Shaping life and career through family as a north star with Faraz Ahmad
Meet Faraz Ahmad, a father, husband, brother, and a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix.
Meet Faraz Ahmad, a father, husband, brother, and a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix. He shares with us how his north star of providing for his family has guided him throughout his life and career to find safety and stability through resilience and a deep desire to learn. We talk about his childhood, the paths he chose, some stumbles along the way, and ultimately how full circle many of his decisions have been in hindsight.
Heads up, the interview contains some explicit language that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Interviewed in October 2022.
Tell us about yourself. My name I'm Faraz Ahmad. I'm a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix. I'm in New York City. I'm married and have a kid. I'm originally from Orange County in Southern California and am happy to hang out and talk with you.
Happy to chat with you as well. Let's go back in time and share a bit about the start of how you got to where you are today. My family is Indian. My dad and mom are from Hyderabad, South Central India. My dad moved to Toronto in the 70s, and he was a mechanical engineer at the time. After Toronto, he worked in Detroit, Michigan, and made cars on the car lines at General Motors. While working there, he noticed a shift in the early 80s when computers were becoming a thing. So he went back to get his Master's [degree] in Computer Engineering. That led him through a different career path and moved him to California. Since then, he's been doing Systems Engineering work.
Being surrounded by tech definitely played a big influence on my life. My dad worked in tech and has worked remotely since the early 90s. So, I remember him being around all the time, which was nice. I also have an older sister, the first daughter of our Asian immigrant family, who followed the mold. Both my dad and my sister both went to school for Computer Engineering.
I remember very distinctly, right out of college, my sister got a job as a Software Engineer, and she bought a Lexus. And, I was like, "Oh my god—this is peak luxury." It was crazy that my sister, who used to hang out with me, was driving this car. And to me, as a kid, I was like, "this is probably what I want to do" because, from a financial standpoint, this is going to provide me with the thing that I want to do with my life. So, this is where my interest in engineering started. So yeah, I went to community college and university to study Computer Science.
You often see what is in your peripheral vision, especially as a child of immigrants. So many folks, like myself, often think, "this is my only path." Was that true for you, that studying and having a career in engineering was the path to go down? That's a good question. Actually, for a long time, I was fighting [going into engineering]. I was almost like, "oh, I don't want to do this because my dad and my sister did it." I wanted to do something more creative.
I was really into filmmaking in high school and college. Growing up in Southern California, I was close to L.A.—so I wanted to go into the film industry and become a writer or director. So, I originally started studying film. But then I got to my second year at college and realized none of my friends that were graduating were getting jobs. That was a big red flag, especially coming from my background. Not being able to provide for myself or help my parents financially was a really big scary thing.
So I had to think about what am I good at? What do I like to do? What do I have a familiarity with, and can I have support? A lot tied into "Okay, so I like the internet and actually using the computer a lot." I've always been building stuff and having my dad's influence with having a computer in the house and him being in the industry.
I've also seen firsthand the kind of life I could provide for myself and my family. So, this is pretty solid, and it feels safe. But, honestly, all of the unknown scared me. So I decided—okay, I will do this Computer Science thing. While I'm not super in love with it, I know enough that I'm good. I know my dad might be able to help me get a job, and my sister works in the field.
And even if I'm not the greatest at it, I will have a decent life. I will have a steady paycheck and provide for my family and myself. And all of these things trump everything else.
You mentioned the word "safe." Why did that matter so deeply to you—to have that sense of security while growing up? My parents split up when I was really young; I was five. After we split up and lived with my mom and my dad separately, it was a very different environment between the two houses.
I saw a big difference between my dad and my mom. My dad was an engineer, and my mom was a teacher and homemaker. My dad was middle class and was solid in his career. My mom struggled to make ends meet. We lived on welfare and child support, and money was not abundant at my mom's house.
I started working at random jobs early in high school to help make the bills. I felt I was responsible for taking care of my family and had a need for security. It's a common thing for many people, and it's real. It's expensive to live here in America, and not everyone comes from backgrounds where when you're a kid, you can be a kid.
And so my main driving factor was seeing my mom struggle. I wanted to be able to provide for her and make sure she feels okay. At the same time, there are things I want to do. I didn't know the answer to any of the problems we had growing up other than that we just didn't have enough money. And so, I was like, "I need to make more right now...how can I do that?"
It's cliché, but the way to do that was to get an education and a job that pays you well enough to take care of your family. My first realization was when I was in high school, where I realized I needed a plan for my life because I could see both sides of what my dad went through and the kind of life he was living compared to the complete opposite with my mom. At that time, I had to ask myself, "which of these paths do I want for myself and my family?" My answer was to provide stability and safety for myself and my family.
