Author Archives: Molly

The rise and fall and rise again of “now more than ever”

One of my favorite Google tools is the Google Books Ngram Viewer, or “Ngrams.” Originally created in 2009 by part of the Google Books team, Ngrams shows how books and other pieces of literature have used certain words or phrases over time. You can chart the rise (and fall) of colloquialisms like “sockdollager” or “take the egg”—or even “that slaps.” 

“Ngrams simply aggregates the use of words or phrases across the entire Google Books dataset,” says Michael Ballbach, a software engineer who works on Google Books. “It then allows users to graph the usage of those words or phrases through time.” Each word being searched is a “gram” that the tool searches across its database. 

Ngrams’s capabilities have grown recently, thanks to an update in 2019 that added approximately 19 million more books to its dataset. “For the English language corpus, that adds trillions of words,” Michael says. For context, that’s roughly the equivalent of three million copies of “War and Peace!”

But there’s one phrase—er, four grams—that’s been surfacing more and more during these...challenging, unprecedented, uncertain, unusual times that I’m particularly interested in: “Now more than ever.” 

Perhaps you’ve even noticed it? “Now more than ever” has invaded our vernacular; in fact, I’m sure you’ve read it (or a similar phrase) in a Keyword post or two. So I decided to dive into Ngrams to see if “now more than ever” is showing up...now more than ever. While we’re currently experiencing a spike, there have been others: In the early 1940s, around 1915-1920 and in 1866. Between 1805-1809 it was particularly high—nearly as high as it is today.  

And then of course there was the banner year of 1752, when things peaked for “now more than ever.” 

Now more than ever

Today, as we’re living through a pandemic, wildfires, racial injustice and so, so much more, it feels obvious why we’re increasingly saying and hearing “now more than ever,” but what about back then? What things made people feel like everything had a certain crucialness? 

While the Ngrams team doesn’t investigate the causes of the booms and busts of words and phrases, for this particular exercise, I thought a little about what could have possibly been happening during these periods of “now more than ever.” I can imagine in the 1940s, World War II changed the lives of people everwhere. 1915-1920 was marked by World War I—and of course, the influenza pandemic of 1918. In 1866, the United States was emerging from civil war. 1805 to 1809 was a heady time for the young U.S. government.

“If you have the time or inclination, you can use Books Search to try and get some insights,” Michael explains. So I plugged in “now more than ever,” searched under Books, and toggled the time settings for 1751 to 1753 to try and see if I could glean anything about the peak year of 1752. And while I can’t say I know what about that time really pushed the “now more than everness,” a handful of British literary journals were definitely using the phrase. 

But things don’t stay at a “now more than ever” pitch. From 1955 to 1996, “now more than ever” was relatively uncommon, before climbing steeply up through the late 90s and early aughts to today. 

Maybe you, like me, may find some comfort in knowing that this moment in time—as unprecedented, challenging and uncertain as it may be—is not the only one in which everything is “now more than ever.” Maybe you, too, can appreciate the light Ngrams sheds on the lives of the words we choose. 

“I think that language is evolving just like society is evolving. That is, language is a reflection of the society that used it, and vice versa,” Michael says. “How the use of language changes over time reflects at least some of the changes taking place in the wider world. Having better tools to look at one can hopefully lead to insights in the other.” 

And if you’re feeling very “now more than ever,” just remember: This too shall pass


Maggie Stanphill is making more mindful tech

If you’ve seen your weekly screen time go up over the past few months, you’re hardly alone. Maggie Stanphill, Google’s director of user experience (UX), has seen her stats go up, too. Maggie leads UX efforts for Google’s Digital Wellbeing initiative, and she’s noticed that the current state of the world requires an evolution in our understanding of how we can mindfully use tech. 

“The emphasis on screen time feels really tone deaf right now, right?” Maggie says. “Almost everyone who has access to tech is spending more and more time online. So many of us are getting those weekly screen time reports that say it’s gone up by some percent, and that might actually be aggravating.” But, she explains, there are ways digital tools can be more helpful. “We’re really trying to create a more nuanced approach. Look at sleep: We know queries for insomnia have gone way up, and we’re working on refining our tools to support that.”

I recently sat down with Maggie via Google Meet to talk more about her work in UX, and how Google’s Digital Wellbeing features are pivoting to meet people where they are. 

How would you describe your job at a dinner party to someone who doesn’t work in tech?

I’d say we conduct research with people around the world to better understand their needs and bring that perspective into the product design process to make tech more helpful and less intrusive. I also like to say that you can think of a UXer as the voice of the user in the room where decisions are being made. That’s where we play a role to advocate for people’s needs. 

What was your career path to UX like? 

I started as a journalist, actually; I got a degree in English. I loved storytelling, and I really found there was a natural transition when I moved into this field—storytelling was part of the design process. Narrative showed up in a variety of ways, like conducting ethnographic research and sharing people’s perspectives through tools like personas, which are character sketches that help UXers understand their core audience. Having that people-first lens is what’s really driven my career path. There was no “UX degree” when I was going through school, but I’ve found that focusing on understanding people’s needs and their goals translated really well in terms of what I needed to grow and be effective at this work. 

