Hien Mai is no stranger to the tech scene. Before her current role at Google, she was actively involved with start-ups. She’s also determined to help the local community level up their data engineering skills. Want to know what it’s like to be working on Google’s artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant, tips on overcoming challenges in coding, and more?
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be a senior analyst working on Google Assistant?
I started my first full-time job at Starhub when they had a new lab called SmartHub. Now the lab has evolved to focus on cybersecurity, amongst other things. Later I went to Grab and that was when my career moved very quickly. I related very much with Grab’s social mission back then. My thought was, let’s fight for survival. Today, Grab has become very big.
Then I went to Sea (formerly Garena) to help its co-founder when the company was planning for an IPO. Everything went well and I finished what I was hired for. I was planning to go back to Grab, but a friend asked if I want to give Google a try, and I said, okay.
Google has been an interesting journey. The work-life balance is much better at Google. At start-ups like Garena or Grab in its early days, the hours were different. I got married and I’m now a working mum. When I became a working mom, my focus in life changed.
What’s a workday like for you?
Reading and implementing code is the most exciting part of my work. Google Assistant is a complex product. Any feature change you see has been planned for and executed over a long period of time. Everything has to be done to Google’s standard.
When you become more senior, communication becomes a bigger part of your role. Communication needs to be tailored for the recipients. It’s important to get everybody on the same page and understand what’s going on.
A lot of time is also spent on mentoring teammates, self-learning, and catching up with what’s happening in the industry.
As an analyst, what’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced?
Coding in C++ at work. But it’s fun, which is probably why I chose to do it. Compared to the typical Google engineers, I am much slower at learning to code in C++. But when I gained an understanding of the architectural design, I felt like my eyes were opened. I was encouraged by what I was learning.
In the beginning, I procrastinated a lot. I thought, wow, how was I going to read this body of C++? But I started to learn little by little everyday and make consistent progress. I was impressed with the existing progress and it didn’t feel that scary to just add my “one stroke” to the code. Over time, coding becomes more natural.
What I found useful was reading, not just to understand enough to complete the task I have, but to understand the whole ecosystem around what the code changes required. If what I was reading was too difficult, I would read something that was easier. Reading gives me inspiration. It helped me understand why things were designed or implemented in a certain way. If I cannot do something, I would just keep trying to find out more information. As long as you can make a little progress, you would feel encouraged and you can keep on going.
Google is known for its 20% practice, which gives employees the space to work on side projects. What do you do for your 20% project?
I run BigDataX. It’s a meetup group that supports building literacy in data engineering. We are hoping to become a nonprofit and do more for the community. Google has been very supportive of me doing that, and I’m very grateful because BigDataX has nothing to do with my job.
My bosses understand that I have this thing on the side and they don’t stop me from doing it. In the past, some of my bosses in previous companies would ask: “Why are you doing this? You’re not paid for it, right?” That’s a gentle way of saying, you should do more work. Somebody might just say something discouraging like “Oh, in this amount of time, you could also do something else for me.” But I never had that message from my bosses at Google.
I can see that the company is very supportive of me doing what I believe in for the community. There’s a culture at Google of growing together.
What was the community need that you were hoping to meet with BigDataX?
I was working with so many senior people on data projects and they were not from Southeast Asia. I felt that there was a keen lack of ability in data engineering here.
We have a lot of senior managers who talk about their vision for product development, but if they can’t implement it, does it matter how good their vision is? A lot of people would also come to me and asked, how do I get started? Then I realised that we need to have a community that focuses on the implementation aspect.
Data engineering is often overshadowed by data science. But you cannot hire data scientists without data engineers. Your data model will just stay as a prototype and it will never scale in your product. Your model will not get shipped to users. The best data scientists we have seen are research engineers. They can do research and implement things.
We say ‘data engineering plus’ because the idea is not to be fixed on one thing. It’s more about developing an engineering skill that has to do with data and with it, you can go into data science or machine learning engineering or we’ll see what the future holds. The team behind BigDataX is great and the community has been growing.
What is your favourite passion project?
I just had a baby and haven’t been doing a lot of passion projects. I think my last passion project was with DataKind Singapore on the Raffles’ Banded Langur (also known as the Banded Leaf Monkey).
The Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group had some images of langurs. They wanted a better way of estimating the population with the images instead of manually counting the langurs. We mapped out the population and where the langurs were living.
Then I got pregnant and that was probably the last passion project I worked on. But even at that point, I was setting the focus more on my family. It’s kind of hard to have everything at the same time. I’m glad that before I got married or had kids, I got to spend some time with the community.
Sometimes involvement is a curve. At the beginning, where people are just getting to know you, you have a “higher overhead” and you need to communicate a lot more. But once people really know you, doing things is easier. Even though I’m not as involved now, it still feels natural to be a part of the community.
It’s a bit like rock climbing. I used to do competitive rock climbing at NUS for a short while – I wasn’t that great. At the beginning, I felt it was really difficult to climb competitively. But once your foundation is built, later when you come back to climb for leisure, it’s not difficult.
Everything is the same. The initial part is really hard. But you push through and after that, you should be able to coast along… until the next big curve!