What was the experience of fully committing to the beginning of pursuing a career in engineering? It was really challenging at first because it was accepting that I was basically putting a pause on this dream for what felt like the greater good—which is fine. But, at the end of the day, do I regret this decision? No. I would do it again, 1000 times, because if you told me, I had to choose between my dream career or taking care of my family? I would 100% choose my family every single time.
Once you made that step, what was your life like at this point? What were parts of this new identity you're now embracing? That's a great way to say that it's a “new identity.” At that time, even though I was technically in my third year of college, I started over again because I had changed majors. So I had to reset to be a "freshman" again. I also had a lot of imposter syndrome. I thought about whether this path was for me. On the flip side, it was also nice to spend time with people younger than me because it was healing from the childhood I had missed because I was working all the time to support my family. I got to be a kid again with these other kids.
At the end of the day, I realized it was all a very early lesson about what being resilient was. Shit happens all the time in life and at work. And, like, what are you going to do? You can pout about it, or you'll move forward and pick up the pieces to try and make the best of the scenario. So it was all a big shock for me that this change was happening. But, it was also lucky that it happened early for me because some people aren't lucky enough to experience the realization of a need for change. After all, everything "goes according to plan" till after college and you're deeper in your career. And then shit just happens, and you wouldn't know what to do or how to react. Or you're suddenly 40 or 50 and have a complete crisis about your entire identity! It could be anything. So I'm grateful. In hindsight, I've had many of these challenges early on. It's put a lot of perspective into my life and has given me a lot of wisdom.
Shit happens all the time in life and at work. And, like, what are you going to do? You can pout about it, or you'll move forward and pick up the pieces to try and make the best of the scenario. So it was all a big shock for me that this change was happening. But, it was also lucky that it happened early for me because some people aren't lucky enough to experience the realization of a need for change.
Switching to engineering itself isn't easy. It's not an easy subject, and I find Computer Science hard. I also wasn't a great student. A lot of it was because I wasn't also a student—I was working full-time simultaneously. I was doing whatever I could to get by and graduate all this time while trying not to get kicked out of school—which almost happened to me several times. There was no way I was going to let myself fail or quit.
So I finished college at around 25-years-old. Then, I started applying to hella jobs. The job I got right out of college at IBM is a full-circle moment because my dad's first job was at IBM when he moved out to California. You could say it was divine or meant to be, the only problem was that it was in Ohio. So about 90% full-circle moment!
But, I wasn't thrilled. No shade to Ohio! Laughing Growing up in Southern California and then having to move to Ohio... I wasn't super jazzed about it. But I was very proud that I fucking landed this job. They were going to pay me well, maybe around $70K at that time, which was the most money I'd seen in my entire life. Ohio is much more affordable than California, so I could move there, get a really nice apartment, and still be able to send money home.
But then a wrench got thrown into it. I met my now-wife as I was getting ready to move. And I was, like, "oh shit, I really like her." I didn't want to move to Ohio because I wanted to see this relationship with her through. You know, so life happens, right?
Again, family is always my North Star. And, like most people, they want to meet somebody and be in a relationship. So, when I met her, I decided that it would be okay and that I should try to find a job here [in California] instead. So, I kept applying even though I had this job lined up in Ohio.
Ironically, though, I ended up at a tech recruiting fair and a family friend who knew my dad recognized me. So, I gave it a shot and decided to interview with a health-tech company called Optum from the fair. And that is definitely a privilege where I was lucky that my dad had already built these relationships that allowed me to get in the door. Otherwise, that conversation [at the recruiting fair] would have never happened. The position was for new grads in Southern California and paid more. So, I could continue to date my now wife and can stay home to continue supporting my family.
So when I joined this company, it was fine. I didn't really know what I was doing. In the first year, in any job, you don't have a lot of mentors, so it was very challenging [for me]. The company wasn't really great at mentoring either: it was like they decided to just bring on a bunch of new grads and put them in a room and see what happens. It was hard, but it was fun and felt like college again, except we now all had some money. I had a similar experience with my first role as well! One of the benefits of going into a new job with a group of people is that I ended up with some of my close friends. Yeah, it's a lot of just trying to figure stuff out together.
I really struggled my first couple of years in my career because of this internal battle where I didn't find a love for my craft until a couple of years later. But I wanted to make the most of it and be happy since I was getting paid well. I also had some poor management experiences and ended up jumping around jobs.
Fast forward, I decided to join a startup which was a big turning point in my career. At this time, I was pretty scared. I had been working my whole life to build stability and security for myself and my family...and then I decided to become the first employee for this startup where it was just the founder and me. It was also the cool thing to do in 2015 when everyone said, "you should go work at a startup in New York."
