angelfire, which offered a free service in exchange for displaying ads on the created websites, she found a way to block the ads so that she could have free hosting without the ads. That’s how she got interested in the ins and outs of web security, which was still in its early days.
Joining SigMIL, a computer security club that was part of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) at the university, she got a chance to work on problems that she found meaningful. She credits her time with the association as the core of her experience at Illinois and has remained close with its members until today.
Today, Tabriz is using her position to encourage more gender diversity within her field – which is still overwhelmingly male – through conferences and coding workshops for girls.
“I’ve run into that too, where people will think I’m the assistant or the admin or the PR person or the marketing person, or the logistics person when I’ll attend the conference and am the invited speaker,” she told the Fierce podcast. “At this point in my career, I think I have a lot more confidence and can find the humor in it, but it definitely pecks away at your self-confidence.”
Tabriz is also one of the driving forces behind Google’s “Resident Hackers” program, designed to teach all Google engineers how to eliminate bugs in their code before they happen. She teaches them how to attack websites, so that they know how to build them with the proper defenses.