In my almost twenty-two years as an engineering leader at Microsoft, and in my current role leading the Identity Division at Microsoft, I’ve been fortunate to work with world-class engineering teams that attract some of the best leadership talent in the world. To honor Women’s History Month, I’m proud to spotlight Aashima Narula, Partner Group Engineering Manager, who is leading the development of identity governance features in Azure Active Directory. At a time when most of her peers were studying electronics, Aashima chose to pursue the up and coming field of computer science. Her journey wasn’t easy, but her story is proof positive that persevering through obstacles and taking personal risks will open the door to opportunity. Aashima is a wonderful combination of meticulous software engineer and insightful customer champion who strongly believes in “computer science for making people’s lives better.” She encourages engineers to be creative and methodical, not just to create great software, but also to make their goals easier to achieve. Whether you’re an industry veteran, early in career, or a student considering computer science, I hope you will find her story as inspiring as I do.
The first time Aashima Narula ever saw a computer up close, she was a third-year student at Punjab Engineering College (PEC) in Chandigarh, India.
“I didn’t have a computer,” she said. “I couldn’t afford one. And there weren’t many available.” In 1994, the school’s five “little, boxy things” were a recent, precious acquisition, locked in a lab that the forty students in Aashima’s class could access only one hour a day.
If for some reason a PC wouldn’t turn on, students scrambled to get in line for another one. “We got five minutes each. If your program wasn’t working, you would save it on your five-and-a-quarter floppy and then work offline with pen and paper to debug the thing before you would go edit and re-run it. Because even editing on the computer was time, and people wanted to make sure whatever you were editing, you had thought through it.”
“My mother is the biggest pillar of my life. She told me, ‘If you want to do something, I’m going to support you. You want to work, you work. You want to study, then study. You decide.”
As a STEM student who excelled in math and science, Aashima could have passed the entrance exams for a top private institution anywhere. But her protective older brother didn’t want her to leave home. Even though PEC was a public school, tuition and expenses were still a challenge, and money was scarce. After her attorney father died young, Aashima’s mother had struggled to establish a photocopying business, relying on her children to help with overnight and weekend rush jobs.
“My mother is the biggest pillar in my life,” Aashima recalled fondly. “She told me, ‘If you want to do something, I’m going to support you. You want to work, you work. You want to study, then study. You decide.’ This was a huge thing, right? Because women otherwise used to get married early. My mom got married really, really young. She barely finished high school. Given her experience, I wanted to establish myself. I wanted to be on my feet. I wanted to earn, I wanted to be independent and I wanted to be successful. So, I never let any of those other things get in my way.”
By the time corporate recruiters came calling, Aashima, one of seven women in her computer science class, was the top student in her graduating class across all disciplines. “My choices were, I’m going to get the best job and go work or I’m actually going to go do my master’s and come abroad.” And so she left Chandigarh for the first time.
“I see myself as the person who’s not only building the route, but also driving the car to get there in the most efficient and fastest way possible. And I learned the hard way that some projects didn’t succeed because of small decisions along the way that do take you haywire.”
In 1995, Aashima landed at Wayne State University in Michigan to pursue her PhD. But financial pressures soon forced her to reconsider her commitments. She dropped out of her PhD program and interned at Ford Motor Company for credits that helped her earn a master’s degree. While travelling for a project on her first real job, she snuck off to an all-day hiring event in Mountain View, California. There she spoke to a Netscape recruiter who gave her an offer on the spot. Risking repercussions from her current employer, she decided to move to the bay area. After a year, she moved north to Seattle to be with her future husband. She joined Real Networks in 1999 as a software engineer and left, seventeen years later, as a vice president of engineering reporting directly to the COO.
At Real, Aashima quickly progressed from individual contributor to leader. Scarcity had trained her to think and plan carefully, nurturing a chess-like ability to envision multiple moves ahead. “I’ve had that period of my childhood where I didn’t have access to everything,” she explained. “It was always optimize for when I get my next chance—to be the quickest and highest quality. I see myself as the person who’s not only building the route, but also driving the car to get there in the most efficient and fastest way possible. And I learned the hard way that some projects didn’t succeed because of small decisions along the way that do take you haywire.”
