Meet Farnaz Ronaghi, the Director of Engineering and Co-Founder of MOOC Education Startup NovoEd

NovoEd Director of Engineering Farnaz Ronaghi is passionate about making education, as a basic human right, more accessible and meaningful through collaboration and experiential learning. She’s on leave from her Stanford PhD thesis on online learning and currently pursuing NovoEd full time.

Farnaz Ronaghi
Director of Engineering, NovoEd

Farnaz is passionate about making education, as a basic human right, more accessible and meaningful through collaboration and experiential learning. As of January 1, 2013, she has taken a leave of absence from work on her Stanford PhD thesis on online learning to pursue NovoEd full time. Here is her story.

I’m from Iran where college education is free; we take a national wide university entrance exam, apply to schools and get admitted based on our grades in that exam. I was 67th among the 2 million students who took the exam my year; so I pretty much could go to any school and any major.

Funny enough, I didn’t choose Computer Science as my first choice, computer science was my second choice followed by electrical engineering! I was confident that I will be admitted to EE but I wasn’t and ended up in CS!!

From the first day I learned how to program, I found myself fascinated by it! It was so easy for me to create things, to implement new ideas and give birth to little apps. I started reading about AI and machine learning, I got a little into graphics; I was discovering a beautiful world in which binary bits and silicon technology created magic!

I loved it and enjoyed every bit of the pain to learn about them – learning new technologies was painful at the time, network speed wasn’t that great in my apartment, and everything took 10 times longer than what it takes here and now!

How I Got the Job I Have Now!

I was a PhD student at Stanford, working on social incentives in online environments. I used to do game-theoretic modeling and analysis of these systems. I was always frustrated that I didn’t have access to data, or the data I wanted wasn’t part of what was provided to me.

So I decided to write my own websites, collect my own data and do my research. I started from a sound sharing project, then did a gaming lab and after that ended up working on offering an entrepreneurship online.

The course started, and I hacked day and night to give students ways to work on their assignments together, submit and receive feedback. I experimented with that class to some extent and was amazed by the amount of interest from students and professors in what I was doing with my PhD advisor.

After the first class, I worked with three wonderful students to rewrite the whole code base and offered five more courses! It was after the five that we decided to start a company: NovoEd.

That’s how I got my current role!

What Does a Director of Engineering at a Startup Do?

There are lots of discussions with my team on new features and products. Pen, paper, whiteboard are my favorite tools here, until I’m ready to use rspec! There is lots of programming in Ruby. Sometimes there is sysadmin work and fun on the cloud! GitHub, Trello and Flowdock are my best friends.

What’s Your Favorite Part of Working in Tech?

Being at a startup allows for fast product cycles and experiment, which is always fun! Being at a startup that offers online courses and has a 50-50 gender distribution in many of them makes it even more fun!

I work hard to make education more accessible for everyone in the world, especially women who have to pay a great deal of opportunity cost to have a family; almost everywhere in the world.

What’s Your Advice to Others?

Learn every second of every day, and be fascinated! Don’t be scared of the unknown, think it through and do it! you will figure it out.

Iterate and experiment, no one knows the perfect solution to a hard-enough problem!

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