Tag Archives: Googlers

Ask a Techspert: How does Wi-Fi actually work?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party. 

How do you define a best friend?  Is it that someone who understands your needs? Or maybe it’s the person who is there through your ups and downs. Or, perhaps, does it require a special ability to allow your electronic devices to connect to the web without cords? 

While there aren’t many people who immediately consider wireless routers their bestie, according to a recent study commissioned by Google and conducted by Kelton Research, 57 percent of respondents say their Wi-Fi is like their best friend. In fact, 25 percent compared Wi-Fi to their significant other, and 68 percent said they’d be lonelier without Wi-Fi. And respondents said they’d rather suffer annoying situations like long lines at the DMV than deal with spotty Wi-Fi connections. 

Certainly, Wi-Fi is part of our daily lives, but how does it actually work? For this edition of “Ask A Techspert,” I spoke with Sanjay Noronha, a product manager at Google Nest and our resident expert on Wi-Fi and routers, to learn more about how the technology behind Wi-Fi works and about the future of home networks.

How does Wi-Fi even work? 

“It’s like listening to the radio, but two-way. Instead of just receiving sound like we do with AM or FM, Wi-Fi also lets you send data, like an email or a post to social media,” Sanjay told me. “Wi-Fi sends the data over radio waves quickly and reliably so that the thing you’re trying to do, or video you’re trying to stream, or game you’re trying to play, happens in a seamless way so you’re not stuck to your wall with an ethernet cable.” 

Wi-Fi operates on 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio frequencies. Think of those numbers like tuning your car to 97.9 FM to hear your favorite station. Except you don’t actually need to set anything yourself. Your Wi-Fi router decides which radio station to put your devices on so you can watch YouTube videos on your smartphone or take a video call while moving around your house. Multiple Wi-Fi networks can exist on the same frequencies, which is why you might see your neighbors’ networks when you try to connect on your device. (And respondents to our survey know this well: 13 percent said they have tried to connect to another network in their area, and five percent have asked their neighbors if they could tap into their Wi-Fi.)

Why does my Wi-Fi slow down at certain times? 

The overwhelming majority (81 percent) of router users in our survey have experienced issues with their home Wi-Fi. Among people who experience issues, half reported dealing with a slow connection, and 43 percent report slower speeds during certain times of day. 

I live in New York City and sometimes, particularly at night, my Wi-Fi gets particularly slow. And that’s because other New Yorkers are trying to stream their favorite TV shows, too. “That’s Wi-Fi congestion,” Sanjay told me. “If you have multiple Wi-Fi networks operating at once in the same area, they’re all using the same frequency ranges.” 

But if you use Google Wifi, there’s a way to avoid that problem. Wi-Fi was originally built for only 2.4 GHz, then newer Wi-Fi technology also added 5 GHz channels.  (If you see a wireless network with the number 5 at the end, that’s what that means.) That means you sometimes may have to pick which one to connect to when you’re online. But with Google Wifi, the experience is simplified. Users just connect to one network and are automatically moved between channels with a technology called “band steering.” Google Wifi also seamlessly selects the Wi-Fi frequencies it uses,  depending on the congestion, so you can binge-watch without interruption. 

How come some parts of my home get better Wi-Fi? 

According to Sanjay, that depends on your router. “A single router is like a lightbulb,” he says, noting a lightbulb has a limited range of light, and a router has a limited range of signal. “Just like you have multiple lightbulbs throughout your house, we want to make it easy for you to put in multiple routers.” 

Google Wifi is “mesh technology,” and it enables you to get better Wi-Fi by putting additional Wi-Fi routers throughout your home. So it’s like having multiple lightbulbs in your house, instead of expecting one lightbulb by your front door to illuminate your attic. Having a mesh system helps spread Wi-Fi signals throughout your home, wherever you’re using Wi-Fi. 

“Even though Wi-Fi has been around for many years, many people still experience Wi-Fi that cuts out,” Sanjay says. “We’re applying our years of experience to make Wi-Fi even more accessible everywhere in your home, not just in the room with the router.” 

Wi-Fi survey

Even though Wi-Fi might be like your best friend, some people have an odd way of showing it. According to our study, router users go to great lengths to hide their routers. Over two in five router users confess they’ve attempted to hide their networking device because of its appearance. So, we designed Google Wifi to look different from a traditional router. Instead of clunky cords and external antennas, Google Wifi is sleek and compact, so you may not mind having it hang out on you counter or shelf for the best connection possible. That way  you can hang out with your best friend, anywhere in the house, without worrying about making the place look neat. 

