In August 2022, a group of Googlers participated in the third (semi)-annual Arts at Google Pun Competition. They reeled off a cast of fish-themed jokes:
“This category really has me floundering.”
“If you can tune a piano, can you tuna fish?”
“I’m just here for the halibut.”
“Just gonna…perch right here, if that’s OK.”
“I feel like my ears are a little too big, I need to find a plastic sturgeon.”
“That one gave me a haddock.”
Their brains swimming with possibilities, one by one the competitors schooled (and delighted) their fellow Googlers with clever wordplay. The goal was to get the most eyerolls, groans and cheers.
The Google pun competition began in 2017. It grew out of an improv class hosted by Arts at Google, a workplace program to create spaces for Googlers to explore creativity through classes and workshops. Anna Botelho, who’s part of the Real Estate and Workplace team, started Arts at Google as a side project in 2011. “People were looking for ways to take a quick break to reset or re-energize themselves with creative outlets,” says Anna, who majored in music in college. The program grew over the years; today Googlers can, say, join a 90-person orchestra or try bookbinding courses.
There’s also the aforementioned improv class, which inspired the pun competition, both led by Arts at Google program manager Lindsay Alford and extended workforce member Maurissa Afanador. After its debut in 2017, the pun competition returned in 2019 and went on hiatus during 2020 and 2021; August 2022 marked its return.
This year, 16 contestants battled for punny glory in two rounds. In the first, the contestants went up to the mic round robin-style and each had one minute to come up with two fish-related puns. (They didn’t know the round topics beforehand.)
When the first round was up, the audience voted on who moved on by holding up color-coded cards to indicate which two players (who wore colored lanyards) should advance. Four punsters progressed to the second and final round; those who were eliminated joined the audience.
The final round, Maurissa (who also hosts the competition) says, is always “where it gets really impressive.” This time, the audience didn’t judge — the final four participants simply punned and punned and punned until they could pun no more. “They went until exhaustion,” Maurissa says. The round continued for nearly 30 minutes, with the last two participants punning back and forth for the final five.
The second-round topic was flowers. Neil Hendin, this year’s winner, describes himself as “cognitively exhausted” by the end of the contest. “I’m going to credit my wife for the win, because her name is IdaRose and she’s an avid gardener,” says Neil, a Bay Area-based hardware engineering manager. Doing well in the pun competition is about riffing on the fly but also having a backlog of information to work from, he says: “In my head, I was walking around our garden, remembering names of flowers.” His favorite of his puns from the round? “I made an AI to generate flower names. I call it ‘hiya-synth.’”
The pun competition and the improv class that sparked it have an impact beyond a trophy and bragging rights. Tyler Sellmayer, a Google engineer based in the Bay Area and 2022 pun competition participant, was able to lean on two punny friends for coaching. “They do puns all the time, and they would destroy me, they would make hundreds and hundreds of them and it would never end,” he says. But in trying to keep up with them, it worked the “pun” muscle. Soon enough, Tyler found himself on stage at the 2019 pun competition — which he went on to win.
“Doing something as silly as making puns, saying things that get eyerolls but also cheers, it’s very validating,” Tyler says. “It shows me that I don’t have to walk on eggshells all the time, I don’t have to carefully measure everything I say.” That realization has been monumental — his time as the contest’s champ was just the pun-derful cherry on top.
Maria Running Fisher Jones first learned about balancing checking accounts and filing taxes at age 7 — thanks to her primary school teacher. Though finance didn’t end up being her calling in life, education has been a consistent theme throughout her career. She first studied education, even earning her master’s degree, but ended up finding a home in law.
Now as senior corporate counsel in Google Cloud, Maria also takes time to partner with Googlers and people in her community to raise awareness of issues that are impacting Indigenous communities in the United States, like the one she grew up in, and expand opportunities for Indigenous-owned businesses. I chatted with Maria over Google Meet to hear her story and learn about how education has always been a cornerstone in her life.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was raised by a single mother on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northwestern Montana, a community struggling with a 69% unemployment rate. The estimated poverty rate of Native Americans living on reservations is nearly double the national average and the highest in the country.
My family saw education as a way to lift ourselves and our community — a way to learn and gain access to connections to give back. My mother ingrained the value of education in me deeply: I vividly remember a time when she wouldn’t allow me to participate in a basketball game because my grades had slipped. Even worse, my mother made me tell my coach and teammates the reason I was to miss the game. It’s those life lessons that have brought me to where I am today.
The more I learned about the tech industry, the more I discovered how much it could be used for good.
How did you get into law?
I didn’t initially anticipate practicing law as a career. Entering college, I was set on a degree in education with a plan to teach high-school English, thanks to the influence of my primary school teachers.
While studying for my master’s in education, I became particularly interested in educational disparities, like why are some children afforded a better education and more resources than others? I began researching laws to educate myself and started to realize that a law degree could help me affect positive change. In some sense, I really fell into a law degree by virtue of following my passions and natural curiosity.
What shaped your interest in tech?
Technology, its importance and impact in the world, wasn’t something I spent much time thinking about while in Montana. Instead of video conferences and emails, I was picking up the phone to connect through a landline or showing up to have a cup of coffee.
But the more I learned about the tech industry, the more I discovered how much it could be used for good. I saw how this was the future and how it could connect my family and community to opportunities in a more equitable way. It’s why I participated in a Wi-Fi connectivity project with GAIN, Google’s Aboriginal and Indigenous Employee Resource Group. It’s how I found the ability to connect my education degrees to tech law. At Google, I’ve been able to do both.
How do you connect your work at Google to the causes you care about?
Giving back and engaging in community is critical in my life. Leaving the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana is still something that pains me to this day. Leaving family has always been a challenge for me, but sharing my culture and raising awareness on issues facing Indigenous people has filled the void of missing home. Since joining Google, I’ve had the opportunity to provide awareness through various channels, including a Talks at Google interview with activist Kimberly Loring HeavyRunner and a Careers on Air virtual event celebrating Google’s Aboriginal and Indigenous communities.
Native Forward, the U.S.’s largest scholarship program for Native students with more than 16,000 recipients from over 500 Tribes, provided the funding to support my law school education. Recently, I was part of a group of Googlers who reviewed its scholarship applications, and I donate monthly via our internal platform that allows for company matching.
In addition to the work I do at Google, I also started a company, TPMOCS, in 2014, specializing in handcrafting children’s moccasins. We employ Native American artisans in rural communities and give a portion of profits to organizations on reservations supporting children in need.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
During a trip back home to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, I spent time with family and elders, and had a traditional naming ceremony for my children. I also had time to reflect on my life choices. Some, if given the chance, I would do over, but one that I’ve never second guessed is joining Google. As I speak at events, I’d like Indigeous youth and young professionals to know that you too can pursue a career in tech and still remain true to yourself. Representation matters and working at Google provides me with a platform to highlight interests and issues close to my heart. Google welcomes our voices.