MS-HCI Student Lands at the Search Giant and Learns That Only the Best Product Ideas Survive
Sep 5, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
Sam Harvey, a master of science student in human-computer interaction, was presented with possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on a major product at Google, but one thing stood in his way – he didn’t have an online portfolio the recruiter was searching for.
“When I got that email, I responded within 30 milliseconds and said I’d have a website up in two days,” recalls Harvey, who is now well into a four-month internship at Google’s Switzerland campus in Zurich.
Making good on his promise helped Harvey secure a spot in the interview process, which spanned several early-morning video calls to Zurich (six hours ahead of Atlanta) and two rounds of vetting over about 45 days.
Harvey is now experiencing firsthand the culture that such a selective hiring process helps cultivate. He jokes about trying not to become too “googley” – an enigmatic term that hints at Google’s sometimes utopian ideals – but he was soon struck with the weight of the responsibility given to him.
“It’s incredibly humbling to be working on Google Flights,” Harvey says, referring to the product that has been his focus. The tool is part of Google Travel, designed to be a comprehensive resource for planning trips.
“Releasing a bad product impacts a lot of people. When designing, I might think of grandparents who want to fly out to visit their grandchildren,” Harvey says. “How do I help them?”
“What I’m designing can either make the experience easier or harder. Imagine making something that will ruin the day for a million grandmothers. I don’t want to do that.”
Harvey’s internship as a UX designer – short for user experience designer – is what Harvey himself wants to make of it. The Google culture that includes 24/7 free food, nap rooms, and flex schedules (just a few of the perks) is designed to “let you maximize your full potential,” as Harvey puts it.
UX designers, as the name implies, often focus on how to design an experience that differentiates a product from its competitors. Harvey approaches his work by starting from a place of empathy and figuring out how he would respond to a product. He then evaluates evidence-based designs to quantify what works, and finally, he sets out on the long, chaotic journey to build something truly special.
There are no shortcuts in the process, especially not at Google. A glimpse into Harvey’s experience shows this.
“I listen – and I listen hard – to the user researchers and product experts. I turn off the part of my brain where I want to talk over people because I think I have something brilliant to say. I switch off my ego.”
Analyzing Google’s unmatched volume of user data is helping Harvey to identify some of the most vexing problems in online flight planning. He’ll let the information he gathers marinate on his brain for a long time, then start sketching out on paper as many solutions as possible – literally anything that might solve the given challenge.
“Three percent of the ideas are gonna make it out of the furnace,” he jokes, referring to the process where team members kindly discard the concepts that don’t pass muster.
What survives undergoes even closer scrutiny, and the intensity of the process leaves only those product designs that might work well as part of a sprawling Google ecosystem operating around the clock.
Harvey still marvels that a team of some of the most talented people he’s ever met – working together on the same challenges – doesn’t create a toxic culture of competing alphas. Rather, it’s the opposite.
“This place is conducive to making some awesome stuff and not making people feel small,” he said. “My favorite part of being here is being pushed every day and striving to be a contributing member. I’d recommend coming to Google just for the growth potential.”
Harvey mentions the benefit of Georgia Tech’s MS-HCI program, the guidance of program director Dick Henneman, and how these both prepared him for Google. Taking the summer job delayed graduation for him, but Harvey is OK with this, realizing that this rare opportunity will shape the rest of his career.