Even now, she mentors’ people to avoid “thrashing and learning.” She encourages them to think big, imagine themselves 18-month ahead and take simple steps that will get them to their destination the right way. “Sometimes I’ll ask people, ‘Where are you going with this? Have you thought through it? If not, go think about it, and then come back.’ I try to pull people together and connect the dots and paint the big picture before we get into the details. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to stay in the chaos.”
After 17 years at Real, Aashima had learned to balance hardcore computer science principles with making life better for the people building the products, as well as the people using them. It was time for the next challenge.
“I had worked in a startup, and I was passionate about the tech I was building, the open source tools I was using, and the problems I was solving,” she said. “But cloud at scale was a big thing for me. My experience at Real was getting from zero to 15, 20, 30 million users. At a company like Microsoft, I could solve problems at scale for a billion users.” Cultural changes at Microsoft, including more emphasis on collaboration and increased acceptance of open source and cross-platform technologies, convinced her that her strengths would be valued there. She joined the company in April of 2016.
“I’m a big ‘gain trust, build trust, keep trust’ kind of a person, both in my relationships, and in the products that I’ve built.”
For the past six months, Aashima has led the charge on cloud-based identity governance. “How do you make sure that people have access to the right things at the right time and for the right reasons? Governance is about covering all of these angles in a compliant way, in the cloud, for everybody, where every industry is different,” she explained.
Security, compliance, and auditing are essential for any company to run successfully. To keep the trains running smoothly, governance tools must provide access to resources in a fast, secure, compliant way and when necessary, remove it just as quickly and efficiently. “For people to trust us enough to move to the cloud, we’ve got to have all these pieces in place,” Aashima said. “I’m a big ‘gain trust, build trust, keep trust’ kind of a person, both in my relationships, and in the products that I’ve built. Security and compliance are the biggest thing customers trust us with.”
To help customers reduce risk, her team is innovating with a service that allows users to get ‘just-in-time’ access to high privileged resources. This governance service, called Azure AD Privileged Identity Management or PIM, allows administrators to request elevated access privileges ‘just-in-time’ to perform administrative tasks, automatically removing access after a short-defined period. Other governance services are ‘Entitlement management’, that allows self-service access provisioning by employees or partners to all the resources needed by them to be productive and ‘access reviews’ helps administrators and managers periodically review and update access permissions.
Governing access to resources for large enterprises across multiple industries with quite different needs and very different roles is far more complex than unlocking a PC lab for an hour and doling out access to 40 students in five-minute slices. “We’re building a system that will help people get in and get out fast in a compliant way—without human intervention,” Aashima said. “We’re starting with human intervention, where access requests go to managers or to IT, but over time we want to get more efficient, more self-scalable, more user friendly, and as automated as we possibly can. It’s a humongous problem, and a very interesting one.”
“I’m grateful I made this choice. I’m glad that I didn’t let scarcity derail me. And I look forward to applying everything I’ve learned, and all the advantages I’ve gained, to change the game even further.”
Reflecting on her path to the present, Aashima feels happy with the choices she made. “I had people influencing me, but the decisions were mine,” she said. “I always encourage people to take risks, make their own decisions, shake things up. Because not doing this means you maintain the status quo at best. More importantly, do not take non-acceptance or failure personally. Learn from that experience and keep pushing the boundaries for the next opportunity. Everyone brings something to the table. Your team needs your full participation.”
She recalled the pitch her student predecessors at PEC gave when she was just starting college. “These seniors sold me,” she said. “They showed me their excitement about what they were doing and why it would be game changing. I felt like computer science was a hot new area. My uncle, who’s very close to my mom, told her, ‘The future is CS and Aashima should really go for it.’ And so, I did. I’m grateful I made this choice. I’m glad that I didn’t let scarcity derail me. And I look forward to applying everything I’ve learned, and all the advantages I’ve gained, to change the game even further.”