From Childhood Passion to PhD, How This Engineer Forged a Career In STEM

From Childhood Passion to PhD, How This Engineer Forged a Career In STEM was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

Many of us form childhood passions that follow us into adulthood. For some, these become hobbies, and for others, these passions form the basis of our careers. That’s exactly how it happened for Ranjita Bhagwan, a principal engineer at Google, whose STEM journey began with a girlhood appreciation of math.

“I loved math growing up,” Bhagwan says. “When I started taking lessons on computers, I loved how I could, with some rather inane keystrokes, make circles and squares change size, shape, and move around the screen.”

These early experiences are critical to lighting the spark of interest and all it takes is one lesson to change someone’s life—and one person to change the world. As Bhagwan grew, she not only learned more complex mathematics, but also about the many possibilities available to her.

“I knew I was interested in STEM, but it was only when I started programming in high school that I realized I wanted to study computer science,” she says.

Today, she’s a principal engineer at Google, where she helps to make the world’s information more accessible and organized.

Here, Bhagwan talks about why she decided to join the tech leader, what she’s responsible for as an engineer, and how sometimes taking a break means a short trip into the Himalayas.

We understand that you have a background in research and science. Can you share how and why you chose a scientific career path?

During my first and second years in undergrad, coursework was one of the many things I was doing. I was also interested in music and sports, and spent a lot of time focusing on them; however, in the later years, I developed a passion for other aspects of computer science. This slow progression—along with improving my grades—convinced me that I should aim for a master’s degree if not a PhD. Once I started my graduate program, I enjoyed the rigorous process of digging deeper into specific problems and solving them. I enjoyed the research so much that I eventually continued into the PhD program.

What led to your job at Google, and how did you know it would be a good fit?

I had spent about 16 years doing research at Microsoft when folks at Google asked if I would be interested in a very different role as an engineer in a product group. My initial reaction was simple: no. But the more I spoke to engineers at Google, the more I felt I was ready for a change. While I still loved research, I realized it was time to apply my learning over the years to the immediate and long-term problems that the Google networking team faced. 

I wasn’t sure it would be a good fit and that was a part of the process! I trusted that every change is for the better, and would lead to new learning opportunities. So, I decided to take the leap.

What are you responsible for in your current role? What is the most rewarding part about it?

I’m a principal engineer on the Network Insights and AIOps team, which is part of the Global Networking team. The most rewarding part of this is that my work affects the reliability of the Google Network, which in turn supports billions of users around the world. Having such a direct impact on people’s experiences with Google’s technology is extremely satisfying.

What was your biggest challenge when transitioning from your previous job to working at Google, and how did you overcome it?

My previous work in the research lab was challenging and exciting but was removed from the nitty-gritty details of running a product or a service. Now, I’m in the thick of things—providing insights that make the Google Network reliable—and hence have to understand details and subtleties that may or may not be technical. Learning about Google’s network is a daunting task given the scope and complexity of the product. I took it day by day, accepting the fact that it would take time. I can’t claim to have gained full knowledge of it yet, but I’m getting there!

You’ve been at Google for a year. What was the onboarding process like, and how have you been personally supported as a new member of the Google family? What do you like best about the culture?

Google is a great company to work for. The support I received from my colleagues when I was settling in was far more than I had expected. People are always ready to respond to my queries, and they do so very promptly. I enjoy the collaborative culture where people are always ready to talk, inform you of current technical solutions, and brainstorm about better ones. My colleagues on the networking team have gone the extra mile and I’m very appreciative of them.

You’re a part of the Cloud infrastructure team, which is a priority area for the company. What does the team work on, and how does your current role factor into the company’s goals?

My team works on a very critical component of the Google infrastructure. All Google services, their users, and our Cloud customers use the infrastructure that we design, build, and support. Without the network, none of our users would be able to use these services. Reliability of the network is therefore a key requirement. My work is to conceptualize and build tools that gather insights from our network that help us improve the reliability of the network.

Outside of work, what are some of your hobbies? How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

I like to sing (I’m a student of Indian classical music), and I like to trek in the Himalayas, both in India and Nepal. Being in a non-U.S. location can be challenging because meetings can sometimes be late at night. I block off certain times on my calendar well in advance to make space for my hobbies.