Hello Fisk and Google in Residence!
There are not enough words to describe how incredibly excited I am about being a Google in Residence instructor. I am so grateful that we have this program and that I get to partake in it.
When I found out about this program more than a year ago, I instantly wanted to apply and be an instructor for last year but I found out about GIR when interviews were mostly over and there were some requirements I hadn’t quite yet met. That’s all to say, I’ve been waiting more than a year for this opportunity to come, and even though it’s remote and the experience will be a lot different, I’m still pumped to be starting this adventure that combines a lot of my passions together: coding / software engineering, teaching, working with students, and diversifying the tech industry. Travel and living in/experiencing different places would’ve been on that list too if not for covid, but I guess I still am getting that by having moved to Boulder.
For some background, Google in Residence is one of Google’s diversity programs where we go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) to teach introductory computer science classes full-time. I’ll be virtually teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, TN, starting on August 2. Part of me wishes I started this blog earlier because there has been a lot going on as I started this journey early this year, from interviewing and being accepted to attending preparation sessions to preparing materials.
I wanted to write this blog to capture my thoughts, feelings, and journey in general because I have really bad memory. This is not a requirement, does not represent Google, and are words coming from my own genuine self. I am going to be transparent and candid, no sugar-coating.
I originally found out about this program, like I mentioned before, more than a year ago when I was helping out with Tech Challenge in DC around late March 2019. Tech Challenge was one of my favorite college activities, and I was stoked after joining Google when I realized that I could actually help out at these events! It’s a day where college students come to our campuses and do puzzles in teams. It used to be called Google Games, which in my opinion was such a better name. Anyway, I digress, but that’s just one example of my involvement with working with university students even way before GIR!
Volunteering at that event led me to where I am today though, as I either would’ve found out about this program later than I did or, heaven forbid, not found out about it at all. It was also a really special incident, because a former GIR instructor, a student who took a class taught by a GIR, and one of the GIR PMs were all at the event. I talked a lot with the instructor and the student to find out more, and I was so astonished yet grateful that we have this program.
I immediately found out more information about GIR and sent in an application form to interview for it, but the PM told me a requirement was to have been at Google for a year by the time GIR starts on Aug 1, and my start date was Aug 13, 2018. She said the requirements are there to make sure we’re on track with our career and performance, although I’m not convinced it would’ve made a difference for me after having gone through what I did then and where I am now, the lack of everything following it.
In any case, I kept low-key stalking the internal GIR website to make sure I wouldn’t miss any important dates, and finally, the application form for 2020 came out at the end of 2019. I filled that in, and one of the questions on there, of course, was why I want to be a GIR instructor and what I hope to contribute. This is what I wrote:
I love teaching, I love computer science, and I’m passionate about diversity. While I’ve been at Google, I’ve participated in numerous diversity efforts, often sitting on panels for females in tech and attending outreach programs for underrepresented groups (was a CSSI project week helper, also currently doing UPx). I genuinely believe that everyone should be given equal opportunities and that diversity is important because it provides different perspectives and makes people more open-minded, which is not only valuable at work but is very crucial for life in general. I hope not only to enlighten and transfer knowledge to students as a GIR instructor and make computer science a fun experience, but I also want to inspire, motivate, and retain students in minority groups within the computer science world if they enjoy it.
Right on. I literally just dug that back up because I wanted to see what the application form contained, and yes, everything I said still holds true.
Going on, in January of this year, there was an information session about it. It didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know, and I was again so excited about it! Everything related to GIR just stirred some excitement within me, no matter what it was.
At the beginning of March, I got an email about being selected to move forward with the process. I instantaneously replied to the email, and the first interview was a lot of introductions and “why do you want to do GIR” sort of questions, and because I had a plethora of teaching experiences both in and out of tech, working on diversifying tech, hosting an intern, and interacting with students, I had a lot to talk about that were relevant to the program.
A bit later, I got an email about moving forward to the next step, which required some preparation work such as making a 15-week curriculum and making a 15-minute mock lesson. The curriculum instructions said not to spend too much time on it (I think it said to not spend more than 30 minutes on it), but I did a lot of research. I looked at various university curriculums, asked friends who recently took introduction to computer science courses, and looked at my own university curriculum as well, which turned out to be a really random mix of topics. I also made a mock lesson about loops, and that turned out to be really fun to make.
The interview was with a former GIR instructor, and first we went over the curriculum, after which he said a low-key goal of this program is to get students ready for the interview, so seeing that their interviews are about after seven weeks of instruction, can I change my curriculum accordingly? That put me off a bit, but thankfully later on, I found out that freshmen don’t interview until January. Next, there was a debugging session during which he acted as the student and I was, well, the teacher. I actually had no idea what was wrong with his code when I first saw it, but using my “ask a lot of questions” and “can we search that up” method, we got to the right answer. I’m still a bit fuzzy on what the problem was, but hey, the code eventually worked so I guess I don’t have to know the answer at the beginning in order to debug. That was interesting. Lastly, we went over my mock lesson which was fun and interactive. I really enjoyed that too.
