Hannah has always been into STEM, and with a dad in finance and a grandmother who helped introduce the ICT curriculum to New Zealand schools, we can totally see why. Yet, despite regularly hitting up science camps and fairs – “chemistry was my favourite!” – the London-based Google employee didn’t always expect to jump into tech-type tertiary studies.
“I was very well rounded – I loved science but I also loved language learning and media studies,” she says of her high school self. “I actually went to a Victoria University of Wellington open day to look at business degrees but ended up getting completely distracted by some robots!”
After spending the rest of the day hanging out at the engineering booths, Hannah enrolled in Victoria University of Wellington’s Bachelor of Engineering with Honours – despite not (yet) having a clue how to code. “I was very intimidated by those who had [coding] experience, but it hasn’t affected me in the long run,” she says. “It’s definitely a learned skill!”
On top of the hours of coding classwork and the industry skills she picked up a result, Hannah stresses that one of the most valuable things she learnt from her studies was how to work effectively in a team. “[At work] you almost never will work on a project alone, so it’s super important to be able to work with others toward a common goal,” she says. “There were a lot of group coding projects.”
Hannah’s list of group activities extended into extra-curricular territory too. She championed the Victoria University of Wellington Women in Tech club and hit up a bunch of hackathons, but it was the hands-on internships she sought out during her studies – at Snapper, Publons and Google – that really kickstarted her computer science career.
Getting in with Google
Toward the end of her undergraduate degree Hannah discovered the code + X concept – that you can apply coding skills to almost any other industry – took some taster courses in machine learning and got seriously pumped on doing exciting things with human language. She hit up Google for a coding internship after meeting some of the team during a Victoria University of Wellington campus visit, and ended up doing two.
After wrapping up her degree, Hannah’s Google gig turned into a permanent paid position in Sydney, which she enjoyed for six months before moving to London to pursue a Masters in Advanced Computer Science at the University of Cambridge.
It was there that she immersed herself even deeper in the world of code + language – studying data from ESL speakers to explore native language identification, automated speech grading and automated question/essay generation. Once she finished her Masters, Hannah went back to Google, but this time set up shop – and laptop – in their London office as a software engineer on their Text to Speech product.
“In my job I spend time learning about new coding languages, work on bugs that Googlers or external users report and write design documents for new features or internal tools,” says Hannah. “My immediate team has six people and we all sit together in a massive 11-storey building!”
And yes, according to Hannah the Google offices really are that awesome. On top of the free food – breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks – it has a gym, a YouTube recording studio, VR room, nap room, massage therapists and baristas. “There are lots of areas to curl up and code on a laptop, as well as de-stress for a bit,” she adds.
It’s no surprise Hannah wants to kick around in the company for a while. “I’d love to get some experience at a few of the different NLP teams at Google,” she says. And after that? “Publish a technical paper!” she says. “And found my own company that incorporates my passion for education and language!”
Hannah’s study pathway:
>> Bachelor of Engineering with Honours, majoring in Software Development, at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand)
>> MPhil in Advanced Computer Science at University of Cambridge (Emmanuel College) (United Kingdom)
This article was brought to you in partnership with the Victoria University of Wellington. It was originally published in our special edition of Careers with STEM: Cybersecurity. You can read the e-magazine for free online here.
Author: Cassie Steel
As Refraction’s digital editor, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.