The Art of Masks
14 July 2020
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A Conversation with Abdulaziz Alshmasi, CTO of Tanim Studios
- Abdulaziz Alshmasi
Abdulaziz Alshmasi is 24 years old and lives in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. He is the Chief Technology Officer of a startup tech company, Studio Tanim, an anime-oriented production company. Alshmasi is a web accessibility developer – he upgrades websites so that they can accommodate users with disabilities. He also works as a sound engineer and orientation educator for members of the visually-impaired communities.
I met Alshmasi when he came to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) to work as a guide for Dialogue in the Dark, an exhibition in which blind or visually-impaired guides lead sighted people on an hour-long journey in complete darkness.
I had originally interviewed Alshmasi to get his thoughts about Dialogue in the Dark, but his other professional activities, skills and experiences were so remarkable that we scheduled an additional meeting to focus on those.
Alshmasi has dark, slicked-back hair. He wears a bright white shirt and shades. He is confident, friendly and unusually witty. As a production engineer and experienced voice artist, he integrates himself into the production aspect of the interview with the flow of a seasoned pro.
Seated in the café of Ithra’s high-tech Library, we talked about Alshmasi’s professional and educational experiences.
“My experience at Ithra and Dialogue in the Dark was heartwarming and exciting. It opened my eyes to a lot of stuff,” he explains. “As a blind person, I didn’t know how the Saudi people would perceive the darkness and what they would do if they were put in a dark environment that they had to explore. There is no place to deliver such information like Dialogue in the Dark because it delivers far more than perceiving blindness and darkness, so much more than just plain information. It delivers empathy.”
As a professional educator and a developer dedicated to user experience, Alshmasi is concerned not just with teaching methodology, but the experience of the people visiting the exhibition. As an accessibility professional, Alshmasi has particular insights about the quality of training and the work environment for disabled employees. For Dialogue in the Dark, 15 guides were hired and trained. While Alshmasi has worked with members of the visually-impaired community, it was the first time for many of the other guides. Dialogue in the Dark is a production of Dialogue Social Enterprise, a company with more than 30 years of production experience. Alshmasi describes the environment:
“Our team at Dialogue in the Dark is amazing. I have never worked with such experienced and enthusiastic people in my life. The team is very excited to deliver the best experience for people. I have never had so much fun at a job, honestly. It is amazing to come to work every day and listen to the stories and help each other out throughout the day and provide positive feedback. The cooperation between the team members and the staff is what you really want in a work environment.”
Three years ago, Alshmasi co-founded a startup company called Studio Tanim. “Tanim” is the Arabic equivalent for “animise,” which he describes as “taking an idea and presenting it using the Japanese art of animation.”
“Studio Tanim began with a very funny story,” he recalls. “I was in university and a friend asked me, ‘Abdulaziz, do you watch anime?’ and I said, ‘I love anime! Are you kidding me?!’ Then we got together with a couple of friends and talked about anime and its deep influence on the culture. We realized we had to do something related to Saudi in terms of anime. We started working in a coffee shop, scaled up a little bit and then we joined STC’s incubating program Inspire You. We were selected from over 800 projects from around the Kingdom and we were funded to start Tanim. My friends asked what I would deliver to the project, and I said, ‘I can do the voiceovers, I can sing and I'm a website developer. I can develop the website and the audio experience of the project.’ And that’s what I'm doing now. As Chief Technology Officer, I’m in charge of developing the website and the store of Studio Tanim. I’m also in charge of delivering the best audio experience to anyone who is watching our films or listening to any music that we put with our comics.”
As someone who relies more than most people on sound, Alshmasi takes the audio aspect of his job seriously: “What I do in terms of audio engineering is deliver a 3D audio landscape. If you listen to something we’ve done without seeing it and you didn’t understand what’s going on around you, I failed at my job.”
Alshmasi doesn’t just see his work ethic as personal pressure, he sees it as part of a societal force for good – particularly for people who are disabled.
“I’ve been training people in orientation and computer skills since I was fourteen years old. What I want for the blind community here is to help each other and push each other forward, because as a community if we don’t have a voice and don’t try to help each other, nothing will get done. That’s why I love to tell people, you always have to sharpen your skills. You have to learn. You have to learn the most you can about technology and orientation, how to perceive the world, and how to orient yourself in any place because it is important for us, as a community, to tell society that we are able if we have the opportunity. If we don’t work on ourselves and our skills, we won’t have that opportunity.”
In light of this, it is easier to perceive the moral drive behind how Alshmasi describes his innovative and creative work as a web accessibility developer: “I provide services and the necessary tools for companies to make any website accessible for people with disabilities without breaking the aesthetic beauty of the original design of the website – without breaking the other users' experience. Using technology to make websites accessible is what's called ‘inclusive design.’”
Who benefits? Everyone. Alshmasi explains:
“It’s a priority for anyone with disabilities. It’s a priority to help include people in societies. And because we have amazing technologies and a lot of big companies who are helping to spread the vision of inclusive design worldwide, I believe now is the time to help people and to give them space and the inclusive tools needed for them to be able to do their jobs. Because if you believe in people, people come through.”
Alshmasi is himself an illustration of his own ethic. But it hasn’t always been easy. Even though he had been training others on technology for years, he was denied the opportunity to follow a technical course of study.
“When I got into university,” he recalls, “I wanted to major in computer science. I love computing and I love programming and I had been doing it for a long time. They told me I couldn’t do it because I’m blind which was really disappointing. So, I had to learn how to program, how to do cybersecurity and website programming by myself. I specialized in English because it would allow me to learn more and to improve. I used it as a tool to learn more about the stuff I really wanted to learn about.”
While he faced many challenges at university, Alshmasi feels the professional sectors of the Kingdom are in a moment of expanding progress. “Now a lot of ministries and companies, including the private sector, are looking differently at accessibility. With the technological breakthroughs, I believe Saudi Arabia is improving at a very, very fast pace, starting with the rules and regulations and by providing jobs to the community.”
“I believe,” he explains, “technology is the future. Technology is what will keep people moving forward in terms of education, jobs, and helping the community and society.”
Alshmasi’s vision is technology with purpose. Innovation and creativity are not mere features, but moral priorities for a society dedicated to creating an information economy. And such an economy is inclusive and diverse because the goal, ultimately, is society – not just some of the people, but all of the people. Alshmasi does not just have an ethic, but a message.
“My message to the disabled communities is that working together will provide huge success in terms of opportunity and it will assure that you reach your goals,” Alshmasi says. “Everybody will have to pull their own weight. Everybody will have to work as hard as they can because together we win and if we stay separated we won't gain anything – it will just be personal gain for those who work alone. So, we have to work as a community to improve it for everybody and improve the work environment here because we can do it – it's not hard. We can.”