Google Engineers Talk Tech at MEST

Sylvana Lewin, Thursday April 26th 2018

This term, MEST is fortunate enough to have  a visiting teaching fellow from Google in New York, Emmanuel Klu, working with our EITs on tech and product. Recently, he was joined by two more Google engineers, Anton Tolchanov and Ruth King, who gave guest lectures on tech and business to the community.

Ruth currently works as a Site Reliability Engineer at Google in London. She joined Google in 2014 in Zurich and has worked on a wide range of external and internal low-level systems, including Google Compute Engine, Google Calendar, and systems for encryption keys and data access. Anton has been working as a Site Reliability Engineer at Google since 2014 and has a degree in business administration.

We spoke to both Googlers to get their perspective on MEST and tech in general!

How has visiting MEST changed your perspective on the African technology ecosystem?

Ruth: Before coming over I didn't know what to expect at all. But from meeting the startups in the incubator, and the EITs, there's a lot of enthusiasm around and people are working on really cool and innovative problems. It was really interesting to learn about how the problem space differs - for example, companies like Asoriba. It's a problem I would never have thought about, but I can see how it's super relevant within the context and is getting a lot of recognition!

Anton: While preparing for my trip to MEST I've realized that I don't actually know any African tech companies. However, this week we've been talking to some of the startups here, like TroTro Tractor and Devless, and I was impressed with the range of problems they are solving, both for local and international markets.

[caption id="attachment_6764" align="aligncenter" width="665"]MEST EITS with Google Engineers Ruth King and Anton Tolchanov. MEST EITS with Google Engineers Ruth King and Anton Tolchanov.[/caption]

If you could give the MEST EITs and founders one piece of advice, what would it be?

Anton: My background is in systems engineering and operations, so I feel like my advice should draw from that experience: focus on your business, not the infrastructure; the best system is the one that someone else runs for you.

Ruth: One theme throughout the week has been not overcomplicating the technical infrastructure unless it's actually needed during the current stage of the project. Setting up infrastructure costs a lot in terms of engineering time for initial setup and ongoing maintenance, and if it's not needed, time is much better spent working on your product or business logic.

What are your hopes for the future of technology and how it can be used in emerging markets?

Ruth: One of the issues I heard about a lot was how much information about the local area and population is locked down, how much data is completely unavailable digitally, and how legally there's just no guidance for the new technological innovation which is happening. It was clear from the number of startups affected by this just how useful this information and guidance could be and how many problems this would help solve. I really hope that the growing number of use cases presented by startups will start removing these roadblocks, so technology and startups can move forward more quickly and gain more momentum.

Anton: I am very happy to see a public discussion start in some of the developed countries about social implications of technology, ethical principles, and balanced approach to data collection and privacy. Many of the emerging markets don't yet have the privilege of being able to think about these issues and are still getting software help them solve some of the more basic problems. I am hoping, however, that we'll all be able to reach the future in which software helps us in a way that is safe, just and unbiased.

What are the most common mistakes that software engineers make when starting out and how can these be avoided?

Ruth: When starting out as a software engineer I think it's easy to feel discouraged by the level of skill of those around you, and feel like an imposter. In the end, those people are just regular software engineers with a lot of experience. Don't feel discouraged and remember that you can build up that experience and level of skill too! Everyone starts somewhere.

Anton: Many engineers are passionate about what they do, and get really excited about new technologies and approaches. It's important to keep focused on the problem at hand, and not get too distracted by software that is just a tool for solving that problem. Good software systems are simple; they are easy to understand, change, and run.

What would your advice be for someone who dreams of working at Google?

Ruth: I'm answering from a technical point of view, since I don't know much about the other roles. I think getting involved in the technical community, maybe through contributing to open source projects or going to meetups, and displaying your enthusiasm is important. Even if you're an amazing engineer, you need to have evidence out there for recruiters to see. Also it can be great fun and help grow your network! Plus one to Anton's comment about applying anyway - you won't lose anything and will hopefully gain experience for next time. There are many people who work here who did multiple rounds of interviews or applications.

Anton: Many Googlers publish blogs and talk at conferences, so if you think there's a particular position at Google that you'd enjoy, try looking for public materials from people already doing that job. This might help you understand if it's something you really would like to do as well. Even if you think you don't have what it takes to pass the interview, apply anyway. I interviewed at Google three times, and did not get an offer after the first two; however, those attempts helped me understand the role, interviewing process, company culture, and gaps in my knowledge and skills.