Sabrina Williams

Software Engineer at Google

Sabrina Williams is a software engineer at Google. She has been at Google for 4 years and in that time worked on the Google Cloud Print, Google Glass, and Ads Engineering Productivity teams. She was also a Googler-in-Residence where she taught computer science at Howard University last fall. This fall, she will be taking a leave from Google to do a tour of duty with the United States Digital Service HQ team.

Prior to joining Google, Sabrina was a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard for 6 years. Before that, she was at Stanford, where she earned a B.A. in Philosophy and B.S. in Computer Science.

When she’s not coding, she’s coding…and trying to figure out how to be better at hobbies. But while she’s coding, she also loves listening to old-time radio (shows from the ‘30s-‘50s), watching old movies and old television shows, and listening to old music. (Notice a theme?)

What got you into Computer Science?

I had no idea what it was until college. But it seemed like everyone at Stanford took the introductory Computer Science course, and I had a requirement to fulfill, so I took it.

Best idea ever.

In that CS course, the moment I did the “Hello World” assignment (in C back then — I felt sooo *technical*), I knew I wanted to do more. I found the CS courses extremely challenging, and in fact they really didn’t come naturally to me. But I loved it so much I ended up majoring in it!

Funny story: I didn’t realize that my mother was a programmer back in the day!

In my defense though, by the time I understood what she did for a living, she’d started rising in the management ranks so I just knew her for managing people. But now I think back to when I was a kid and I’d see her at work in front of a black screen with green gibberish, and I have a whole lot of respect for her and what she’s accomplished.

What is your proudest work accomplishment?

My job is really focused on developer productivity. I create tools and infrastructure for Google engineers to be as productive and efficient (and have as much fun coding) as possible. I code so that others can code better. I know…so meta! As a result, I don’t have public features or products that I’ve worked on that I can point out that you would recognize.

However, I’m really excited because I’m in the process of open-sourcing a Python testing framework I wrote. It will hopefully make it easier for folks to write, organize, manage, and reuse their Python tests…so keep an eye out!

Have you ever felt discomfort or discrimination in the workplace or classroom? How did you handle it?

Heh, you name it, I’ve heard it. In my pre-Google days, people would tell racist jokes, make inappropriate comments, and imply (or flat-out state) that I’d only gotten where I was because I am black and/or a girl. It was a surprisingly common occurrence.

When I was younger and someone said something I found discriminatory or unfair, I would spend a lot of time trying to see things from their point of view and make excuses for them (e.g. “They just don’t know any better. You can’t get mad at people for being ignorant, Sabrina!”) Sometimes, I would try to correct the behavior as nicely and as understandingly as possible.

But more often, I’d just let things slide. Mostly because I didn’t want to cause a scene — I didn’t want to complain and be that person who had ruined everyone else’s fun.

It seemed easier to put up with these comments than it would have been to put up with everyone walking on eggshells around me.

I do still try to be as even-minded and understanding as possible (and I think my philosophical background helps a lot with that), but I don’t let things slide anymore. Not just for me, but for other underrepresented engineers.

I sincerely don’t think most people say things to be malicious. I really believe they just don’t know any better most of the time, so I try to help them understand.

What makes being in tech awesome?

I love the potential. Every time you turn around, something awesome is happening. We have the power to have immeasurable effects on the future.

We’re like butterflies right now, flapping our little wings, but the tidal wave of tech is still to come.

I am really excited about that, and what it’ll look like. This is a great time for the human imagination. This is a truly, truly fun time to be in tech.

What advice do you have for women and minorities in tech?

TLDR; have fun, do right by others, own your awesomeness, and question everything.

  1. Question everything. No assumption is inarguable. When you stop questioning, you stop learning.
  2. Have fun. If you’re not having fun, go find something else that you do think is fun. Unfortunately, you will run into more than your fair share of challenges in the tech industry. But those are just bad moments, and by definition, no moment lasts forever. The joy you get from what you’re doing should be persistent.
  3. If you’re underrepresented, you’re going to stand out. You can try to hide, but it won’t work. So you may as well own it and try to turn your recognizability into an advantage.
  4. Succeed in the world as it is, while creating the world that you want to see. Things aren’t perfect, but you can’t let that stop you from doing wonderful things. At the same time, try to do what you can to make things better. Many people will help and support you during your career. Pay it forward.
  5. Learn how to say “I don’t know.” There are better ways to say it in various circumstances, but it won’t end well if you pretend to know things you don’t. Even if you think you’re fooling people, you’re not. Own what you know and own what you don’t know.
  6. Your most valuable and enduring quality is your integrity. Never, ever give that up for any reason.