Meet Wesley Chun – Developer Advocate at Google (and computer science engineer)


[Sarah] I’m here with Wesley Chun,
developer advocate for Google. [Sarah] Wesley thank you so much for joining us today.
[Wesley] Sure, glad to be here. I wanna start right off with the obvious
question: How did you get to Google? [Wesley] Um, many, many steps. The journey
has come a long way. I studied mathematics as an
undergraduate, and then I went to um, grad school, studying computer science. I
got my first job at Sun Microsystems, a big, well known enterprise company back in the day and then I went to a small little startup called Four11 where I ended up being one of the
original engineers that built Yahoo! Mail fifteen years ago. There were only like
nine or ten of us. After Yahoo acquired us, um, started a long
string of startups that I was at, uh, for a whole decade and then finally, uh,
when the, uh, economic downturn of 2008 happened I thought, “Oh maybe it’s safer to work at a big
company again,” and so that’s kinda how I ended up, uh, at Google. [Sarah] So you’ve worked as an engineer at both small firms and large firms; can you tell us a little bit about
the differences between those? [Wesley] It’s quite interesting being an engineer
at- at c- big companies and small companies, because you might think, “Oh, there’s not much
difference because I’m coding, right?” At a small company you wear a pretty wide variety of hats.
[Sarah] Mhm. [Wesley] And in a large company you know you- you’re
given a task, or you work on a specific team, and you do sort of one thing, and you’re good at the one thing, but in a
smaller company you do all kinds of things, you know, you’re- you’re
mostly an engineer but you’re partially sort of a public
spokesperson for your product; you’re partially a product manager for your
product, and, uh, you get to know everybody in the company,
which is great too. Um, if you were to graduate with an
engineering degree I would probably think that getting the experience under your
belt at a large company will help prepare you for working at a
startup, because you’ll have an idea of what other people do from the large
company while you’re focusing and then when you go to a smaller
company after that, you really feel more comfortable in that environment; that you can actually do more than what you were hired to do. [Sarah] Mhm. And your title is Developer Advocate; so what do you do? [Wesley] Typically my titles have always been Software Engineer, or Software Developer, or Senior Engineer
something like that. Um, our job is to teach other engineers how to integrate Google
technologies into the apps that they build. So, we are advocating our technologies to
external developers, and because, you know, Google is such an
engineering focused company, we’re also advocating on behalf of users.
So if all of you guys out there are using Google APIs, billing apps, and you’re discovering problems,
like, “Hey, it’s not working!” or “I don’t understand how to use this.” You know, you can talk to us, and we can be your
direct pipeline into the product teams.
[Sarah] So, what advice might you have for some the students in the class who might be interested in working at a
company like Google? What should they be doing to prepare for these kinds of jobs? [Wesley] Engineers are a highly sought-after
resource, so it’s great that you guys have considered engineering. It’s uh, to me it’s- it’s a- it’s a form of art. You
know, you’ve got artists that have sculptures; you’ve got artists that paint you know, paintings. Uh, but when you’re
crafting a piece of software or building an awesome piece of hardware; this is our way of expressing the art inside
all of us, and I think it’s a very pure form of you know, building something. Engineering
and art I believe are very, very similar. But, with that said, look around you guys.
There’s several thousands of you, uh, taking
the same course, and imagine all the students that came
before you, all the students that are coming after you. Um, the problem is there’s only a finite
number of jobs out there. So, really, in order to get a job at, you know, a big company, a well known company, or working on really fantastic products, you really need to sort of differentiate yourself, uh, with your skill set, with your grades,
with the projects you work on with the internships you get. You know, really differentiate yourself
from all- as many of the other students as possible. Uh, the more you stand out the more
you’re likely to become attractive to a large company,
because you know I don’t know how many thousands and tens of thousands of
resumes that our recruiters get at Google, and I
don’t- I don’t know how they look through all of them in order to let us see the ones that
they want us to phone, screen, or do an on-site interview with, but, uh, I can’t imagine it being a really easy task. You know, take your skills and build something,
have a portfolio of software projects or hardware projects, and just try and make yourself stand out
as much as possible and I think uh, that’s, uh, a- a sound piece of advice that I can offer you guys.
[Sarah] Hm. What sorts of things do people have that differentiates them? Something
like, they work well in teams, they are very technically savvy; what are the sorts of
think that you’re looking for? [Wesley] Even if you didn’t get a
summer internship –obviously having one is great. It looks good on your resume– but if you didn’t, you know, don’t go out there, lounge on a boat and drink beer all summer.
Build something. Open source it. Stick it onto GitHub.