Mariate Arnal wants everyone in Mexico to get online

When you enter Mariate Arnal’s office, you can feel the energy. Her whiteboard always has a work-in-progress idea, her agenda is fully packed and new folders, papers and documents show up on her desk at all times. Despite her daily tasks as managing director of Google Mexico, her energy always stays high, so much so that she walks up and down the office stairs every day. 

Mariate describes herself as restless and passionate. She studied to become an engineer, and enjoyed math and questioned how things worked since she was a little girl. Born in Venezuela and a recent Mexican citizen, she is constantly examining how to make things better, not only inside the office, but also outside it, brainstorming how to make an impact and solve the problems the country has.

She has a challenging mission: creating two different strategies for one single country. “Mexico has a very Dickensian quality: it’s a country of two tales,” she says. “You have the technologically advanced Mexico, and the left behind Mexico.”

With the first edition of Google for Mexico happening this July, it was the perfect time to sit down with Mariate for the She Word and learn about her the challenges of her role and her vision for empowering women with technology. 

Make digital access inclusive. 

Mexico has a population of over 119 million people, 63 percent of which is online. “Mexico is a top 10 market for core Google products such as YouTube, Chrome, Search and Gmail,” she says. “However, the thing we need to focus on is how to bring in the rest of the people who aren’t yet online. And to do so we need to have a different approach.” An important challenge to get the remaining 37 percent of Mexicans online is that connectivity is quite expensive, so Mariate pushes Google to design products for a country where data is very costly.

Learn from other countries. 

There are 11 countries that will account for a significant share of the next billion new internet users in the world, and Mexico is one of them. Each Next Billion User (NBU) country launches different Google products, but Mariate believes it’s important to examine what other countries are doing about issues that are similar to Mexico’s. 

Mariate considers Google Pay’s launch in India a great example, since both countries have very low levels of bank usage. Another example is the investment on the Indonesian startup GO-JEK, which addresses technology issues many of these countries have, like a lack of affordable connectivity. “Despite the differences each market may have, we can learn a lot from each other, take in the best experiences and explore new opportunities in our country,” Mariate said. 

Become a helping hand for small businesses.   

Building digital skills is essential to close the gap between the tech-savvy and the yet-to-be-connected parts of Mexico. That’s clear when you look at small businesses, and how many of them have yet to take advantage of digital solutions like online shopping. “Small and medium sized businesses are the backbone of the country’s economy,” Mariate says.  “However, most of them are not betting on online opportunities.” There are over 5 million small and medium businesses in Mexico, which represent more than 50 percent of the country’s GDP. Many of those businesses don’t know how to bring themselves online, and those who do invest less than one percent of their budget in digital marketing. 

Mariate thinks trainings like the ones Grow With Google offers can help small business owners learn more about the importance of digital skills and how to use them for their businesses. She also believes that products like Google My Business can keep growing to solve wide-ranging problems, from helping customers discover businesses to allowing customers to make transactions, such as shopping or making a reservation.   

Open up more opportunities for women. 

In an industry that’s majority male and in a country with a large gender gap, Mariate is an advocate for women both at Google and across Mexico. Most recently, she was on a panel at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, one of the most influential global events focused on inclusion and women’s empowerment. 

During the panel, the main topic was to discuss what’s next for women in business, and the current challenges that prevent them from reaching  leadership positions. “What many companies are still not realizing is that it’s not just bringing women into the organizations, but working on a true inclusion,” Mariate said during the panel. “If they don’t include women, they are just going to leave.” 

In the office, she’s an executive sponsor of Women@Google, the company’s largest employee resource group, which is focused on women’s inclusion and empowerment. There, she has recently helped create alliances with nonprofits so that Googlers can help unprivileged girls have access to STEM classes. 

In many communities in Mexico, women are the breadwinners. But half of them have a very limited education, so they turn to the informal economy to support their families. Mariate, as a fighter for gender equality, wants to help women join the formal economy. “As a woman, when you are close to technology you can make a leap in every sense,” she says. “Technology can also give you more economic opportunities.”

#PrideForever: Seven Googlers on the fight for LGBTQ+ rights

Earlier this month, we launched Pride Forever, celebrating the past, present and future of the LGBTQ+ community by elevating stories from around the world, like the ones from the Stonewall Forever living monument. This interactive digital monument was created by the LGBT Community Center of New York City (“the Center”) with support from Google, and it connects diverse voices and stories from the 50 years since the Stonewall riots to the modern-day movement for LGBTQ+ rights. 