I felt pretty good coming out of that interview, and a while later, I got confirmation that in fact I did fine and got a final round of interviews. Hooray! That one happened in the beginning of April, and I really wanted to prepare for it but was told I did not need to (and hence could not). I also stalked the calendars of the two potential people who would interview us in order to count how many people I would be, in essence, competing against for a position. I think the number when I checked was around twenty, and we partner with thirteen schools.
The final interview turned out to be another behavioral interview. The very first question I got was about making structural changes either at work or school and how I went about doing that, and I thought for a bit but couldn’t come up with an answer. So I said I haven’t. That didn’t make me feel great. There were also some questions about working at black and Latinx schools, and as I haven’t had much exposure to the ethnicity part of diversifying the tech industry (very aware of female struggles but not struggles for particular ethnicities), I pretty much listed the struggles I knew from being a woman in tech. There was also a question about lack of motivation from students, in which I said to figure out why by talking to them but also not spending too much time on students who just don’t want to learn. Motivation has been a big question in my brain ever since I started thinking about teaching at all, because I personally think motivation has to come intrinsically and any extrinsic motivation is hard to control and thus is fleeting. I didn’t feel great about this answer also because my interviewer said we shouldn’t give up on students, so during the “do you have any questions” time, I asked how to motivate students. I guess I wasn’t clear but the interviewer said to set up 1:1’s and follow up by email, and ask others like professors, and current/past GIR instructors what to do. I guess I exemplified the latter by asking right then and there what to do, so that was good.
I also had to explain recursion using an example, and the interviewer wasn’t technical. I actually talked about it incorrectly, saying each call of the function saves the value. That’s dynamic programming, not recursion. I was just so thrown off by this question because I wasn’t expecting any technical questions, and recursion was such a foreign concept to me at that time because I hadn’t heard about it, thought about it, or used it for so long! Of course, I used the classic Fibonacci i sequence and looked for the code of it online, pretty much stepping through the code.
Anyway, coming out of that interview made me feel like I may not have gotten it. In fact, I was convinced that because I couldn’t explain the technical aspect correctly, I wouldn’t be teaching for GIR this fall. There was also the “no experience” structural question and an implied “you shouldn’t give up on students” for the motivation question. I painfully shut the thought of GIR out of my mind.
Sometime in April, we were all sent a form about whether we want to be a GIR instructor if it were entirely virtual. At the time, I didn’t think the program would actually be virtual, and since I felt like I already failed the interview, I thought that perhaps being open to any format, virtual or physical or a combination of the two, would get me in. I’m still not sure to this day whether that was what got me here (just as a sidenote, this isn’t imposter syndrome speaking — I genuinely didn’t think the last interview went too well, but at the same time, I know I’m perfectly qualified to be doing this), because I also found out a bit later that the GIR program was a bit short on instructors even though there were plenty of people who interviewed.
On May 4, I received an email saying I got an offer to teach at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. Wow! I was so, so, so excited, only slightly feeling bad that it was virtual. In my mind though, I was going to be able to fight the virtualness and get to campus somehow (fast forward: not happening). I told all my friends and my parents about getting the offer, and I was elated! It might have matched the day I got my Google offer. Almost. The past year of finding out and learning about GIR, applying, interviewing, and finally…got it! I don’t even know what else to say here, other than, again, I was so excited.
I got manager approval again of course and then accepted the offer, and about a month later, we finally started onboarding! Throughout June and July, I got to know the other GIR instructors, learn about HBCUs and HSIs, be given lots of tools, techniques, and tips on how to teach and teach virtually, discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really be exposed to a lot more regarding black and Latinx backgrounds. I also realized how ignorant I am about that space, especially after talking many times about it to one of my close friends too. Learning opportunities, exactly what I want!
Throughout the onboarding, there were a lot of notable moments. One was listening to everyone’s life paths, a way of getting to know each other since we can’t meet in person, and to build connections, trust, and an openness for us to bond. A lot of people started as physics majors in university, which I thought was really interesting! There’s also clearly a really big mix of people with different life paths and backgrounds, all of which were inspiring and awesome. I loved that session.
Aside from that, one of the GIRs linked an article talking about equitable grading which I had never considered before, and my thoughts about that are here. The idea is that rules and structure for grading are seemingly fair, but for those with less time, less resources, less xyz, do grades actually reflect subject mastery or does it reflect a combination of having privilege and coming into class with sufficient knowledge already from a summer camp, following behavioral and participation rules, being able to follow a strict schedule, and perhaps reaching some extent of mastery?
