Alum, academic associate prepares engineering graduates for workforce
An Arizona State University alum with a prolific career in data governance, security and privacy, Nishant Bhajaria recently returned to his alma mater to serve in a variety of ways.
Bhajaria, the director of engineering at Facebook, will serve as an academic associate in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and will work with Knowledge Enterprise on large-scale projects such as the New Economy Initiative (NEI), and with the Security & Defence PLuS Alliance, a partnership between ASU, King’s College London and the University of New South Wales Sydney aimed at solving pressing educational and societal challenges.
Bhajaria’s career has included positions with Uber, Google, Netflix, Intel and Nike. His book “Privacy by Design: A Runbook for Engineers” addresses how to identify, handle and avoid privacy risks and establish a privacy review process.
Using his industry experience, he plans to work with faculty members on enhancing academic instruction and increasing corporate partnerships to create more internship opportunities for ASU students. Bhajaria believes such opportunities will better prepare engineering graduates for the workforce.
Bhajaria shares about his engineering and ASU journey below.
Note: Answers may have been edited for length or clarity.
Question: When did you realize you wanted to study computer science?
Answer: I always loved math and enjoyed converting human thoughts and ideas into algorithms, and computer science allowed me to do this. Since I was good at math and logic, I knew computer science would be a viable career option.
I did not necessarily desire to learn about how computers worked, but instead I preferred to try to use the world to make computing better and use computing to make the world better. I considered myself to be a connector between the world of computer science and the actual world, and this has helped me within my current career in security, privacy and data protection.
Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?
A: Because of the immense depth and access of technology today, I believe that our computing processing power far exceeds our moral processing power, and thus many companies are sacrificing privacy and security in order to make money quickly.
I would like to see the field advance in a way that shows businesses and companies that they can be successful without having to speed through processes and sacrifice the benefit of security in order to become successful faster. I would like to see privacy and security develop within companies in addition to success, instead of having them as one or another within a company.
Q: What is something you wish more people realized about your academic focus?
A: I talk in many academic settings in terms that are not only engineering terms, and I am often considered a "different" kind of engineer because of this. While this makes my engineering approach different, I believe that it makes it more relatable and understandable for most people.
So, I wish that people would realize that in order to be successful in this academic focus, you do not need to be completely full of academic terminology when proposing ideas, but instead, taking a different approach can be more beneficial. Oftentimes engineers tend to think of themselves as contained, and if engineering can become more mainstream, it would make the world a better place. I believe that everything we do is in a goal toward something else, and I think that engineering should be taught the same way.
Q: What brought you to ASU and what do you like about the university?
A: In 2004 when I was getting my master's, I was drawn to ASU because I saw it as an opportunity to experience variety in this field at a large university in the middle of a metropolis. I felt that being a part of ASU, I could experience the real world, with real experiences and people instead of just becoming an academic. I felt like ASU offered the best balance of academia and being involved in society because of its research, variety and scale within the university.
I came back to ASU recently because I believe that there has never been a stronger time for the New American University, that President (Michael) Crow has envisioned, than right now. I would like to help find examples of how that actually works — how it helps students learn, prepare for jobs, limit costs of onboarding for companies and make students qualified to work.
Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at the Fulton Schools of Engineering?
A: I would like to change three things while working with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering:
- Changing classroom learning with the cooperation of professors and students so that learning in the classroom reflects that of actual learning in the real world. I would like to speed up the process of learning skills in order to become more qualified for jobs sooner because of a skillset. This creates a chain where students are able to get jobs, without depending on the career center, because students will have learned the necessities for the job requirements within the classroom.
- Changing the way that students' skills are assessed. Being able to assess all the different kinds of engineering students who have different skills and focuses.
- Changing the research culture to make sure that research does not just result in white papers, but results in something practical that still maintains the scholarly aspect of research.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?
A: To undergraduate students, my advice would be to learn as much as possible and ask as many questions as you can.There are few experiences in life where you can ask as many questions as you would like, so students should take advantage of their undergraduate studies.
In addition, students should make a choice. Oftentimes students view this period of their lives as just an exploratory phase and, therefore, walk out of college with knowledge but a lack of job-worthy skills. Students should make a choice to be their own mentor and their own boss, and equip themselves with skills that will make them successful in their jobs and that will help them leave college with smaller debt. I think it is important to always apply your learning to something.
To graduate students, my advice would be to understand that you are responsible to apply your learning in a meaningful way. My advice would be largely the same, just to make sure that graduate students leave grad school with the skills to build something. Make sure that the research you do is able to relate to something outside of your current education and that you can explain your research. Graduate students should understand how their research can help the companies of their future jobs be more successful. Graduate students should be able to use their learning from outside of the classroom to build something better for society.
Q: What is the most important lesson you learned at ASU?
A: I think the most important lesson I learned during my time at ASU was a quote by Sophocles: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”
Looking back, there are so many opportunities that a student can take advantage of to broaden their learning and experiences. I did take advantage of many of these, but I wish I would have taken even more advantage of the opportunities that ASU offers. I think in companies and jobs in the future, employees have all the challenges that come with growth but don’t have any of the proximity to grow like students do while they are at ASU.
In addition, to see how all things work together within a company is something I learned subconsciously while at ASU. ASU offered me, and continues to offer engineering students, the platform to hone their skills and prepare for the workforce, which is a large reason that I am proud to be a graduate of ASU.