Have you heard of the Strengths Finder quiz?

I’ve heard of it but I haven’t taken it!

One of my primary strengths is “input,” information gathering and synthesizing. I’m organizing information every day, in my brain and in Google Docs! It’s part of my process. I have to internalize things to feel like I can be fluent and translate those concepts to make sure our products are building toward a shared strategy and are easy to use. 

What specifically are you working on at Google right now?

My focus is two-fold. I work in an advocate role for the company-wide digital wellbeing initiative, and I also manage our Fit UX team. My interest in people and human behavior is very much what drew me to digital wellbeing. For the past two years we’ve spent our time defining what “digital wellbeing” means. More recently, we’ve tried to pivot from a focus on screen time as the most important metric to really empowering people by default. What I mean by that is there are ways we as product designers can build wellbeing into our product experiences, so people don’t have so much to worry about when it comes to using tech. Because we’re a cross-Google team, we’re really focused on providing expertise from a research-based set of best practices. So we established a digital wellbeing toolkit, which includes four key tenets: empowerment, awareness, control and adaptability, and applied those in a variety of ways. 

How do those tenets show up in products?

Sleep is a great example of how people’s fundamental needs drive Google’s product priorities. Sleep is so critical to overall wellbeing, and we’ve heard from people all over the world that they’re not getting enough of it. We imagined we could help people get more sleep by making our products more adaptable. You look at Android, Google Assistant and YouTube and realize that if they were more coordinated they could work together to help people get more sleep. That’s when we came up with Bedtime mode, which uses Clock to set your preferred schedule. That schedule then activates features like Grayscale and Do Not Disturb to help you disconnect, and stay that way. 

The underlying tenet that makes this work is adaptability, where each experience takes the person’s preferences into account; in this case, that preference is their bedtime schedules. Then all the devices and apps adjust to support those needs: Your bedtime clock notifies you to wind down, apps turn to Grayscale, and when your phone docks, it goes into Do Not Disturb automatically. Google Assistant also has a Bedtime routine that follows this schedule. 

2 Clock Bedtime.png

In your digital wellbeing research, is there anything that’s really surprised you?

Maybe it’s not fully surprising in the canon of human behavior, but in our annual survey of user sentiment, it always strikes me that people have more concern about others’ use of tech than their own. There’s a higher percentage of care related to their loved ones’ tech use, but when it comes to reflecting on their own, that percentage of care is much lower. We have a hard time seeing and changing our own behavior.

Has quarantine changed your thinking about digital wellbeing at all, or made anything more clear to you?

Aside from shifting the focus from screen time to positive use of tech, the other thing that jumped off the page for me is the interplay between digital access and mental health. We’ve seen an increase in people’s feelings of disconnection from others due to social isolation, and therefore, the use of tech is seen as positive because it helps them feel more connected. On the other hand, we’ve seen early indicators that income and race may determine a person’s access to tech, and that access can play a role in wellbeing. For example, certain populations are suffering from shared grief, given some of the recent health and recent events, and they can benefit from more digital tools that help with communication, mental health and more. Yet this gap remains between access to information and tools to support wellbeing. And we’re looking into ways to bridge that divide.

Quarantine, but make it fashion

Typically, fashion changes with the seasons. In the fall, you see boots and flannels appear; in winter, we break out the cable knit sweaters. Come spring, light jackets start showing up, and summer means it’s time for shorts and sandals. But this year, I’ve been wearing a nearly uninterrupted uniform of workout clothes since March.

I wanted to see how widespread the effect of quarantine was on personal style, so I turned to Google Trends to find out. Here’s a look at some of the latest fashion-related Google Trends that people are searching for:

While searching for shorts seems like the status quo for hot summer months, according to Google Trends, search interest in “shorts” reached an all-time high this June in the U.S. More specifically, “biker shorts” was the most searched type of shorts over the past three months (interestingly, we also saw an increase in search interest for “cycling” in March). “Biker shorts” was followed by “short shorts,” “running shorts” (my personal faves)—though “denim shorts” and “cargo shorts” followed next, so apparently there is still some interest in “real” clothes out there.

One garment has remained buried in my dresser for quite some time now: pants. So I wasn’t surprised to see that while search interest in pants isn’t currently at an all-time low, there was a significant dip in the U.S. in March...which certainly corresponds with the period of time that sheltering in place caused me to move in a comfier direction. Meanwhile, even though much of the U.S. is currently experiencing warmer temps, search interest in “sweatpants” has been much higher this summer than it was the previous two years; same goes for pajamas:

Quarantine styles sweatpants google trends
Quarantine styles pajamas Google Trends

Of course, pre-quarantine fashion pieces have taken a hit: Searches for wedding dresses, tuxedos and neckties are all down. Heels haven't gotten much love in recent months, either. U.S. search interest in “high-heeled shoe” hit a 10-year low in April of this year. On the flipside, in May “running shoes” hit an all-time high. 

