Sargun Kaur was raised in the heart of the Bay which has led her to have a penchant for geeky technological breakthroughs, a palate for spicy and innovative cuisine, and a passion for creativity in all types of medium. She attributes her great wit in a large part to the Gilmore Girls and her horrid cooking skills not to her mother, who is a great cook. She is currently working as an engineer at Google to help make Google products, like Gmail, run faster.
How did you get in the field of software engineering?
My dad was a software engineer, so growing up I would often see him typing away on this black screen with nonsensical green script. But it seemed fairly dull work as I could never visualize the output (he was a database guy). So I wrote off that career path fairly early on as boring, confusing, and rather tiresome (who wants to sit in front of a computer all day?). I much rather enjoyed watching my dad hack away on projects at home that included smart wiring our house or taking apart and rebuilding computers. I liked actively using my hands to create and build things from end to end. You could almost certainly find me either in the middle of an extravagant art project (much before even Pinterest’s time) or a puzzle of some sort. As I grew older, these hobbies translated into interests in journalism, marine biology, bioengineering, among many other career paths (except computer science). So when it came down to deciding one major, I was really, really confused.
As a member of the Society of Women Engineers club at UC Berkeley, during my sophomore year I decided to go on a field trip to Microsoft and shadow an engineer working on Microsoft Powerpoint. It was fascinating to see what made all the buttons work and the application come alive–as if finally getting to connect the dots to the source. My perception of software engineering began to change once I saw tangible visual results of what that black screen with nonsensical green keys produced. Then I took an introductory computer science class where I built an artificial intelligence game of Yahtzee. I really enjoyed the logical thinking and power of creation that came with coding.
One of the biggest factors in making my decision was realizing that computer science was slowly becoming the foundation of all the sectors I was interested in. If I wanted to work in the health sector, I could work on innovative health monitoring technology. Likewise for education or other industries. By choosing computer science, though I was choosing one door, I was really opening up so many more doors wider; and that is what got me hooked.
What has been the most challenging aspect of working in this field? What has been the most rewarding/exciting?
It’s a never-ending fire hose of information. There’s always a new technology, trend, or language that’s waiting to be learned. The shear capacity of things to intake becomes quite intimidating, especially considering how quickly the field is progressing. I just always felt many steps behind. I started my career thinking I had to learn and become an expert in all this information, which to no surprise shot my confidence a lot–apparently it’s a common phenomenon known as imposter syndrome (look it up!). It’s not until I started focusing on improving my technical skills in a very small sub sect of the field and focusing on my personal growth rather comparing my growth against others did I learn to overcome this barrier. That’s not to say everything is easy now. I’m constantly surrounded by so many brilliant minds — it’s an active mental process to see these individuals as sources of motivation rather than discouragement.
But I also find this never-ending fire hose of information and innovation as one of the most exciting aspects of the field. There’s so much yet to be done, and I’ve been really fortunate to have the opportunity to be at the heart of it all. Mostly, there’s a lot of creativity and critical thinking involved and always a new challenge to be tackled so my days are never mundane. At Google, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to network with some of the leading disruptors in the tech industry (proximity really helps). And the great perks serve to be quite rewarding as well!
What motivates you to work in an industry that is often dominated by men?
I think being the only female engineer in a room of 15 other Googlers proves to be quite empowering rather than intimidating. Most of the women around me, especially my mom, are very strong and stalwart Kaurs. My mom has never backed down from a job or an activity because of a perception of it being “masculine” and I’ve always admired her resolute strength and courage. Moreover, when it comes to envisioning a Sikh woman – I see this picture of Mai Bhago on a horse with a talwar in her hand come up. And now, as I’m coming to learn of Bibi Harsharan Kaur and other gallant women of my history, it’s hard to fall into the traps of the dainty, docile lady so much of society expects, if not intends, for me to be.
And, the industry, at least Google, has been actively creating many diversity initiatives to encourage and support women and individuals of Color who are interested in pursuing STEM fields, which I’ve recently become a part of. By sharing my story and challenges, I hope to be a part of a growing community of women encouraging one another in excelling in this field. So that serves as great motivation!
Where do you hope to be in your career in five years?
Not sure if I can address where, but I do know in the next five years I hope to fail a lot. And you learn a lot. Basically: Build, Iterate, Fail, Learn, Repeat.
Consistently throughout my life, my biggest moments of motivation and change have been compelled by my biggest failures. More specifically, I know I want to be creating — so if all goes well perhaps the entrepreneur in me will be working on something disruptive of her own. In the end, no matter what rung of the ladder I am or am not on in my career, I know I want to focus on making sure my Sikhi is strong and that whatever I’m working on is causing positive and impactful disruptions. I’ve particularly been interested in the intersection of technology and social problems, so I hope my future is reflective of working on something surrounding a social impact project or humanitarian tech.
What advice can you give to young Sikh women who want to pursue a career similar to yours or who want to pursue a career that tend to have less female members?
If you turn away because of the statistic, you become a part of the statistic. Most people, including myself until a while ago, didn’t know women were the original pioneers of the computer technology industry before men took over! But currently, one of the biggest problems is the severe lack of female role models in the industry, much less Sikh female engineers. So it’s important that those who want to pursue a male-dominated field work towards stepping up to these roles and encouraging other girls in the process as well. That’s the only way we’ll work ourselves out of this problem. It’s not even a resource problem anymore as so many great online tutorials exist. In the end, I think it’s important to at least to try if you’re even slightly interested and know that imposter syndrome is a real thing (and over 60% of Googlers suffer from it)! Hack it till you make it!