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Interviews with a couple Google Engineers

I was cleaning out old files from Google Docs and came across these two interviews I did with a couple Google engineers for NCWIT in 2008, just before I left Google. Portraits by Jason of course. The two things I remember vividly about the experience: 1) we had to sneak Jason’s photo equipment into the building because I was nervous that Google security would bust us for unauthorized photography on campus, and 2) transcribing interviews is more difficult than I had imagined because you have to balance the “cleaning up” of the spoken word while maintaining the integrity of what was said.

Fewer and fewer women are joining the IT field these days (the official stat is that there’s been a 70 percent decline in the number of undergraduate women choosing to major in Computer Science between 2000 and 2005) and NCWIT is working to understand why that is and reverse the downward trend.

Working at Google, I’m surrounded by some of the most intelligent and driven people I’ve ever met, so I decided to take advantage of that proximity and sit down with a couple of Google Women Engineers and talk to them about how they first got interested in technology, why they think women are underrepresented in IT, and what advice they would give young women who are interested in Computer Science.

An interview with Sharon Perl, Software Engineer at Google (from April 2008)

Tell me what you do for Google.

I’m a software engineer — that’s my general title. I’ve always worked in the systems and infrastructure group at Google. And right now I’m working on project to build a storage system that will store photos, videos, images — anything that’s blobby, anything that’s a chunk of bits that you would tend to store, retrieve and not manipulate a lot in the meantime.

What degrees do you hold?

Ph.D., Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

S.M., Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

B.S.E., Computer Science, University of Pennsylvania

What is your typical day like at Google?

In the last six months or so, I haven’t been writing much code. Before that, I was writing code fairly often, so my day could easily have a chunk of several hours where I was coding.

What I’ve been doing a lot of lately is project management and design. I spend time reading design documents, talking to people on my team and outside my team about the system design and where it’s going.

And I spend time meeting with clients about applications that might store their data in the blob storage — figuring out what their requirements are and if the properties of their data suit this storage system. That’s a bit of evangelizing.

I spend a fair amount of my day working on stuff related to this project.

I go to talks — one or two talks per week. Sometimes they’re technical, fairly often they’re not technical talks.

For example this week I went to a talk by Patricia Ryan Madson about improv wisdom. She talked about how to take skills that are taught to improvisational actors and apply them to your life — making mistakes, saying “yes and”, committing, jumping in full force, going with whatever is happening around you, and being open to change. That was cool.

Yesterday I lead a breakout session for the Google Women Engineers career development event. So I do leadership development stuff, both for myself to improve and to help other people.

How did you decide to go into computer science?

I had no clue what I wanted to do when I first got to college. I don’t even think I knew what engineering was back then.

I was good in math and science. My father was a chemist, so I think I signed up for chemical engineering.

I think maybe one of my math teachers I really liked said that engineering is something I should look into.

I got accepted to the school of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. I actually got accepted into a dual degree program for engineering and management at the Engineering School and the Wharton School.

My mother had a friend whose son was in the program, and because he said it was a good program, I signed up for it. That tells you how low my level of awareness was.

One of the requirements in the first semester of my freshman year was a computer programming course, and we got to choose between learning Pascal or Fortran. I didn’t know what either of those things was.

My mother’s friend’s son said to go for Pascal, because you get to use terminals and don’t have to do it on punch cards.

So I took the Pascal class, and I found that I really loved programming. I’d never done it before, and I’d never done anything quite like it.

It actually reminded me of proofs in geometry, which I liked to do in math in high school. I loved proofs in geometry. I remember when I did my first proof; it was so wonderful that you could find a set of axioms that when put together in the right order, they lead you to a conclusion inevitably.

And somehow the programming felt similar to that. I just loved my first programming class, and that’s when I decided to make my engineering major computer science.

But I was very intimidated because there were many of people in the computer science department who knew a lot — geeky guys who had already programmed as kids. I always felt that everyone knew more than I did. So I was intimidated by it.

I also took my management side classes — the Wharton classes — the first year, and I really did not like them. I think it was accounting that did it for me. I said no way, I’m not majoring on this side.

So I made the decision to major in just computer science. I dropped out the dual degree program and switched to computer science.

Did you have any people you modeled yourself after or wanted to be like when you were growing up?

I don’t remember having somebody I wanted to be like.

I had a lot of adults who were very influential — teachers especially. I tended to have good relationships with my teachers, especially in high school.

I knew the teachers really well. My friends and I worked for them outside of class, and so we’d hang out with them. And they were very influential.

Certainly my math teacher who encouraged me to go on with math was very influential, but I don’t remember wanting to be like anyone.

Why do you think there’s been such a drop in women getting computer science degrees?

