A life transformed: Michael Ascharsobi
After escaping persecution in his home country, IT graduate Michael Ascharsobi has forged a successful tech career at Google.
Michael Ascharsobi clearly remembers his first encounter with a computer. It was 2001; he was 16 and detained at the Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia with his extended family, who were seeking asylum seekers after escaping from Iran. A computer room at the facility provided detainees with access to four PCs.
“What is this box and what is it capable of?” was his immediate reaction. Ascharsobi was fascinated and taught himself computing through trial and error during confinement. He had always liked to tinker. “I pulled apart any toy that moved,” he laughs. “As I grew older I got into opening up TVs and VCR players, trying to figure out what’s going on in there—even fixing them at times. I was just very curious how anything electronic worked.”
A UTS Bachelor of Science in Information Technology and Master of Science in Internetworking graduate now balances work at Google, where he’s currently reimagining the entire customer support experience, with teaching a Network Fundamentals course at UTS. “Everybody says: how do you do a full time job and teach?” he laughs. For him, the latter isn’t work; it’s a passion. “I absolutely love it.”
Fleeing the motherland
Gifted at maths, as a child Ascharsobi was one of five students chosen to represent Iran in an international mathematics competition. It should have been an honour. Plans began to unravel when it was discovered that he followed Sabian Mandaean, a religion not recognised by the Iranian government. An ultimatum was given: convert your faith and leave your parents, or face death.
Ascharsobi and his family fled the country by plane separately, travelling on forged passports. “It was like a very fast-paced action movie, just surreal.” He recalls being told by people smugglers at the airport: just act normal, go through security and let’s hope everything’s fine.
The family subsequently boarded an overcrowded fishing boat in Indonesia, destination unknown. Intercepted by Australian customs after a week at sea, they were transported to Woomera and remained there for two and a half years.
Discovering new possibilities
Ascharsobi became friends with the guards, who helped him learn English. Although the detainee PCs were not connected to the internet, featuring only basic applications like Microsoft Word, he spent up to 10 hours each day “poking around” on them. It was a productive respite in challenging conditions, and helped pave the way towards a future career.
Eventually he was asked to supervise the room and got a computer for himself. “I wanted to learn more and did a lot of support, keeping [the computers] running, reinstalling software.” He troubleshot issues and dug deep into operating systems with a lot of guesswork and tips from computer magazines brought in by the guards.
Ascharsobi also delved into programming upon receiving an old Visual Basic programming textbook with a CD-ROM. Pages were missing, but he ended up building a hotel checkout system and was blown away by the possibilities: “This was a powerful tool.”
Granted a Temporary Protection Visa in 2004, Ascharsobi studied IT at TAFE in Sydney and was awarded a scholarship to study at UTS the following year. “Coming from detention with no proper work, no savings, it’s almost impossible [to pay the fees],” he says. “The scholarship covered studying altogether.”
He found the university environment daunting at first. “I wasn’t confident at all. You second guess yourself—can I do this? Is my English good?” Ascharsobi initially considered quitting, but credits the course coordinator, his lecturers and tutor for encouraging him during his studies. “I met my best friends at UTS,” he adds. “We’re still friends after 11 years.”
Making connections and inspiring others
With eight years’ industry experience, Ascharsobi believes UTS’s breadth of relevant and practical course content was invaluable for his career. “Networking—that’s what I did at Cisco. I joined Google as a network engineer but started doing software development because I had that background; I could read code. Recently, I moved into a project management role, which was again covered as a part of my degree.” Industry events helped build contacts and create interview opportunities, so the transition to work felt seamless.
His experience of student life at UTS has been inspirational in informing the way he teaches the next generation. “I tell the students that I’ve been here, I’ve done what you’re doing. I try to make it fun,” he says. “It’s collaborative. I like to say: I’m not going to give you water. I will lead you to the fountain, you’re going to drink and have as much as you want.”
He also hopes to mentor startups in future and pursue opportunities at UTS to help other refugees and asylum seekers succeed.
Teaching aside, Ascharsobi loves to learn. “If a new thing comes out of it, I want to do more.” Resuming studies for an MBA in technology or a PhD is on the cards, but a more pressing matter is at hand. “I’m planning my wedding for next year. That’s going to be a big project.”
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Story by Amos Wong
Photo by Kevin Cheung