Watching “Wheel of Fortune” is a family tradition for Halleh Kianfar, who earned her B.S. from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) in 2003. “I grew up watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ with my family,” she says, “and I still watch it to this day.” So she could hardly believe it when, after a Zoom audition, she got the email asking her to appear as a contestant on the show.
“Being on set is completely different from watching it from your couch,” says Kianfar, currently a director of product management at the entertainment data company Gracenote. “It’s different when you have 10 cameras on you and, with the excitement and adrenaline, you’re thinking, I’m on national TV, I don’t want to make a massive fool of myself!”
With the pressure on, Kianfar rose to the occasion. She won $26,070 in cash and prizes, including a trip to Antigua — which she hopes to take once the global pandemic is under control.
In fact, COVID-19 restrictions were clearly in place during the taping of the show. “The set was completely redesigned so that everyone is six feet apart at all times [and] these sweet ladies in their own full PPE gear would come pat your nose!” The crew ended up being one of Kianfar’s favorite parts of the experience. “The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ crew is like a family. [They were] so nice, and that was really one of the best parts of being on the show.”
When Kianfar isn’t winning thousands of dollars as a game show contestant, she’s managing products for one of the largest entertainment data companies in the world. Gracenote products help clients such as cable TV providers, streaming services and connected device makers coordinate and distribute everything from video content to sports data to music.
“Having a CS degree helps me stand out significantly as a product manager, because I understand not only the tech stack behind [a product] but how my engineers tackle a problem too,” she says,
“so I’m able to aid in our process.” She argues that some of the best product managers are developers. “I’m a programmer through and through,” she explains. “Half of ICS goes beyond the programming language and into orienting your mindset towards tackling and processing problems.”
In recalling her years in the School of ICS, she notes both how far women have come and how far they have yet to go. “When I was in ICS, I remember being one of less than five females in a class.” She admits that while there were times she wanted to quit, she’s glad she stuck it out. “I can’t imagine myself actually doing anything else.” Furthermore, while there is still a lack of women in the tech industry, she adds that Gracenote, which is owned by media measurement company Nielsen, is pushing to make the industry more inclusive. “Nielsen does a really good job of promoting diversity and inclusion in everything it does,” she says. “It’s a big thing for us as a company but also for me personally, as I’m Iranian-American, Jewish and female.”
Kianfar works closely with various women in technology groups in Southern California and is an active member of Women in Tech Hollywood (WiTH). “I have seen in my career how the collaboration of different views really brings out the best solution, especially if you’re looking to build a scalable solution that is nonbiased and resonates across the board.” With the tech industry now pushing for diverse perspectives, she says “there’s no better time than right now to be a minority studying ICS.”
Her advice to students? “I’m a big fan of trying new things, even if you fail,” she says. “Trying new things [is] the only way we can grow and innovate and change.” Her “Wheel of Fortune” experience merely exemplifies her own advice. “I’m definitely very proud of myself for putting myself out there and doing something completely out of my comfort zone.”
— Shani Murray