But what about new fashion trends that sheltering in place has inspired? You may have seen social media feeds consumed with the idea of the nap dress—a dress you can both wear while going about your day (whether that be running errands or just working from home) as well as...well, for napping. “Nap dress” saw an all-time high in search interest in July in the U.S.

Here’s to my—and maybe your—most casual summer on record. 

Source: Search


How to grow a “living” building

Andreas Gyr

Andreas Gyr

Andreas Gyr remembers his first car fondly: a 1982 Ford Escort, which had the gas parts ripped out and replaced with 17 golf cart batteries and an electric motor. “It had about a 15-mile range and it topped out at like 58 miles per hour,” Andreas remembers. “I’d carry an extension cord around and plug it into friends’ wall outlets to make it home.” It might have been inconvenient, but it made him excited about the future. “It was different, it was hopeful, we charged it with solar panels!” he says. “I learned early adoption can be rough, but it’s necessary to get to a future where sustainable options are the norm.” 


Fortunately, he’s kept that hopefulness, and that passion for sustainability. Andreas, who works on sustainable building projects for Google’s workplaces, was recently presented the Living Future Hero award from the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). (Appropriately enough, he found out on Earth Day.) He received the award for his work on 6 Pancras Square in London (a rendering of which is shown above), which was the first ILFI Zero Carbon certified building in the world, as well as his work on the upcoming Bay View campus in Mountain View. I recently talked to Andreas about his award, his current projects and this crucial moment for his industry.


Let’s start off with something basic: What exactly is a “living” building?

The core idea for living buildings was popularized by ILFI, and it’s really about a building being regenerative—whether that’s generating more energy than it uses, harvesting and treating water on site or diverting waste from landfill and reusing materials. On several of our projects, Google is implementing these strategies at a scale never done before. 


6 Pancras Square is the first ILFI Zero Carbon certified project in the world. What exactly does it take to be Zero Carbon certified? 

To achieve the Zero Carbon certification, we significantly reduced the operational energy used by the building, but we also looked at the carbon impact of the project’s building materials—the carbon emitted in their extraction, manufacturing and transportation—and made reductions there as well. Project leaders Andy Martin and Nick Barr set aggressive sustainability targets, and pushed the team to deliver significant carbon savings across the entire project. We also used Google’s operational carbon neutrality commitment and worked with Anna Escuer, Google’s Lead for Carbon, to offset the impact of the building materials, ensuring the project was designed, constructed and operates with a net zero carbon impact.

6 Pancras Square - Exterior.jpg

A rendering of the exterior of 6 Pancras Square London. 

But this is not the top of the mountain. Long-term, the goal is to design, construct and operate buildings that are truly regenerative—that store more carbon in the materials of the building than is spent to produce them, that are powered by on-site or 24/7 renewable energy, that incentivize manufacturers and industry partners to produce low-carbon products and solutions and that have a positive impact on their surrounding ecology and community.


The Bay View campus is pursuing the ILFI Living Building Challenge Water Petal—what exactly is that, and how do you do it?

The goal is to produce more usable water on your building site than required to operate it. That sounds simple, but buildings use a ton of water. One way the Bay View team reduced water demand was by installing the largest geothermal heat pump system in North America for heating and cooling the campus. The system saves eight million gallons of water per year, in addition to a lot of energy, compared to a standard system.


Photo_ Chris McAnneny, Heatherwick Studio Bay View Construction Photo.jpg

 Bay View from the San Francisco Bay Trail, Photo: Chris McAnneny, Heatherwick Studio

The project will also treat wastewater on site and use the recycled water from that system for all non-drinking water uses, like toilet flushing and irrigation. Finally, we expanded our treatment plant so that in the future, the system can accept wastewater from neighboring buildings, treat it and return it as usable recycled water. That way, even though we have to take drinking water from the city to run our building and operate our cafes, we can provide at least that much water back into the system in the form of recycled water. 


Do you have a favorite building you’ve worked on?

Picking favorites is hard for me! I put four cereals in my bowl for breakfast. The King’s Cross development project in London is going to be really cool. It’s the first Google workplace in Europe that was designed and developed by our real estate team from the ground up. The green roof is going to be beautiful and part of the planting palette was selected in collaboration with the London Wildlife Trust, so it’ll provide ecological benefit to birds, bats and bees in the area. 


What do you wish more people knew about sustainability?

Sustainability doesn’t sit in a silo, separated from economic and social challenges. To create a more resilient and abundant future for the planet and for ourselves, we need to expand who's involved in shaping that vision. This is a really important moment, where we’re talking about social justice and injustices in our culture. For the sustainability movement to succeed, its intersections with diversity, equity, accessibility and belonging must be integral to our values, how we build our teams and how we develop long term plans. 



Inside the Google team that dreams up colors

How do you bring a new color to life? Just ask Isabelle Olsson, who leads Google’s Color, Materials and Finish team. “Every year we work on hundreds of new colors, but maybe one or two make it,” she says. They dream up colors for things like Nest Minis and Pixel phones and develop them from scratch. Their goal is to create colors you’d love to see, not hide away in a cabinet or case. 


