With the tall order of assessing more than $2 trillion worth of property in a highly regulated fashion, the nonprofit MPAC has to be highly innovative to deliver and stay solvent. Heading up its IT department and driving its most powerful tool, AboutMyProperty.ca, Fariba Anderson is a chief information officer that sees the world in a different way. She talked with Advantage about growing up at a young age and finding an organization whose philosophies match her own.
Advantage: Your path here was an unusual one. Can you talk about where you grew up?
Fariba Anderson: I was born in 1961 in Tehran, Iran. I grew up with very young parents who divorced before I was born. You know how kids rebel against their parents? I did that. I became the opposite of them as I developed my own views about life. My mother suffered from postpartum depression after she had my brother, so at the age of nine, I basically became a mother overnight. It wasn’t a typical childhood, but I would never trade it for any other because I learned early in life how important it is to be accountable for your actions.
What brought you to Canada?
The Iranian Revolution happened in 1980. My mom panicked, so I got a six-month visa to study English in Canada. I was 18 at the time. I arrived on January 11, 1980, and on January 27, the Canadian embassy closed in Tehran. It was serendipity.
What was going through your mind as you left at such a young age?
I remember as soon as we left Iranian airspace, they started serving alcohol. The pilot came on and said, “These are the last remnants of Iran. Have a look at the beautiful mountains, the promise of Azerbaijan. For some of you, this might be the last memory of your country.” I looked, and I knew that was it. I would never go back again because there was nothing for me to go back to.
What was it like being young and on your own in a foreign country?
I arrived in Toronto not speaking a word of English. It’s so fascinating because I found a place to live on my own. I had a neighbour who was always trying to offer me drugs; I thought he was malnourished, so I always tried to offer him apples. It’s amazing nothing happened to me. I began studying and wanted to become a lawyer, but I had this little problem: I still couldn’t speak English. I realized a lot of Chinese people were taking computer science and didn’t speak English, so I thought I should try that.
How were you able to excel despite the language barrier?
I started as low-level programmer after graduation. I moved from industry to industry in the area of programming and advanced as I went. By the time I was 32, I was basically a director holding a senior IT position for a large telecommunications company. It wasn’t because I was a really good programmer or had developed any innovative systems. Rather, because my English was never good, I excelled at reading body language and was able to pick up on user frustrations that a lot of people couldn’t.
Did you face any obstacles coming up in the IT field as a woman or a minority?
I get asked that often, and in answer to the question “Is IT a lonely field for women?” the answer is yes. And if you ask if I’ve received mistreatment, the answer is yes. But it’s fascinating; I’ve never felt it.
Begins her career as an IT manager at Rogers Cantel
Advances at two other firms before rising to an executive director position at Compuware UNIFACE
Takes her first CIO position with Bell Nexxia
Starts her own consulting business, ACI
Authors the consulting frameworks as a managing partner in The Manta Group
Becomes CIO at MPAC, where she revamps the AboutMyProperty site
Why do you think that is?
I think it goes back to my parents and my mother, who never lived in the present and was consumed by this marriage that didn’t work. I don’t think about future and past the way most people do. I think about right now, this moment, that’s it. My brain doesn’t have a reference point to compare prejudice or isolation or alienation.
What are you working on with MPAC that you are particularly proud of?
Our biggest project has been the launch of AboutMyProperty.ca, a public-information website containing the assessments of five million properties in Ontario. The original version cost more than $3 million to build and more than $500,000 per year to maintain. Being a nonprofit, we don’t have a big staff or budget, but AboutMyProperty needed a major overhaul. In just four months and for a fraction of the cost, we were able to build a bilingual, open system hosted on a cloud, with privacy embedded that was recognized by the Privacy Commission of Ontario.
To what do you credit the innovation and achievements of your team at MPAC?
We have embraced a methodology called “rapid results.” We basically run our corporate strategy and innovation through 100-day cycles. The first 100 we innovate and experiment, allowing for failure. If the experiment is successful, we validate it, making sure we aren’t breathing our own exhaust. The next 100 are spent institutionalizing the idea. There is no fear of failure if we’re experimenting for improvement.
What is your favourite thing about working for MPAC?
When I rose to the level of CIO for Bell Nexxia, I wasn’t able to articulate my thoughts and ideas properly because I had grown up in IT and that was all I knew. I sort of felt like a fraud—like, how could I have advanced so fast? What is so special about me? I pursued my MBA in 2003, and it was the best investment I made in myself. Roger Martin, an authority in critical thinking, was working on his theory of the opposable mind and integrative thinking at the school where I was studying. Integrative thinking is having the ability to see a situation that is very desperate and identify the opportunity and not be depressed by its demise but also not miss the issues. One of the reasons I have continued to do things people have not or can’t is because of what I learned in integrative thinking. Every government organization has to stop playing this bargain we make between efficiency and effectiveness. In the Western world, we have the problem of luxury. It’s just a matter of recognizing how fortunate we are. It’s taken me my entire lifetime to find a company that actually walks that talk. At MPAC, they recognize that.