Have people recognize it. Get people excited about it. Get people
contributing to it. Um, you know, that’s that definitely speaks volumes. Uh, also uh, solve- solving problems is a really
important skill to have. If you do get an interview at Google,
they’re gonna be asking you questions that see what your thought
process is. How do you go about solving a problem? You know you might or might not get the
right answer, which is fine. The more important thing is you know, we’re trying to figure out how
good you are at solving problems because guess what? We have those problems every
day. How do you write a search engine and make it available to billions of people
around the world, and not have the system crash, or give you internal server errors, or 500s, or things like
that? How do you solve a really, really difficult problem? Because
that is likely to be something that you’re gonna have to do a job.
[Sarah] What’s one of the coolest problems you’ve been able to help solve? [Wesley] Uh, some of you guys, uh, use Google Apps at school. Um, and there, uh, there’s a way for teachers
to create exams or questions, uh, for students, and they usually do that in a Google Form. I’m
pretty sure you guys have done that. Uh, there’s a cool grading tool, so that, you know, all the- once the
students have submitted all their answers, um, there’s a cool grading tool that was
written by one of my colleagues that helps teachers grade all the students, uh, exams
and stuff like that. So that was- that was great, But, I thought “Hmm well that’s good for
teachers to kind of like relieve the burden of grading exams. What
about creating exams? Is it- could there be an easier way to
let teachers not have to fiddle in the Google Forms editor very much. So, I worked on a tool did just that. You
write the exam in a Google Doc, and my tool automatically generate a
Google Form for the teacher. So now you have a tool that helps
teachers create exams, and another tool that grades exams, trying to make things easier for teachers.
So that’s one recent example of something that I’ve done.
[Sarah] One thing we’re wondering about is the life of an engineer, and what
engineers do. If you were a a sort of new engineer to Google, what
might your day look like? [Wesley] So when you’re starting out being an
engineer, uh, it is true that you may or may not get the most highly sought after projects at work. Uh, sometimes you may think, “Hey, you know, I’m
a brand new grad, you know, I I have a lot of energy. I have a lot of
talent. Why am I- why am I being put onto, you know, uh, bug fixing duty?” Well it’s not because you know, we’re trying to haze, you know,
a new employee. But, it is one of the best ways for you
to learn the code base. Once you’re familiar with the code base,
if another product comes along where you’re adding a cool new feature to it, you’re already familiar with that code base and you’re able to actually be more effective at that, and
be more successful instead of having to ask more questions or having
the project get delayed. You know, expect to do a lot of, uh, heavy
lifting, uh, expect to do a lot of reading, a lot of talking to senior engineers.
Find a mentor, actually, if you can. That’s a really great thing. Um, but, you know, the day to day is pretty
much go to work find out, you know, what it is that I’m
gonna be doing; either, you know, a scrum meeting in the morning or reviewing your
to do list for the week. Uh, every time you meet a milestone be
sure to communicate that. I know a lot of engineers are kinda
quiet they don’t like to say things but, you know, if you did accomplish something, please say so. Because it’s not that you showing off, but you need to let
people know that you’re making progress and that you could be recognized for it.
So, don’t be shy. Break out of that shell. Um, uh, even if it
goes against every intuition you have in your body,
just fight against that, because the more outgoing you are uh, you know, it- it just helps you develop a
better relationship you have with your coworkers, and with all the people that are around
you that will end up delivering your product to the public. [Sarah] Hm. So imagine I’m a
new engineer at Google, and I’m on the debugging team, and I show up for work; am I gonna probably be working by myself
most in the day? Will I be working with other people? Am I on a team? [Wesley] Usually in a smaller company you’re
pretty much responsible for something. It’s in your world and you’re- you’re in charge
of it. There will probably be a senior engineer that you work with that you’re assigned
to. At a larger company, there’s probably gonna be a little bit more collaboration. So, you’re gonna be working with, uh, other,
probably new hires as well too, and all of you guys may have a single
mentor to help you know, aggregate the work that you guys are
doing. There are times where you can be working by yourself, but in other times you’re gonna be very collaborative. Uh, and our company is very, very collaborative.
[Sarah] I see on your resume that you’ve not only worked at large and
small companies but that you’ve written many books. [laughter] So you’re an- you’re an author! How- why did you choose to write books? [Wesley] Oh, that’s a really good question and, um, in fact, for you engineers out there, you
may not be the best at writing and you’re probably wondering, you know, “I don’t even like to document my code much
less, you know, writing a paper or a book.” Uh, so, this was kind of interesting. A little bit of my background was that one at the summer internships that I had allowed me to not only write code, but
I also had to write a Getting Started manual for users, and, uh, that gave me experience not only, you
know, developing code in industry, but also writing for a very general audience. When I learned Python, which is a
programming language that we use to build Yahoo! Mail with many years ago
before anybody heard of Python before, um, I was looking for a good book to learn from, but because
the language was so new the two existing books out there didn’t
really meet my needs. One was out of date, and the other one was
more of a case study book. Not really to teach developers how to code with it, and I was really looking for a book that
taught existing programmers who already knew
another language like C, C++, Java, uh, how to program in Python and get up to
speed as quickly as possible, and it wasn’t there, and because I’m
engineer, uh, you know I had to scratch that itch. So that’s how-
[Sarah] So you wrote the book! [Wesley] Yes, I wrote *a* book, I wouldn’t say its *the* book. But, uh, a lot of people seem to like it, so I’m, uh, pretty happy that, uh, it’s gotten a good review so far.
