The Technical Leadership ABIE Award recognizes women technologists who demonstrate leadership through their contributions to technology and achievements in increasing the impact of women on technology. This year’s winner, Anna Patterson, is currently Vice President of Engineering, Artificial Intelligence for Google and is primarily concerned with teaching computers to read and write. She is the Global Co-Chair of Women@Google, the Chair for Technical Women at Google.
We caught up with Anna to talk some more about her interests and endeavors. Read on for a short Q&A. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about what is so interesting to you about the tech field, what really captivates you and what excites you most in terms of developing technology and accelerating innovation.
One of the things I really love about the tech field is the ability to reach billions of people. I also think it’s very artistic in that when you open up a computer (I’m so old that we used VI back in the day), when you look at VI and an empty file, a blank screen comes up and you can actually type in a program that can be anything. One of my early programs was, like a lot of people, a computer game. Back then, there wasn’t very much memory on the machines, so you actually had to store some data on the screen. So when you looks at some of the older computer games, you’ll notice flickering in the corners, and all of that is really because people are using the screen like registers for extra memory.
You’re well known for your work in the search engine space. What sparked the ideas that you had to transform Google Search is the way it is today?
When I was getting my Ph.D., I studied a lot of math and a lot of logic and I used some theorem provers (like at SRI, I used the PVS theorem prover). One of the things about theorem provers is that you have to keep a lot of open variables in your head. When I first was thinking about how to build a search engine, I actually thought it was very similar to working with theorem provers. There was a lot of data and we had to sort, capture and move around, and you needed to keep all of those things in your head while you were building a big program.
What are some of the most memorable or influential project you’ve worked on in your career, and what were the biggest lessons you learned from them?
When I came to Google and we were a private company, there were 2,000 employees here and there were only 70 people in Search. I came fresh from building a search engine at the Internet Archive and I was so excited. “Wow! Google’s going to let me build a search engine!” They said, “We noticed your search engine doesn’t have spam in it. Why don’t you help us build algorithmic spam fighting?” I think that’s a great lesson for lots of people starting out in their careers, that often you have projects that you really want to do and then projects that your boss asks you to do. They’re always stepping stones on the way to your career. A lot of things I learned about the web in doing those early projects really helped me build a better search engine later.
How do you respond to challenges and adversity? What’s your approach when something doesn’t go your way?
When something doesn’t go my way, it will sound a little trite but my kids say that my superpower is dealing with life on a going-forward basis. I think in some ways when you have four kids, there’s constantly things going wrong. Even taking a holiday picture– nobody looks perfect at the same time. When things go wrong at work, often you just have to roll with the punches. I think a company like Google has grown so much from 2,000 people to 70,000 people, and the web has changed so much and mobile has come along, so there’s always new challenges and not all of those challenges will be successful with your first attempt. You just have to incorporate what went wrong and move forward.
What got you interested in Artificial Intelligence?
When I was getting my Ph.D., I wound up going to Stanford as a visiting student for a while. While I was visiting, I had the honor of working with John McCarthy who is the founder of AI with Marvin Minsky. John McCarthy had the west coast AI lab. One thing about John is that he is so inspiring. It wasn’t just that he won the Turing Award and the Kyoto Prize– he personally is inspiring because no matter what people asked him, he would be fully present. He’d put his whole mind to bear trying to solve your problem. Because he was so present for others, I thought, “I wonder what problems he’s trying to solve. They must be amazing and he must have thought about them very deeply.” And so the idea about computers thinking and how they represent information out of the inferences they make are very interesting to me.
Why do you think it’s so important to invest in return-to-work programs for women who have taken some time off?
Alan and I were talking one day and he didn’t realize that I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years. He asked, “How in the world did you get back into tech? So many women, when they take a few years off, find it hard to return.” When I was at home, I was volunteering at the Internet Archive and I stayed with that project for many years until the history-based search engine launched. I did that primarily to keep my resume active. I didn’t know that everything I learned was going to be so important to me in the future, and I got lucky in that aspect. But for other women, I noticed how hard it was to transition back to work even though the technical lessons I had learned previously in my career were still very current. So we wanted to just provide a little bit of a bridge between women who had been out for a few years and give them a soft landing so they could come back and communicate with their colleagues, with technical presentation skills, and knowing what the current repositories look like, or how to use Git, for instance.
What’s your mentoring philosophy?
If people ask me for advice, even if they’re not completely ready to receive such advice, I really just say the hard things and give very straight shooter advice. So many times, people have come back to me and said, “That was a pivotal moment in my career. That was pivotal advice and I followed it and great things happened.” Sometimes people really only have the courage to ask one of their friends or one colleague. So the really super honest feedback is probably useful.
What’s your assessment of where women in tech are today in terms of a movement? Where are we, how far do we have to go, and what really needs to happen for us to make change and move the needle?
Actually, I’m very hopeful there. I think an organization like AnitaB.org, and the Grace Hopper Conference, if you really look at them in totality from 1994 and having 500 people to today and having 15,000 people, it’s a really awe-inspiring number of women across the world who are involved with this profession. I actually think that things have come a long way. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like today isn’t perfect, and that’s certainly true, but we have come a long way and I think that in my kids’ lifetime or definitely in my grandkids’ lifetime that the trials of today will really be a thing of the past.
What do you want be remembered for most? What do you want your legacy to be?
I guess one of the things I’d like to be remembered for the most is risk taking. I took a lot of chances writing a search engine while I was a stay-at-home mom, coming to Google after being out of the work place, having enough hubris to say, “Why don’t I replace this search engine?” to doing a startup that didn’t go well and coming to Google. I was the 90th person in Android, so it was another rocket ship like Search was. When I went into AI at Google, it was kind of dead. It’s hard to believe that it’s hot now, but it wasn’t that popular when the division was started. So I think risk taking.
What excites you most about the future of tech?
Maybe everyone feels this way about the future of tech, and maybe they have for the last hundreds of years, but I think that there was a time a few hundred years ago where your life looked a lot like your grandparents’ lives. And right now, our grandkids’ lives are going to look nothing like our lives, and our lives don’t look much like our grandparents’ lives. Just to live in this time of change, and that technology is changing the world is so exciting and I feel so blessed.
What is your one piece of advice for a young women just entering the tech world?
One piece of advice to give to a woman in tech, I would say, is “Learn all you can.” I know you’ve just been to college so you might feel like, “I’m a little burned out on learning. That’s what I’ve been doing for four years.” But when you start your first job, you need to realize that you’re going to learn just as much your first year on the job as you did your first year at college.