Copy of Isabelle_CMF_studio.jpg

Isabelle Olsson

Among the latest to make the cut can be found in the new Pixel Buds: Oh So Orange, Clearly White, Quite Mint and Almost Black. I recently spent time talking to Isabelle about why color is so important and where she finds inspiration—and of course, which Pixel Buds shade is her personal favorite. 

Where did your interest in design first come from?

There’s been one consistent thing I've always wanted to do, and that’s make people smile. When I was little, industrial design wasn’t a profession I was aware of, so I did things like stage design for plays, designing costumes and jewelry and building doll furniture. Eventually, when I went to art school, I found a way to combine my creative side with my problem-solving side, because I also loved math and physics. 

Nearly all of us have a favorite color, often starting when we’re little. Why do you think that is?

Color is the foundation for living. Look at flowers, some of which evolved to look bright to attract bees. There’s something about color that reminds us we are alive. And color is very personal, and so culturally specific to the setting and context we’re in. You even see different preferences depending on the climate you live in; if you’re in a hot climate you might prefer different colors than if you’re in a cooler climate. 

Electronics used to just be black…then black and white...then the occasional gray. What are some of the things that opened this space up to more variety? 

For a long time, tech for tech’s sake was enough, but I don’t think it’s enough anymore. There’s a reason when you go to a paint store there are literally hundreds of shades of white. We really believe that color, material and finish affect your wellbeing. 

Pixel Bud colors CMF studio

A look at a few sources of color inspiration the designers use.

At Google, we’ve set out to create products that fit into people's lives, and you just plainly can't do that without color. When we create our palette for the different product categories, we really think about where a product is going to live. Is it in your pocket or next to your bag, or is it going to live on a shelf or on that beautiful wooden cabinet you got from your grandma? We think about how we can fit in or stand out in that environment.

What are some color and finish trends you’ve noticed in electronics? 

There’s been this transition away from designing furniture to hide technology, like those media cabinets people shoved electronics in. Our goal is to design things that people are happy to have out in the open, that fit beautifully next to whatever vase you have, or a pair of earbuds you choose the same way you choose a jacket or a bag.

What real-world inspiration goes into color selection?

We try to live with the objects and the colors we design. For instance, when we design something for the home, be it a new color or a new shape, we place it on a shelf. Then every day for a week we walk past it, and we start seeing things we didn’t previously see. We don't just design something and look at it and then it’s done. We try to live with the objects and the colors. These days, we’re sending product models to our houses and living with them in our homes.

Google CMF studio

We also bring back objects from trips as inspiration. A toothbrush, a bar of soap, a little plate, a spoon—seriously, anything. Then in the studio, we have drawers for these things from all over the world organized by materials. We even have one that’s labeled “organic,” and that’s always fun to open because you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes it’s stones but sometimes I’m like, What’s that smell? Then we use these objects to make physical mood boards. It’s this idea of turning off your logic brain and turning on your intuition side.

How do you make sure you don’t jump onto temporary color trends?

One thing we do is look at markets for longer-lasting products. It’s like furniture: It’s not like you buy a new couch every year, it’s maybe every five or 10 years. We can be inspired by fashion, but it's important to know that it can be a very quick cycle. It’s important we ask ourselves if something is a short term trend or a lasting movement. 

What was the process for choosing the Pixel Buds' colors?

We had this vision of this little dot floating in your ear. It’s almost like little candies, so we had bowls of candy in the studio for inspiration. 

Creating colors for something that goes on your body is so different from creating colors for something you hold in your hand or put on a shelf; it needs to coordinate with different hair styles, different skin tones and how people dress. We knew we could love a color when we looked at it, but what happens when it goes in the ear? We did a ton of prototyping and experimentation and then narrowed it down to around 100 colors, and then narrowed it down to 25. Then we tried them on a ton of people and photographed them, and we started to see some common themes of what worked in the ear and what just looked good on the table. 

For a while we had two dark neutrals and I thought, Wait a minute, that seems like a wasted opportunity. That’s how we brought back the green color, Quite Mint, which is my favorite and hadn't made the cut at first. 

I know there are different internal names for colors. What were some of the Pixel Buds’?

We called Quite Mint “pistachio,” which isn’t quite actually the right color but we liked the name! And I think we just called Oh So Orange “sun orange.” 

I think my favorite device color name is Purpleish for the Pixel 3a.

That’s my favorite name to this day because it felt so to the point! In some light, it’s purple, in some it’s sort of white, so it’s purple...ish. I loved it. 

Head to the Google Store  to check out the Pixel Buds colors, which are available next month. (Not all colors are available in all areas.)

Gareth Small’s path from prison to Google

When Gareth Small’s recruiter called to tell him he’d gotten the web developer job he’d applied for at Google, his excitement quickly turned to anxiety. “Can we meet up? There’s something I need to tell you,” he remembers saying. Gareth and his recruiter met at a cafe in Fremont, near where he lives in Seattle, Washington. “I said, Hey, look, I know this is a lot and I’m sorry to spring this on you…” 


What Gareth had to tell his recruiter was that he’d recently gotten out of prison after being incarcerated for four years. But while Gareth was nervous about what his time served meant for his future at Google, he also knew that it was the only reason he had even applied in the first place. “I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t gone to prison. I thought I would be dead before I’d be where I’m at now.” 


