“So, how did you get here?”

(photo by Hideyuki KAMON, cropped, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m always curious to hear people’s answers to this question. I look around at my colleagues and I’m in constant awe of their qualifications, and more importantly, achievements. I feel the same way when I watch TED talks — my latest favorite is by a Japanese architect who built a new kind of kindergarten aimed at fostering fun, creativity and independence. And as I’m typing right now I’m listening to Sia — whatever your preferred genre, it’s hard to dispute that she’s in total command of her talent.

Lately, I’ve had a deepening sense of appreciation for all the talent that surrounds us in the world — whether that’s the chef who makes the best pizza in town or the construction crew that creates a building from seemingly nothing. And it always brings me back to the question: “How did they get here?”

Today marks my ten-year anniversary as a Google employee. And recently someone asked me the very same question: “How did you get here?”

My path to Google wasn’t a typical one. I don’t have a degree, I wasn’t involved in the invention of the internet, I didn’t pioneer the use of MapReduce, and — confession time — I have no idea how TensorFlow works (but I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of sorcery involved).

(photo by Alan Chia, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’ve always had a curiosity about building things. I have fond memories of being a Master Planner for my very own Lego city. In fact, by my late teens, I thought I wanted to be an architect (of buildings). But I was also fascinated by the magic of technology: a magnet that turns tape into sound? Another — this time floppy — magnet that can be used to store information for your computer? How did they work? (Sorcery?)

My curiosity was particularly intense about computers. It was persistent enough that I decided to teach myself how to program on my parents’ Mac. I bought a book on Pascal and a copy of THINK Pascal. I still remember my very first app for System 6, a simple clock (by the way, I absolutely loved Inside Mac). It was incredibly satisfying to deconstruct the magic: a while loop here, a few if/thens there, and I had an interactive window that displayed the time.

But, wait, where did the window come from? How were the digits drawn on screen? What was responsible for all that magic? I had to go deeper. So eventually I delved into the world of operating systems.

Luckily, around that time, a tiny little startup in Menlo Park, California, released a really funky operating system called BeOS, along with an even funkier PC called the BeBox. I ordered mine as soon as I found out about it. It took them something like three months to ship it to Japan, but while I waited, I scoured the API docs every night.

(photo by Alex Dawson, CC BY-SA 2.0)

When it finally arrived, I was off to the races. For an aspiring OS developer — and this will resonate if you’re familiar with it — the BeOS framework was, shall we say, opportunity rich. My first project was to create a text engine that could handle more than one font, size, and color at a time. Similar to the clock, I was driven by curiosity — how did text engines work?

I open-sourced this text engine, which eventually led to a phone call from a recruiter.* A few months and several interviews later, I was headed to Tokyo Narita Airport with a backpack, a duffel bag, and a one-way ticket to San Francisco: I was going to work at Be.

The memory of the final interview leading up to that moment is still deeply etched in my mind. I met with the CEO, Jean-Louis Gassée. JLG (as he’s known) and I talked a lot about Japan and whether its culture fosters software entrepreneurship (I posited no; topic for another post). We had a 15-minute conversation, tops. He then did his throat-clearing thing (it’s a thing for those who know him), abruptly stood up, and walked me out of his office. The aforementioned recruiter greeted us. He looked at her and said, “I’m supportive.” And that was it.

To be honest, I didn’t know what he meant by that. Supportive of what?! That might have been a typical hiring moment for JLG — certainly was a head-scratcher moment for me — but in retrospect, that was the moment when a new path opened, the path from where I would make all future decisions.

It was kind of like in Star Trek IV, when Kirk travels back in time to save the whales — one path fades away and another set of paths materializes. And that’s happened over and over and over again — whether it’s when I accepted a job working for Danny Shader at Good (where I also met my wife), or the first time I talked to my now-boss Sundar Pichai.

So, how did I get here? Here are my three takeaways:

  1. Curiosity powers everything. Learning doesn’t end at a fixed point in time (like a graduation ceremony) — in fact, you can learn to learn even more efficiently over time. Corollary: nobody was born the world’s leading expert on anything, so you can make yourself that person if you work hard enough at it.
  2. You never know if you’re in that “Kirk moment” RIGHT NOW, so treat every minute with care and passion. Corollary: be open to new paths, and don’t follow a rigid n-year plan.
  3. While I consider myself a fiercely independent person, Kirk moments are created by and with others. I have so many people to thank. I would not have gotten here without them.

My goal is to create those moments for others — both the people I work with and everyone who uses our products. The platforms and products I work on touch the lives of billions of people every day. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Every day I’m excited by what’s possible, and much like the teenage me, I’m eager to create and build products that feel like magic.

*P.S. to the recruiter from Be: When I first arrived in San Francisco, you and your husband let me, practically a stranger, stay with you while I searched for my own apartment. You even took me to Bed Bath & Beyond so that I could buy essentials like sheets and towels. That was kinda amazing. In the haze of jet lag and my general freak-out over having just moved thousands of miles from home, I don’t think I thanked you enough. Thank you.

(Updated, November 2018: I’ve removed references to certain individuals due to recent events. This post is about my journey, not about anyone else.)