Those voices include members of Google’s LGBTQ+ community, too. In offices all over the world, Googlers are reflecting on their own journeys and sharing their stories with the world. Here’s a glimpse of what seven Googlers say pride means to them.

Pride Forever

“For over a decade, I struggled to accept that I could possibly be trans. Then in 2012, Argentina passed its gender identity law–the first in the world to allow gender self-determination. While far removed from my home in Indonesia, it meant that people like me might finally have a chance at transitioning and living without harmful legal and medical gatekeeping. It gave me the courage to accept myself and start standing up for my right to be.” — Jean, Singapore

Pride Forever

“Two years ago, I was honored to create a Google Doodle for Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag representing diversity, unity, acceptance and pride. The first flag was made by hand, so I wanted to create a Doodle with the same handmade feeling. I learned to sew (not easy!) and recreated the flag in my tiny kitchen just a few blocks from where Baker made his original eight-color flag back in 1978. As an LGBTQ+ person, the flag and this Doodle were beyond personal to me, and it’s part of why I joined the Google Doodle team, in hopes of having opportunities to brighten and strengthen people’s days.” — Nate, San Francisco

Pride Forever

“We were both engineers working in male-dominated industries where being a lesbian was difficult. We were asked on a regular basis about husbands or why we weren’t married. California’s Prop 8 in 2008 (banning same-sex marriage) was an eye-opening moment for us. Although the prop passed, there was a large public opposition campaign standing up for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. It felt like a turning point for people across the United States showing that it was OK to support the LGBTQ+ cause without substantial retribution.”  — Candace and Michelle, South Carolina

Pride Forever

William, left, with his family. 

"Many people have shaped my life—but perhaps the most meaningful people in my life are my husband, whom I have been with for nearly 30 years, and my son, who gives me more joy (and a fair amount of frustration) than I could have ever imagined. For them, I owe thanks in large part to a valiant handful of New Yorkers whom I've never met. Their act of defiance at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago ultimately enabled me to live, love and be who I am." — William, New York

Pride Forever

“When I first came out to my parents, my dad told me I’d never get a good job, and I’d lose all my friends unless I ‘changed my mind’ about being gay. That really hurt—that being gay is still seen as different, even to well-meaning people. Marriage equality in the U.K. in 2013 felt like a huge validation. The fact that this was part of an international wave, it was really a feeling of progressive acceptance.” — Nick, London

Pride Forever

“The original LGBTQ+ initialism was created in the late 1980s to introduce a more inclusive name for the gay community. To me, the LGBTQ+ acronym represents a diverse group of people that are unique and resilient. I am so proud to be a part of a community that is constantly evolving its boundaries for inclusion and actively championing societal equality. Even though there is still more to be done, being able to lean on one another for support—no matter where in the LGBTQ+ spectrum you fall—binds us together and has enabled us to make impressive progress across the globe.” — Andrew, Sydney

For this Googler, teaching code is a “drag”

If you’re looking to learn how to code, there are tons of tutorials on YouTube—but only a few star a wise-cracking drag queen in a candy-colored wig. That’s Anna Lytical, who was dreamed up by Billy Jacobson, an engineer at Google’s New York office who wants to bring some drag to the tech world—and bring some tech to the drag world, too. 

Billy's interest in drag and computer science started around the same time, in high school. He got into drag as a fan, through watching the show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” after school. By the time he moved to New York after college, the show had become an Emmy-winning hit and he was inspired to give drag a try himself. “I had been looking for a new creative outlet, because I had done a lot of theater in high school and I was not doing any of that in the city,” he says. 

So he watched makeup tutorials on YouTube, and took a class to refine his skills. About two years ago, he performed for the first time as Anna Lytical, a name he says describes his personality on and off stage. “I’ll always be analytical even if I’m not Anna Lytical,” he jokes. (He briefly contemplated another math-inspired name, Carrie the One, but it was already taken.)

This year, Billy decided to take Anna Lytical to YouTube, with an unexpected twist: a channel dedicated to teaching people about computer science. With nods to famous drag queens, Anna’s videos teach people how to code, with lots of projects and pop-culture references to keep viewers interested.

Anna Lytical's coding tutorials

The channel is a departure from other educational videos, which can sometimes be dry and academic. “If you want to make fan art for your favorite drag queen, why not turn it into an interactive website?” Billy says, explaining how he uses projects to teach people about CS. “That’s a way you could get introduced to coding.” This month, Anna Lytical’s channel started an in-depth series that serves as an introduction to computer science, “all dragged up.” 

