Tuesday, September 21, 2010

2010-09-21: Google Zürich Internship, when I fell in love with the city!

"Hello Hany!...We are glad to inform you that you have been accepted in the summer internship program this year in Google Zurich GmBH!". Call me a geek but these were the best words I have ever heard! I now work for Google, well in one way or another!

After struggling with the visa issues I finally got my Swiss Schengen visa and the work permit. The Swiss people are very strict and precise, they thought I was 2 persons, one named Hany Khalil, and the other Hany SalahEldeen! Well I don't blame them (fyi, in Egypt we don't have the concept of family name, your name is a concatenation of your ancestors names, my name then my father's, then his father's...etc). All my life I have been called Hany SalahEldeen but for some reason the American embassy in Cairo decided that my grandfather's name Khalil suits me better.

"Ich spreche kein Deutsch!" or "I don't speak German" Was the sentence I was repeating to my self on the plane to Zurich, you will never know when it could become handy sometimes! I was brushing up my old French as well, which seemed useless after I arrived to Zurich to realize that French is the main language in Geneva not Zurich. But I didn't care...I was in Google!....I am a Googler!...I even got an email address with my first name @google.com!

On the 6th of July I landed in Geneva, then I took the train to Zürich Hauptbahnhof (which means main station, try to keep up with the German words, or should I say Swiss-German words?). The Swiss really fascinate me, they know the real concept of time (well, they have the best clocks in the world). If you want to call something really punctual or accurate you say it's Swiss, or clock-work which also implies... Swiss. I was dragging my bag from the station, still can barely walk from my leg surgery I reached the tram station. When they say it will arrive 6:43 they actually mean it. I arrived to the student residence of ETH University where I sublet a room for the next 3 months, settled my stuff and fell asleep.

At 9 am next morning I was in the Google Zurich GmBH lobby. I met other interns and after an introductory session we were taken on a tour through all the huge 3 buildings (I used to lose my way for the first 3 days, well but maps were every where). I met there some fellow interns who became my great friends later on. The first two weeks were scheduled to be the training phase, including sessions and tutorials. I got to say when you get access to all these foods, candies, games and entertainment facilities (fussball tables, ping-pong tables, xbox, ps3, rockband, pool, musical instruments, they even got a massage and meditation room!) You get really distracted at the beginning, but that was trivial the following weeks and I loved the idea, if you spoil your employees and make them happy they will feel ownership to the company and commitment thus they will produce amazing work, that was the motto.

My host and manager was very excited and eager to start, so was I. I was the first intern to work under his supervision. He was a mentor, always there to help and give good advice, give me room to work, create and think outside the box and above all he was a good friend. Mostly that's the theme within all employees there, lieght weight, informal but respectful of course. later that week I had a standup coffee meeting with a guy who I later knew that he invented the automated language detection in Google translate! I was working in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) team on a project allied with the Google translate team. I wish I was able to describe my project but the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) I signed with Google prevents me as it is a new cool project and by the end of the three months I built successfully a huge portion of it. When it is released I will let you know!

Transparency and trust, that's what I was thinking of when I was working. You have access to all the resources and individuals, all available to help you proceed in your project. You can mail anyone and say hey I wanna ask you something! He/She will answer immediately. If you are stuck with a certain program or library you can ask, there experts in it on the mailing list. Maybe you can find the guy who actually invented it and wrote the whole thing! (Like the case in Vim, also you can find Sergey, Page and Cerf on the mailing list too!). Development process is totally different in Google, yes it is Agile and standup meetings are more common than coffee in Italy but there are other considerations. You want to meet deadlines and race to be innovative but also you have to produce code that is extremely scalable, dependable, throughly tested, following style convention and very readable. Handover time to another engineer shouldn't take a long time. I had to throw all most of what I know in C++ and adapt to the new framework of libraries, bigtables, mapreduces ...etc. If you required a functionality someone probably wrote it before so go directly to Code search and acess the code base.

TGIF (Thank Google It's Friday!) are the best weekly gatherings ever! You meet people from different teams in a social manner, relax, laugh, have fun and even karaoke which was a bad idea for me to participate! Every Friday night me and the other interns used to go discover the city and dine in a new place serving a new cuisine, ranging from Swiss cheese fondue to flaming duck Phad Thai. It was delicious and enlightening!

I have been to several parts of Switzerland, learned a little German,one of my friends at Google actually taught me the Blues Harp (AKA. Harmonica) and we used to practice three times a week. I travelled back to Spain to see friends, did water skiing on the lake in Zurich and was scheduled to do a sky-dive on top of the Alps but it was cancelled for bad weather, I was pissed!