Today, Gareth is a software engineer who works on the Google Cloud platform. He lives in Seattle with his partner, Liz; they moved to the area in 2018. As a teenager living in Stow, Ohio, Gareth struggled. “I was really heavily into drugs, and I never really did well in school,” Gareth says. “It just got worse and worse.” After high school, he was involved in a robbery, which led to his prison sentence. But before being incarcerated, he was placed on house arrest in his parents’ home, and it was during those six months that he started coding again. 


“As a kid, I was always really into computers. My mom worked in computer science—she even introduced me to Google when I was, like, nine,” he says. “We always had computers around the house and I loved tinkering with them, learning how they worked.” In middle school, he told his mom he wanted to build his own game. “She just looked at me and handed me this big Java book,” he remembers. “I was 12 or 13, I had no idea what to do with it!” But with a little internet research, Gareth was able to scrap together his own game. “It was brutal, but I loved it! I would stay up until three or four in the morning when I had to go to school at 8 a.m., trying to fix a problem,” he says. “But you know, I loved the learning process around it.” 


Years later while Gareth was stuck at home awaiting his prison sentence, he decided he may as well refresh his coding skills and look for a job. “I had a lot of time on my hands, I liked coding, and I wanted to make some extra money.” He sent in the game he’d programmed in middle school along with his resumé, and landed work as a web developer for the few months before he went to prison. “I was kind of bummed when I was going to prison. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to code anymore.’” 


“But I got to prison and...there was coding,” he laughs. 


The prison where Gareth was incarcerated had a program to teach inmates computer and coding skills. The only hiccup was that in order to graduate into more technical work, he would have to start out learning the very basics...again. “You had to go through an introductory course that taught Microsoft Office, which was a little frustrating,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘why do I need this? I just want to write code!’” But soon he was moving along into web development, Java and digital arts programs. 


Gareth did whatever he could to get more time in the computer lab. He started off with two hours a couple of times a week, which he found wasn’t enough time for him once he was working on web development. “I wanted to be in there longer, so any opportunity I had to volunteer, I took.” Eventually he became the program aide and helped teach other inmates how to code while also taking classes himself. “I just studied as much as I could there, it was such an awesome opportunity to learn and grow.” 


He wasn’t only working on his coding skills. During his incarceration, he focused on figuring out who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. “I spent a lot of time just looking back at who I was. I think close to about a year and a half in, I was like, ‘OK, what happens when I get out?’ So I started making plans.” One night in his cell he watched the movie “The Internship.” Working at Google “sounded pretty cool. But I never thought I would get there.” 


Still, the idea stuck with him. After being released in 2016, he spent hours a day studying computer science, while also working as a software engineer. Eventually, he started prepping his resume to apply to Google. He was surprised when he was eventually offered a job. And of course, nervous: He still had to tell his future employer about his time in prison. 


“I finally heard back, and I heard that it was OK,” he says. “I was shocked. I don’t think I totally comprehended it.” Only three years had elapsed from the time he left prison to the time he started at Google. 


Gareth knows the negative stigma associated with people who have served time, but he’s kept his attention and energy razor-focused on his ambitions. During his Google orientation, Gareth even shared his story with other new employees, and was relieved to find only support, and even admiration from his colleagues. He’s also spent time working with a program in Seattle called Unloop that offers office space to recently released prisoners where they can take coding classes and continue the education they started while incarcerated. 


When asked what advice he would give to others, Gareth says to take feedback, adapt quickly and really examine yourself. “Understand what you want out of life, and look at your failures as opportunities to change and grow. As long as you’re always able to adapt, you’re going to find a way to reach your goals.” 


Gareth Small’s path from prison to Google

When Gareth Small’s recruiter called to tell him he’d gotten the web developer job he’d applied for at Google, his excitement quickly turned to anxiety. “Can we meet up? There’s something I need to tell you,” he remembers saying. Gareth and his recruiter met at a cafe in Fremont, near where he lives in Seattle, Washington. “I said, Hey, look, I know this is a lot and I’m sorry to spring this on you…” 


What Gareth had to tell his recruiter was that he’d recently gotten out of prison after being incarcerated for four years. But while Gareth was nervous about what his time served meant for his future at Google, he also knew that it was the only reason he had even applied in the first place. “I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t gone to prison. I thought I would be dead before I’d be where I’m at now.” 


Today, Gareth is a software engineer who works on the Google Cloud platform. He lives in Seattle with his partner, Liz; they moved to the area in 2018. As a teenager living in Stow, Ohio, Gareth struggled. “I was really heavily into drugs, and I never really did well in school,” Gareth says. “It just got worse and worse.” After high school, he was involved in a robbery, which led to his prison sentence. But before being incarcerated, he was placed on house arrest in his parents’ home, and it was during those six months that he started coding again. 


