When girls are the shero of the story
Editor’s note: We’re celebrating Women’s History Month by talking with Cloud Googlers about identity and how it influences their work in technology.
Cloud Googler Komal Singh’s path has taken her from India to Waterloo, Canada, where she’s an engineering program manager working on serverless products. Her 20% project at Google resulted in the publication of her first children’s STEM book, Ara the Star Engineer, which follows a young girl who uses coding to tackle big dreams and meets real-life women trailblazers. Her recent TED Talk, “Recoding Stories at Scale,” talks about exploring technology and AI in creative ways to represent minorities and girls in books in ways that inspire them.
Here, she shares her path to working in technology
Who inspired you to go into engineering?
I grew up in India in the 1980s, and always loved sci-fi, physics, and math. I didn’t know female engineers, but I knew women who were doctors, and we had a female prime minister in India—so I assumed women could be prime ministers, but not engineers. My dad had a huge influence on me. He always encouraged me to be more hands-on, and showed me how to do things like change a lightbulb or fix the car engine. During dinner conversations, he created problems for me to think about, like how many rotations the fan was doing per minute.
In high school, I was amongst the few girls taking computer science courses. We usually worked together, and when we got a program to run, teachers thought it was a fluke, or that we were copying others’ work. There was extra pressure to prove that we had gotten it right ethically. When you’re part of a small percentage like that, it’s harder to be heard, and it’s easy to start doubting your abilities.
I also loved watching Dana Scully on the X Files TV show. There’s actually a “Scully Effect” phenomenon that’s been researched, which found that more than 70% of women who watched that show went on to STEM fields. I wish I had also had someone to look up to who wasn’t white, with blond hair. I think I would be a more fearless leader now. I’m grateful now that I have role models here at work, senior women who I look up to.
I want my daughter to see herself represented in ways that I didn’t. When my daughter was four, she told me that engineers are boys. As a woman of color and first-generation immigrant, I wanted to do something for her so she would know that wasn’t true. So I started a 20% project [a Google option for employees to explore topics of interest] to write a children’s book.
Why use books as a way to change perceptions?
The pipeline for getting girls into engineering and other STEM fields starts when they are about six. There are many initiatives being started, like Girls Who Code, Canada Learning Code, and Black Girls Code, but we need more funding for efforts like this. It can be hard to scale these programs, but books can operate at scale. Books are so pervasive, and can really influence kids as an everyday object. For kids, seeing people who look like them in books is really important.
Less than 5% of kids’ books feature people of color in lead roles. I wanted to put technology to good use, so I started a 20% project to create a series of books that feature more girls and women of color. In parallel, this project is working on making storytelling more inclusive, and we’re using AI to experiment with making traditional characters more racially diverse, so a reader could see Goldilocks as a black or Asian girl, or as a non-binary character, for example.
The book has been published in 10 other countries, and my daughter has traveled with me to some of these book launches. When a journalist in China asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied “an author and an engineer.” I love the fan mail that I get about the book. Girls around the world want to be problem solvers. I also hope my TED Talk on recoding stories will inspire more people to take action to make kids’ literature more equitable.
What advice do you give to those newer to the workforce?
Persistence pays off! I tried three times to work at Google over five years across different locations and job roles. The third time worked for me. Stay the course. Don’t be tempted to give up. And remember to be a wholesome person, whatever that means for you. For me, it’s being a good mom, having a meaningful career, and not giving up on my own hobbies and time for myself. It can be tough, but remember that your career isn’t a linear path. It will take turns along the way. This 20% project, for me, has opened up truly valuable opportunities that I didn’t foresee.