Ali of AI

“I’ve never seen him not smiling, “ says Joshua Morrand, an employee at Durham College’s (DC) AI Hub. Although Morrand admitted that because of Ali Hirji’s busy schedule it’s difficult to get more than a few minutes with him, it’s safe to say that the impression he imparts on the people he works with is in line with the description that Morrand paints.

Ali Hirji is the project manager at DC’s AI Hub, a position riddled with responsibilities and obligations that would overwhelm most people. Hirji, however, seems to remain unbothered by the accountability and seems to have a great sense of how far an honest smile can get you in the world.

Ali Hirji was born in Dubai in 1986 and lived there until he emigrated to Canada as an international student in 2007. An alumni of York University, Hirji never actually studied IT as a student.

“I never went to school to study IT, I was self-taught in most of what I know of IT,” he says.

After finishing his undergrad and achieving his masters, Hirji started to work closely with well-known telecom firms such as Bell and Rogers among other IT organizations.

“But then I got scooped up by a company called Orion, which manages, network communications for all of the universities and colleges [in Southern Ontario],” says Hirji.

After spending 8 years there, he was approached by Durham College and offered an opportunity for the position he currently holds.

Now, after having worked at Durham College for over a year and being so busy with conferences and projects to the point where just scheduling a 10-minute interview becomes an ordeal, Hirji still manages to come to work each day with a smile on his face.

Last year, after DC was included in Canada’s top 50 research colleges list for the sixth consecutive year, the AI Hub was given 2.2 million dollars in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

One misconception many people have about the AI Hub at Durham is it’s a research based facility and that the students who work there are volunteers.

“They think that we’re trying to just find out how something works, that’s not what we do. We develop prototypes. Students are paid to work here,” says Hirji. “It’s not a for-credit environment, it’s a business space.”

Hirji emphasizes his department’s singularity in this regard.

“Every department has their uniqueness and our uniqueness needs to be recognized,” he says.

Hirji reflects on his journey up until this point now as something that was multifaceted and organic, something that was pushed by his own desire for knowledge.

“I would say that my journey has really just been driven by my willingness to learn,” says Hirji.

Perhaps this sentiment is something all students at DC can learn from.