“As a kid, I was always really into computers. My mom worked in computer science—she even introduced me to Google when I was, like, nine,” he says. “We always had computers around the house and I loved tinkering with them, learning how they worked.” In middle school, he told his mom he wanted to build his own game. “She just looked at me and handed me this big Java book,” he remembers. “I was 12 or 13, I had no idea what to do with it!” But with a little internet research, Gareth was able to scrap together his own game. “It was brutal, but I loved it! I would stay up until three or four in the morning when I had to go to school at 8 a.m., trying to fix a problem,” he says. “But you know, I loved the learning process around it.” 


Years later while Gareth was stuck at home awaiting his prison sentence, he decided he may as well refresh his coding skills and look for a job. “I had a lot of time on my hands, I liked coding, and I wanted to make some extra money.” He sent in the game he’d programmed in middle school along with his resumé, and landed work as a web developer for the few months before he went to prison. “I was kind of bummed when I was going to prison. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to code anymore.’” 


“But I got to prison and...there was coding,” he laughs. 


The prison where Gareth was incarcerated had a program to teach inmates computer and coding skills. The only hiccup was that in order to graduate into more technical work, he would have to start out learning the very basics...again. “You had to go through an introductory course that taught Microsoft Office, which was a little frustrating,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘why do I need this? I just want to write code!’” But soon he was moving along into web development, Java and digital arts programs. 


Gareth did whatever he could to get more time in the computer lab. He started off with two hours a couple of times a week, which he found wasn’t enough time for him once he was working on web development. “I wanted to be in there longer, so any opportunity I had to volunteer, I took.” Eventually he became the program aide and helped teach other inmates how to code while also taking classes himself. “I just studied as much as I could there, it was such an awesome opportunity to learn and grow.” 


He wasn’t only working on his coding skills. During his incarceration, he focused on figuring out who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. “I spent a lot of time just looking back at who I was. I think close to about a year and a half in, I was like, ‘OK, what happens when I get out?’ So I started making plans.” One night in his cell he watched the movie “The Internship.” Working at Google “sounded pretty cool. But I never thought I would get there.” 


Still, the idea stuck with him. After being released in 2016, he spent hours a day studying computer science, while also working as a software engineer. Eventually, he started prepping his resume to apply to Google. He was surprised when he was eventually offered a job. And of course, nervous: He still had to tell his future employer about his time in prison. 


“I finally heard back, and I heard that it was OK,” he says. “I was shocked. I don’t think I totally comprehended it.” Only three years had elapsed from the time he left prison to the time he started at Google. 


Gareth knows the negative stigma associated with people who have served time, but he’s kept his attention and energy razor-focused on his ambitions. During his Google orientation, Gareth even shared his story with other new employees, and was relieved to find only support, and even admiration from his colleagues. He’s also spent time working with a program in Seattle called Unloop that offers office space to recently released prisoners where they can take coding classes and continue the education they started while incarcerated. 


When asked what advice he would give to others, Gareth says to take feedback, adapt quickly and really examine yourself. “Understand what you want out of life, and look at your failures as opportunities to change and grow. As long as you’re always able to adapt, you’re going to find a way to reach your goals.” 


Gareth Small’s path from prison to Google

When Gareth Small’s recruiter called to tell him he’d gotten the web developer job he’d applied for at Google, his excitement quickly turned to anxiety. “Can we meet up? There’s something I need to tell you,” he remembers saying. Gareth and his recruiter met at a cafe in Fremont, near where he lives in Seattle, Washington. “I said, Hey, look, I know this is a lot and I’m sorry to spring this on you…” 


What Gareth had to tell his recruiter was that he’d recently gotten out of prison after being incarcerated for four years. But while Gareth was nervous about what his time served meant for his future at Google, he also knew that it was the only reason he had even applied in the first place. “I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t gone to prison. I thought I would be dead before I’d be where I’m at now.” 


Today, Gareth is a software engineer who works on the Google Cloud platform. He lives in Seattle with his partner, Liz; they moved to the area in 2018. As a teenager living in Stow, Ohio, Gareth struggled. “I was really heavily into drugs, and I never really did well in school,” Gareth says. “It just got worse and worse.” After high school, he was involved in a robbery, which led to his prison sentence. But before being incarcerated, he was placed on house arrest in his parents’ home, and it was during those six months that he started coding again. 


“As a kid, I was always really into computers. My mom worked in computer science—she even introduced me to Google when I was, like, nine,” he says. “We always had computers around the house and I loved tinkering with them, learning how they worked.” In middle school, he told his mom he wanted to build his own game. “She just looked at me and handed me this big Java book,” he remembers. “I was 12 or 13, I had no idea what to do with it!” But with a little internet research, Gareth was able to scrap together his own game. “It was brutal, but I loved it! I would stay up until three or four in the morning when I had to go to school at 8 a.m., trying to fix a problem,” he says. “But you know, I loved the learning process around it.” 


Years later while Gareth was stuck at home awaiting his prison sentence, he decided he may as well refresh his coding skills and look for a job. “I had a lot of time on my hands, I liked coding, and I wanted to make some extra money.” He sent in the game he’d programmed in middle school along with his resumé, and landed work as a web developer for the few months before he went to prison. “I was kind of bummed when I was going to prison. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to code anymore.’” 