I’ve heard that from many places, and I’ve looked at some of the research, and it seems quite plausible to me that the image of somebody who does computer science is still the geeky guy. Someone who doesn’t talk to people, who cares more about machines than about making things happen in the world.

And I think there’s probably a certain amount of girls not getting the exposure to computer science young enough.

Certainly in Silicon Valley the schools are very aware of that, and my daughter is in a middle school where she’s taking computer science classes.

But I look at her, and she’s not currently interested in math, science or computing — she doesn’t see it as cool and fun. And I suspect that it’s similar for lots of girls.

Other career opportunities seem better. Maybe it’s more obvious to girls to go into medicine or biology or chemistry because they can clearly see how they can improve people’s lives, or whatever it is they’re looking to do with their careers.

And for the girls who are interested in math and science, I think there’s still the problem that you can’t find the right role model.

This came up yesterday in the Google Women Engineers career development event: if you choose the wrong role models, it can be very discouraging because you start comparing yourself to someone who is really not like you. You’re not likely to have the same successes that that person has, or to succeed in exactly the same way, and it can be very discouraging.

So I think it’s probably all those factors that contribute to fewer computer science degrees.

What advice would you give to young women who are thinking of getting into computer science? Or to parents who want to encourage their daughters?

As a parent of an 11-year-old girl, I encourage her to do well in math. She’s smart, and I don’t want to let math slide, even if it’s not going to end up being her career.

I would really encourage parents to take advantage of the many opportunities out there — there are science camps, math camps, and lots of stuff that girls can do with computing these days. So if you see the interest, find her connections to people who are interested in the same stuff and can show her how much fun it can be.

And I think encouragement really matters, too. I was insecure, but I had people who believed in me, and I think that’s what helped me to stick with it. My thesis advisor was really supportive in grad school.

For undergraduates, I’d recommend they get a job. I had jobs outside of my classes. I worked for the systems administrator for the computer science department, and I got a lot of exposure — really got my hands into things. Find projects and jobs that can give you experience, because the experience is the thing that gives you confidence. It shows other people you can do it. So just do it, and don’t worry whether you’re as good as other people.

I also would take every chance you have to be a small fish in a big pond. It’s something that people worry about, that I worried about, from high school to college. Should I go to the college that’s a little smaller, or a little less prestigious, and be someone who’s likely to come in on top? Or should I go to an Ivy League school and potentially be just one of many?

When I think about it, I’ve always gone to the place that’s the bigger pond and has bigger fish to learn from. You learn more, and you grow more. So I would always go for the big pond, if there’s the opportunity.

Why did you choose to work at Google?

I was working at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) in the research lab. I had been in a lab for 9 years, ever since I’d gotten my Ph.D., and I decided that maybe I would prefer engineering — something a little more practical, where the problems were a little more clear.

So I decided to start looking at other companies. There had been people who had left the DEC research lab to go to Google — Sanjay Ghemawat was one of them. Some of the most senior engineers at Google now came out of the DEC research lab.

I had initially thought that I would never go to Google. I had heard it had reputation for being one of these place that consumes your life, demands huge amounts of work hours, and I had a young child.

So I wasn’t really looking at Google, but I ended up at a party with Sanjay Ghemawat. I told him I had decided to leave the lab, and he said, why don’t you come talk to us?

This is another one of these instances — this happens a lot to me, and I think for a lot of other women too — that if you don’t get invited, you assume that you’re not wanted.

Just having Sanjay ask me to talk with them made the difference for me.

Google was about 300 people at that time; it wasn’t by any means big, but it wasn’t in start-up mode.

And I knew people who had gone to Google, and I knew that they were really smart and that they wouldn’t have gone there and wouldn’t stay there if it wasn’t fun.

So it was the people that made me come here, and all that other stuff about Google, but it was also the shortest commute. It didn’t require me to get on the freeway to go to work.

I thought, great, I can still have my family life and still work.

An interview with Lea Kissner, Software Engineer at Google (from April 2008)

Tell me what do you do for Google.

I’m on the information security team at Google, and I do a combination of things.

I’m a software engineer; I work on infrastructure — making things run, making things work.

And I do security design reviews: people from all over the company e-mail me and say hey, I’m doing this cool new thing, can you tell me how to make it more secure.

I also work on privacy for Google, making sure information is anonymous and secure, and that we’re doing right by our users.

What degrees do you hold?

My undergrad degree is a B.S. in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science from UC Berkeley. And I have a Ph.D from Carnegie Mellon in Computer Science.

What’s a typical day like for you at Google?

I bike in to work (my new bike is under 18 pounds and made of carbon fiber), and then get through all my e-mail. I help people out with their security problems, sometimes have meetings with them. I do some coding.

We work very collaboratively at Google, which is really great. I spend a lot of time with people figuring out what they need, figuring out what they want to do, to make sure what they want is to be secure.

