WWCode Podcast #21 — Tara Hernandez — Senior Engineering Manager, Google Cloud
Written by WWCode HQ
Women Who Code Podcast — Episode 21 A | Spotify — iTunes — Google — YouTube
Joey Rosenberg, Chief Product Officer at Women Who Code, interviews Tara Hernandez, Senior Engineering Manager at Google and Women Who Code Board Member. They discuss Mozilla, the history of tech, diversity, and working for Google.
Women Who Code Podcast — Episode 21 B | Spotify — iTunes — Google — YouTube
In part two of this interview, Tara Hernandez talks about the future of tech, what companies can do to be better, and her personal views on leadership.
Please share your career journey, what you’ve seen, what you’ve learned, and just any insights that you wanna share with our community.
I always like to start the story with the fact that I was not meant to be in the high-tech industry. I had every intention of being a professor of history. I was gonna double major in Literature and History at school. My parents said, “No, you need to do a STEM major or we’re not gonna pay.” I became a computer science major because I had met some people who had email accounts. In 1989, that was unusual. UC Santa Cruz would give any student an email address, if you belonged to a particular major. That’s how I got into computer science. I barely graduated, I struggled. I specialized in graphics animation and never used that degree.
I left school and immediately got a job at a company that built developer tools. I was a build engineer. The company was Borland and it was the old school style of high-tech. I left Borland and went to Netscape. I was recruited by a woman named Joy Lenz, I still count her as a mentor. I went from old school, traditional software development to insanity, a paradigm shift of thinking about what it means to be high-tech.
We were trying to release the first commercial web browser For a while, we were wildly successful. The rest of the industry, particularly Microsoft, noticed, and thus began the browser wars. That resulted in the creation of Mozilla.org. We released our source code as a way to try and bring more community allyship, technical allyship. Netscape eventually faded away as a viable company. Internet Explorer was the lead browser for decades afterwards, but Mozilla lived on. That was the creation and the beginning of the modern open source movement.
Mozilla is still fighting the good fight and trying to keep the internet a wonderful place to be. They keep our digital freedoms in place through advocacy, lobbying, and all the things that Mozilla does. Mitchell Baker is an amazing woman who’s led that organization with grace and courage. The success of Mozilla and how it did licensing, showed that you could do licensing that was more open. It could be freer, but not require you to give your product away. That was the main mental leap that, as an industry, was made, the difference between free software versus open source. This was because at the time, one of the challenges of developing software was that operating systems were tightly coupled to companies producing hardware. All of the big companies had hardware and they all had their own operating systems.
It was more compelling to companies, and companies started to realize, we don’t have to develop our own hardware and our own operating systems to develop software. They began to collectively agree to focus on particular operating systems that aren’t tied to a particular vendor. This opened the opportunity for Linux.
Where we are now, the high-tech industry, is not just being this commercial enterprise. It is a balance of the commercial and the community. It is keeping each other in checks and balances, trying to take the industry forward in the safest possible way. Letting particular companies get too powerful is not in the best interest of the industry. Without the development of the open source communities and the influence that they wield, I think we would be at a much scarier place right now.
You were featured in Code Rush, the documentary that followed how Mozilla was created. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
It was amazing. The late, great Rosanne Siino was the one who brought it to me. She said, “We’re gonna release our software to try and get community contributors to help us out. There’s this filmmaker, Dave Winton, who’s interested in telling the story and it would be great for us.” They were looking for people who would be willing to be followed around for an indefinite amount of time and be part of the story, so I was one of the ones chosen.
It was a little bit weird, but mostly they were just quietly recording. They came to my house. They were kind of everywhere. We became, at least for that time, very friendly. They spent so much time with us that we started to get a lot more real and show more of the challenges of that experience.
I look back at that and think I would never, ever, in a million years, as someone who has been in management since then, allow what Netscape allowed to happen. People spent days in the office for what, in retrospect, was a failed attempt to save the company against an arbitrary deadline. It was so ruinous to so many people. We weren’t compelled to do that, we were encouraged to do that by the culture.
You’ve talked a lot in the past about how the money chase has changed the culture of tech companies and the responsibility for what that means and how we engage in it. Some of the things in the story are kind of hinting at that, like these arbitrary deadlines and these really demanding cultures. Can you talk a little bit about that?
When companies went public, it was a big deal. It wasn’t the biggest deal, IPOs were. Wealth was created, not because there was actual wealth to be had, there was no warehouse full of merchandise that had material value. People were purely excited about an idea.
My view is that the idea of being able to make money on something that had no material content, attracted a lot of people who might otherwise have gone into other industries. Instead of the high-tech industry being filled with nerds and a few astute business people, now it was everybody. By 2001, there were so many dot com startups. Some very smart, ambitious person comes in, pitches some investors. Investors throw a ton of money, those guys make a ton of money, walk away, everybody else loses their job and has to go onto the next startup.
It just repeated over and over again. The bubble burst, first in 2001 and there was another, I think in 2008. That’s a part of the industry that I really wish we could get over, but at this point, I think that genie is not going back in the lantern.
How does this sort of omni-present state of the internet make it more critical for DEI, from a practical and an ethical perspective?
There are social systems that are now reliant on the internet to exist. If you have a social system that relies on technology, accessibility is incredibly critical. It is ethically, socially, pick all of your “lys”, necessary that everybody has access to it. When we make society dependent on a technology, then we have to enable that technology.
