In smarts, she's a perfect 10
'Pakistan's girl wonder' is likely the youngest certified Microsoft expert
By TODD BISHOP
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Sitting down for a personal meeting with Bill Gates this week, 10-year-old Arfa Karim Randhawa asked the Microsoft founder why the company doesn't hire people her age.
Under the circumstances, the question wasn't so unreasonable.
Arfa, a promising software programmer from Faisalabad, Pakistan, is believed to be the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional in the world. The designation, given to outside experts who prove their ability to work with Microsoft technologies, has also been achieved by some teenagers. But it's far more common among adults seeking to advance their computer careers.
Arfa received the certification when she was still 9, an impressive accomplishment in its own right, according to older programmers who have gone through the process. And others called it an encouraging sign of the continued emergence of women in a country where they have historically struggled to advance.
The situation illustrates "another side" of Pakistan, said Anand Yang, director of the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies. "That's another reason to celebrate someone like her."
Dan DeLong / P-I
Ten-year-old Arfa Karim Randhawa of Pakistan, believed to be the youngest person in the world to have earned Microsoft Certified Professional status, visits the company's Redmond campus.
Arfa's one-on-one meeting with Gates was part of a visit this week to the company's Redmond campus, arranged and sponsored by Microsoft to better introduce Arfa to the company, and to give people at headquarters a chance to meet her. The week included lab tours and a series of informal sessions with Microsoft executives and employees, including a Pakistani employee group.
She made an impression through a combination of charm, flattery and boldness uncommon for someone her age. For example, during Arfa's meeting with Gates, she presented him with a poem she wrote that celebrated his life story. But she also questioned him about what she perceived to be the relatively small proportion of women on the campus.
"It should be balanced -- an equal amount of men and an equal amount of women," she explained afterward.
About 75 percent of Microsoft employees are men, according to company data. Recounting their conversation, Arfa said Gates acknowledged her concerns and talked about the broader industry's struggles to increase the proportion of women in technology-related fields.
Other topics they discussed included her Muslim faith and her hometown, an industrial city known for its textile businesses.
Afterward, Arfa described Gates as an "ideal personality," explaining that he had been second only to Disneyland on her list of things she wanted to see in the United States. Previously unaware of the casual dress code at Microsoft, she said she had expected Gates to be wearing a suit but was surprised to find him in a casual shirt with the top button open.
"I expected that all the people would be here in suits," she said with a giggle, wearing a hat acquired during her earlier visit to the company's Xbox game studios.
Later in the afternoon, she sat outside with S. "Soma" Somasegar, a Microsoft corporate vice president, and described her vision for a self-navigating car. He listened to her ideas and told her about some of Microsoft's existing software for cars.
To be sure, despite her question to Gates about employing people her age, Microsoft wasn't about to offer a job to someone so young. But Somasegar talked about the possibility of an internship in a few years.
"The thing that's exciting to me is her passion for technology at this age," said Somasegar, who decided to invite Arfa to Redmond after reading a story about her in MicroNews, an internal company newsletter.
The visit to Microsoft headquarters was the culmination of a meteoric rise that has turned Arfa into something of a celebrity in her country. It began at age 5, when she walked by a computer lab at her school and started wondering about those strange "boxes," the computers and monitors. Later, when she found out what they did, she was amazed.
"When you push a button, something magically appears on the box," she said, recalling the experience.
She eventually persuaded her father to buy a computer, and she demonstrated unexpected aptitude, using Microsoft PowerPoint and other programs. Encouraged by what she was doing, her father took her to Applied Technologies, or APTECH, an advanced computer institute nearby.
"I saw her doing something extraordinary, making presentations," said her father, Amjad Karim, who serves with a U.N. peacekeeping force in Africa and came with his daughter to Microsoft this week. "That made me think that she could use some professional coaching, and she could do better in her future life."
Karim said he is careful not to push his daughter, but wanted to make sure that the opportunities existed for her to pursue her interest. He said he first noticed something unusual when she started displaying a remarkable memory, perhaps photographic, at a young age.
The people at the computer institute required some persuading, because of her age, but they accepted her as a student, taught her about programming and ultimately told her father that she appeared to be in a position to seek Microsoft certification.
The institute instructors assumed it would take Arfa about a year to go through the process of certification for developing Windows applications. But after four months of study and work, over summer vacation, she passed the required exams.
Her programming experience so far has been as part of her studies. She has created basic Windows applications, such as a calculator and a sorting program, primarily in the C# programming language. The certification she received was as a Microsoft Certified Application Developer. She says she plans to pursue a more advanced certification, as a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer, which involves building programs into a broader system for a business.
Arfa's accomplishment is "very impressive," said Michael Earls, 33, a software consultant and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer in Atlanta. "The type of thinking that goes into correctly answering those questions is pretty mature. ... Microsoft certifications are not a joke -- they're highly respected in the industry."
Ultimately, Arfa says, she would like to go to Harvard University or MIT, and then either go to work for Microsoft, in its developer division, or become a satellite engineer.
Since learning about Arfa from her father -- and validating her programming abilities through an additional exam of their own -- Microsoft representatives in Pakistan have held her up as an example in the country.
"We discovered her, we ran into her, we feel very lucky," said Jawwad Rehman, Microsoft's country manager in Pakistan, who also accompanied her to Redmond this week. "But I'm sure there are many others out there, as well, who don't have access to the computers or the proper education system" as Arfa did.
As word of her accomplishment has spread in her country, Arfa has appeared on TV, in newspapers and spoken at Microsoft events. One youth magazine called her "Pakistan's girl wonder." A U.S.-based reporter for GEO TV, a 24-hour news and entertainment channel in Pakistan, came to Redmond this week to document her visit to the campus.
Although she has had a birthday since passing the certification test last year, Arfa is careful to point out that she was 9 when she took the exam. More precisely, she says, she was nine years, nine months, 11 days, and six hours. Fully aware of the fact that she's the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional, she wants to be specific about her age at the time, in case another young programmer emerges someday to challenge what she calls her "world record."
Her mother and two brothers, ages 3 and 7, stayed home while she and her father came to the United States. It was the first trip to the country for both. After some sightseeing in Seattle, they're scheduled to return home tomorrow from their Microsoft adventure.
Next time, Arfa says, she hopes to visit Disneyland, as well.