[Sarah] You’ve had a very successful career as a software engineer, and senior engineer, and you’ve written books about
all these really interesting programming languages; can you tell us about a time in your
career when maybe you weren’t successful, or failed at something?
[Wesley] Yeah there- there have been occasions where you know, you’re- you’re on a high-profile project, and you’re certain that the- the software that you built is gonna work, you’ve put it through its testing phases,
and everything is great, but maybe there was one particular test case
that you didn’t consider, and of course that’s the one that happens
once it goes live! [laughter] So, I ended up re-doing it myself, and my solution did work better, maybe because I tested it more, uh, than the other piece of code that I was using, but that was a very strong lesson learned, for sure. [Sarah] What was your favorite experience
as an engineering student? [Wesley] While you’re taking all of your
engineering courses, you gonna get attracted to certain, uh, certain subjects over others,
and when you get attracted to those you kind of like you know, kind of like, make a beeline
towards it. I love the digital design class I took. I- I love
the, uh, you know, the hardware design, like I said, and the, uh,
the algorithms course I loved as well too, but- and the operating systems course, the
compiler course, I really loved all those, but when it came to networking there
was something really special about it that attracted me to it, and uh, when I
eventually went back to graduate school uh, I made computer networking
part of my graduate work. [Sarah] What do you wish someone would
have told you when you are in college? [Wesley] I guess even before I got to college, I
think it would have been helpful if someone told me what an engineer was, besides someone that drives trains. [laughter] I thought I was gonna be a computer
programmer, because I had four years of it in high school. I wasn’t really sure how that progressed
in college. I figured there was a computer programming major. I didn’t know I was actually “computer
science,” so no one told me that there was a lot of theory behind it, uh, and the theory wasn’t that easy, uh, but, uh, you know, the theory is important,
and you don’t realize it until you get older. You know, as you’re a high schooler, you’re interested in nothing but hacking
and building awesome things, there’s something to be said between
what is the difference between a programmer and a computer scientist. The computer
scientist not only has that theory, but they have the engineering
prowess to actually imagine the overall product that’s being built;
the overall design and architecture of what’s being built, and
it’s not just sitting up all night and hacking something together because those solutions typically don’t
have a very long lifetime. I think- I think being told about engineering and- and- and what being an engineer was verses just being a programmer; I think
that would have been really helpful knowledge for me, because I think then I would have become
an engineering major instead of being uh, a math major as an undergrad or a computer
science major at, you know, in grad school. Yes, you know, they’re both engineering
flavored, but, uh, it would’ve been more interesting if I had that additional
background of knowing exactly what an engineer was, and decided whether I
should be an engineer or be, or- or- or, you know, major in something
that is in the engineering sciences. [Sarah] One of the central questions
of this class is actually “What is an engineer?” How do you answer
that question, Wesley? What is an engineer? [Wesley] Yeah so an engineer is someone
whose job it is to solve problems, or to solve a problem that
hasn’t been solved before. It’s- it’s not just how you get there, it’s- it’s everything about it. Its- it’s thinking about the problem
set in a deeper way; it’s thinking about architecting
solutions in the right way, and then it’s also producing the results.
I used to think it was just the producing the results and not any of the other things. So I think
I would have been a bad engineer if I didn’t get this extra training,
uh, so I’m thankful that I did. Yeah, really- really engineering is
a very complete uh, discipline, and what I mean by that is you have to think of all the pieces
not only related to your area of expertise, but think of things that you need to do that are not necessarily your area of
expertise or that you’re not focusing on because if you’re one dimensional, you’re
probably not gonna be as effective of an engineer as you could be if you
had thought about everything else. [Sarah] Mhm. What do you do for fun?
[Wesley] Well I’ve got kids right now, so that- that part is easy; taking them to the park, you know, going to the playground, playing with them. You know some people may call me a nerd,
but sometimes I like to write little tools that solve little problems, even if they’re not related directly to my day job. I like to teach outside work. I- I- I
have over 30 years of teaching experience actually. I like to do physical fitness; so
basketball, bowling, yoga, bicycling, running, uh, lots of different things. Um, and I also play piano. Uh, mostly
play for my kids now, but, uh, I was a music minor as
an undergrad. Just- it was a great, uh, stress reliever from engineering;
all engineering, all the time. Um, I felt it was a good way to kind of like
become well-rounded, and I’ve been playing piano since 1972 anyway, so I felt that if I wanted to be a piano
teacher later on uh, that’d be good to have some sort of degree, agree
so that’s why I minored in music. [Sarah] Wesley thank you so much for talking with us today. [Wesley] Alright, thanks for having me.

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