Google’s Melissa Dominguez on welcoming women into STEM [The Women Behind Wireless]

And why you should always pick the hard path

When she was a teenager, Melissa Dominguez skipped over an introduction to computers class in favour of the hard choice: a programming course.

From then on, she was hooked on computer science.

She took more advanced programming classes in high school, got a bachelor of science degree in computer science at the University of California San Diego and proceeded to graduate with a doctorate in artificial intelligence from the University of Rochester before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University.

From there, stints at a few different software companies led her to Google’s Waterloo office, where she’s worked for the last six years, now leading the iOS app teams for Google Home and Google Wifi.

At Google, Dominguez runs Google Women Engineers, a group that aims to make the majority male campus more welcoming and provide a sense of community.

In this edition of MobileSyrup‘s The Women Behind Wireless series, we spoke to Dominguez on her career and the best advice she could give to women starting in the field.

MobileSyrup: When did you first gain an interest in tech?

Melissa Dominguez: My dad was a computer programmer from way back. I was actually born when he was still in university and there’s a picture of him holding me at graduation. He called me his micro programmer.

The first time I started coding myself was in high school, there was a computer literacy requirement and there were two courses that would fulfill it. One was intro to programming and the other one was intro to computers.

“I was pretty intimidated by Google.”

My dad said you’ve got to take the programming one, the other one’s going to be really boring — and I did, and here I am. Ten thousand years later [laughs].

I really enjoyed it from the beginning and I ended up taking more advanced classes in high school and then pursuing it as a university major and on and on and on.

MS: You have your PhD in computer science, what was that experience like?

Dominguez: The topic was a developmental approach to machine learning based on human visual development. I was doing machine learning before it was cool [laughs].

I’ve found grad school to be a very painful kind of fun. It was tons of work, really hard work but you’re surrounded with people who are very interesting and motivated, and your same age. [You] get to work on really interesting stuff and I really appreciated the opportunity to define what I wanted to do and then to pursue it.

When did you join Google? Why choose Google?

Dominguez: I started in June 2011 and I was actually recruited by a former manager who I had worked with at a previous company.

I have to say, I was pretty intimidated by Google at the time and I’m not sure I ever would’ve applied on my own but he really pushed me to apply, and I was on maternity leave at the time so I figured I had nothing to lose, so I gave it a shot and it all worked out.

What was intimidating about Google to you?

Dominguez: Google has this reputation of being the best of the best, where the smartest people are, the internet process is very rigourous and I guess I didn’t have faith that I was good enough.

Did you always know you wanted to work with apps or mobile technology?

Dominguez: It’s something I came to be interested in.

When I came to Google, I was immediately put on an iOS app team, Google Docs. I’d never done mobile work before that, but it’s all that I’ve done since I’ve got to Google. Mobile apps are what everyone is doing now. It’s the most frequent way that people interact with technology is via the phone. And part of that is just because people love their phone. They think of their phone as fun and their computer as work.

Did you see the paradigm shift that apps would bring coming?

Dominguez: I saw it happening up close, so it didn’t take me by surprise because I saw the metrics changing as I was involved in Google Docs and then I was on Gmail, and we could see, on the apps, our numbers climbing and climbing and we could see our desktop numbers falling, and we could predict when the crossover was going to happen so it didn’t so much come as a surprise as it was sort of exciting to watch it happen. Probably because I was on the winning side [laughs].

Do you think something will come along that will up-end mobile as we know it?

Dominguez: One of the projects I’m involved with is Google Home, and that’s a big question — is the personal assistant device going to be the next thing? Maybe, maybe it’s just a flash in the pan or maybe it’s going to take over. It’s not mobile in the same way that mobile is. That’s a terrible sentence, but, like — if you have a Google Home in your house then you don’t take it with you, but if they become super popular and they’re everywhere then maybe that would be the next revolution.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Dominguez: It’s the impact I can have on people’s lives. When I was working on the iOS gmail app, I would make a small change that would save a fraction of second but I knew because millions of people were using my app everyday that it adds up to a human life span [laughs].

Now, on Google Home, the way that people use this device can be really heartwarming and touching. It’s an incredibly useful thing for people with motion disabilities. We get feedback from people with Parkinson’s saying “oh my gosh, now I can actually call my children,” or call for help if they get into an emergency where they don’t have the manual dexterity to do that with a traditional phone.

