Tag Archives: Passion Projects

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.

From kids’ music to the tech world, without missing a beat

Matan Ariel’s young nieces and nephew live on the other side of the world, but they keep up with their uncle thanks to his music—and thanks to Google, too. Though they live in Israel and he lives in New York, the three kids love to ask the Google Assistant to play his songs, which have gone double platinum in their country.

Matan, or “Uncle Matani” as they call him, works in sales in Google’s New York office. But he also has another love, children’s music, which brought him a level of success he never expected before he headed to Google.

He first started singing full-time during his three years serving in the Israeli military. He was part of an entertainment unit for the navy, traveling from base to base to perform at various ceremonies, whether they were celebrations or memorials or something in between. “Think about it as a cover band for Israeli pop songs,” he says. “It was a range of different performances.”

It was during his years in the navy that he decided to record children’s music. Some people in his entertainment unit were babysitters on the side, and they lamented the lack of quality songs for kids. Matan took action, setting up time in a recording studio and coming up with a plan to record as Matan Ariel & Friends. They chose classic Hanukkah songs, since they were in the public domain, and recorded the album immediately after their service officially ended.

One of the Hannukah songs from Matan Ariel & Friends.

Matan and his group recorded modern covers of classic Jewish holiday songs, in Hebrew, and they filled an important need for families in Israel. “There were either the classic songs we all knew growing up, but recordings from the ‘50s and ‘60s that hadn’t been digitally enhanced. You could even hear hissing sounds from the original vinyl records,” he says. “Or there were newer albums where people were saying, ‘I’m going to create my own Passover or Purim songs,’ and they just weren’t as good.”

And to Matan’s surprise, the album took off, selling out its initial run in just a few weeks. “I got an email a few weeks later, saying, ‘We sold out of the Hanukkah songs, so can we have more, because Hanukkah is still not here yet? And do you have Passover songs, and something you can sell year-round?’” he says. “I said, Sure, I’ll get you that!’”

A Passover song recorded by Matan Ariel & Friends.

Eventually, the album of Hanukkah songs exceeded Israeli double platinum status. Matan Ariel & Friends recorded 17 albums and five DVDs, about themes like birthdays and animals and around holidays like Passover, Purim and Sukkot. Two of his favorites are an album of Israeli lullabies and an album of Israeli memorial day songs.

After he graduated from college, though, Matan decided to step back from music and focus on the business world. These days, he leads a team of ad sales executives who work with agencies to help small and medium businesses use Google ads. He saves his singing voice for karaoke nights with friends and the occasional Googler cover band. At work, sometimes he’ll hand out CDs to his coworkers with children, but there’s one problem: many of them don’t have CD players anymore, so they just stream his music instead.

Matan says the biggest reward he’s seen from his music has been with his young nieces and nephew, who he doesn’t get to see as often as he’d like. “I wasn’t a stranger to them because [my brother and sister-in-law] would play my albums to the children, and they would show the DVDs to the children. So Uncle Matani was someone the kids knew,” he says. “I would come to Tel Aviv and they would see me, and run to me and hug me. That to me is an impact that goes even beyond the sales.”

Living the “multidream” by blending coding with a rap career

Editor’s note: Passion Projects is a new Keyword series highlighting Googlers with unexpected interests outside the office.

At Google’s offices in Los Angeles, Brandon Tory spends his days working in artificial intelligence, training computer models to better understand how humans use language—why we use certain words, or describe things in a particular way. Once he leaves the office, he’s crafting language in a different style: by writing and recording hip-hop music. Through his two passions, Tory hopes to spread the word to the next generation that you don’t have to choose between the things you love—and that art and science have more in common than you think.

When he was 13 years old, Tory saw movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Matrix” and “Hackers” and was inspired to get into math and computer science. “I never wanted to be a hacker in the criminal sense, but in the sense of really understanding computer systems,” he says. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts and experiencing homelessness as a teenager, he got support from his church and also went dumpster diving for parts to build his first computer, which he spray-painted black. He recalls spending 12 to 14 hours a day during his teenage years on online forums, learning more about computers and writing his own code in C, Assembly and Python.

But by high school, he kept his love of technology to himself. “At the time, coding wasn’t cool. None of my friends knew I was into coding,” he says, though he did turn in 200 printed pages of code for a science project. During those years, he discovered his passion for music. “I started to fall in love with hip-hop, and I related to the stories of a lot of rappers and artists just because of where I came from,” he says.

Tory studied electrical engineering in college, but decided on a different path by the time he graduated. “I think I went into the studio one time and heard myself, and it was probably not very good, but in my opinion it was amazing, and I said, ‘I’m packing up everything, I’m moving to Atlanta and I’m going to try to break into the music industry. I want to be a star,’” he says. He bought a $1200 van and moved to Atlanta to try to make it.

After a few years of striving in Atlanta, Tory moved to Los Angeles, where he won a national songwriting competition, got to work with the producer Timbaland and started hosting packed parties. But even still, he didn’t have a hit song, so he revived his interest in tech by working as a software engineer. He learned that coding and music share one major trait in common: the ability for people all over the world to collaborate on one project, and the need for everyone to learn from each other in order to maximize their creativity. .

At first, he kept his worlds separate, not telling family, fans, or coworkers about his double life. But around the time he started at Google this September, he decided to go public with his story, which has since been covered by media outlets across the country. Now, by being more open about his two passions in life, he hopes to inspire the next generation to pursue all their interests, and understand how seemingly different cultures can positively impact one another.

"Seriously" by Brandon Tory

When he’s not in the office, Tory is working on an album, which combines rap with guitar music and elements of indie pop. (He credits both Jay Z and Maroon 5 as influences on his work.) He’s also planning his fourth annual event in Los Angeles that combines his interests in tech and music, and is working on a television script about an MIT dropout who struggles to make it in Hollywood.

Tory now views his ambitions in software and music as two parts of one whole, or as he calls it, a “multidream.” “In computers, we have multi-threading, where we’re able to do multiple tasks and it seems like it’s happening invisibly,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as someone who has two careers. I consider myself one person from a diverse background who’s really enjoying learning and growing in two things that I love.”