Ali Ayoub: "As a kid, I'd wreck computers and reformat them"

Ali Ayoub credit: Eyal Itzhar
Ali Ayoub credit: Eyal Itzhar

Ayoub was the youngest student in his class at the Technion.  Institute of Technology. From there he made his way to the largest technology companies in the world.

Ali Ayoub (38), Senior Director of Software Engineering at Nvidia, co-founder of delivery startup HAAT

Personal: Married + 2, lives in Carmiel

Education: Bachelor's degree in Software Engineering from the Technion with honors, MBA from the Open University

Previous positions: Software Architect at Mellanox, Senior Software Engineer at Google

Ali Ayoub (38) has always been a little bit ahead of everyone else. He was the smartest boy in his class and at his school. He started computer science studies at the Technion at the age of 17 - despite parental entreaties that he should choose a respectable profession, as they saw it, such as medicine or law. At age 19, he started working at Mellanox, and from there he moved to the just-emerging Google Cloud, Google's successful cloud product that competes against Microsoft and Amazon.

Now, Ayoub is a senior director of software engineering at Nvidia (after it acquired Mellanox, making it a kind of comeback for him). The graphic processing units (GPU) he helps develop are installed in server farms at the biggest multinational tech giants, accelerating the shift to cloud computing happening at more and more enterprises and organizations.

From his office in Yokneam, he manages 60 software engineers who help make every operation smarter. "Whenever you run a search on Google or browse a social network, you're operating a computer that's much faster than your home computer, located far away on a large server farm," he explains. "This computer requires a processing unit and software that will provide faster and better performance." The GPU whose software Ayoub is charged with developing - which is also installed in autonomous vehicles, medical equipment, and game consoles - has added layers of artificial intelligence and acceleration, enabling it to meet ever-increasing user demand.

"When I interview them in their own language, things go differently"

Ayoub grew up in the town of Majd al-Krum, son of a teacher father and a housewife mother. He is the fourth of five brothers and sisters, and is not the only one in the tech industry. Older brother Hatim works for Intel, and younger brother Hani is a senior engineer at Amazon. Both were recognized in elementary school as having exceptional math skills.

Ali was also a child with an unusual interest in technology. "I was the kid that the school lab technician would call every time a computer broke down and he needed help. At the age of seven, I found myself playing with the operating system settings and deliberately breaking the computer. The first time it happened, I was stressed out, but then I learned how to wipe the computer and reinstall everything, and that way I got to know computers better. In retrospect, we engineers call this skill reverse engineering - an extremely important ability in cyber development and artificial intelligence - which enables you to think about the way a product was developed."

He began his career in 2001, immediately after the dot-com bubble burst. "High-tech was not as attractive at that time as it is today," he says. "And I had to first convince the people closest to me that this was what I wanted to do, and that this was the field I felt drawn to. At first, my parents suggested that I should study medicine or law, but in the end, my family was very supportive."

At age 17, Ayoub was accepted to the software engineering track at the Faculty of Computer Science at Technion Institute of Technology. Then things got difficult. "I was the youngest kid in the class and without a good command of Hebrew," he says, admitting that, in his opinion, this is the biggest barrier to the integration of engineers from the Arab population into Israeli high-tech. When a second year student, he interviewed for a good number of jobs until he was offered a plum position at Mellanox. "I responded to an ad posted on the online student forum, found myself at the job interview very quickly, and already that night I had a call from the human resources manager, asking me if I could start the following morning. I felt lucky."

The fact that he managed - despite the loneliness and the language barrier - to integrate into academia and high-tech, motivated him to help out friends. He currently volunteers at NGOs Hasoub and Moona, teaching young people from Arab communities the skills and competencies that will help them enter the tech industry more easily. "The reality has changed, 23% of all students at the Technion today are Arab, and two-thirds are female. This far above the proportion of Arabs in the industry itself, which is 3%.

"Local companies look to Eastern Europe or India to find developers. Meanwhile, because of a mental block, there are Israeli Arabs who don't break through. As someone who interviews job candidates every day, I fear the problem is also on the Arab side. Making a good first impression in a job interview is a stumbling block for Arab students, usually because they are younger, inexperienced, and have a less good command of Hebrew compared with other interviewees. As someone who can conduct the conversation in Arabic, I often see how an interview in their mother tongue goes very differently."

