How a Google X engineer thinks about problem-solving

Developers are known for their ability to solve the problems plaguing their code. But maybe, they should look to solve bigger problems beyond their computer screens, too.

At least, that’s the philosophy of Gabriella Levine, a hardware engineer at Google X. As a member of the Rapid Evaluation team housed within Google’s futuristic, relatively secretive lab, Levine can’t divulge any of the projects she or her colleagues are working on. Still, Google X is known for pushing out fantastical projects like the self-driving car and Project Loon, a system of high-altitude balloons that brings Wi-Fi to remote areas. So whatever she’s working on, it’s probably something unusual – and it definitely aims to solve some kind of problem.

Gabrielle Levine of Google X at AndroidTO. Oct. 30, 2014.
Gabriella Levine of Google X at AndroidTO. Oct. 30, 2014.

“You start with a huge problem that affects people globally, and then there’s a radical solution, something that will deliver something that’s 10 times better than anything anyone has managed to deliver before. And then you come up with a breakthrough technology that will actually make the solution possible,” said Levine, pointing to Google’s principle of “moonshot thinking” as a good example of how this plays out in the engineering world. She was speaking from AndroidTO, a developers’ conference held in Toronto earlier today.

Levine comes from a pretty diverse background, getting her start in cancer research. She then kicked off a stint as a wild land firefighter, spending weeks at a time in the bush in Oregon on a team with 20 men and just one other woman. Soon after that, Levine then began taking electronics courses, later returning to grad school for design and technology, and then moved to a startup called Protei. The company works on sailing robots, or “snake robots” that help scientists explore the ocean for phenomena like radioactivity.

It was from Protei that she made the jump to Google X, where she currently creates prototypes with paper, electronics, and 3D printing, aiming to quickly test something and then get it out into the world.

While Levine’s job is to look at Google’s moonshot solutions and decide if they’re good candidates for disrupting current technology, that’s not a skill exclusive to her role at Google X.  It’s something she feels developers and designers can also do in their daily jobs.

“Every solution at Google X starts with a problem,” she said. “I urge everyone to think about, what are you solving for when you’re designing and developing? And then, don’t shy away from the big problems because those are the exciting parts.”

That doesn’t mean developers should spend all of their time in the lab, though. Startup developers may be familiar with the idea of getting outside of their buildings and talking to customers to figure out their needs and to get feedback. Levine said she also takes the time to talk to people and to figure out if Google X’s innovations will really benefit anyone.

“We go into the world, and we talk with people, and we talk with communities. We see if a technological solution will really help, and sometimes, it actually won’t,” she said.

And then of course, there’s always the possibility of failure – another lesson that startup developers may already know about. The key thing here is to accept when a project is failing, and to quickly scrap it and move onto something else, rather than allow it to die a slow, painstaking death, Levine said.

And as a last tip? For software developers working with Android, she added she feels there’s room for both hardware and software to grow side by side.

“Don’t shy away from hardware,” she said. “Because it’s hardware and software that people can hold and interact with – that’s really going to be the way towards the future.”

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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