Anna Lytical teaches Computer Science 101

“I’m trying to bring tech to people who are interested in drag, and show them you can be queer and flamboyant and be an engineer and code and that’s totally fine,” Billy says. “I’m also showing people in tech you can be a guy who wears makeup, and you can be an engineer who does drag and performs and expresses yourself.”

Billy says it’s important to boost LGBTQ+ representation in the tech world, because the industry should reflect the people who use tech products. (That’s everyone, after all.) “If there aren’t people like you building the technology around you, you’re not going to get represented in it,” he says. “There could be a form asking you to fill out information about yourself, and maybe there’s not a gender option that lines up with you. Or a name field that doesn’t accept a character in your name. Representation all around is really important.”

Through Anna Lytical, Billy has found more than just the creative outlet he was looking for. “I don’t totally think of Anna Lytical as a separate person, but more of a space,” he says. “A space I’m free to express myself however I want, wear whatever I want and feel comfortable with it.” Not all Anna Lytical’s videos feature full wigs and dialed-up glamour—one, for example, is a casual tutorial, filmed in a bathroom, demonstrating how to create the Chrome logo using eye makeup. 

Anna Lytical's Chrome makeup tutorial

Regardless of the glam factor, Billy says it’s all drag. “I think drag means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” he explains. “A lot of drag we see in the media is about exploring femininity, but I see a lot of people explore masculinity with drag, too. I like to go in both directions and play with all these things.” 

Billy Jacobson (left) presenting at I/O 2019.

Billy (left) presenting at I/O 2019.

Billy took the stage at I/O this year to discuss storing Internet of Things data. And though the audience may not have noticed, he brought a little bit of drag with him. He wore foundation and concealer, and played up his eyebrows with makeup, which gave him an extra dose of confidence on stage. “It’s kind of having a lucky charm. Maybe not everyone’s going to see it if you keep it in your pocket, but it’s there for you,” he says. “People probably won’t notice I’m wearing makeup, but I know. It’s not for them, it’s for me.”

Meet David Feinberg, head of Google Health

Dr. David Feinberg has spent his entire career caring for people’s health and wellbeing. And after years in the healthcare system, he now leads Google Health, which brings together groups from across Google and Alphabet that are using AI, product expertise and hardware to take on big healthcare challenges. We sat down with David to hear more about his pre-Google life, what he’s learned as a “Noogler” (new Googler), and what’s next for Google Health.

You joined Google after a career path that led you from child psychiatrist to hospital executive. Tell us how this journey brought you to Google Health.

I’m driven by the urgency to help people live longer, healthier lives. I started as a child psychiatrist at UCLA helping young patients with serious mental health needs. Over the course of my 25 years at UCLA, I moved from treating dozens of patients, to overseeing the UCLA health system and the more than a million patients in our care. Then, at Geisinger, I had the opportunity to support a community of more than 3 million patients.

I recall my mom being very confused by my logic of stepping away from clinical duties and moving toward administrative duties as a way of helping more people. However, in these roles, the impact lies in initiatives that have boosted patient experience, improved people’s access to healthcare, and (I hope!) helped people get more time back to live their lives.

When I began speaking with Google, I immediately saw the potential to help billions of people, in part because I believe Google is already a health company. It’s been in the company’s DNA from the start.

You say Google is already a health company. How so?

We’re already making strides in organizing and making health data more useful thanks to work being done by Cloud and AI teams. And looking across the rest of Google’s portfolio of helpful products, we’re already addressing aspects of people’s health. Search helps people answer everyday health questions, Maps helps get people to the nearest hospital, and other tools and products are addressing issues tangential to health—for instance, literacysafer driving, and air pollution.

We already have the foundation, and I’m excited by the potential to tap into Google’s strengths, its brilliant people, and its amazing products to do more for people’s health (and lives).

I believe Google is already a health company. It’s been in the company’s DNA from the start.

This isn’t the first time Google has invested directly in health efforts. What has changed over the years about Google’s solving health-related problems? 

Some of Google’s early efforts didn’t gain traction due to various challenges the entire industry was facing at the time. During this period, I was a hospital administrator and no one talked about interoperability—a term familiar to those of us in the industry today. We were only just starting to think about the behemoth task of adopting electronic health records and bringing health data online, which is why some of the early projects didn’t really get off the ground. Today we take some of this for granted as we navigate today’s more digitized healthcare systems.

