UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Wares Farighi, a senior majoring in security and risk analysis (SRA) in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), initially had trouble finding an internship, a requirement to complete his IST undergraduate degree. “I needed the IST 495 credit to graduate, so I was sending in a lot of applications,” Farighi said.
A chance browsing of the SpaceX website, a private company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk with the goal of colonizing Mars, gave Farighi the opportunity of a lifetime. “After I applied through their website, they asked me for a portfolio,” he said. “I thought only art students did portfolios!”
To complete his portfolio, he compiled technical labs and projects he completed in his classes, including a project from IST 456, an information and security management course. It happened to use the procedures for a lengthy document, named NIST Special Document 800-53. “It’s a 400-page, dense, horribly ugly document. It’s to develop a set of policies for a hypothetical environment,” he said. “It turns out, that’s the document they use at SpaceX, and I had the starter knowledge to work with it.”
He was eventually offered an internship at SpaceX’s Los Angeles headquarters for the fall of 2016. As an information insurance and compliance intern, Farighi authored security management documents. “Basically, I was helping the company prove to the government that their information was secure and that SpaceX’s information satisfied very specific standards,” he explained.
He described four months he spent working there as very intense. “Everyone who works there is in a league of their own. They recruit top-tier talent,” he said. The quality of work was not surprising, though, as his intern class of more than 100 people was selected from an applicant pool of nearly 22,000.
Elated at being in the top 1 percent of applicants, Farighi thrived in the fast-paced, challenging environment, where he routinely worked 60-hour weeks. “In meetings, everyone was so sharp. It was like a race to see who gets out the answer first,” he said. “[I’m most proud] that I was able to mold to that environment and succeed.”
When he returned to University Park to finish his SRA degree, he continued to adopt that mindset. “I feel like I came back to Penn State as a different person. I want to work my whole career at the level that SpaceX taught me.”
Farighi says he was able to contribute as much as a full-time employee. “They didn’t care that I was an intern. It was a very horizontal organization.” In fact, there were only three people in the reporting structure between Farighi and Elon Musk. It allowed him to make significant contributions and be responsible for major facets of the business. “The rocket SpaceX recently launched—obviously I didn’t help build it—but I made sure, through the documents that I authored, that the rocket was allowed to take off,” he noted.
He was even impressed with the simpler perks of working at SpaceX. “When I went to their cafeteria, they had both Pepsi and Coke,” he said with a smile. “It’s one of only [a handful of] places in the world where you can get both.”
Farighi is proud of his accomplishments so far, especially because he’s able to share them with his parents. “I’m a first generation immigrant. My parents were both refugees from Afghanistan,” he said. “They fled to the United States when they were 22 to escape the war.” Farighi explained that his father still has scars from when he had to jump on his family to protect them from a mortar shell.
With his impeding graduating, Farighi said his parents are as proud as they can be. “It was their lifelong initiative to give their children a life without limitations,” he said.
Looking back on his undergraduate career, Farighi says he’s glad he pursued a degree in IST. “I looked at the curriculum, and it had a lot of diversity. It’s a living degree, still morphing with the technology,” he explained. “I was able to get a wide range of skill sets within technology and business and not have to be specialized into just one, so I’m ready to do anything a company needs.”
After the success of his summer internship and impending graduation in the spring of 2017, Farighi has been offered a full-time job with FIS Global. “I’m really looking forward to getting out in the real world,” he said.