Alumni Profile: Titus Winters, M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’06

Master programmer tapped by Google to lead coding overhaul.

By Jessica Weber

For Titus Winters, maintaining 250 million lines of code used by 12,000 engineers at one of the world’s biggest tech companies is just another day at the office.

As a senior staff software engineer at Google’s New York office, Winters, 37, leads teams responsible for managing the company’s massive C++ code library, a programming language that forms the foundation for almost all of
Google’s infrastructure.

“The majority of the big computation, storage, and heavy-lifting stuff is done in C++,” Winters said. “We maintain all of the things that all the C++ programmers use basically on a day-to-day basis.”

Born in Beaverton, Oregon, Winters’ interest in computer science began at a young age. He recalled his father theorizing how computers were going to be “the next big thing” and buying him a book on learning the programing language QBasic at age 11. In the early 1990s, when a fledgling commercial internet had not yet evolved to the ubiquitous entity of today, Winters taught himself how to program with that book.

“I had some friends in middle school that were also amateur programmers and had programming clubs, but mostly it was self-taught,” he said. “The days before the internet, there was not a lot of easy access to information of other forms.”

Winters received a bachelor’s degree from Harvey Mudd College, and both his master’s and doctorate in computer science from UCR, where he formed a close working relationship with Professor Emeritus Tom Payne.

“Tom and I spent countless hours talking about the history of computing because he had so many stories about how things got to be the way that they are, and that really resonated with me,” he said.

Winters’ biggest project at Google to date has been the launch of Abseil, an open source repository of Google’s C++ code. Rappelling aficionados may recognize the term as another word for a descent from a rock face — a hobby for some members of the team.

The launch of Abseil in September 2017 was the result of the largest code
refactoring — restructuring of existing computer code without changing its external behavior — ever performed at Google, and possibly in the world, Winters said. This hefty project, which took two years to complete, was a response to the changing computing landscape.

For the last couple of decades, Google’s codebase was used almost entirely in house. Over time, as more services became cloudbased and required interfacing beyond Google’s systems, it became necessary to grant users more access.

“We’re not an island anymore,” Winters said. “We’re not completely divorced from what everyone else is doing, and we need to open-source so people have entries into our cloud offerings. Abseil was a direct admission that the old way doesn’t work anymore, and it’s time to make things shareable.”

But with more than 250 million lines of code and a decade’s worth of programing, this was no easy feat.

“Imagine that we have decided that skyscraper foundations are shareable technology, and what we want to do is replace the foundation out from under the Empire State Building,” Winters said, offering an analogy to describe his team’s task. “In the process of doing that, we are not allowed to block traffic or close the building. We also discovered nuclear waste stashed in the basement.”

Winters also serves as chair of the Library Evolution Working Group, a subgroup of the committee responsible for maintaining the official C++ standards used by programmers worldwide.

Beyond Abseil and C++, Winters wants to help develop software engineering practices more capable of adapting to inevitable advancements in technology, and he has been pushing toward more inclusion of the subject in computer science education.

He recently visited UCR to deliver a few talks and gauge how academic and industry groups are viewing software engineering. Winters said the trip back to Riverside was both informative and nostalgic.

“I have very fond memories of biking in the sunshine all over the place,” he said. “Living in New York now, I sometimes miss the California weather. Getting back to my roots, that was pretty nice.”