Science Opinion

Inspiring Women Series: Kara Levy, Lead Engineer for Google Classroom

By Jennie Magiera — March 31, 2015 3 min read
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In this final post of the Inspiring Women Series, I chat with Kara Levy, a lead engineer at Google who is working on the Google Classroom project. As a female engineer working to transform education, she is the perfect voice to inspire and close out the series. Kara shares more about her work at Google, her inspiration to become an engineer and advice to young girls hoping to follow in her footsteps.

What do you do at Google?

I’m the engineering lead for the Google Classroom team.

What’s your favorite thing about working there?

Being given the resources and opportunity to build a new product has been an incredible experience. My team designed and built Google Classroom from the ground up, and watching it launch and grow and actually help educators in the ways we envisioned and beyond has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

Can you tell us more about Google Classroom and what it’s like to be leading its development?

Google Classroom is a new application to help teachers create and collect assignments paperlessly (on the web, Android, or iOS). Like most software development, leading its development involves collaborating with other engineers and product leaders to balance difficult trade-offs around what to build and how to build it. (And writing code! Lots of code.) Unlike developing other software, though, we have an incredible and unique set of users in the teachers and students who use our product. Many of our users are actively engaged in giving us feedback on a regular basis, and their input has been invaluable. The needs and wants of our users have been the driving force in our product development, and I believe this has been critical to what success we’ve had so far.

When did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

My path was a bit circuitous. I was an English major in college. I took a couple introductory programming courses, which I adored, but they were sideline electives. It wasn’t until two years after graduation, after an unfulfilling stint in nonprofit fundraising, that I realized how much I missed coding. I had an itch for analytic problem-solving, and nothing else had ever scratched it the same way. I ended up going back to school for a second degree in computer science, which brought me where I am today. I often hear stories from my colleagues about how math and science are all they’ve ever known, but my story was the opposite. I was interested in and explored a lot of different things in school, and it took the absence and loss of engineering to make me realize how much I had loved it all along.

Why do you think there are so few female engineers?

Culture! Misogyny, to be specific. We treat girls differently from boys, and that includes me and you and even the most well-intentioned parents and teachers, let alone the ones who don’t even care to try. It starts from the youngest age (“what a nice pattern you made with those blocks, that’s so pretty” versus “what a big strong tower you built, you little architect”) and it only gets worse as we get older (//xkcd.com/385/). Bad habits die hard, especially at the societal level; these issues deep and systemic, and they take conscious effort to fix. Underrepresentation of women and minorities in engineering is your problem and there is something you can do about it. If you know a girl who you perceive to be “okay” or “average” at math, check yourself: she’s probably better than you think.

What would your advice be to young girls who are considering exploring coding and engineering?

Don’t quit! Do not quit. Seriously, don’t quit. There are always going to be people who are smarter and more experienced than you, and there definitely always going to be boys who act like they are smarter and more experienced than you even though they aren’t. The worst difference between the (many) mediocre boys who succeed in engineering and the (many) brilliant girls who drop out is that the boys feel and act like they belong, and they therefore keep at it even when they do poorly. Girls: you belong! If you’re not being treated like it, go somewhere else (//girlswhocode.com, http://blackgirlscode.com, etc.) -- but do not quit.

What is your super power?

The humanities. Even though it took me longer than average to get into the tech industry, I never regret the time I spent studying literature in school. Books have enriched my life and my world, and made me a better person and a better teammate. Being well-versed in art and culture and history is definitely my superpower as an engineer.

What would your “title” be if you had to give one to yourself?

As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats Chief Engineer.

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