I am sitting on the train from Prague (Czech Republic) to Zilina (Slovakia), full of pleasant experiences from a three day tour of major cities in Czech Republic where I presented a talk titled “Diversity at Google”. The train car is empty, I finished listening to my audio book (“Made to Stick” by Dan and Chip Heath for those who care), and there are still three more hours (and 43% of laptop battery) to kill.
As some of you might already know, I work as a software engineer at Google for the past 4.5 years. I am also a lady, a lady from Slovakia. There are plenty of female engineers at Google – ladies from various cultural and educational backgrounds. We (ladies), are all regular engineers, who work on various Google projects alongside the male engineers. We do not find it particularly unusual to work on developing a cutting edge technologies, we do not feel under-represented, we have jobs like many other folks around us, doing the same thing, going to the same meetings, eating together at our cafeterias, reviewing each other's code... or as some might call it “business as usual”. Even my friends in California do not find it unusual to have female friend from the software industry. They usually have a number of female friends or acquaintances like me.
Yet, for some reason, whenever I travel back to Slovakia or a Czech Republic, people keep getting surprised when I mention the kind of work I do. They find it unusual, male-like, weird. Don't take me wrong, they do admire my “abilities” and “assertiveness”, but they do find my work unusual and even extreme.
Ever since I gave a talk in Prague few years back, I keep getting approached by various Czech and Slovak media with requests to provide an interview, or give another tech talk. I accept some, and reject others. Media like to portray me as a “role model” for female IT students, and when interviewed, they ask me the same set of questions that I answered many times before: What is it like to be a female at Google? How did you get to Google? Did you study in Slovakia or in the US? How was your English when you came to US? Are you married and are you planning on having children? … and such.
The world in the former Czechoslovakia is different than in the US. Many things are better, many are worse. One thing that is particularly curious to me is the scale of things. The former Czechoslovakia has about 15 million people, which is a lot less than the US. That means, it is a lot easier to become known. This sorta happened to me. It literally took only about 5 articles in various lifestyle and technology magazines, and all of a sudden I kept getting emails from strangers, Facebook friend requests, Twitter followers, and a handful of former classmates all of a sudden care about keeping in touch with me. Most of these people know very little about me, but they love Google and I mean Google to them. They do not know me, they can not possibly have any informed opinion about me or my personality. But they like the idea of having a link to Google. Through me.
I am a very artistic and social person and I have always been this way. I worked at a local TV station in my early twenties, also worked as a catwalk model, participated in an essay competition, created art and sold it at local gift shops, performed in a semi-professional choir. I love to socialize, I need to socialize. And after listening to a book “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, I realized that I am what he calla a “maven” –- a person who connects people.
Going back to my recent experience in Czech Republic, the “tour” as I like to call it started this Monday (3 days ago) when I gave my first talk at Technical University Ostrava. I was relieved to see a number of girls in the audience since only 10% of Computer Science students in Czech Republic are female (compared to 20% in the US). I talked about Google in general, the company mission and culture. Then I talked about challenges in diversity, the sad statistics about girls and minorities in computing, and such. I finished my presentation talking about the various programs Google does in the diversity area, pointing programs that my audience (university students) might be interested in. After the talk, I answered few great (and unique!) questions, gave a female T-shirt to a dude (who earned it by asking a great question), and Google stickers and pencils to everyone. Right after that, extremely jet-lagged and tired, I traveled to Brno, where I was supposed to give a talk on the next day.
Brno University of Technology was the largest surprise of my “tour”. The university is a former monastery, which was closed by Maria Theresia, who gave it to an army, who later gave it to academia. The university has some new modern additions, free wifi, great coffee shop, a badass server room, and various other places where students can hang out and study. My camera could not stop shooting. Professor Honzik (who deserves a separate blog post to talk about) welcomed me and Marketa (who organized the talks), and gave us a great overview of the issues he has to deal with when trying to get ladies to join his school of informatics. The school has less than 2% of female CS students. He pointed out that whenever there is at least one lady in a group of students, the entire group tends to turn in papers earlier in the semester, and not wait until the last minute. He told us many stories like this and even showed us his “girl corner” banner that he uses to attract girls during events at the school. I gave the talk at his university at 7pm on Tuesday, which was way past my jet-lagged bed time. However, seeing 170 students in the gorgeous modern auditorium woke me up and I gave it my best. This time, Lara Aharkava (on the lower left photo) joined me, and after I finished my talk, she gave a brief overview of her experience as an intern in Google Zurich last summer. We got about an hour worth of questions after that and some folks even asked me to sign an autograph and take a photo with them. Now, that was unusual! We left Brno full of great emotions and headed to Prague for our final lecture at the American Center by the US Embassy.
Everytime I do a talk in Czech or Slovakia, media is always interested in covering the event. I keep thinking that this is what Andrej Warhola (a.k.a. Andy Warhol) liked to call “15 minutes of fame”. So, this 15 minutes of fame happened again yesterday when I spent all day running from one interview to another. The day started with a full photo shoot for a magazine Patek Lidovych Novin, then rushed to an interview for a webzine, then rushed to a live broadcast for Czech Radio, and then gave the actual talk at the US Embassy. With additional online interview for iDnes and another live interview for a radio in Brno the day before, I was reaching a point of enlightenment about the reality of life in a media world. Let me just say, it is fun up to a certain point. Then, it becomes a very hard work. This experience completely changed my view of celebrities, actors, politicians, public activists, and whoever is being watched by the media. I respect these people a lot more now.
The talk at the American Embassy was little more formal, and attended by people from a variety of backgrounds. I met few interesting people, including a lady from the Czech government, who works in a team that focuses on diversity at Czech universities. After the talk and a little mingling, I walked over the Charles Bridge (at night), enjoyed the last evening in Prague, and then called it a night.
It is a Thursday, November the 26th 2009. Most Americans who read this immediately realize that today is the Thanksgiving Day. I am still on a train, my laptop battery is down to 18% and it is dark outside. This very moment, thousands of American families are traveling towards each other to meet at the Thanksgiving table. However, I will have no turkey, or a pumpkin pie tonight. But I am going home to visit my parents for a couple of days and that is what I am thankful for.