Tag Archives: Passion Projects

“Clapping back” at racial stereotypes in a new book

Elijah Lawal just published his first book, but he’s been writing since he was 10 years old. Back when he was a kid, he wrote a story about a boy who ran away from home—and eventually became the president of Panama. His new book, published in the U.K. earlier this year, has very little to do with his imaginative works of little-kid fiction, but it came from a similar refusal to accept things the way they are. 

Elijah, who works in communications in Google’s London office, just wrote “The Clapback: Your Guide to Calling Out Racist Stereotypes.” He says it’s his attempt to debunk harmful stereotypes aimed at the Black community, and to give people the tools to respond when they are faced with such myths. 

Each chapter introduces a stereotype, explains its origins and shows why it’s harmful. “If there's a stereotype that Black people can't swim, and if I believe that false stereotype, then it means I'm very unlikely to go swimming,” he explains. “It means I’m very unlikely to take my kids swimming. That feeling is passed on to them, and they're very unlikely to take their kids swimming. Then before you know it there's not enough Black representation in Olympic swimming.”

Elijah certainly wasn’t drawn to writing for the glamour factor. “Writing a book is hard, lonely and often boring,” he acknowledges in his writing. He worked on the book every weekend for three full years, because he felt compelled to help others. “I just felt that I've been blessed with this knowledge, and so I've got to try and share it with other people,” he says. “I thought the best way to do it was with a book.”

Elijah Lawal poses with his book

Trying to get the book published was equally unglamorous. With a full first draft in hand, he started pitching his book to literary agents, trying to find the one who would represent his work to publishing houses. The rejections immediately poured in—so much so that Elijah had to change his way of thinking about them. A former colleague convinced him to think of it like he was seeking rejections instead of acceptances, and make it like a game. “Trick yourself into believing that the aim is to get 100 rejections,” Elijah recalls learning. “Then when you get rejected 100 times, go for 200 rejections.” 

Eighty rejections in, and more than a year later, Elijah finally got the response he’d been hoping for. In fact, he got three agency acceptances in quick succession. When the first one appeared in his inbox at the end of a long workday, he got up from his desk, ducked into the nearest meeting room and did a little dance. The hardest part was over, and the agent he chose helped find a publisher. 

In fact, things went so smoothly from there that he’s already got ideas brewing for two or three more books. “I kind of pictured this as a trilogy, so: debunking racial stereotypes, then debunking gender stereotypes, and then debunking religious stereotypes," he says. And a fellow Googler gave him the idea of turning “The Clapback” into a kids’ book, an idea he’s also considering.

The project has broadened Elijah’s horizons both personally and professionally. When he started working on the book, he was in a job that didn’t require much writing. Committing himself to a regular writing practice not only filled a creative void in his life, but also helped him be more creative at work.

And his colleagues have loved the result. “The reception of the book has helped me realize how willing people are to engage on this issue internally at Google—I’m amazed by how many people have been so supportive,” he says. “That’s been one of the joys of having this published.”

The Googler whose art springs from “useless” objects

When Jeff Sundheim first moved to New York in 1996, he went running in his neighborhood every morning. He always ran by the same dumpster, which was packed full of oddly shaped pieces of wood. The nearby store, which built new and refurbished antique billiard tables, considered the wood pieces to be trash, but Jeff didn’t. He returned to his apartment after each run with armfuls full of material. That’s how Jeff started making art. 

Jeff is in his 13th year at Google, working with advertisers and publishers on creative campaigns and helping companies find ways to appeal to wider audiences. And he says his love of sculpture perfectly complements his work at Google. “There isn’t a dichotomy between my life and work life and creative life,” he says. “It’s all pretty fluid.” For example, he works with advertisers all the time, and the ad industry’s bold fonts and company logos frequently inspire his art. His artwork is varied, including colorful compositions made of discarded cardboard boxes and phone book listings. Recently, he’s been playing with steel, working outdoors and on a larger scale.

Jeff Sundheim

Jeff at work at the Art Students League in New York.

His latest work is in New York’s Riverside Park, right next to the Hudson River. Jeff noticed the park lacked seating, so he created a sculpture that invites passersby to take a rest. The piece, named “Wavehenge,” features a wave of steel towers acting as a sundial over four benches of wood. And it contains a secret: Four times a year, at a specific time, the shadows of the steel wave perfectly align with each of the benches. He says he’s loved seeing how people interact with his piece of art. Kids even bring chalk up to it, creating their own art on his sculpture.


“Wavehenge” acts as a sundial, facing New York City’s Hudson River. 

