An interview with Sharon Perl, Software Engineer at Google

Sharon Perl

This is the second of two interviews that Ginger Makela conducted with women technologists at Google. Ginger is a Social Media Specialist at Google and serves as NCWIT's pro-bono web strategist.

Tell me what you do for Google.

I'm a software engineer -- that's my general title. I've always worked in the systems and infrastructure group at Google. And right now I'm working on project to build a storage system that will store photos, videos, images -- anything that's blobby, anything that's a chunk of bits that you would tend to store, retrieve and not manipulate a lot in the meantime.

What degrees do you hold?

Ph.D., Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

S.M., Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

B.S.E., Computer Science, University of Pennsylvania

What is your typical day like at Google?

In the last six months or so, I haven't been writing much code. Before that, I was writing code fairly often, so my day could easily have a chunk of several hours where I was coding.

What I've been doing a lot of lately is project management and design. I spend time reading design documents, talking to people on my team and outside my team about the system design and where it's going.

And I spend time meeting with clients about applications that might store their data in the blob storage -- figuring out what their requirements are and if the properties of their data suit this storage system. That's a bit of evangelizing.

I spend a fair amount of my day working on stuff related to this project.

I go to talks -- one or two talks per week. Sometimes they're technical, fairly often they're not technical talks.

For example [recently] I went to a talk by Patricia Ryan Madson about improv wisdom. She talked about how to take skills that are taught to improvisational actors and apply them to your life -- making mistakes, saying "yes and", committing, jumping in full force, going with whatever is happening around you, and being open to change. That was cool.

Yesterday I lead a breakout session for the Google Women Engineers career development event. So I do leadership development stuff, both for myself to improve and to help other people.

How did you decide to go into computer science?

I had no clue what I wanted to do when I first got to college. I don't even think I knew what engineering was back then.

I was good in math and science. My father was a chemist, so I think I signed up for chemical engineering.

I think maybe one of my math teachers I really liked said that engineering is something I should look into.

I got accepted to the school of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. I actually got accepted into a dual degree program for engineering and management at the Engineering School and the Wharton School.

My mother had a friend whose son was in the program, and because he said it was a good program, I signed up for it. That tells you how low my level of awareness was.

One of the requirements in the first semester of my freshman year was a computer programming course, and we got to choose between learning Pascal or Fortran. I didn't know what either of those things was.

My mother's friend's son said to go for Pascal, because you get to use terminals and don't have to do it on punch cards.

So I took the Pascal class, and I found that I really loved programming. I'd never done it before, and I'd never done anything quite like it.

It actually reminded me of proofs in geometry, which I liked to do in math in high school. I loved proofs in geometry. I remember when I did my first proof; it was so wonderful that you could find a set of axioms that when put together in the right order, they lead you to a conclusion inevitably.

And somehow the programming felt similar to that. I just loved my first programming class, and that's when I decided to make my engineering major computer science.

But I was very intimidated because there were many of people in the computer science department who knew a lot -- geeky guys who had already programmed as kids. I always felt that everyone knew more than I did. So I was intimidated by it.

I also took my management side classes -- the Wharton classes -- the first year, and I really did not like them. I think it was accounting that did it for me. I said no way, I'm not majoring on this side.

So I made the decision to major in just computer science. I dropped out the dual degree program and switched to computer science.

Did you have any people you modeled yourself after or wanted to be like when you were growing up?

I don't remember having somebody I wanted to be like.

I had a lot of adults who were very influential -- teachers especially. I tended to have good relationships with my teachers, especially in high school.

I knew the teachers really well. My friends and I worked for them outside of class, and so we'd hang out with them. And they were very influential.

Certainly my math teacher who encouraged me to go on with math was very influential, but I don't remember wanting to be like anyone.

Why do you think there's been such a drop in women getting computer science degrees?

I've heard that from many places, and I've looked at some of the research, and it seems quite plausible to me that the image of somebody who does computer science is still the geeky guy. Someone who doesn't talk to people, who cares more about machines than about making things happen in the world.

And I think there's probably a certain amount of girls not getting the exposure to computer science young enough.

Certainly in Silicon Valley the schools are very aware of that, and my daughter is in a middle school where she's taking computer science classes.

But I look at her, and she's not currently interested in math, science or computing -- she doesn't see it as cool and fun. And I suspect that it's similar for lots of girls.

Other career opportunities seem better. Maybe it's more obvious to girls to go into medicine or biology or chemistry because they can clearly see how they can improve people's lives, or whatever it is they're looking to do with their careers.

And for the girls who are interested in math and science, I think there's still the problem that you can't find the right role model.

This came up yesterday in the Google Women Engineers career development event: if you choose the wrong role models, it can be very discouraging because you start comparing yourself to someone who is really not like you. You're not likely to have the same successes that that person has, or to succeed in exactly the same way, and it can be very discouraging.

So I think it's probably all those factors that contribute to fewer computer science degrees.

What advice would you give to young women who are thinking of getting into computer science? Or to parents who want to encourage their daughters?

As a parent of an 11-year-old girl, I encourage her to do well in math. She's smart, and I don't want to let math slide, even if it's not going to end up being her career.

I would really encourage parents to take advantage of the many opportunities out there -- there are science camps, math camps, and lots of stuff that girls can do with computing these days. So if you see the interest, find her connections to people who are interested in the same stuff and can show her how much fun it can be.

And I think encouragement really matters, too. I was insecure, but I had people who believed in me, and I think that's what helped me to stick with it. My thesis advisor was really supportive in grad school.

For undergraduates, I'd recommend they get a job. I had jobs outside of my classes. I worked for the systems administrator for the computer science department, and I got a lot of exposure -- really got my hands into things. Find projects and jobs that can give you experience, because the experience is the thing that gives you confidence. It shows other people you can do it. So just do it, and don't worry whether you're as good as other people.

I also would take every chance you have to be a small fish in a big pond. It's something that people worry about, that I worried about, from high school to college. Should I go to the college that's a little smaller, or a little less prestigious, and be someone who's likely to come in on top? Or should I go to an Ivy League school and potentially be just one of many?

When I think about it, I've always gone to the place that's the bigger pond and has bigger fish to learn from. You learn more, and you grow more. So I would always go for the big pond, if there's the opportunity.

Why did you choose to work at Google?

I was working at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) in the research lab. I had been in a lab for 9 years, ever since I'd gotten my Ph.D., and I decided that maybe I would prefer engineering -- something a little more practical, where the problems were a little more clear.

So I decided to start looking at other companies. There had been people who had left the DEC research lab to go to Google -- Sanjay Ghemawat was one of them. Some of the most senior engineers at Google now came out of the DEC research lab.

I had initially thought that I would never go to Google. I had heard it had reputation for being one of these place that consumes your life, demands huge amounts of work hours, and I had a young child.

So I wasn't really looking at Google, but I ended up at a party with Sanjay Ghemawat. I told him I had decided to leave the lab, and he said, why don't you come talk to us?

This is another one of these instances -- this happens a lot to me, and I think for a lot of other women too -- that if you don't get invited, you assume that you're not wanted.

Just having Sanjay ask me to talk with them made the difference for me.

Google was about 300 people at that time; it wasn't by any means big, but it wasn't in start-up mode.

And I knew people who had gone to Google, and I knew that they were really smart and that they wouldn't have gone there and wouldn't stay there if it wasn't fun.

So it was the people that made me come here, and all that other stuff about Google, but it was also the shortest commute. It didn't require me to get on the freeway to go to work.

I thought, great, I can still have my family life and still work.