January 31, 2022•1,653 words
When I left Pakistan to immigrate to Canada in 2014, my province had been devastated by the scourge of terrorism and malicious foreign intervention.
In Canada, I experienced a society with evolved laws, advanced technology, and a higher standard of living. It was somewhere I had the freedom to ride my bicycle and earn a dignified living as a high schooler.
As my consciousness began to change and I had access to higher standards of education, healthcare, and technology,
As technology across the globe progressed, I saw that the access I had to technology in Canada was available to many more of my area's people.
At the same time, I was studying computer science at UTM, and I was fascinated by software's impact on the developing world. At the time, my highest ideal was serving humanity alongside the world's best engineers.
I was in a system where the predominantly traveled path aimed at job security somewhere where they could use their skills.
That seemed like a genuinely meaningful and viable path for me. I imagined myself collaborating on complex problems for developing nations worldwide with the Next Billion Users initiative at Google.
I walked that path, and I was fortunate to have had a real chance at interning for the company I had fallen in love with. After a challenging interview process and a long host matching phase, I was ecstatic after my position was confirmed.
However, something happened during my internship at Vida after my summer at Google.
It was around November 2018 when the reality of death truly dawned on me. I found blood in my stool, and I was thrust into the world of managing chronic illness.
During times of isolation and uncertainty, I reflected on my life and the path I was walking.
I felt something deeply wrong. I felt that I had forgotten what was important in life.
- To love and nurture your family.
- To work towards more peace and prosperity for the future generations of life
- To create technology for sustainable human ecology.
- To educate the future generations about the world they're going to inherit.
I was in a system where I was being molded into a useful component for its purposes.
I felt like there was a lack of a greater perspective on how our human societies were conducting themselves.
I found myself unconsciously bending myself to fit in.
To the degree that I was able, I vowed to consciously orient myself towards following the guidance of higher values instead of succumbing to the pressures of the current systems.
At the same time, my mind was consumed by the idea of The Grey. I found that life was full of polarities. Our blessing as conscious reasoning beings was our ability to find balance and harmony between the polarities in life.
Were the institutions I was serving approaching their polarities in a healthy way?
If the companies that create software products and services for us are, at their legal core, oriented towards making money for their owners and shareholders rather than:
- Providing value to those you create and serve for
- Providing value to those who create and serve with you
Then this orientation can foster an environment where you find the organization:
- Exploiting the very people it was created to serve
- Compromising its values and soul to maximize shareholder gain.
You can read more about what the Grey in Grey Software means here.
At the time, I had no definitive plans for starting a software company oriented towards the Grey. I had to be patient and allow this idea to gradually grow.
During the summer of 2019, I interned at Google for the open-source Android Studio project.
In my previous internship, I realized that at its legal core, Google was not oriented towards helping humanity in the way that its marketing campaigns claimed. Google was a corporation mandated to maximize its shareholder value and cater to the interests of powerful global forces. There was a vast sea of experiences that formed this realization, but three, in particular, allowed the truth to really dawn upon me:
- The legal workshop during my intern orientation week
- The Google-Pentagon AI Scandal
- The Censored Google for China Scandal
But I still had hope for Google, and I felt that the stage was set for me to have an impactful summer at the Bellevue office. Google's Android mobile OS had opened access to valuable and compact computing power for the masses, and it was an honor for me to work on the same floor as some of the people I had watched on Google's IO conference youtube videos.
I came in with lots of energy and enthusiasm, working passionately on my project and my health. I had accepted that there may be scandals and frustrations this time around, but I was determined. Near the end of the internship, I still had faith despite witnessing:
- Mandatory employee training exercises that were out-of-touch with reality
- More foul play by Google's products such as Youtube
- The Google “Machine Learning Fairness” Whistleblower
I had faith because amid this chaos, I believed that Google was still capable of being a force for good in this world. I knew that the people I worked with were kind-hearted and dedicated, so I wanted to leave them with an inspiring message that would remind them of their positive impact on people worldwide.
This was the message that I hoped to convey during my final presentation, and it was the message that I couldn't get to because our engineering team manager stopped my presentation before I had the chance to finish.
I wanted to paint a truthful picture of my internship, which is why I spoke about how Google's scandals affected me in addition to showcasing my project.
When I showed a slide containing the image above from a video exposing the Youtube trending algorithm's unfairness, the engineering manager stopped my presentation, claiming I was violating Google's code of conduct.
I remember standing with trembling knees and a tight throat as I asked for confirmation.
"Am I violating the code of conduct?"
I left the presentation room anxious about the future consequences of what I had just done, but my internship host helped calm me down and navigated the Google code of conduct document with me. We found one ambiguously written clause that encouraged Googlers to leave contentious political matters outside of the workplace.
When I left the office that day, I remember being heartbroken at the state of an institution I genuinely used to love. I was grateful to have been able to confide in my brother and a couple of my fellow interns about how I was feeling, and I was fortunate to have a conversation the next day that would play a significant part down the line in the founding of Grey Software.
On my last day at Google, I had a 1 on 1 with my team manager (not the same manager who stopped my presentation), who candidly explained the realities of the situation to me.
Paraphrased from my manager:
"Arsala, I have a family to raise in Seattle. Living here and ensuring that my kids get the best life is expensive, and I work here because it's one of the best jobs available. For Google to do what it does at the scale that it exists, they need to foster a neutral environment where people with differing world views can work together. You're young, you have energy...maybe you would find it more meaningful to work at a not-for-profit."
That fall after my Google internship, I returned to Mississauga to complete my education at UTM.
I had learned a lot during the 16-month internship break I had taken from school, and I was grateful that several students in the senior class were as passionate as I was about helping the incoming students walk more prosperous paths.
We did our best that year and came away with a massive victory for the student community.
Our university department agreed to form the CSSC (Computer science student society). Staffed with three paid part-time students and a supervisor from the department, this initiative was mandated to serve, support, and guide CS students.
During the academic year, I tried helping as many students as I could to bring their software ideas to life through mentorship and resources. As a byproduct, some of Grey Software's foundations were formed. By this time, I was openly using the name and encouraging students to go beyond their department-constructed curriculums and explore the world of open-source software development.
As the school year ended strangely after the world was turned upside down by COVID19, I felt that it was the right time to start building Grey Software with a full-time commitment.
I joined the Pioneer startup tournament and built with other entrepreneurs worldwide who helped me in countless ways that I am grateful for.
While I worked out the long-term vision, I started the venture off by offering an open source apprenticeship service. This was a kind of software development tutoring service where students could get mentorship by someone invested in growing their technical skills and their sense of wonder.
All of my students were from UTM, and I was delighted to empower them as software creators more than their university system could. Since I was headed back to school for one more year (I had one credit remaining because I failed Spanish during my senior year), I thought it was the right time to visit Pakistan for a little while and see what kind of positive impact my educational work could have.
On August 31st, 2020, a short while before leaving for Pakistan, I formally incorporated Grey Software in Canada as a not-for-profit organization.