The last few years have changed the healthcare landscape—offering up new opportunities and challenges. And in response, Google and Alphabet have invested in efforts that complement their strengths and put users, patients, and care providers first. Look no further than the promising AI research and mobile applications coming from Google and DeepMind Health, or Verily’s Project Baseline that is pushing the boundaries of what we think we know about human health. And there’s so much more we can and will do.

Speaking of AI, it features prominently in many of Google’s current health efforts. What’s next for this research?

There’s little doubt that AI will power the next wave of tools that can improve many facets of healthcare: delivery, access, and so much more.

When I consider the future of research, I see us continuing to be deliberate and thoughtful about sharing our findings with the research and medical communities, incorporating feedback, and generally making sure our work actually adds value to patients, doctors and care providers.

Of course, we have to work toward getting solutions out in the wild, and into the hands of the pathologist scanning slides for breast cancer, or the nurse scanning a patient’s record for the latest lab results on the go. But this needs to be executed safely, working with and listening to our users to ensure that we get this right.

Now that you’ve been here for six months, what’s been most surprising to you about Google or the team?

I can’t believe how fantastic it is to not wear a suit after decades of formal business attire. When I got the job I ended up donating most of my suits. I kept a few, you know, for weddings.

On a more serious note, I’m blown away every day by the teams I’m surrounded by, and the drive and commitment they have for the work they do. I’m thrilled to be a part of this team.

What's your life motto?

I know this sounds cheesy, but there are three words I really do say every morning when I arrive in the parking lot for work: passion, humility, integrity. These are words that ground me, and also ground the work we are doing at Google Health.

Passion means we have to get this right, and feel that health is a cause worth fighting for, every day. We need humility, because at the end of the day, if we move too quickly or mess up, people’s lives are on the line. And integrity means that we should come to work with the aim of leaving the place—and the world—better than when we found it.

Why giving blood matters, and how you can help

My father was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes as a teenager. He spent most of his life on insulin, until he went into kidney failure when I was four years old. After years on the donor list, a kidney and pancreas became available. He received seven blood transfusions in his 14-hour surgery. But two years later, his body rejected the kidney and he was back to square one. Through the kindness of his brother who was a match, my father received his second kidney transplant, along with several pints of blood. Without blood donors, my father wouldn’t have survived those surgeries and might not be alive today, 20 years later.

Katen and her dad.png

Katen and her dad

My father's journey has made me passionate about ensuring that people like him have access to blood when they need it. Although 45 percent of Americans have been personally affected by blood donation, only 3 percent of Americans regularly donate blood.

I’m personally unable to donate blood, but I’ve found another way to give back to the cause: organizing blood drives at Google. Through my work organizing 20 blood drives, I’ve encountered countless others who have personal ties to blood donation, including Googlers like Daniel Otts, who regularly donates blood in memory of his son Ferris who required plasma infusions after being born prematurely. Losing Ferris forever changed Daniel’s outlook on blood donation. “I remember how thankful I was that someone, an anonymous stranger, had given of themselves so unselfishly for the benefit of someone else, quite possibly in a life or death situation,” Daniel told me.

Through these drives, we’ve collected thousands of pints of blood. And through Google’s partnership with the American Red Cross, which uses Google Maps Platform to help people find a blood drive near them, we’ve reached thousands more people across the U.S.

This technology also helped Temie Giwa-Tubosun, a Nigerian native and founder of LifeBank, an app that uses Google Maps Platform to connect blood banks with drivers, hospitals, and patients in need. To date, Temie’s app has drastically cut delivery time of blood from 24 hours to less than 45 minutes and helped save more than 4,000 lives.


Through my own experience, I know how important it is to give blood. And Daniel and Temie are proof of that, too. On World Blood Donor Day, we hope you’ll visit the Red Cross site to find a blood drive near you and plan your donation.

Source: Google LatLong

How foster care advocacy led a Googler to her family

In the United States, more than 440,000 children are in foster care. Every year, approximately 20,000 of those youth age out of care, without any positive familial support or connections. To help them, a network of families and professionals work tirelessly to create a support system where one doesn’t exist. One of these people is a former foster parent, Joelle Keane Tramel, who leads a team at YouTube based in our New York City office.

She’s an advocate for foster children seeking permanent homes—and has two adopted daughters of her own. This May, which is National Foster Care Month, I talked to Joelle for our latest She Word to learn about her family’s story, plus how she balances a full family life while leading a team in a fast-paced work environment.

How do you explain your job at a dinner party?