How did you discover that you were interested in security?

I actually used to work in robotics. I did a lot of soldering, and I figured that sooner or later the solder fumes were going to eat my brain, and sooner or later my brain was going to come in handy. So I switched to cryptography because it involves a lot of theory, a lot of math, and it was really fun.

Crypto has lots and lots of really cool math in it. Crypto, security, and privacy have this advantage in that they’re really, really hard.

Partially because no one agrees what it means to be secure, what is means to be private, what math we should be using. And once you verbally agree to a definition of security, how do you write that down in terms of math? And then how do you use algorithms and mathematics to achieve that?

What fascinated you when you young?

Everything. I had the problem that I was interested in everything.

When I was 5 years old, I decided I was going to get my Ph.D. in Physics because that was when I was first introduced to liquid nitrogen.

I watched someone drop a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen, fish it out, and throw it on the floor and it shattered, and thought that is cool! And I thought, if becoming a physicist is what you have to do to get your hands on this stuff, that’s what I’m doing.

I wanted to be a veterinarian for while. And I wanted to be a history major, and I almost majored in history.

But I chose one of the things that I found most enjoyable and most difficult.

What were your favorite books growing up?

There was lots of reading, so that’s a very long list. I read everything that I could get my hands on.

There was one book that I found again recently called Emergence by David R. Palmer — it’s a book about an 11-year-old and her experience when someone sets off a biological weapon and kills most of the people in the US.

It turns out that there are some people who are transgenic: they have this mutation from their grandparents, who had gotten pregnant during the 1919 flu epidemic. So this transgenic group of people survives this biological attack and have to put society back together. And the Russians are trying to get them. I loved it.

Did you have anyone who influenced you growing up? Anyone you wanted to model yourself after?

Not really. My parents constantly told me: you could do whatever you want. You’re smart, you know how to do things, you can do whatever you find interesting. You shouldn’t worry what you should be doing. You should be thinking about what’s going to interest you down the line.

The woman that was always held up for me as a role model was Marie Curie. And I thought, great, she worked really hard, she did really interesting things, and she died of radiation poisoning, and I don’t want to do that.

What constitutes geekiness?

I’ve always been very geeky. Geekiness is not just a tech thing. Geekiness as I see it is passion.

Geekiness means you’re smart about something, you really love something, and you work really hard it. I’m really passionate about technology and bike riding.

Why do you think there’s been such a drop in women getting computer science degrees?

I know that not everyone has encountered this, but I’ve run into a lot of people who are very, very annoying about me being in computer science.

I’ve had people inappropriately hit on me, I’ve had people call me “little girl” (not at Google, mind you). I’ve run into a lot of negative things.

It’s interesting, I was part of an honor society at Berkeley, and we looked at the percentage of women who were in this honor society (membership was determined by GPA), and it was much higher than the percentage of women in the computer science program at the time.

What’s probably happening is that unless you’re really determined, and unless you’re really good at it, you’re much more likely to be dissuaded from getting into computer science. So you’re losing women who would be perfectly fine at computer science who may be very good at it, but who are turned off by some rather obnoxious behavior.

They may be turned off by the fact that every time you go places, you’re the representative of all womankind. That means, if someone doesn’t like you, all women are bad at computer science. I’ve run into a fair bit of annoyance from people.

But I’m very stubborn. The drop in computer science degrees for women is probably because it’s not easy.

What advice would you give young women who want to get into computer science?

First I have advice for anybody who wants to do just about anything: take a lot of math.

People who know what’s going on with the math can do everything else.

I have a Ph.D. in an extremely theoretical discipline. I wrote extremely theoretical papers, my math skills are what I had been working on. But when I first came to Google, I worked on really low-level coding infrastructure projects part of the time, and a lot of what’s given me the background to do that is not that I’m a coder — I’m not really a coder — but I have formal reasoning skills, I have the ability to look at things and see what’s happening on a high level.

You can see this in a lot of disciplines that the people who understand what’s going on with the math get to learn what’s going on with everything else — they have a much bigger box of tools to apply to any given situation.

It’s really about finding what you want, finding something that is so cool that you really want to play with it.

It’s not about just learning how to program, or learning about computers. Go and learn about philosophy, go and learn about sociology, go and learn about math — lots and lots of math — and all of these things come together, and they’re all useful.

You may end up working with privacy, in which case, knowing stuff about philosophical disciplines, knowing what things people say in literature are really, really helpful because it tells you a lot about how people think.

In terms of being a woman in computer science, you have to just realize that some people are idiots. And you’re unfortunately going to have to deal with some people being idiots.

When somebody says something stupid, women need to say something about it. I’m hoping that’s something people don’t have to do down the road, but that seems to be something we’re still dealing with.