From the outside, a career as a software engineer in security may sound restrictive and even dull. But for Anam Alvi, a software engineer for World Wide Customer Service Security at Amazon, “restrictive” and “dull” are not part of her day-to-day experience. On the contrary: between her job and the personal engineering projects she works on in her free time, Anam is relentlessly pursuing whatever she is most curious about.
Where did all this start? How did being curious and creative lead Anam to the career and the future prospects she enjoys today? Let’s find out in our conversation with Anam Alvi.
Anam’s family is originally from Pakistan. They migrated to Canada – specifically Etobicoke, and later Markham – when she was only six months old. Now, she lives in Toronto, where she attended university.
Unlike many of the talented computer science majors and software engineers we’ve interviewed at Thinking Cap, Anam was never “super into” computers or video games as a child or a teenager. Instead, she enjoyed an aspect of computer science that most children grow up hating: mathematics.
“I wasn’t really… techy like that, but what I really did like was math. I tried out computer science because everyone said, including my dad who guided me into computer science… that it’s very logical. If you’re good at math and you enjoy that part of problem solving, then it probably will translate to computer science. He was right and I really liked it.”
Anam started experimenting with computer science in high school and, like all beginners, “I was bad at it at first.” She didn’t let her first failures discourage her. But, when she entered the computer science program at the University of Toronto, she was forced to face an entirely different challenge: social awkwardness.
In many ways, Anam’s personality type during high school didn’t fit with the stereotype of computer science “nerds” that most people think of. She wasn’t withdrawn or soft spoken; she was (and still is) outgoing. She actively participated in student council and other extracurricular activities, as well as found other creative outlets besides computer science and math, namely English.
Once she was completely surrounded by other students who were all studying computer science, though, she found that she had a hard time fitting in. Even in her current career, she struggles with the fact that she is more extroverted than most of her peers. “It’s very hard for me to find people who are more outgoing and similar to me that are in my program,” she said. “I definitely feel that difference. It can feel very isolating.”
Before she graduated high school, the vice principal even suggested that she pursue a different career path because of her personality.
“[He] actually told me not to pursue computer science, because he said I would do better in something like business because I’m more outgoing… He said well, your personality is not good for computer science. So, you shouldn’t do that.”
Even though Anam was committed to computer science, she feels that her non-typical journey to computer science is important to her story. And indeed, being outgoing turned into an advantage at the University of Toronto. There, thanks to both her computer science skills and her winning personality, she became the president of the Women in Computer Science Club at U of T, as well as attended, hosted, and even spoke at hackathons.
Hackathons have little to do with security, Anam says, but they helped her develop foundational computer science skills. They also allowed her to flex her creativity and pursue whatever technology or programming language piqued her interest.
“The main objective for me, whenever I went to a hackathon, was just to make something, and make something with a technology that I hadn’t used before. I just wanted to pick up a new skill, learn a new language, learn about a new API that was available and sort of figure out how to do it, because in this field when you’re a student and when you’re working, a lot of it is just picking up new things as you go. And you don’t always have to know a ton about something right away in order to learn it.”
During and after U of T, Anam experienced several different internships working in software engineering. Security wasn’t even on her radar yet.
Her first internship was at a startup consulting company in Toronto, where she worked on “a bunch of different projects.” For example, one of her projects was creating an Android app using IBM’s natural language processing model, Watson. “And it was actually a really cool experience,” she says. “It was meant to perform sentiment analysis on news articles.”
From there, she moved on to an internship at Tumblr in New York City. There, she worked on a feature for the Android app called the Fast Blog Switcher. “That was really cool because I got to build out the feature from scratch, go through the QA process, and deploy it live to the Android App Store. My feature was even mentioned in the App’s release notes!”
Anam’s third internship was at IBM, where her biggest project “was a proof-of-concept project for BMO [Bank of Montreal]. I got to build an application and pitch it to the entire BMO team.”
Finally, Anam arrived at her final internship, at Amazon. Here, she “created a service that would, based on a statistical algorithm, detect outliers in data that would indicate an internal threat.” Her work impressed the company, and they eventually offered her a full-time position, which she accepted.
In her new role, Anam found that developing tools to empower security engineers in doing their job – protecting Amazon and its customers from being hacked and exposed to fraud – was right up her alley. Even though, as she admits in our interview, “I knew absolutely nothing about security” when she started.
“Every single engineer who works on my team had no security background before they started on my team. Because the expectation is you just learn as you go, like you read in your free time, you go to conferences. You learn about it as you do more.”
While working in security is interesting and engaging, the stability of the job allows Anam to pursue other areas of computer science and technology that she’s curious about in her free time. Recently, she’s become fascinated with crypto and is working on an NFT-based fine arts community with her friends called Arthropo NFT.
“Before crypto stuff,” she says, “I wasn’t interested in making anything that was like crypto. I became attached to [it] because it seemed really interesting and new.”
Tangentially, Anam believes that Web 3, the theoretical concept of the future of the internet (and of which crypto and blockchains are huge components), is the place for technology enthusiasts to be right now.
“There’s so many opportunities to do something new [in Web 3], so it could be a really cool place for you [computer science students] to explore.”
Anam’s numerous and varied interests – hackathons, learning new coding languages, security, NFTs, crypto, Web 3 – prove that to have a career in computer science, you don’t have to settle or restrict yourself to one area of interest. In fact, you should be doing the opposite of that.
“In general,” Anam says, “you need to be open, be curious to learning new languages. I would say early on, especially when you’re in high school, just to learn as much as you can, build things that you think are fun, like silly little websites, silly little programs. Just do things that you think are fun and then figure out a way to code it into a program.”
Finally, Anam advises students to “make your place” in software engineering.
“Follow your curiosity and make fun things for yourself. Find things that interest you, and you’ll find applications of them in technology. So just do whatever you’re interested in, there’s a place for it here. There’s a place for it in software engineering. Just make your place.”
Writer: Elaine Tviet
Photos: Choi David
Stylist: Caitlin Power