I’m on a global team for YouTube that’s focused on making sure our engineers build advertising solutions that help marketers achieve their business objectives. We then help our sales team communicate the benefits of those solutions to advertisers.

How do you approach managing a team?

I believe in building a team where vulnerability, accountability and trust are rewarded. I’ve succeeded on teams that have psychological safety, clear roles and responsibilities, and where each person’s work has an impact.

You’re busy at work, but you also have a busy family life—raising three children, two of whom you’ve adopted.

Growing up, I always wished to do something bigger than myself and wanted to adopt. My husband and I opened our home to foster kids, in order to help local families rebuild following traumatic situations that often land children in the system. We wanted to provide permanency in kids’ lives—no matter the outcome of reunification or adoption.

Fostering was an option for me because I work at Google, which allowed the flexibility I needed to be a present parent. After the state department said we’d never be placed with multiple children or adopt our first foster children, two years later we adopted our first placement of two biological pre-teen sisters and became a forever family.

What was the adoption process like?
I’d been licensed for one week when we got the call for my daughters, who were eight and nine years old at the time. We had a revolving door of resources for the kids, including a law guardian, nurse, caseworker, court appointed special advocate and family visits a few hours a week. When those family visits didn’t go well, we needed to be home to support the kids afterwards.

The family leave time, flexibility to work remotely, and the support I received from my managers and teammates was critical during this time. I used Google’s family leave time throughout the foster care process and following the adoption, which was so important for our bonding as a new family. All of this happened around the same time that I had a biological child.

Joelle and her family in front of a gingerbread house.

Outside of Google, you’re involved with You Gotta Believe, a nonprofit that focuses on finding permanent families for young adults, teens and pre-teens in foster care.

My colleague and good friend introduced me to You Gotta Believe, the only NYC Metro organization that exclusively focuses on finding permanent families for young adults, teens and pre-teens in foster care. When I met the people who run the organization, I couldn’t get through my introduction without crying. This was a group of people who understood the unique needs of adopting older children—I would’ve loved to have been connected to them when I was adopting!

I’ve been a member of their board for over a year now. I’m honored to support an organization that’s changing the lives of one of the most vulnerable populations in our society.

What advice would you give to any prospective parent who’s thinking about adoption?

If you’ve thought about fostering or adoption, follow your instinct. There’s no linear way to be a foster or adoptive parent, but if you have patience, love, empathy and courage you’ll find your way. I was never as clear about my purpose in life until I adopted and became a mom.

Every human being is deserving of a family.

What’s one habit that makes you successful?

Every morning, I set intentions for the day in my gratitude journal. It’s centering to focus on what matters to me and my wellness. My intention may be walking my youngest to school, connecting with someone important in my life or launching a project at work. I strive to be a role model for my team and family in showing that wellness and balance come when you create it.

Who has been a strong female influence in your life?

My Gram. She was my biggest cheerleader who showed me how to live with grace and integrity. She also taught me that chocolate is a food group. And of course, my children. My oldest daughter has taught me about resilience and perspective, my middle daughter has taught me about having a vision and designing a life that matters, and my youngest daughter taught me about unconditional love as the glue to our "build-a-family.”

How car-loving Googlers turned a “lemon” into lemonade

This April, Googlers Peter McDade and Clay McCauley spent an entire day trying to keep a $300 car running. No, they weren’t stuck on a nightmare of a road trip. They were competing in the 24 Hours of Lemons race, the culmination of eight months of blood, sweat and tears—and a whole lot of grease.

Peter and Clay work at a Google data center in Moncks Corner, S.C., located about 20 miles from Charleston. Like many Googlers, the two find joy in taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they work. The data center has a maker space for employees, where colleagues tinker with brewing, electronics and 3D printers, as well as an auto repair station, with a car lift and tools to let people work on their vehicles. But their “lemons” race was way more than an after-work hangout.

Here’s how a lemons race works: Participants must team up in groups, and each group must spend no more than $500 on a car. Then they fix it up, give it a wacky paint job and race them. This particular race, nicknamed Southern Discomfort, is a full-day race at the Carolina Motorsports Park; it’s one of the 24 Hours of Lemons races that take place across the U.S. throughout the year. Peter, Clay and two other friends each took one-hour shifts driving, while the rest of the group stayed on call as a pit crew, taking action in case anything broke. Which, given the price of the car, was pretty likely. “The point is not to win,” Peter says. “The point is to finish and have fun.”

