SHE is Google’s secret weapon, charged with guarding the world’s most valuable brand. Parisa Tabriz is the company’s ace up its sleeve – a young professional hacker they call their “Security Princess”.
As a “white-hat hacker”, the Iranian-American is paid to attack her own employer to stop the bad guys, known as “black hats”, doing it first.
Her task is to protect the nearly one billion users of Google Chrome, the most popular internet browser on the planet.
Tabriz, 31, is something of an anomaly in Silicon Valley. Not only is she a woman, a gender hugely under-represented in the booming tech industry, but she also heads a largely male team of 30 experts in the US and Europe.
As such she has the power to choose her own title – “Security Princess” is on her business card. “I knew I’d have to hand out my card and I thought information security engineer sounded so boring,” she says.
“Guys in the industry take it so seriously, so ‘security princess’ felt suitably whimsical.”
Earlier this year, Google revealed just 30 in every 100 staff members were female.
“Fifty years ago there were similar percentages of women in medicine and law. Now, thankfully, that’s shifted,” Tabriz says. “Technology is one of the fastest-growing fields, but in that respect it has a lot of catching up to do.”
While she maintains she has never encountered overt sexism at Google, she does say a male fellow college student told her she only got the job “cos you’re a girl”.
“He said it to my face, but I’m sure a lot of others were thinking it,” she says. “These tend to be the most insecure.”
Tabriz, who in 2012 was named one of the top 30 under-30s to watch by Forbes magazine, thinks the tech industry lacks female representation because women do themselves down.
“There was a study done a few years ago on people who had dropped out of their computer science course,” she says.
“Women who left tended to have a B-minus average and the most common reason they gave was that they were finding it too hard, whereas among the men the most common grade was a low C but the reason they gave was that it wasn’t interesting.”
Sheryl Sandberg, the former vice-president at Google who is now chief operating officer at Facebook, supports the view.
“Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. You ask men and women to guess their GPAs (grade point average) – men always get it slightly high and women get it slightly low,” she said a few years ago. “They don’t know their worth.”
Tabriz grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with her Iranian-immigrant father, a doctor, and Polish-American nurse mother, both of whom were computer illiterate.
As the older sister of two brothers, she was used to bossing boys around from an early age.
“They’d say I was a bully, but I played them at their own game, in sports, and at video games,” she says. “I remember taking a careers test in high school to see which job would suit me – I got ‘police officer’. I laughed at the time but it wasn’t that far off. After all, I’m in the business of protecting people.”
Tabriz says the incentive of money can turn black hats white.
“You want these people on your side,” she says. “Today, hacking can be ugly. The guy who publishes the private photos of celebrities online make headlines everywhere. I am very saddened by this. I feel like we, the hackers, need better PR to show we’re not all like that.”
She is doing her bit to give hacking a good name. She mentors teens at a yearly computer science conference in Las Vegas, where children are taught how to “hack for good”, and girls are particularly welcomed.
– The Telegraph