Ayoub himself had to expand his social circle in order to make his way in the world. "My method was to get out of my comfort zone, talk to people who didn't necessarily speak my mother tongue, and people from outside the village where I grew up."

He attributes the courage to challenge himself - to gain more skills and abilities, and expand his horizons - to the education he received at home. "My mother invested a lot in us, taught us out of books that weren't part of the curriculum - some in areas like logic, geometry, and puzzles. On family trips, my brothers and I would compete over who would get the right answer first. One of those books was called, 'For Smart People Only' and we solved it when I was just in first grade. I've no doubt we were rated 'gifted' thanks to this approach."

The same teaching methods he acquired from his mother, Ayoub applies today to the next generation. "My mother taught me how to study on my own. When I did my homework, she would come and ask if I needed help, and then she would check it for me. One day she said, 'I'm not going to check on you anymore. From now on, you do it and check it on your own.' I try to give this independence to my own children (7 and 4), even to my new employees. You have to know how to learn when to let go."

"There's almost no way to order takeout in Majd al-Krum"

At the age of 24, Ayoub received an offer from Mellanox to relocate to Silicon Valley. The decision to leave his family and close social circle was made with a heavy heart, but it paid off: after two years, he left Mellanox to take part in a visionary American start-up company, Sookasa, a pioneer in cloud-based information security. Two years later, it was sold to US-based Barracuda Networks for millions of dollars.

He then landed at Google headquarters in Mountain View as one of the first senior engineers at Google Cloud, where he had a front row view of the product that would compete against Amazon. "It was a small division. Most of the time, Google was looking at revenue from search engine advertising, and cloud was considered a division that consumed money and manpower, instead of generating revenue. When I went to Google, friends asked me if cloud was the right place to be. I think no one asks that sort of question today."

Homesick after a decade in the US, he found a job at the Google branch in Haifa, where he helped enrich artificial intelligence applications in various languages. It was also where he met Dr. Hasan Abasi, who in time became his partner in founding food delivery startup HAAT, which has become very popular in Israel's Arab community. "There's almost no way to order takeaway food delivery in Majd al-Krum, and I'm someone who's used to Uber's delivery service and counts the seconds until the food arrives."

Together with Abasi, Ayoub set out to solve two significant problems that had not been addressed by any other food delivery app: helping couriers navigate towns with no road infrastructure and no organized street address system, and enabling payment from customers without credit cards. To date, the app is responsible for more than a million delivery orders in Arab cities like Umm al-Fahm and Sakhnin, and in mixed Jewish-Arab cities like Acre and Haifa.

The app's potential extends beyond Israel and its Arab population. It is suitable for any country with cities without organized roadways that, unfortunately, can be found all over the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. Just recently, HAAT raised $4 million from Playtika co-founder Gigi Levy-Weiss' NFX Fund. At the same time, Ayoub says, the company is fending off takeover bids and merger offers. "I can't comment on that, but if an attractive proposal comes in, we'll be happy to consider it. The company, in any case, is building itself for continued growth and expansion."

Although a HAAT co-founder, Ayoub hasn't worked a single day as a full-time employee. He elected to be an advisor and serve as a board member. "I was never interested in joining it. I maintain a balance between my love of entrepreneurship and my love for the cloud."

Executive recommendation

Michael Kagan, CTO of Nvidia , writes about Ali Ayoub:

"Ali is without a doubt one of those talented young people we view as a technological fulcrum, from the level of his staff and social circle, to the entire industry. He came to us as a brilliant computer science student at Technion and quickly progressed to an engineering position even before graduating, taking on more and more assignments, and leading to the success of several flagship projects. Beyond that, Ali is one of those people who not only manage to overcome the challenges life puts before them, but also give back to the community that raised them. He mentors and volunteers at Moona, a venture that connects the Arab and Jewish sectors through technology, volunteers at the Hasoub NGO and other organizations, all while splendidly leading a critical development group at Nvidia."

 This article is part of a larger project, "40 under 40", published by "Globes" in Hebrew.  

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on January 27, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Ali Ayoub credit: Eyal Itzhar
Ali Ayoub credit: Eyal Itzhar
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