Peter first came up with the idea of participating in the race, and spread the word at work. Clay was immediately interested and signed up to help, but didn’t think it would work out. “I was thinking, Oh, it probably isn’t that serious, it probably will never happen,'” Clay says. But they stuck with it once other friends outside of Google stepped up to join.

Their “lemon” car, which they purchased for $300.

Their “lemon” car, which they purchased for $300.

Their first challenge? Find a car for under $500. It took them months, but Clay ended up finding a listing for a $300 car, which had been sitting in a field for a long time. “It was actually sinking into the ground, it had been there for so long,” Clay says. “It had grass overgrown around it, and it had mold growing on the paint.” Though the car barely rolled, thanks to a badly bent wheel, they decided they could figure something out.

That was the beginning of five months of work. They stripped the car down, fixed elements like the brakes and the wheels and added required safety features like a roll cage. At first, they tinkered with the car on site at the data center, but soon moved it to Peter’s driveway, where it remained until the race. They spent Tuesday and Thursday evenings, plus weekends, working to get it in shape, and kept track of what they had to do with Google Sheets.

Peter worked on the car in his driveway.

Peter worked on the car in his driveway.

On the big day, other teams didn’t even expect them to finish because of issues with the car’s fuel system and what Peter calls “electronic gremlins.” But they did, and they bested even their own expectations. The team, nicknamed “The Slow and Spontaneous” as a nod to the “Fast and the Furious” movies, made it the full 24 hours, doing 309 laps and finishing in 49th place out of 84 participants.

Emerging victorious wasn’t really the point, though. It was to work on a project with friends, and learn new skills to boot. “We’re not satisfied with something being broken and having to throw it away and buying something new,” Peter says. “It’s better to get something you know you might be able to fix, trying to find it, and realizing that yeah, I could fail, but if I fail, I’m going to learn something.” And they’ll apply those lessons to their next lemons race, taking place this fall.

Cathy Pearl has learned the art and science of conversation

Conversations can be tough. Whether you’re chit-chatting with a coworker or having an important talk with your partner, it’s easy to misinterpret, say the wrong thing, or accidentally offend someone. Now imagine teaching a computer how to avoid those minefields. That’s even tougher—and Googler Cathy Pearl knows exactly how difficult it is.

Cathy has made a career out of teaching computers how to talk to humans. She’s worked in the field of conversation design for decades, and now works in outreach at Google, where she helps spread the word about her field both within and outside of the company. She also served as a judge for this year’s Webby Awards, which is introducing a category for voice user interfaces for the very first time.  (Google ended up winning several awards, too, in categories Cathy didn't judge.)

For this installment of The She Word, Cathy tells us about the challenges of teaching computers to talk to humans, and what that’s taught her about her own conversations:

Designing conversations is trickier than you think. That’s because human conversations are really complicated.

“Basically, conversation design is about teaching computers how to communicate like humans, not the other way around. We all know how to talk from a young age, so now we need to build computers that can understand us where we are, instead of forcing people to speak some foreign computer language.

People may not realize how complex it really is. Think about something that seems like a simple yes or no question: What if you asked me, ‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ Let’s say I replied, ‘Coffee will keep me awake.’ Is that a yes, or a no? Well, if you asked me first thing in the morning and I have a big presentation to write, it’s probably a yes. Ask me right before bed, and it’s probably a no. People say things like this all the time, but it’s hard for computers to understand.”

Voice recognition used to seem like the stuff of fiction. It's come a long way.

“I learned how to program when I was a kid, and I was really interested in learning to get the computer to talk back to me. I was really into movies like ‘War Games’ and TV shows like ‘Knight Rider’ that had these talking computers. Now, there was no such career at the time really, unless you were a researcher at Bell Labs or something like that. Coming out of grad school, I didn’t know of any jobs I could take in that field.

So really it was in 1999 when I saw a job opening for a company and they said, ‘Come work on speech recognition!’ And I said, ‘Well, that stuff doesn’t work, it’s still a science fiction thing.’ But they had a demo line you could call, and it was this fake banking demo where you could move money from checking to savings. It’s all you could do, really, but it worked. I was astounded. I spent eight years at the company learning the ins and outs of building voice user interfaces for phone systems for companies.”

When you find yourself at a career crossroads, don't limit your options.

“If you do something like IVF, it takes over your whole life. It’s a constant thing. That’s why I quit my job. You can’t plan vacations, you can’t plan work meetings, because you have to go to the doctor’s office. And it’s so disruptive. After nearly 3 years of trying, I had my son. I spent the next three years as a stay-at-home mom.