Another topic I was never exposed to was the idea of precise language. I seemed to be the only one who (said they) haven’t been exposed to this before and just wanted to learn as much as possible. The hour or so we had on this didn’t seem to be enough because there was so much to unpack. I really want to learn more, but basically we talked about language functioning as a tool of power, not putting a blanket statement over people and really asking why a particular group is targeted, coded language, and critically thinking about data. There was also the idea of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, and using phrases accordingly — like instead of using “minority”, using “minoritized” and naming advantage “advantaged”, and “underrepresented groups” being “groups that have historically been underrepresented in our industry” and advantage being “overrepresented groups”. If I have time (which I seem to be very short on these days), I’m going to take some internal classes on this topic. I would say I’m quite conscious about not using words like “hey guys” and being conscious in the gender sense, but perhaps my language in general needs some help. I guess the first step to fixing a problem is being aware that it’s a problem at all.
In early June, I got connected to the GIR instructor, Ellen, at Fisk for last year, and she has been super helpful as well. There’s a big topic around cheating, and I’ve made the decision to not care about it. If students want to cheat, then let them. I only have so much time and energy, and I want to spend that time and energy on students who genuinely want to learn. For those who don’t, they can’t cheat their way in an interview into a job, and if they don’t learn fundamentals now and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from an industry professional, then it’s their loss and their pursuit of computer science will just be that much harder. I know I’m going to make it extremely clear that I genuinely want to help students succeed, I’ll do everything in my power to spend time with them and do exactly that.
I’ve also talked to Dr Hussain and Dr Lei, both professors in the computer science department at Fisk (and the only ones — the school is super small). They have both given me a lot of valuable information, and I’m looking forward to working with the two of them.
I found out from Fisk faculty that first-year students were going to be on campus for half the semester while everyone else is virtual, and the second semester will be the flip of that. The instant I found out, I asked our GIR PMs whether I could go on campus only to be shut done pretty quickly, as Google had decided all our campus events will be virtual. I was really sad about this, and I thought about finding our policy makers to ask for an exception. In the end, I didn’t, because I suspected it would end the way just like all the other battles I’ve attempted to fight at the company: no. So, gradually, over the next month, I readjusted my mind and came to terms with this actually being virtual, which I so desperately did not want. Before, I was convinced that I would be on campus somehow, that I would fight my way through it until I got it. But, looking at the covid situation now, I’m more and more skeptical about how safe it actually is to come into contact with so many people. In the end, I’m actually quite alright with this decision, and I’ve made the resolve to do this program again in-person after a few years. Plus, I’m living in Boulder and living my best life, so I’m pretty happy.
At the end of June, I decided to start making lecture materials because I knew that would be time-consuming and from past teaching experiences (notably teaching English), I did not enjoy making materials at all. I did this outside of the 20% GIR time and pretty much outside of my normal coding job time, spending at least an extra hour or two making lectures.
The experience of making those materials was actually much better than expected because Ellen’s and past GIR materials are so amazing. I’m especially astounded at the quality of homework questions. For my own lectures, I basically pulled from everyone’s materials to make it into my own, but mostly Ellen’s. When I started making homework, I figured out how to use Mimir which has an autograder, pulled from the question bank, and wrote lots of unit tests. Well, I guess I didn’t have to write them per se, just had to come up with the tests and put them into Mimir. I also had to write the solution code which wasn’t too bad, and it’s pretty awesome to see how far I’ve personally come too in my coding journey.
Now that most of my materials are done aside from quizzes, projects, and exams — which I realize are all big components of the class but my thought is I’ll just take them from past instructors as well and digitize them — , I’ve spent more time thinking about how to handle the virtualness. I’ve decided to use Zoom, because funnily enough, Fisk University let me decide what software to use. I’ve also dedicated the last two days writing a Discord bot to make a queueing and ticketing system for students to line up to talk to me or my TA’s during labs and office hours, and it was great fun. I’m using Discord, which is similar to Slack, to handle communication. I also thought deeper into getting an iPad versus a tablet for writing and drawing examples and diagrams. That’s been on my mind for a long time, and I still don’t know what’s better. Lastly, I experimented with OBS today as well, and it’s software that can help with the format of a stream so students can look at slides, me, and perhaps a writing surface too.
I found out about a week ago that I’m starting teaching on August 3, which was a week earlier than I originally thought. And even then, Fisk is unusually early compared to other universities. I slightly panicked because it was unexpected, but I also knew that I was super prepared, having made most of my lecture and homework materials already.
So that’s where I am today. It’s a week before I have to teach, and I have more or less rolled off of my software engineering duties. The next few months are going to be quite the adventure with virtually teaching, prepping, making and editing lectures / homework / quizzes / exams / projects / writing unit tests for an autograder hooray, conducting labs, meeting with students for office hours, holding mock interview / resume review sessions and possibly other one-off talks, grading, and in general, dedicating my energy and effort into providing my support in any way I can to the students.
I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity for the past year and a half, and now that it’s finally here…cheers!