“But I got to prison and...there was coding,” he laughs. 


The prison where Gareth was incarcerated had a program to teach inmates computer and coding skills. The only hiccup was that in order to graduate into more technical work, he would have to start out learning the very basics...again. “You had to go through an introductory course that taught Microsoft Office, which was a little frustrating,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘why do I need this? I just want to write code!’” But soon he was moving along into web development, Java and digital arts programs. 


Gareth did whatever he could to get more time in the computer lab. He started off with two hours a couple of times a week, which he found wasn’t enough time for him once he was working on web development. “I wanted to be in there longer, so any opportunity I had to volunteer, I took.” Eventually he became the program aide and helped teach other inmates how to code while also taking classes himself. “I just studied as much as I could there, it was such an awesome opportunity to learn and grow.” 


He wasn’t only working on his coding skills. During his incarceration, he focused on figuring out who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. “I spent a lot of time just looking back at who I was. I think close to about a year and a half in, I was like, ‘OK, what happens when I get out?’ So I started making plans.” One night in his cell he watched the movie “The Internship.” Working at Google “sounded pretty cool. But I never thought I would get there.” 


Still, the idea stuck with him. After being released in 2016, he spent hours a day studying computer science, while also working as a software engineer. Eventually, he started prepping his resume to apply to Google. He was surprised when he was eventually offered a job. And of course, nervous: He still had to tell his future employer about his time in prison. 


“I finally heard back, and I heard that it was OK,” he says. “I was shocked. I don’t think I totally comprehended it.” Only three years had elapsed from the time he left prison to the time he started at Google. 


Gareth knows the negative stigma associated with people who have served time, but he’s kept his attention and energy razor-focused on his ambitions. During his Google orientation, Gareth even shared his story with other new employees, and was relieved to find only support, and even admiration from his colleagues. He’s also spent time working with a program in Seattle called Unloop that offers office space to recently released prisoners where they can take coding classes and continue the education they started while incarcerated. 


When asked what advice he would give to others, Gareth says to take feedback, adapt quickly and really examine yourself. “Understand what you want out of life, and look at your failures as opportunities to change and grow. As long as you’re always able to adapt, you’re going to find a way to reach your goals.” 


A family holiday, no matter what

March 23 is an important holiday to the Zaraysky family: It’s the day Susanna, her sister and her parents left the former Soviet Union for the United States. This past March marked the 40th anniversary of their departure from modern-day Russia, as well as her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and the family planned to celebrate.

“Before the lock down, my mom had me call different restaurants to figure out their menus and see if they had a room that could house 35 people,” says Susanna, who today is a content strategist for Google’s Material Design division. “But then, because of COVID-19, the restrictions kept coming.” Soon, Susanna and her family realized a party would be impossible. 

“But we thought, ‘wait, this is a really big deal.’” 

Finding a workaround wouldn’t be easy. Both of Susanna’s parents are hard of hearing, and primarily speak Russian. Susanna’s father is also in a nursing home, which wasn’t allowing visitors in. The family would stand outside, separated by a glass door, which there was little to no chance her father would be able to hear them through. “We knew that we weren’t even going to be able to bring food in and sit with him and eat and visit.” 

A tool that Susanna had demoed at Google I/O last year proved to be the solution. “I had volunteered to work in the accessibility booth, and I did demos of Live Transcribe,” she remembers. Live Transcribe is a free, real-time speech-to-text transcription app for Android that works in more than 80 languages. “If someone had an accent, I would ask what language they spoke and asked them to speak in their native tongue and showed them the transcriptions in their language. It was amazing to see; people’s eyes would open up and their jaws would drop! They would say ‘oh I can use this with my parents and friends.’” After the launch, Susanna began using Live Transcribe with her father. During doctor’s visits,  Live Transcribe allowed her father to read what the doctor was saying in real time, while family members helped clarify important information and ensure caption accuracy.  Her parents had even visited Google’s campus to meet Dimitri Kanevsky, one of the creators of Live Transcribe, who also left the former Soviet Union, and communicated with him in Russian using the app. 

“My parents and Dimitri communicated in Russian using Live Transcribe,” Susanna remembers. “People with disabilities in the former Soviet Union were not given many opportunities to excel. So to see someone like Dimitri, who is deaf, from your origin country create a life-changing, revolutionary technology...I think my parents are really proud that I work for a company that makes technology to help people with disabilities, especially because of my own background."

Susanna was born with strabismus (crossed eyes) and placed in a Soviet preschool for the developmentally disabled, even though she had no developmental issues. “I know about limitations for the visually impaired first-hand.”

Susanna sees Live Transcribe as an assistive technology that helps everyone, regardless of whether or not they have an impairment. “The curb cut on the sidewalk is just as important to the grandmother in the wheelchair, as it is to the grandson wheeling it,” she explains. “That’s what makes it easier to maneuver the wheelchair across the street.” As more and more people use Live Transcribe, it builds social awareness about how we can, and why we should, integrate assistive tools into modern life. 