You have to balance that with privacy. This goes back to this idea of the checks and balances with technology being so critical. Not just because of technology itself and not letting a company get too powerful, but also that the industry itself has checks and balances. It needs to somehow create those checks and balances with the government.
Open source and business interests in high-tech are not always hand-in-hand and happy. The tension of keeping eyes on each other has to also be a part of the conversation. The trade-off is that the more we have social structures that are based on technology, and the more that we use that as a driving force to get some form of that technology engagement to everyone, the more opportunity is created.
The beauty of tech, because it does cross boundaries, it allows people to showcase how innovative human beings can be. Give a little bit and we can take it as far as we possibly can, just based on our imagination and our motivation. I think that is my favorite thing about tech, which is why I wanna protect it. The second it no longer allows that, it becomes oppression. I hope to never see that day.
You are now at Google. Google is one of those dream tech companies to work for, and for a lot of people, it seems almost unreachable. How has working at Google been instrumental to your career so far, and what would you like people to know about that?
I want everybody to remember the first thing I said about when I became a computer science major. I was a terrible student and I barely graduated, and yet, I am working at Google. I was hired on the basis of my experience. There was a VP at the time, Melody Meckfessel, another amazing woman. I went to Google to work with her. There are still, unfortunately, not a ton of women who are VPs of Engineering, so that was a cool opportunity.
One really awesome thing about Google, it’s lucrative. It’s a big company and they can afford to pay well. Let’s not shy away from that and there’s nothing wrong with that. Beyond that, are the opportunities. Google is driven by the idea that ideas can come from anywhere. That can lead to chaos and often does, but that’s okay in Google speak. Crazy ideas can lead to amazing outcomes.
Mobility within Google is another critical thing. It can be tough if engineers can vote with their feet. If a product isn’t interesting, they can go over here and do this other thing. That’s considered completely okay. It becomes about selling it to the engineers, showing that it is important work and creating strong engagement.
Another one of my favorite things about Google is that the hiring process is so tough. It’s hard to get a job at Google, so there is resiliency. Most of the Googlers that I work with, they’re like, “Alright, this is terrible.” “Well, how do we fix it?” It’s just that sense of, “We’re Google, we figure it out.” There’s a community approach that I really appreciate.
I’m trying to do something that took a long time. We’re able to make some subtle changes and introduce pilot programs on how we do recruiting and retention. It has a more inclusive focus in ways that the lawyers don’t get nervous about, because one of the things that you learn as a manager is even if you have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, you have to be very careful how you approach it because of labor law. Even though it’s an enormous company that sometimes feels kinda scary due to its size, the opportunity for innovation within that environment never stops.
You’re surrounded by people who figure things out. You have just enormous resources as an entity. What’s next? What’s next for tech? What should we be focusing on? What do we do with all of those lessons that have been pulled forward?
I probably have unpopular opinions about this. There are technologies where we as a consumer expect to be able to use these things for free without recognizing the cost we’re actually paying. That payment of ad revenue, which is user data-driven, is a foundation of how the Internet works.
If you have a problem with ads on social media and other similar forms monetizing the knowledge about you, are you willing to pay for it? In my case, yes, I would be willing to pay. I think others would be as well, but there’s a mental shift that needs to happen. It’s not just about, okay, there is a body of people who are aware of this issue and have the financial means to pay for social media. But, also, accessibility, the idea that we still get to have equitably-delivered technology into the hands of everyone who should have it. Are they willing to pay? Are they even able to pay?
I don’t know that there’s ever gonna be an easy answer. Can we keep talking about it? Can we keep refining it? Can we keep educating ourselves and influencing as we are able? What can we do to drive tech forward in positive ways?
One of the things that you are a big champion of is bringing more people to the table. You talk a lot about equity and what that means, and the gaps. I think you’re very straightforward about the gaps that exist. I’m wondering if you have ideas about how we can build a road map to bring more people in to think about these problems so that we have more diverse perspectives and voices trying to solve for some of these things.
I love bootcampers and I love them for a variety of reasons. They are often re-entry, they went off to school or maybe not, but they did other things and they gained life experiences that were not completely contained within the tech bubble. They’re bringing that experience to the table. The more we recognize that, the more we’re bringing in a wider breadth of people who are smart, innovative, motivated, and ambitious. They have ideas that can be amazing, but they did not have the opportunity or maybe even the interest of going to Berkeley, or Stanford, or CMU, or Harvard. Google has a tremendous record of hiring bootcamp graduates. They are amazing employees and I adore them. I also adore my Harvard grads. I like having them both.
Tech is starting to recognize that there are places like Atlanta, Raleigh, and other areas that you don’t necessarily think of as tech hubs, and they are. The communities that are there don’t look the same or think the same. That is beautiful. It’s amazing. Google is now hiring in Atlanta if anyone is looking for a job.
Any pro tips that you have for women in tech today, what would you tell them?
When you’re getting started and you’re doing a bootcamp, figure out your networking strategy. Being in tech is like any other industry, who you know can be as helpful as what you know. It is one of the things I love about Women Who Code and why I have been part of this community for so long. The networking opportunity is enormous.
Get experience. If you can’t get a job right away, find an open source project to work on. There are thousands of them. Make sure it has a code of conduct. Ideally, it would belong to a foundation, so that there is enforcement. It is a very valid way of building up a portfolio that companies look at.