I thought I could learn a lot more because I wasn't learning a lot at the healthcare company. So I figured I would be a lot more hands-on, code more, and learn more about product. It was very challenging, early, and chaotic. I bumped heads with the founder. We're friends now and we're cool, but at the time, I was very young and stressed out about the company.
Afterward, I kind of bounced around. I worked at a couple of other startups and was lost. I was wondering if this career would work out for me and was really scared.
On the one hand, you craved safety and stability, but you left that for the opposite...where chaos could lead to more potential growth in your career. At this point in your journey, did you realize that you wanted to make peace with yourself, the journey, or the choices you were making, if at all? That's a really good insight. And I'm glad we're talking about this since we don't usually talk about stuff like this. At that time, I had not made peace. I would say I was in the deep end, where I was really confused. I had a lot of imposter syndrome and didn't know whether I would make it.
It wasn't until I got this job at a startup called AdHawk that I met my old manager, Ian, who took a chance on me because I was very unproven at that time. Up until that point, I had basically changed jobs every six to seven months because I couldn't figure things out. Or these were the wrong positions that didn't allow you the growth or support you needed to grow in the way you wanted.
Right, and so I think Ian was my first true mentor. We had similar backgrounds and life experiences. He said he saw something in me and thought, "okay, there's something here that we could figure out." He really grounded me because he provided a stable growth plan. He allowed me to learn and gave me opportunities to grow.
I felt safe again because I was allowed to make mistakes, learn, and ask questions. It also helped me realize that it really matters who you work for, like your boss and your supporting group, which makes a huge difference. They made a very safe space for me to explore what I wanted to get into and figure out what I wanted to specialize in.
And it wasn't that the startup was chaotic, but it was like we were all in it together. We had a group of 10 engineers and figured it out as we went. Everyone was also roughly my same age and we're all in New York, so it was just fun. At this point, I also realized if this is what working in this space [in engineering] could be like, then I would love to work like this. Because it was really creative and fun.
So what happened after AdHawk? Did you continue to pursue engineering more openly? Yeah, after two years at AdHawk, I decided to specialize in web and front-end engineering. It feels more creative. I work with designers and talk to users. It was fun; I've always had this itch to be creative. In a sense, it was like I got to paint on the browser canvas. It satisfies me enough to where I enjoy coming to work.
I initially wasn't considering leaving AdHawk when [the opportunity] at Uber came up. But, at the same time, I was scared because I felt like I finally found this place [at AdHawk] where I was really happy.
But then, going back to the north star of my family, at this time, I'm married. My partner was expecting our first kid, and I had to take a step back to ask myself, "Do I feel safe and feel confident?" And I did. I made peace with this career choice where I felt like I belonged and could do this.
So, I decided to take this interview at Uber. I was considering two main things: is it going to pay me more, and am I going to be able to learn more? And I felt that I could do both, so I took the job at Uber and was there for two years.
With any new job, you're learning a similar cycle. At this point, I felt that I had the tools and was better equipped [to take on a new role]. And I now have a blueprint of what I need to do to succeed at a company or any company based on everything I've experienced. Through all this, I felt resilient.
I got more passionate about my work because the end result was that I got to provide for my family. To me, that's my motivating factor. But, again, I mentioned earlier that I'm not one of those people who loves Computer Science or computers or programming. It's a means to an end. The end is providing for my family. And so long as I have that north star and Computer Science allows me to do that with a relatively comfortable lifestyle and where I'm not working crazy hours.
Some people have different motivations. Some are really motivated by work. In my case, I'm motivated by my family. It doesn't make anyone less of an engineer or less of whatever they are in their careers. It's more about whether or not you can show up, do a good job, be friendly, and build the things that matter the most.
“Some people have different motivations. Some are really motivated by work. In my case, I'm motivated by my family. It doesn't make anyone less of an engineer or less of whatever they are in their careers. It's more about whether or not you can show up, do a good job, be friendly, and build the things that matter the most.”
Often, we hear that people's lives revolve around their careers. And to be successful, you have to be successful at your job. What do you believe in? I see this discourse a lot. It's probably Twitter drama, honestly. But it's like if you're not living, breathing code all the time, then you're not going to be a successful engineer—and to me, that's a misconception. I don't know what they call it; maybe "Hustle porn," where you must be coding all the time, day and night. You have to be doing side projects. And where if you're not trying to start your own company, you're not a real engineer blah blah blah. It's always this gatekeeping nonsense.
I don't understand what it is. My perspective is that people obviously want better for themselves. And maybe that's how it's been portrayed to them. So they assume from the outside that this is how people look. I'm not saying it's the wrong way. I'm saying there are multiple ways to look at it.