I think what was hardest for me was the point where I thought, I absolutely want to go back to work now, which was earlier than those three years, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know what resources to use to try and figure out what I should do to get back into a great career. I felt very alone in that way.

I went to a career counselor, and I just tried to start saying yes to more things. So when somebody asked me to give a talk, even if I didn’t think I was necessarily qualified, I said yes. I said yes to writing a book, which was just a terrifying prospect. It expanded my worldview of what was out there, and it opened a lot of doors to opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think as women we often undersell ourselves.”

Teaching computers how to talk to us can teach us a lot about ourselves.

“So much of the time when we communicate, we want to be acknowledged. We don’t want you to try to solve problems. When I’m saying I had this really hard day, I don’t want my friend to say, ‘You know what you should do next time?’ No! I want you to say, ‘That sounds frustrating.’

That applies to voice user interfaces. With the Google Assistant, there’s a lot of stuff we can’t do yet. But it’s better to acknowledge the things we can’t do then just say, ‘I don’t understand.’ If someone says, ‘I want to rent a car,’ and we can’t do that, can we say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t rent cars yet?’ That’s more satisfying at a basic, human, primitive level, because at least they understood me.”

Ask a Techspert: What’s so interesting about spreadsheets?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

The spreadsheet wizard: Every office has one. They’re masters of functions and pivot tables. It’s as if they hold the secrets of the universe, while I fumble around just trying to alphabetize something.

In today’s workplace, spreadsheets are in, and endless stacks of paper containing years of information are out. That got me wondering: Since when did spreadsheets become “a thing,” anyway? How did they become the de facto way to organize data? And what does the future of spreadsheets look like?

For this edition of Ask a Techspert, I sat down with Ryan Weber, a G Suite Product Manager who works on Google Sheets, to get an expert’s take on how users look to spreadsheets to manage their data. Ryan and his team not only know how we use spreadsheets today, but also have a good idea of how we’ll use them in the future.

How did spreadsheets and computers first meet?  

“Spreadsheets were the first ‘killer app’ of the personal computer,” Ryan told me. “People got them for their home and for their business, and it allowed people to really unlock the true value of a computer.” By “killer app,” Ryan means software so popular that it becomes one of the main reasons many people use a device.  

Essentially, spreadsheets were one of the reasons to actually go out buy a computer for the first time. They presented a technological alternative to all of those paper ledgers and books that, for centuries, have been used to organize information. We take it for granted now, but consider what a game changer it was to have a new, more efficient way to organize data. The advent of spreadsheets made computers useful to millions, who use spreadsheets for anything from wedding guest lists to financial projections for Fortune 500 companies.

How are spreadsheets used in computing today?

These days, you don’t have to write code or know how to create complex formulas in a spreadsheet to make data work for you. “Sheets allows someone to easily generate valuable analysis by using simple tools powered by artificial intelligence (AI),” Ryan says. “AI allows you to play with data in new ways, including automatically getting suggestions for formulas, charts and pivot tables, or even being able to use natural language to ask questions via Sheets Explore.”

This capability means they’re usable by anyone, not just experts, which Ryan calls “democratizing data analysis.” And as the uses and capabilities of Sheets continues to evolve, it will continue to expand to even more people, helping them in more ways in both their personal and professional lives.

Because Sheets is stored in the cloud, it allows everyone to see and edit the same file at the same time. This is particularly helpful for businesses which rely on G Suite apps, like Sheets, to collaborate on heavy duty analyses with multiple people. “Historically, this idea of a single source coupled with real-time collaboration was what made Sheets stand out from other spreadsheets from its inception,” Ryan says. “You don’t have to worry about sending around spreadsheet attachments and then trying to merge them later. This seamless collaboration in G Suite is what makes our tools different.”

What is the future of spreadsheets?

After 40 years, it’s clear that spreadsheets are here to stay. But like many other technologies, AI can dramatically affect how useful spreadsheets are to us. Ryan says Google is developing new ways to incorporate AI into Sheets for just that reason. Now, the team is looking into using AI to automatically clean and format data so it’s in good shape and ready to be used in your analysis.

The team is also looking to increase the types of data available for analysis, since information can come from all sorts of places, especially at work. “We’re making it easier to connect large datasets to Sheets from other critical data sources in your company, or even connect important data from outside of your company into Sheets. We want to ensure that data is easy to access and analyze so you can do what you need to do,” Ryan says.

So, will futuristic AI-powered spreadsheets know where to seat your mother’s mahjong friends at your wedding? As of now, that’s sadly unlikely. You’re still on your own to figure out that social minefield.