Sargun Kaur, a computer scientist at Google, shares with us her educational and career journey. She talks about what it’s like to be a woman of color in the tech industry and the joys of working on projects she loves. She also gives us an inside look into the Google headquarters!
You may recognize Sargun Kaur from her work at the Neela Collective.
Often times a lot of us just aren’t aware of all the career options out there. So, in an effort to highlight non-traditional career paths and to inspire Kaurs to explore different educational and job options, Kaur Life launched a new series called “Kaur Careers.”
Name: Sargun Kaur
Education: Undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley with a major in Computer Science.
Occupation: Google Software Engineer
What is your job at Google?
I started off working on the Google Maps backend team, and then spent two years working on developing new features for the Google Photos Android app. Recently, I switched teams and roles to pursue my own project through Google’s internal incubator which allows Googlers (Google employees) to pitch their ideas and get funded to work on them full-time.
My startup is exploring ways to make the tech industry a more equitable workforce by dismantling current gatekeepers and systems to entry for underrepresented individuals (black/latinx, women). There’s a severe lack of diversity in the tech sector, with little change in what these workspaces look like or who they are led by (mostly white and asian men). This lack of diversity manifests in what products are funded or developed and creates emotionally taxing and psychologically unsafe working environments for folks that don’t fit to the majority.
What is your day-to-day at Google?
Now as the co-founder of the startup, my days carry a new adventure every day. Since we’re developing the product ground up, I’m often in some mix of design brainstorms, user studies (experimenting the prototype with potential users), client meetings, or development (that is when I’m not having lunch at a Google cafe, taking a cooking class at one of the kitchens, or getting a massage at the onsite wellness center!). We’re definitely afforded a lot of privileges, perks, and flexibility when it comes to work which helps in making the workday feel less drab and corporate (a concept often referred to as the #goldenhandcuffs for obvious reasons).
In my previous roles as a software engineer, most of my days were spent in some part of the coding lifecycle of writing code, reviewing code, or thinking about how to write the code. I would work closely with other engineers and designers on the team to build out a feature, making sure what I was building would work well for users with older Android devices, accessibility needs, and those in different countries. While it was incredibly daunting to launch something to 700+ million people around the world, it’s one of the greatest feelings to have a user in a remote town in Indonesia personally show you family photos through an app you helped build. (I went to Yogyakarta, Indonesia as a part of work trip to research how Bahasa, native language of Indonesia, speaking users interact with technology).
What specific skills do you use?
Most of my technical skills, of writing production level code, comprehending complex systems, architecting technical designs came a lot through practice (and failure attempts) on the job. Google definitely encourages and celebrates failure, which has made it an incredible place to learn and grow my technical skills quickly. The tech industry evolves rather fast, there’s always a new tool or language to learn, so most of my technical skills are constantly adapting to what I’m working on!
I sit in open-plan layout office designed to encourage collaboration and brainstorming with peers to happen more often and with less friction, so knowing how to communicate ideas articulately and effectively, understanding how to navigate team spaces and dynamics, and leadership skills all come into play a lot at work. Learning to how to handle stress, prioritize tasks and work/life, how to say “I don’t know”, and asking stupid questions are all skills I’ve also come to master!
What’s your educational background?
I studied Computer Science at University of California, Berkeley and decided to major in CS after shadowing a Microsoft engineer working on PowerPoint. It was really fascinating to see how something I used fairly often was being built and worked on in the background. But since I decided to get into the field so late, I definitely struggled a lot to keep up with the CS students in my classes. My motto was, “This doesn’t have to be your career!” as I was going through all my classes because they were so hard! Turns out it ended up being my career after all. *shrug*
Did you participate in any internships?
I interned at Symantec my Sophomore and Junior year summers of college; in retrospect, I should have pushed myself to apply to other companies so I could see more of what the industry looked like. I felt inhibited a lot by my imposter syndrome of not feeling good enough to even apply to any of the other big-name internships, even though many of the internships for college students are designed for them to learn. So learn from my mistakes! Don’t sit in the comfortable, but push yourself into the discomfort!
What elements of Sikhi inspire your work?
I couple my experiences of being a Sikh woman with being in a place of privilege: I can’t just be an engineer. I’m a Sikh AND a woman AND an engineer when I come to work and I want to represent all those identities at work and in the work I do. I’ve grown up listening to the saakhis of our Gurus helping people who were displaced, overlooked, or in the minority. So when issues like promoting diversity or mentoring young girls came up at work, I think I was naturally inclined to get involved. Beyond the work with my startup, I sit on the Diversity Council and have pursued side projects on navigating gender, race, and intersectionality at Google.
Broadly, I think a lot of the concepts of community that were instilled in me over time by going to camps and growing up within the strong Fremont Sikh community, play a large role in how I navigate my workspace and the team culture hope to create within my startup. I also mentor and work with kids interested in STEM careers and appreciate that my job gives me the space to spend time doing such things that contribute to my own self-growth and sanity.
All that to say, that even though working at a place like Google seems remarkable, I’ve dealt with my fair share of anxiety, imposter syndrome, and low self-esteem because I do work in an high stress environment where everyone around me is remarkably smart and driven. I have relied strongly on the solace of gurbani and sangat for comfort and guidance and learned to see navigating new emotions as a part of hukham.
When I was younger, I didn’t realize the importance of mentors and sponsors, nor was I ever told to seek them out. A mentor is someone who is more experienced in your field and can empathize and help you navigate through things that you may be struggling with. I’ve used my mentor to talk through technical and personal problems, seek career advice, and many times to just vent to. A sponsor is someone who is often at a much higher level than you are and has access to conversations and spaces you may not, so they can represent you in those situations. Google has a formal processes to find mentors and sponsors which made it much easier for me to find mine, but I could have definitely used them in earlier parts of my life, which is why I encourage younger students to seek them out.
And be mentors for others! My mentees give me so much motivation to continue the work I do, and it’s so fun to see other young Sikh women come up in this field. We need more representation!
Lastly, Google and other tech companies are not only hiring engineers. It takes designers, writers, researchers, artists, product managers to build revolutionary apps and products that change how we interact with the world i.e. Google Maps, Lyft, cell phones, etc. Pursue some combination of something that interests you, you are good at, and will afford your the lifestyle that will keep you content.
And apply for internships and apply early! If you’re pursuing CS as a freshman or sophomore, check out Google’s Engineering Practicum internship.
Photo by Kevin Scott