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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Niniane Wang, Googler

Niniane Wang (her first name is pronounced like “Vivian,” the V substituted) is working at the Googleplex, currently leading “a confidential project.” She’s also a regular blogger and photographer. I’ve bugged her on her work at Google, life and everything in-between, and what Niniane could answer you’ll find below.

Hi Niniane! Can you tell us what you do at Google?

Hi, I am a tech lead / manager at Google.

When did you get started at Google, and how did the initial interview go?

Three years ago.

I was floored during the interviews at how down-to-earth the Googlers were, from Eric, Larry, and Sergey to the engineers. One of my interviewers was a pretty well-known computer scientist. He revealed that he invented the compression program that I used for many years. Later that hour, he made funny animal noises during a goofy interlude. It stuck in my mind that Google is a place with brilliant people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

During your interview at Google, were you asked to solve a particular brainteaser?

No brainteasers. I was asked coding and algorithm questions.

In a typical work day, how much time do you spend programming, managing, doing code review, meeting, eating, designing and so on...?

I spend half of my time coding, a quarter of my time in meetings and coordinating with other teams, and the other quarter interacting with my team on code reviews, technical discussions, and management.

You learned Lisp programming at 10. Which programming languages do you know well today... and which languages do you mostly program in at Google?

Not LISP! We use C++ and Java, with occasional python and javascript.

What was the first thing you ever programmed? What got you started programming in the first place?

I learned BASIC when I was five, but the first real program I wrote was an adventure game in LISP when I was ten. A family friend thought it would be fun to teach me programming, and he chose LISP. I wrote a lot of little games for my younger brother after that.

Who takes the blame at Google when something goes wrong with a piece of software?

We just fix it as soon as possible, instead of wasting time blaming. If it’s urgent, we call a Code Yellow and pull in others to help. Since Googlers are smart and dedicated, problems usually occur due to mistakes rather than incompetence or indifference. That makes it easier not to blame, because you realize “There but for the grace of God go I”.

Not blaming means the cost of failure is tolerable. This allows people to feel free to innovate with high-risk high-reward ideas.

Famed Google chef Charlie Ayers left the Googleplex last year. Is the food at Google getting worse?

I was worried for a while. But this summer, three new cafes opened that are phenomenal. Chefs left their Bay Area restaurants to come cook at our cafes. Today for dinner we had avocado wrapped in fennel cake, topped with chocolate chips. It rocked my world.

Do you strictly separate work from spare time, or do you mix the two? Do you think a lot about work projects on the weekend or evenings and do a lot of over-hours... or do you try to relax? I’ve met both types of people in the past...

I work hard during the week and avoid working on the weekend. It helps that on the weekends, I rent a crash-pad room in San Francisco with no internet access. God help me when Google blankets San Francisco with free wi-fi. (Just kidding.)

Do you have any coding conventions in your team, like specific syntax rules?

There are fairly rigorous Google coding conventions for each programming language. They’re enforced company-wide rather than for each team, which makes it easier to share code between teams.

Do you interview new people for your team? What do you look for in job applicants?

I interview on average two candidates a week, sometimes for my team and sometimes for Google at large. I look for people that I want to work with – candidates who have strong coding skills and computer science knowledge, are pleasant to interact with, and can get things done.

How often do you talk to Larry or Sergey? And how much are they involved in your current project in social space?

My current project is in “startup” mode. Every so often, we present project status and get guidance from our founders and CEO. I find it similar to a startup presenting to their board of directors.

I’ve done project presentations for Larry / Sergey / Eric about three times in the past year.

Googlers get 20% of their time to work on projects of their own choosing. What’s your 20% project, if any?

My project started out as my 20% project, and I am devoting all of my current time to it. You could say I’m batching up my 20% time.

What’s your favorite Google product?

There is of course a dear place in my heart for the ones I worked on: Google Desktop, Gmail, and current project. I also have a lot of respect for Google News. I use it every day, and I like the underlying principle.

What was your biggest lesson learned working at Google so far?

If you hire stellar people and give them freedom, they will produce amazing results. Google engineers have a surprising amount of freedom – in choosing projects to work on, contributing to multiple projects simultaneously, getting new projects chartered...

I heard a quote once that said, “Big companies take extraordinary people and make them do ordinary things. Startups take ordinary people and make them do extraordinary things.” I think the magic of Google comes from taking extraordinary people and letting them do extraordinary things.

Do you ever blog on Google’s internal blog?

No. But I blog occasionally for Google’s China blog.

Does anyone at Google approve the posts you write for your personal blog, or is this simply a matter of your own judgment?

My own judgment.

What were the biggest challenges in developing Google Desktop?

In a project-wide sense, it was deciding which features to ship in the initial version, and which to hold off to a later release. In a technical sense, it was the OS interactions – hooking into the network stack, finding the right way to shut down our threads, detecting when modified files need to be indexed.

And what were the biggest challenges developing Gmail ads?

Keeping the ads non-intrusive to the email user experience.

People have on occasion called you “extra smart” in some respects. Are there other areas in life that you think you’re particularly “dumb” in?

I’m not a great driver. I perpetuate the “DWA: Driving While Asian” stereotype.

When you enter “Niniane kicks ass” into Google Maps, the Googleplex address pops up. Do you know of any other Google Easter Eggs?

Not that I know of. I tried to get my friend to double-or-nothing the Easter egg bet, but he’s wisened up now.

Getting Things Done is a big issue for many people... sometimes it happens we’re wasting the whole work day putting out small fires without moving forward the main project. What are your approaches to get things done?

I recommend the book “Eat That Frog”. It’s based on the quote, “If the first thing you do every morning is to eat a live frog, nothing worse will happen to you all day.” The premise is that you maintain momentum by tackling your most difficult and important problem first thing in the morning.

What’s your favorite food?


... TV show?

MTV “Real World”.

... website?

Google News.

... computer game?

“Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within.” I mourn the passing of interactive games with full-motion video.

I also like Pikmin, Munch’s Odyssee, and Warcraft 2.

... actor or actress?

Natalie Portman, because she’s ethical and she’s a superstar at her craft.

... movie?

“Perhaps Love”.

... vacation spot?

I’m going to Egypt on Wednesday!


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