There are probably people like me who are not crazy about engineering. I want to provide for my family, and I like doing it. I'm okay. I'm pretty solid and decently good at it. But I don't live and breathe code. I don't think about it after I close my laptop. I have a regular life and want to live my life.
And I think that's also really important to call out: “why are you doing this?” In the end, I don't want to be 50, look back and be like, "what did I do with all my free time? Did I spend time with my family, or did I talk to my friends? Did I call them on the phone? Did I get to go eat hotpot with Leslie?” Did I stare at a laptop all day and night, and that's it?
Right, it's okay to unplug! Honestly, I would argue it's better to unplug because it gives you more perspective on your career. It'll help you better understand why it's important to you. You'll get to meet people you wouldn't really talk to to get out of your normal circles. The world is so big, and many interesting people are out there. I just find that you don't have to be plugged in all the time. Go live your life, and you'll feel more balanced. You'll feel more whole. Yeah! Because your career is just one part of your life.
The world is so big, and many interesting people are out there. I just find that you don't have to be plugged in all the time. Go live your life, and you'll feel more balanced.
Maybe some people go into their jobs with the mindset that "this is my career and what I really want to do." And it's fine to go down that trajectory. But, for me, it was not like that. It was simply, "I just need to do this," and that's totally fine. Both are valid. It's all valid. But there's room for people to understand that it's not one-and-done.
One last thing I want to share is that I always get emotional thinking about it. I'm super blessed and happy to work at Netflix now. My dream came true differently because I always wanted to work in film. And now, in just a different way, I am. And I'm doing it in a way that I'm able to provide for my family.
That's so real, though. It was hard to get to this point in your life, but being able to do that and find success—however you want to define it—matters. A lot of what you experienced early on in your life, from the burden we carry as children of immigrants, could be seen as negative. But, to me, it's also a big positive because it gave us the fuel to get to where we are today. The present doesn't exist without events and the decisions we've made in our past. Exactly. I always tell my friends that [this current job] is my dream job. If you were to ask me as a kid if I thought this was where I would be, I couldn't imagine it.
Another full-circle-related question—what advice would you want to give the past you who just started the beginning of your journey to get to your dream today? For Faraz who was choosing a path between film or engineering and who was asking the questions of "Am I making the right decision? Am I going to give up on my hopes and dreams for my family?"—I would say that these questions are valid. And knowing what I know now, I would tell myself, that “yeah, dude, you’re doing the right thing and making the right decisions.”
And things will work out. And if it doesn't, [I'd tell myself] that I'd be fine, and I'll figure it out.
I would now only believe this after my experience of working at AdHawk and having a mentor who would remind me, "you're doing the right thing, and you're going to be okay." Because once I accepted [that advice], and when I made peace with the idea of safety, it became a full circle moment. It helped me realize that it's not always going to be safe. It might be chaotic, but I'm still resilient.
That's beautiful. And being able to reflect on such a crucial time in your life to find that you're still on track for what you want.
Yeah, it's really nice to sit back and reflect because we get stuck in our day-to-day lives. This [conversation] was a good reminder that I can tell my younger self, "you've come really fucking far!" Let's celebrate that.
Celebrate that and take time to be grateful. And show gratitude and be really proud of yourself because you've come a long way. You've learned a lot, and you'll figure it out. Laughing Now, I feel like a wise old Indian dad! Well, you are a dad! Laughing I am a wise old Indian dad.
But yes, you're right. Everyone's journey is different. So I hope people who are feeling like their life is a bit chaotic right now, or doubting themselves, [can be reminded] that it's going to be alright. There's a path forward, and you'll figure it out. And it's not the end of the world. And to stay resilient by being grounded.
Everyone's journey is different. So I hope people who are feeling like their life is a bit chaotic right now, or doubting themselves, [can be reminded] that it's going to be alright. There's a path forward, and you'll figure it out. And it's not the end of the world. And to stay resilient by being grounded.
What song do you currently have on repeat?
In all honesty, I listen to whatever lo-fi playlist is on Spotify. Here's one I've been listening to. Otherwise, my number one song on repeat is Baby Shark, obviously because of my kid!
Give us a list of 3 things you'd recommend.
Take a class on film making, it’ll forever change the way you “watch” movies
Do yoga every day it’s good for you
Call your friends on the phone once a week 🙂
Enjoyed the Conversation with Faraz Ahmad? You can read Faraz’s substack for more musings online.
Faraz is also passionate about giving back to The International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC helps people affected by humanitarian crises—including the climate crisis—to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. Faraz believes in its mission to support refugees from different countries who are seeking a better life. As part of this Conversation, a donation was made to IRC.
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