Walking through the city was a pleasure itself. Enjoying a cup of coffee down one of the curling streets was amazing. Reading a book by the lake was a quality time. The only bad thing about Zurich is its prices!...I saw a suit in a shop and I kept looking for its price tag because I thought the numbers on the tag in front of it were the serial number not price!

The student residence I used to live in was amazing. Imagine living in a place where 100 different students live from more than 35 countries. We laughed together, we watched World-cup together and cheered for all teams! we cooked, watched movies and partied together too. It was friendly, brotherly and definitely educating. I met there people who definitely left a mark on my life.

In conclusion it was an amazing summer, educating, life changing experience. Working for the best company, living in an amazing city and meeting great people, what more can one ask for?!

2010-09-21: Google Graduate CS Forum

Being from Egypt is always a blessing!...that's what I was thinking when I got the email from Miss Hannah from Google's University outreach team informing me that I was selected to represent Old Dominion University in the Google 2010 Graduate CS forum for students in the United states from underrepresented backgrounds. I found that the name is a little bit weird but I was thrilled!...I will get the opportunity to fly to San Fransisco, stay 3 days In a hotel, visit the GooglePlex and return back to Norfolk over the weekend...and guess what...ALL PAID FOR!

I picked the dates and arranged with the travel agent, got the tickets and head to the ORF airport putting in mind only one thing...CALIFORNIA BABY! I got to Norfolk airport and I made a mistake of leaving my laptop inside my carry-on bag which, mixed with seeing my foreign passport and my non-american face, I think triggered an alert of some kind which ended up in, no surprises once again, getting me "randomly" selected for inspection!...a couple of minutes later all my clothes were spread neatly on a big table in the middle of the airport and being thoroughly inspected separately!...I wanted to get angry but I couldn't stop laughing! Well, they ended up apologizing to me and when the lady was trying to put my things back in the bag she was trying to small-talk, she knew I was going to San Fransisco so she suggested that I should visit Alcatraz!...what is that supposed to mean!?

After sleeping for 7 hours, which i tend to do in all transportation means, I arrived to San Fransisco and took the BART to downtown to find that Google has reserved a shared room for me and another student in the Hilton! and in the reception I found them handing me a debit card with $50 for "transportation"!...God I love Google!

Later on, the students gathered, the room had a collective IQ of a small town!...I am not kidding, and we had some sessions then on the next day we went to the GooglePlex...it was huge!...we spent nearly 2.5 hours touring it! and we also stopped in the Google Store for some souvenirs. We had a couple of sessions more and finally we were all invited to a fancy dinner in one of San Fransisco's biggest Italian restaurants...well it had to be big to fit 87 students and organizers!
Next day we met some researchers in different fields who spoke with us about their work and we exchanged contacts, finally I was heading back home to Norfolk after passing a fantastic weekend at Google, it was definitely worth the 7 hours by plane and what makes it even sweeter is, as I said before, it was all paid for!


2010-09-21: Microsoft Internship

I know I have been a little late in my blog posts but well, it's better late than never! I promise to be more frequent in my updates.

A couple of months ago during my summer vacation I had a very mouth-watering opportunity to make an interview at Microsoft's Innovation center in Cairo, Egypt. So I said why not?!...it would be an interesting experience and an opportunity to go beyond the academia and see how the research in the industry works, this might be worth it...and it was. Two days later I started an internship at Microsoft as a research intern in September and I finished in December when I rushed back to ODU so I'd be able to start my semester.

I was working with Prof. Nayer Wanas in Recommendation systems based on Social Networks. I don't think my Non-Disclosure Agreement will allow me to go into detail but what I can say is that it was fantastic! One of the funniest things that happened is that according to the Egyptian law individuals who are not undergraduates are not allowed to work as "Interns" so the center had to reformulate my contract, I even still have the contract I signed with Microsoft stating that they are utilizing my experience as a "Consultant" for Microsoft...so imagine, me Consultant!

I have been working in a software company for two years during my undergraduate school so I was a little acquainted with the software development process, milestones ...etc. But for the first time in my life I was introduced to the whole Corporate concept and this huge framework of Engineers, researchers, architects, analysts, developers...etc and man I was amazed! I was also introduced to a new culture (which I will be calling spoiling the employee!). I have a big kid inside of me, so free food, free candy, free drinks, Xbox with a huge Screen, ping pong ...etc are just like heaven to me!

Within this period I participated in co-authoring a workshop paper presenting a new technique we were working on, it is currently under reviewing. So wish me luck!