Big Red Googlers

By Dan Tuohy

“It’s best to do one thing really, really well.” That’s one of Google’s “10 Things,” a set of guiding principles that contributes to it being one of the world’s most recognizable brands.

Google obviously does more than one thing really well, as demonstrated by Big Red alumni working in different capacities on various Google applications and projects.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. There are more than 40,000 Googlers working in more than 70 offices in more than 40 countries to achieve that mission. While Google doesn’t break out employment numbers by school, the company says Cornell Engineering is a key school for its recruiters and there are “quite a few” Cornellians in their employ. Three among them offer a glimpse of what it is like to be an employee at a company dedicated to exploring “the endless possibilities of the Internet" for people and businesses.

Christopher John is a software engineer on the Google Play Music team. Sagar Kamdar is a director on Project Loon, Google’s ambitious plan for balloon-­powered Internet around the globe. Hee Jung Ryu is a software engineer on Search. Besides shared educational roots at Cornell University, the trio share an appreciation for a company that lets them challenge themselves,
both individually and as a team.

The Googleplex, the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., is celebrated in the media as a nucleus of intellectual creativity, innovation, and fun (Google guiding principle No. 9: “You can be serious without a suit.”) These three Googlers, of the number of Cornellians now working at Google, attest to a working environment that helps promote personal and professional growth.

Welcoming a Challenge
Christopher John '08

One part of this creative technology ecosystem at Google is something called 20 percent time, where people can earmark that time to focus on projects or ideas outside of their core role. While Christopher John works on the Google Play music team, in some of his 20 percent time he created a fireplace visualizer app.

This 20 percent time allows Google employees to experiment with different ideas, to trouble­shoot, or to just tinker around.

Such room to grow or explore is very empowering, John says. “I think one of my favorite things about Google is that once you’re hired here they want to keep you. They want you to learn and grow and develop in your job,” he says. “They want to keep you happy.”

Beyond the perks—Google’s great cafeteria and its recreational lounges, among them—flexible work hours contribute to a great workplace atmosphere, he says. Google also offers courses on site, as well as guest speakers.

He spends his day coding or figuring out potential problems with Google Play, the focus being trying to create a great music experience for people.

“It is a lot of fun, and it’s also a challenge,” he says.

John has worked as a software engineer on Google Play Music since December 2012. Before that, he worked on Google AdWords. Prior to Google, he worked at game-maker Electronic Arts on several Sims titles. He graduated from Cornell in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in computer science and a minor in information science.

John returns to Cornell regularly to help Google with recruiting. In September 2013, he ran a game jam on campus, sponsored by Google, in which students were given 24 hours to create a game. When he is talking with students, a common question is whether Google has an opening for someone with their respective experience. The answer is yes: Google hires an array of talent.

Professional growth is hard­wired into the company culture at Google. John started as an engineer on Google AdWords, but his interest in music inspired him to seek work on Google Play. The steps to effect such a transfer begin with the employee—‘it’s within your power.”

“Music has always been a passion of mine,” John says. “I was in the marching band at Cornell, and before that I was playing keys on the piano since I was 4 or 5.” He also met his wife, Sara (Paddock) John '07, through the Big Red Marching Band. They were married on campus in 2012.

Breaking New Ground, a Balloon at a Time
Sagar Kamdar '99

Balloon-­powered Internet sounds like a mad science idea, one of the project leaders says on YouTube. You could say it’s so crazy it just might work—and it has, at least, in the initial tests in New Zealand in June 2013. Google calls it Project Loon.

Sagar Kamdar, a director of Project Loon and one of the first product managers on the team, marveled at the early success and its portent for breaking new web territory. In the New Zealand tests, a local farmer was among those connecting with Project Loon, surfing the Web so he could check weather forecasts for potential effects on his farm and animals.

“It’s a very ambitious idea,” notes Kamdar, relishing the challenge. “We continue to learn a lot.” “You realize how hard it is. You have to learn a whole new set of technologies.”

Kamdar is working with a team of a couple dozen to achieve a network in the sky to deliver connectivity to around two-­thirds of the world without Internet access. This global network of high-­altitude balloons aims to beam Internet access to earth at speeds similar to 3G. Solar panels power the technology on the balloons, which can be steered by pilots on the ground. The balloons, once deployed to maximum elevation, are around 20 kilometers high, or twice as high as the cruising altitude of most commercial airliners.

Project Loon is refining its technology after last year’s successful pilot. The goal, like so much at Google, is to push the boundaries for information access.

“The hope is it can improve their access to information,” Kamdar says. And, to that end, improve their quality of life. (Google guiding principle No. 8: “The need for information crosses all borders.”)

Kamdar is responsible for operations, a range of tasks including business development and resolving software bugs. “You get to challenge yourself,” he says.

The biggest challenge, perhaps, is the chance of spreading oneself too thin. One needs to focus and prioritize, he says.

Kamdar graduated magna ­cum ­laude from Cornell University with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 1999. He worked at Oracle until 2007, when he joined Google as a software engineer on Search. He calls his work at Project Loon—within Google[x], the company’s skunkworks—the best professional experiences he has had. He was working on Search when the overall manager of Project Loon showed him a video of the schematics of high-altitude Internet balloons. He was hooked.

“I wanted to change jobs because this seems like the coolest thing ever,” Kamdar says.

He still finds the company culture amazing. And that is beyond the office perks, the free food, the gym, the bowling alley, and so on. “The way Google treats its employees—it’s pretty incredible.”

It is, he says, like a big family. When on a project, people work well together. “Everybody is just so smart and so humble,” he says.

Search Engineering
Hee Jung Ryu '11, M.Eng '12

Hee Jung Ryu came from Korea to Cornell University in her sophomore year as a mechanical engineering student. She wanted a more hands-­on education, and she soon found herself, in her own words, “getting my hands dirty with projects and research related to computer science.” She became involved with the Association of Computer Science Undergraduates and the Society of Women Engineers, and served as a teaching assistant for Java and MatLab courses.

Ryu graduated with a Bachelor of Science in computer science in 2011 and a Master of Engineering in computer science in May of 2012, after which she started working at Google as a software engineer on Google’s search engine.

Her work with image search algorithms and such computer code infrastructure had foundational ties to undergraduate studies at Cornell, including her M.Eng. project, called ePaparazzi. One of her favorite courses at Cornell was the Functional Programming class. The final project in that class was to write her own artificial intelligence player for an online game.

A year after working from the company’s campus in Mountain View, she moved to New York City.

A typical day at work for Ryu starts off with an early morning workout at the gym, before arriving at the office to work on code reviews and search­-related tasks. In the afternoon, when she gets a break, she may go get tea or a smoothie from a barista at Google cafe on the fourth floor or a massage from a Google masseuse.

The celebrated flexibility at Google is everywhere (Google guiding principle No. 5: “You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.”) It is, however, something people leverage to be more productive, according to Ryu. She says she strives to get her career trajectory aligned with the company’s trajectory, and for mutual benefit.

And Google apps, from G­mail and calendar to Google+ Hangouts, keep her organized and connected. “All the Google products,” she says, “are just tightly integrated into my life.”

Google’s collaborative atmosphere and team building are very real, indeed, Ryu says.

“I always feel like I’m learning,” she says. There is “the culture that contributes to how engineers can come up with a better system of architecture and also code, design, and structure. People are very willing to help whenever you have questions.”