This much was obvious for her family this past March. “One of the nurses wheeled my dad in his wheelchair to the glass doors of the nursing home,” she says. Her father wasn’t expecting to see her, or his grandchildren, standing outside. Holding her tablet up to the door, Susanna, her sister and her niece and nephew spoke and Live Transcribe typed out their words in real time in Russian and English on the screen, so her father could read them. They heard his spoken responses through the glass door and most importantly were touched by his smile when he read his granddaughter saying “We miss you and we love you” on the tablet screen. “We could not have ‘spoken’ to my dad in real time without the app,” Susanna says. Her family left food for him, chatted for a bit with the help of the app and took a few photos. While it wasn’t the big party at a nice restaurant they’d originally planned, that moment was a way to recognize a meaningful time for their family. 

Because her mother is high risk, she couldn’t be at the nursing home for the celebration. And now, due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, quarantine procedures are even more strict and the family can no longer visit in person at all. It was a challenge figuring out how to have a virtual call with Russian captions that would have the same simple “glass door” experience, but eventually they found a way using a smartphone and video chat. “We held the tablet by our chest, so he could see us and the text on the screen at the same time,” Susanna says. The phone propped up on the table essentially became their new “glass door.”

IMG_20200527_142308 (1).jpg

Susanna's niece and mother speak to her father using Live Transcribe in Russian on their tablet while her father watches them via video call on the phone propped up on a homemade phone stand.

Susanna says there’s an “irony” to commemorating her family’s freedom during a quarantine that’s separated them. When they left the Soviet Union, she remembers waving goodbye to her cousin and uncle through the glass doors of the Leningrad Airport. Forty years later, here they were, using assistive technology to feel closer despite the glass between them. “The fact that we used this technology to celebrate our family’s departure from a country that didn’t allow people to communicate…” Susanna says. “For me, there’s a significance beyond communicating with my dad through a glass door.”

Ideas from our experts on fighting screen fatigue

I’m a big advocate of stepping away from my laptop and phone after work (I've even beenthatperson who brags about their low screen time stats). But unsurprisingly, those numbers aren’t quite so low these days. Between working remotely, video calling my friends and family, scanning social media and the news, live-streaming fitness classes and definitely spending more time than usual binge-watching my favorite shows, my screen time is way, way (way) up. Sometimes, I’m relieved that I’m still able to do so much with my phone or laptop. Other times, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed and exhausted

The reality is that technology is critical. But in trying to find a new sense of balance (or any balance at all), there are a few things we can do to alleviate some of these growing pains. And while I’m not a digital wellbeing expert, I’m lucky to work with a few. I asked some of Google’s experts if they had any advice for me and others who are looking to use technology a little more intentionally. Here’s what they suggested.

Use your voice.   

To avoid getting pulled into your phone, you can use your voice to ask Google Assistant for help completing actions, like setting an alarm, sending a text, playing the latest news, getting answers to questions, help finding recipes or ordering takeout and much more. You can also create custom or ready-made Routines to trigger several actions with a single command. For example, when I say “Hey Google, good morning,” Google Assistant turns on my kitchen lights, starts the coffee maker, reads out my calendar and plays the news. - Lilian Rincon, Senior Director of Product Management, Google Assistant


Find active alternatives.

As our days fill up with video calls, try to step away from the screen and add physical activity into your life. Whether you go for a run, a bike ride or a walk during a telephone meeting there are many ways to squeeze movement in. If you have children, you could even exercise with them. As you make progress, use Google Fit to keep track and earn heart points which can help you meet theWorld Health Organization recommendations. That said, don't be discouraged if you fall short. Every little bit of movement adds up and has tremendoushealth benefits including improving mental health and helping you sleep better. - Kapil Parakh MD, MPH, PhD, Medical Lead, Google Fit


Discuss and plan tech use with kids. 

If you have kids, chat with them about the content you each prefer and work with them to plan out a schedule for listening, watching, playing and interacting with it. Does the content align with your family's values? Does the experience affect your kids' behavior in ways that help them relax and/or thrive? If not, consider alternatives and discuss your reasoning. Use this guide to get help talking to your kids about finding positive content and other tech topics. - Jennifer Kotler, PhD, UXR Lead, Google Play


Intentionally detach from and reattach to work. 

Clearly segmenting work time and non-work time improves one’s satisfaction with their wellbeing. Turning off notifications and putting your laptop out of sight reduces the tendency to check work email or hop into a last-minute video meeting. When it’s time to get back to work, take a few minutes to think through your goals for that work time before getting started. And create a dedicated workspace to signal to your brain that it’s time to focus. - Jessica DiVento, Psy.D., Chief Mental Health Advisor, YouTube


Reduce blue light before bedtime.

Blue light can have a negative impact on our natural sleep cycles by delaying the release of melatonin and increasing our alertness. Putting away screens before bedtime has shown to help people fall asleep easier and sleep better. Start with around 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed, and work your way up to two hours, depending on what works best for you. Try reading a book or listening to an audio program instead so you don’t have to engage with a screen. - Alan McLean, Designer, Google Wellbeing Lab


For more digital wellbeing resources, visit wellbeing.google.