You read those stories and it really touches you, really makes you feel like you’re making a difference in the world.

What are the most challenging parts of your job or career?

Dominguez: I think one of the most challenging things for me personally has been that I have grown in my career and gone from being an individual contributor who writes code every day and sees progress through the code I’m writing and the features I’m creating, to being a leader who is managing the work of several people and two apps, and feeling a sense of personal accomplishment when my work is not as easily measured.

Have there been things you’ve needed to learn about leadership in the course of that?

Dominguez: I think one of the things that I’ve had to learn is that I can make a bigger contribution through helping other people do their jobs, than by just trying to do everything myself. Yeah, I could write that code myself, and maybe I could even do it slightly faster than that guy over there, but by having him do it and helping him through learning how to do it, I’m creating another engineer who can now help out throughout the process and I’m a multiplier rather than just an addition of one.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

Dominguez: It goes back to my dad, on that very first choice of classes: do the hard thing.

If you have a choice between an easy choice and a hard one, if you pick the hard path, you might surprise yourself. If it turns out to be too hard, you can usually fall back to the hard path, but if you choose the easy path and you’re bored, then you’re behind on the hard path and you can’t jump back up.

What are your thoughts on diversity in the tech industry?

Dominguez: If you look at pure statistics, clearly the population of people working in STEM fields is not the same demographic as the general population.

I think there are a lot of reasons for it, and it starts really young, but there are blocks at every step. Part of it is just representation. If you don’t see someone like you in a role, then it’s hard to image yourself in that role.

Geena Davis has done some incredible work on gender in media and looking at children’s television programming. Girls are just missing, even from children’s cartoons, there’s just more male characters and if there’s a group of friends, it’ll be five boys and one girl, and the girl’s primary characteristic is that she’s a girl.

“If you have a choice between an easy choice and a hard one, if you pick the hard path, you might surprise yourself.”

Then she did analysis of careers by the characters, and the most common career for women was royalty. I don’t find that very accessible myself.

It starts really young. I personally try to do outreach work to girls of all ages, I’m a Girl Guides leader, I try to bring them into the office and show them what a software workplace is like and talk about the kinds of things we do and the problems we try to solve and why it’s an exciting thing. Because I think a lot of little girls don’t even think of it as something that’s out there.

Beyond that going into university and the workplace, we need to make sure these places are welcoming and full of people with different backgrounds and make everybody feel that they have a place.

What are ways of making people feel welcomed?

Dominguez: I lead a group here called Google Women Engineers. We have a few different things that we do here to make sure every woman feels welcomed, and one of them is that we have lunch together every month and we try to do social things maybe once a quarter. I’d like to do a speaker series of external speakers who come in, who are outstanding women in technology, to give tech talks to the whole office. To just, again, have that representation.

Providing a role model, and also reminding the men who work here that there are women in technology all over the place, it’s not just a couple outliers here and there.

Can you tell me more about Google Women Engineers in Waterloo?

Dominguez: Google Women Engineers is a group that is across Google, I lead the chapter here. I became the lead when the former lead transferred to another office, that was about five years ago.

The goals are more or less to make sure that women here don’t feel alone, because there’s a good chance you might be the only woman on your team. We have a women’s mentoring network here.

“Any particular technology can be learned.”

Any woman in this office can get paired up with a more senior woman for one-off advice on a particular situation or more general ongoing career coaching so that’s something we’ve been really happy with and that’s been really successful. People who participate in it, both mentors and mentees find it both helpful and very satisfying.

What’s some of the best advice you could give to a woman starting out in this field?

Dominguez: I think that the key thing is: any particular technology can be learned. If it’s a new programming language or a new technological stack or a new protocol, that’s stuff you can always learn so don’t let a lack of a particular thing hold you back. The things that can’t be taught are curiousity and an eagerness to dig into problems and solve them.

Take me for example, when I came to Google I’d never done iOS work, I’d never done mobile work, I was a little taken aback that’s what I was put on immediately but I figured it out and now I’m leading two different app teams. Any particular new technology is only new until you learn it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Image courtesy of Google.

The Women Behind Wireless is a series of profiles by MobileSyrup that aims to shine a spotlight on veteran women in the wireless industry, and what they’ve contributed to the field. For additional reading, check out our previous interviews with Qualcomm’s Vanitha Kumar and Huawei’s Peiying Zhu.

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