Tabriz Delivers a Message About Adaptability and Purpose

Fifteen years after graduating, Illinois CS alumna Parisa Tabriz returned to address about 1,600 new graduates at the 2022 Grainger Engineering Convocation.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

When Illinois Computer Science alumna Parisa Tabriz (CS BS ’05, MS ’07) took the stage at the State Farm Center as speaker for the 2022 Grainger College of Engineering Convocation on Saturday, May 14, she sensed something special and unique to the college community as approximately 1,600 graduates watched on.

“I could see many tiny acts of happiness, pride, and connection across the auditorium, and it’s literally been years since I’ve felt that kind of positive energy,” said Tabriz.

Over the past 15 years, Tabriz’s career has accelerated at about the same incredible pace advancements in technology have. 

The “Browser Boss” and “Security Princess” is now a Vice President at Google, where she is responsible for Chrome – the world’s most popular browser – and Project Zero,  a team of hackers charged with improving internet security. But, in a time of rapid change, Tabriz will be the first to admit to having moments of uncertainty throughout her career.

For any of the new graduates encountering uncertainty about their own futures and careers, Tabriz also shared her approach to meet that challenge and conquer it.

“If I’ve learned anything in my journey till today, it’s that planning is everything, and the plan is nothing. What I mean is that the active, ongoing process of planning helps you think about what matters to you, but your circumstances will absolutely change in unpredictable ways, so it’s more important to be flexible and adapt than be wed to any single plan.”

Parisa Tabriz, during her Grainger Engineering Convocation speech.

She then outlined three core tenets through which she has built a successful plan for her career:

  • Surrounding herself with great people
  • Optimizing her mindset for learning and adaptation 
  • Searching for the things that give her energy – or, finding her fuel

A foundation that fueled her success

Tabriz believes that the foundation for her planning and ensuing success was formed right here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as an Illinois CS student.

This thought solidified in her mind, as she strolled campus the day before graduation took place. Tabriz started near the South Quad, visiting the new Siebel Center for Design and ended at another new building – the Campus Instructional Facility near the Engineering Library.

"In technology, we’re serving people, so it’s important to understand society, history, psychology, political science, and other liberal arts and humanities," Tabriz said.

Both buildings' designs were centered on collaborative learning and open discussion spaces; they reminded Tabriz of the unique environment of this university, and how spaces are created for serendipitous connection and innovation.

“Seeing these gorgeous spaces made me want to go back to college,” Tabriz said. “To a certain extent, I believe it’s true that youth is wasted on the young. I didn’t spend nearly enough time south of Green Street. I was focused on building engineering skills when I was a student here, and I didn't really appreciate how important creating those interdisciplinary, cross-functional connections are to solving real world problems.

 "I was encouraged to hear (Grainger Engineering) Dean Rashid Bashir speak to me about the focus here in cross-discipline engineering education. In a world that’s messy, engineering is the art of constraint – and that constraint often comes from things outside of math or physics.”

A new generation of CS students, uniquely situated for success

Encouraged by the collaborative spirit at Grainger Engineering, Tabriz believes the next generation’s capabilities are enormous – especially in her field.

A group of Illinois CS students listen to alumna Parisa Tabriz speak.
A group of Illinois CS students and others from the Women in Engineering student group, had lunch and met with Parisa Tabriz on Friday - one day before Grainger Engineering Convocation took place.

When she first came to campus as a student, Tabriz got her first personal computer and first access to high speed Internet. By the time she graduated, she had her first cell phone. Fast forward just 15 years, and that technology is as ubiquitous as the electrical grid.

“Technology has advanced at a pace faster than we can even fully comprehend over a relatively short time, and I’m excited to know that the future is in the hands of today’s students,” she said.

It helps to make the most of a well-rounded computing education, which Tabriz did while here.

Tabriz recalled taking her first class in Artificial Intelligence and learning the basics of neural networks, while also taking electives in law and business. She dabbled in research for the first time, with guidance from professors Bill O’Brien, Jr. and Nikita Borisov who taught her the power of approaching open-ended problems and thinking about the big picture.

With similar experiences now under their belt, Tabriz greatly anticipates what this year’s CS graduates will accomplish in areas like natural language processing, which can be used for translation, robotics and autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, the continued application of Machine Learning to a range of topics, and the proliferation of wearables and shared screens.

“One of the things that gives me hope and optimism is that today’s students are now so much more socially conscious. They think about the impact of technology on the environment, society, and democracy. Combine that with proliferation of computing, massive data sets, ongoing advancements in algorithms, and it’s clear the next tech leaders will have greater capabilities to solve problems than ever before. Of course, they will also encounter new problems that never existed before, too.”

Parisa Tabriz, when discussing the amazing potential of current CS students.

‘Take learnings forward to solve more problems’

In addition to whatever heights their careers take them, Tabriz also understands that these new graduates will also face challenges and adversity.

She recalled a time she was confronted with personal uncertainty about a future in computing. In this instance, a fellow student told her she only acquired a Google internship because she was a woman, and it was easier for women to get job offers.

But Tabriz also understands how to overcome adversity and uncertainty. The same cause of such problems can also be the solution.

To her, it’s about focusing on what you can control and focussing on the people that matter to you. She also generally emphasized the importance  of finding great people to surround yourself with.

“The first thing that pops into my mind when I think about my inspiration is my teammates. I work with engineers, designers, product managers, user researchers, lawyers, marketers, and so many other functions and experts.”

Parisa Tabriz, when discussing her inspiration as a Vice President at Google.

As a leader at Google, she has helped carefully construct these wide-ranging interactions into an inclusive environment where different perspectives and specialities are appreciated

“We are all coming together to improve this living, breathing, evolving thing – Chrome – and make it better for users around the world,” Tabriz said. “At our scale, we get a range of feedback, especially when we make mistakes. When that happens, the important thing is that we acknowledge it, remember that we’re doing something that hasn’t really been done before, reflect, and take learnings forward to solve more problems.”

If ever there were words to live by for a graduating group of engineers, it’s probably these from Tabriz: Take your learnings forward to solve more problems.