Informational Interview with Zaheer Ali, Product Assurance Manager for USRA
By: Olivia Fallen, Career & Industry Specialist, ASU’s Career and Professional Development Services and Zaheer Ali, Product Assurance Manager, Universities Space Research Association.
Zaheer Ali currently works as a product assurance manager for USRA. Previously, he managed the safety, quality, and software product assurance for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) with responsibility for all software products and safety and quality of all USRA work on SOFIA. He is also a founding executive for Material Mind and AIXIA Global and built science instrumentation and the laboratory facilities for SOFIA. Zaheer has managed science ground support on multiple deployments around the world.
Can you tell me a little bit about your career path and what initially interested you in the field of Earth & space exploration?
Funny enough, as a child I said I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I’ve always found space to be incredibly fascinating. As I got older and attended UC Berkeley, I became more interested in interdisciplinary research. The world’s problems are no longer solvable by a single discipline. In the past, many of our greatest challenges could be solved by one profession. For example, our need for electricity was solved by a single person, Benjamin Franklin. Today, many of our most complex problems require multiple scientists at the table such as a physicist, biologist, chemist, and engineer to name a few. If I could give one piece of advice to someone interested in the field of earth & space exploration, it would be to seek out interdisciplinary research opportunities. The experience it brings will give you an invaluable skill set and perspective.
What advice would you give a student interested in the STEM industry?
It is imperative to know how to do basic technical procedures. When I was a freshman in college, I attended a career fair and talked with a couple of employers. At the time, I felt like I had no business being there as I had no professional experience and had just started college. Yet, I knew how to do basic technical functions which landed me my first internship. If you work in mechanical engineering, for example, know how to execute the basic manufacturing tasks for the device you’re designing or improving.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve received?
That’s easy, do internships. Be willing to start in the lowly positions and work your way up. Some of the most successful people had to pay a cost. They had to sacrifice a lot and they want to see that same level of commitment from you. Be willing to sweep the floors and do the crummy work because many of them started on that same level. Furthermore, when I worked in those positions, I was exposed to numerous faculty that had made profound impacts on the profession. As a college student, I attended every event that my schedule allowed where I could be exposed to and interact with those professionals.
Additionally, be persistent. I had the opportunity to work with a renowned professor during my time at UC Berkeley who was behind the research and design of technology that invented the MRI. I attained this position because of my persistence in asking for an opportunity 3-4 times. It’s imperative to reach out to faculty and let them know you want to assist with their research, even if that means transcribing interviews or doing small tasks. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to get your foot in the door. When it was time to apply for a full-time position, it was fairly seamless because I had done the front-end work of networking and internships. Thus, I already knew everyone at the company interviewing me.