Jeff says a new perspective can bring welcome change to everything from a piece of wood to a sculpture or a park. He’s also recently pursued a change himself, undertaking a rotation at Google, spending several months in a new role in Mountain View. There, he worked as an evangelist on a wide range of topics with visiting executives from Google’s largest clients. “It’s an extraordinary way to learn about the company, get a bird’s-eye view and meet incredibly interesting people,” Jeff says. While working out at the gym on campus, he ran into an accessibility researcher and invited him to present on multiple occasions to Google visitors.  

Making something beautiful after it’s no longer useful endows an object with new purpose, Jeff says. In his work and his art, he’s drawn to projects that require him to imagine a new future for information or objects that are often taken for granted. “So much of what we do at Google is making things useful,” Jeff says. “I love taking materials I’ve found that have been cast off and giving them a new life, transforming them.”

In the key of G: Meet June Wu, Googler and concert pianist

June Wu loved classical music from an early age. A very early age. “There are home videos of me as a baby, conducting to big symphonies as my dad was playing them on the stereo,” she says. Her love of music has lasted to this day, as she flies around the world as a concert pianist—all while working in a totally different field at Google’s offices in Redwood City, CA. Living in both worlds is what makes June happiest—and it took her a while to figure that out. 

When June was a kid, her mother decided to learn how to play the piano. June and her sister would tiptoe downstairs after bedtime to listen to their mom play, and they would sneak a few plinks of the piano keys while she was trying to practice. Eventually, June’s mother got so frustrated she signed her kids up for lessons. June ended up taking piano very seriously, competing at the state, national and international level while in middle and high school. 

June was, and still is, drawn to the emotions you can channel through piano, whether you’re playing or just listening. “For me,  music is a way to explore deeper emotions and access some of what you may not yet have the words to articulate,” she says. “You can do that through music, and you can also move others through that.”

By her senior year of high school, she was ready to pursue piano professionally, and even got accepted to Juilliard, her dream school. But something gave her pause: She worried she’d have to choose music and music alone, leaving behind other academic interests, if she went to Juilliard. The students she met there had a laser-focus on their art, leaving very little free time for other interests.  “I had always been intellectually stimulated by both worlds, both music and non-music,” she says. 

June passed on Juilliard and ended up at Harvard, but had a tough time leaving music behind. She didn’t touch a piano for six years and didn’t share her previous passion with her college friends. “Piano was so intertwined with my sense of self and identity,” she says. “I felt ashamed that I had given up on my childhood dream without even trying. I threw myself into other things in college and didn’t play at all.”

After she graduated, she worked as a journalist and then moved to management consulting. While staffed in Paris, she had a chance encounter that led her to pick up piano again. A friend asked if she could sub in for her during a concert, and at first June demurred, saying she had likely lost her ability to perform at a professional level. But the concert was two months away, so she had time to prepare. 

“I decided to say yes, because I didn’t know anyone in Paris, so what’s the worst that could happen?” June says. “In the beginning it was tough—my fingers weren’t able to do what my mind wanted to do, because I hadn’t been playing for so long. But the technique came back so quickly.” She also noticed that even though she’d stopped playing, she had still grown as a person and as an artist. She brought a new perspective to her music now. 

The concert reignited her passion for music. Next, she entered an international amateur competition for pianists—and won. That led to invitations to perform with professional orchestras, concerts she had to balance with a full-time career and then business school. 

After business school, she sought out a company that would help her with that balance. “I thought that working at a place like Google, which is very supportive of outside interests, would be a great fit for me,” June says. “I’d continue to work on exciting problems and build a great career in addition to playing and performing when I can.”

June Wu playing piano

Now, June works as chief of staff and a strategy lead for Google Customer Solutions, which helps small and medium businesses grow using Google Ads products. She practices piano nearly every day and recently got a Steinway grand piano in her San Francisco apartment. “It’s amazing for me, but my neighbors hate it,” she jokes. She aims for two major performances a year, most recently performing Chopin and Tchaikovsky piano concertos as the featured soloist with the Penn Symphony Orchestra in Philadelphia and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra in South Africa. (She even performed at a gala event at an offsite meeting for her leadership team at Google.) Next, she aims to revamp her solo repertoire and prepare a full recital. 

June says her job at Google and her love for music go hand-in-hand. “Music exercises a different part of my brain, so I think it makes me more well-rounded,” she says. “It’s a way for me to get inspiration from a different part of my life and bring that to my work at Google.”

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.”

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.”