Interview: Thomas Williams at Google Santa Monica

Google has been a sponsor and/or participant at SCALE events for over 5 years now.  Leading up to SCALE 8x we had the opportunity to speak with Thomas Williams at their Santa Monica office to learn a bit about the types of positions Google recruits for at SCALE, as well as tips for potential candidates.  

SCALE: Can you share a little about your background and current position with

Thomas: My background like many people at Google is a bit strange.   For instance, in Santa Monica, we have folks, like a software engineer here who in the past worked on the analog power system for the Cassini, or another engineer who is the author of Audacity.   

For my part, some people might know of me as either the original author of Gnuplot, or the Pixar/ILM guy who worked on some of the early Computer Graphics research, applications, and effects projects.   Examples would be CG for Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, and lots of others and some of the 3D tools like
Maya.   Also, I ran a startup which got acquired; it's not an unusual experience for Google engineering leads.  

But I also like to point out that in between software jobs,  I worked as a carpenter on this wonderful Italian villa (not mine) with an on-site woodshop and more or less only used hand tools and recycled first-growth wood.   That was on top of a hill near Santa Barbara and was the best view from any office I've had before or since!

I'm the site lead for Google Santa Monica, which means leading through influence - again Google's very bottoms-up (rather than top-down) but management is still very important for growth, vision and execution over the long run.   Ultimately, the more good suggestions I have the more people are liable to listen and the more I can help.
SCALE: How many Google offices are there in the Southern California area?  Where are they located?

Thomas:  We have a number of buildings in Santa Monica. This is where I am with over 300 other Googlers.  We have an office in Irvine.    At this time, I cannot confirm or deny rumors about "Google Island."

SCALE: Can you tell us a bit about which teams are based in the Santa Monica office? What products and services is the Santa Monica location responsible for developing?

Thomas: The office started with mostly a Photos and Ads focus. But now we're about 6 times the size and fortunately have a number of important projects.   We still do a lot of Ads related work, which includes machine learning and classification, human evaluation, targeting, serving results at just huge scale, etc.  We also have the core machine vision group for Google. 

We have a strong YouTube team working on cool social and identity features.  We have the core Google Video Search team.   We also have a Chrome team.   So a pretty good choice of software projects.   We also have some expert site reliability engineers, a handful of networking experts and other operational and infrastructure folks.    

While we are the primary owners of most of these projects, we collaborate very closely with other offices.  To do this we use video conferences, IM and email (but rarely the telephone).   We also travel to collaborate with other offices, often taking day trips up to Mountain View, and when it makes sense we have Santa Monica engineers work for a week or more in other offices located in Kirkland, New York, Zurich, Shanghai and India but we really just travel all over where necessary.

SCALE: Google is frequently at SCALE recruiting and promoting openings in your Santa Monica offices.  What types of positions are you hiring for at the moment?  Can you tell us a bit about what these roles entail?

Thomas: Well, I named some of the projects before which should give you a general idea of the diversity of project selection.   But what I can tell you is that we rarely look at hiring specific types of candidates.  Most of the time we're interested in simply finding the people we want to work with and understanding that over time they'll work on a number of projects and find a way to contribute to something they're passionate about. 

On the software side - I'd describe the "people we want to work with" as super smart, great coders, collaborative, hard working and interested or excitable.  I'd guess probably about half of our engineers have some personal specialty or interest, be it systems engineering, machine learning, computer or machine vision, NLP, User Experience, or some other language or algorithmic interest.

The way I figure it is I'd like to work with these kinds of people for a long time.   And that means paying attention to the long term by screening candidates for raw abilities and interests and then making sure the culture supports them rather than looking to fill a very specific job with someone who has been doing it for a long time.

SCALE:  Do you have openings for non-technical roles in Southern California as well?

Thomas: Yes, but we are primarily an engineering office and that's really what I can speak to.

SCALE: If one of our attendees is considering applying for some of these positions at Google, what should they know? Do you have any tips for potential candidates?

Thomas: Our interview process changes over time so I don't want to suggest there is one "right" way to approach this.   I wasn't prepared at all when I interviewed other than digging up some background knowledge about Google technologies that were published, and their products.  In retrospect, I wish I had spent time asking the recruiter exactly what the interview process was. I'd want to know how many people I could expect to interview with, and what sorts of technical and non-technical areas the interviewers were interested in delving into. 

Also, I spent too much time trying to figure out what they wanted to hire me to do - instead of telling them what I wanted to build. For any engineering position, it's no surprise, you can always expect some on-your-feet problem solving and coding.

SCALE: Google recently ranked #4 in Fortune Magazines list of top US companies to work at.  What is your favorite aspect of working at Google?

Thomas: The people make the company - no question that's my favorite thing about Google. But the aspect I *respect* the most is the blend of intense optimism (we can do it!) coupled with the acceptance and expectation for failure. Not the failures from bad ideas, or small ideas, or not doing the proper research - but failing when you go after something risky and big, where success can mean something meaningful.   Failing as evidence that we're pushing ourselves hard enough that we're going after the hard problems.

SCALE: Google allows employees to spend 20% of their time on a project of their choice.  How does this program work? Is that limited to engineers?  What are some of the 20% projects you have previously participated in?

Thomas: So yes, pretty much anyone in engineering can take advantage of 20% time (that is take 20% of your work hours to do *anything* which could be useful to Google).   It's still encouraged regularly by the execs and managers, but the variation on how people take advantage and how many people take advantage at any one time is highly variable. 

We did some poking around locally and found most people had done a 20% effort but very few continually had an active 20% project.     Most people said the 20% time they spent was worthwhile, and planned to take 20% time in the future.  So, what might cause delays? People cited not feeling they had the "right" idea yet, or not having enough time that month, or a preference to spend that time on their own project instead.   

On 20% projects, people worked both solo and multi-engineer 20% projects. Some people banked time so they could work consecutive full day "20% time."  Overall, while it kind of works, the variety of how it works is huge.  It's a benefit I hope we keep tweaking to find encouraging interesting results (sponsor group projects, demo or poster session the results...who knows).

SCALE:  Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and for your continued participation in SCALE and the local open-source community.

Copyright 2002-2010 Linux Expo of Southern California. All Rights Reserved.