Tasnuva Tabassum – Alumni Profile
I was headhunted by Apple to do a programme management role for iPad. I left after a year because it didn’t seem to be sustainable for the long term and took a chance and interviewed for my current role. Google is much more collaborative and this is an environment that I think I can thrive in.
(Materials Science and Engineering BEng, 2013)
What inspired you to study BEng Materials Science and Engineering at Queen Mary?
Originally, I wanted to be an architect as I was inspired by beautiful buildings around the world, however, I soon realised that I wasn’t very artistic. I was more analytical and curious to make sense of things and the problem-solving nature of engineering appealed to me. Growing up I was good at Maths, Physics and Chemistry and BEng Materials Science and Engineering stood out as a degree where I could apply all three. At the time, my brother was studying at a London university and he helped me see that an engineering degree would open lots of opportunities post-graduation. In terms of Queen Mary, I wanted to go to a university that was better than average and where I would be inspired by the students and professors alike. I was also drawn to the central location of the Mile End campus. I got into Queen Mary via clearing and the institution and my time there have been instrumental to my journey to date.
Having grown up in Bangladesh, how did you find studying in London?
Initially, it was a big challenge. Although English is my second language, growing up in Bangladesh, I only communicated with other Bangladeshis. I found it hard to connect and communicate with my peers and professors on an emotional and cultural level, or to be my authentic self. Obviously, university is a big transition for all students, particularly those who move away from their homes and families, but the intensity of this experience is multiplied for international students. Acknowledging this on an individual level and a university wide level is important to help international students settle.
I joined the Bangladeshi society but then I joined other societies and student groups as I realised that I needed to make friends with people from more diverse backgrounds. I was fortunate enough to meet one lifelong friend who I am in touch with regularly and who I visit every time I come to London. In my second year I was paired with the late Dr Russel Binions as my academic advisor and he truly invested in me as a person, as well as in my studies and future career.
All of Google’s products, such as Gmail, YouTube and Drive, need servers located all over the world to cater to our global users. Internally, we have built huge football sized fields of servers and my wider team manages the hardware equipment that goes into these servers.
What aspects of your degree did you enjoy and what were your most memorable moments at university?
I loved my whole Queen Mary experience and living in London – I adored the London coffee scene and have fond memories of my trips to Café Nero, Costa and the dessert bars there!
I must confess that because the education system is so grueling in Bangladesh, I did become complacent in my first and second years of study. By the time third year came round, I knew it was crunch time. The research portion of my final year really spurred me on and motivated me to work hard in all my classes. It was really hands on and practical and I loved being in the lab working independently and collaboratively with others. It also helped that I started to get close to one of my classmates in the lab and we had so many funny moments where experiments would go wrong and our chemicals looked like goo! My third year made me realise how much I love research and my research is the reason I got a first overall.
One highlight was my oral distinction exam in my final year where I had to defend my research to my advisor and another academic. I was terrified but it went better than expected and this experience really boosted my confidence, especially in the way I communicate detailed findings to a broader audience, which helps me in my job to this day.
Tell us briefly about your career journey after graduation.
After graduating, my family and I moved to the US. I struggled to find a job as an engineer without a master’s degree and so I applied to Cornell for further study. I deferred my entry for over a year and worked as a financial consultant to save for living expenses during graduate school. This experience helped me come out of my shell even more and made me appreciate what I really wanted to do with my life. At Cornell, I was blessed with amazing advisors again and one advisor in particular became a mentor to me - Professor Emeritus Dieter Ast. During our first meeting he was so blunt about how much I had to do to improve and this really discouraged me and contributed to my already overwhelming feeling of imposter syndrome. I decided to put my head down and work hard and within 2-3 weeks he transformed into such a supportive mentor and helped me dream big in terms of my career and my capabilities. I hold him responsible for a large part of my success.
During my master’s degree, I was part of a paid research project sponsored by Cornell with a company called Applied Materials. This was an amazing opportunity for me to get hands-on experience whilst studying and I started a full-time role as a process engineer, based in California, when I finished my masters. In this role I had a lot of support and I realised that if I was outspoken and confident, I would get listened to despite my age, appearance, background or seniority within the company. I then moved to a different role as a quality engineer and after a year in this new position, I was headhunted by Apple to do a programme management role for iPad. I took a leap of faith and accepted the role after a grueling 7-hour interview process. The transition from engineer to programme manager at Apple was huge (and very stressful). The company was ten times bigger; we were expected to create a much larger volume of product at a faster pace; the margin for error was practically non-existent; we were subjected to tight deadlines and the workplace culture was drastically different – you had to pretty much fight to get anything done. I left Apple after a year because it didn’t seem to be sustainable for the long term and took a chance and interviewed for my current role. Google is much more collaborative and this is an environment that I think I can thrive in.
What does your role as Operations Program Manager for Google Cloud involve?
I am now in a more leadership position and I am in the right space to grow and progress. In the simplest of terms, my role involves effectively communicating with different teams and stakeholders to make sure that everyone is delivering their set objectives.
On a more detailed level, all of Google’s products, such as Gmail, YouTube and Drive, need servers located all over the world to cater to our global users. Internally, we have built huge football sized fields of servers and my wider team manages the hardware equipment that goes into these servers. My smaller team manages the cooling systems for these servers. I personally work on the operations side where I qualify a factory to build these cooling systems in line with our deadlines, the quality we expect, and the volume we need. I also manage a team of manufacturing engineers and materials managers and report up to senior management on program status and help needed.
My biggest piece of advice would be to remain malleable and adaptable and to embrace change and new opportunities. And always work on yourself - you should be your only competition.
You have worked for some big global companies to date; does the reputation of such companies add to your enjoyment and sense of pride at work?
For me, it has never been about the status of the company, but about whether I could grow and evolve with the company and further my career. I gain satisfaction from knowing there is room for progression and that I can build on my expertise. As an undergraduate student, I just wanted a job; during my masters, I was shown that the possibilities are endless and I wanted to be an exec as soon as possible; but now, I want a job where I am successful, content and where I have a healthy work-life balance. In the future, I would love to start my own business. I am toying with the idea of launching a fine dining restaurant with Bangladeshi food seeing as we do not have this representation in California.
So you can see, what you want and what matters to you over time will change and we all measure success in different ways. My biggest piece of advice would be to remain malleable and adaptable and to embrace change and new opportunities. And always work on yourself - you should be your only competition.
Who has inspired you throughout your career and in life?
As mentioned above, my advisor at Cornell played a big part in where I am headed and how I approach things. On a more personal level, my grandma has been a huge source of inspiration. When my mum and her sisters were growing up, my grandpa quit the military due to corruption and my grandma started sewing and working for a not-for-profit to provide for her family and put food on the table. In her generation in Bangladesh, it stood out when a woman took on the breadwinner role. Her ambition and the mentality of not conforming to the cultural norm has been passed down to her granddaughters, including me.
I have mostly had amazing male mentors in my career, but I am now actively looking for a female mentor in the same industry as me as in the past I have experienced some difficulties with female colleagues, and I feel like I would really benefit from someone else’s experiences and insight.
Finally, outside of work, what do you do in your spare time?
I watch a lot of Netflix; I spend time with friends eating out and catching up, and I love small road trips – I find it meditative to have a change of scenery. When I have the time, I also love baking and cooking Bangladeshi food. My partner is American and his eyes light up when I cook something authentic; going back to my earlier point, this inspires me to want to introduce Bangladeshi food to California. I also love making patisseries (and love watching The Great British Bake Off!) and I am keen to combine Bangladeshi sweets and French patisseries in a fusion!
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This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Tasnuva or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at email@example.com.