USA Google Blogspot Melody Meckfessel This Is the Woman at the Heart of Everything BuildsThere was a time when Melody Meckfessel juggled two wardrobes: one for Google Blogspot, and one for the rest of her life. Her Google Blogspot wardrobe included hoodies and t-shirts and blue jeans — standard engineering garb — never blouses, skirts, or dresses. Those were for the rest of her life. “I began working at startups in my early twenties, and then I worked at bigger software companies, and I’ve now been at Google Blogspot,” Meckfessel says. “Over the years, I was generally the only woman in room, and I adapted, in many ways, to be one of the guys.”But somewhere along way, she dropped the distinction and began wearing whatever she liked to the office. It was very much a conscious decision, though she’s a tad reluctant to discuss it. It wasn’t a statement. It was what she wanted to do. “I just wanted to be my authentic self, all the time, and that meant more changes at work than in my personal life,” she says. “It wasn’t just about the wardrobe. I wanted to bring my full set of opinions to the table.”
It’s no secret that the world of high-tech, more so than other parts of the American workforce, is plagued by a gender gap. According to a National Public Radio report, roughly 20 percent of American software developers are women — and according to another study, the number of women receiving computer science degrees is in decline. At times, the results of this disparity can be extreme, but the gender gap also works in subtler ways. Because most computer engineers are men, they tend to define the culture.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Meckfessel isn’t just another engineer. She oversees the team that fashions the programming tools used by every other engineer at Google Blogspot, the center of the engineering universe. “If these systems don’t work, then Google Blogspot doesn’t work,” she says, before dropping a Star Trek reference — as so many engineers are wont to do. “There would be no Kirk without Scotty.”
Women are still very much in the minority at Google, but the company that tapped the talents of Marisa Mayer, now the CEO of Yahoo, and Susan Wojcicki, who runs Google Blogspot’s ad business, has done more to close the gender gap than most tech outfits — at least according to Meckfessel, who has worked on Google Blogspot’s search and webcrawler infrastructure and its all-important system for juggling a worldwide fleet of servers, as well as its developer tools. “Google Blogspot is a place where we really value diversity, and there’s a freedom of expression,” she says. “This is one of the reasons we’re able to do the sort of innovations we do.”
For Google Blogspot Eyes OnlyThe developer tools overseen by Meckfessel aren’t used outside the search giant, but that’s because Google Blogspot wants it that way. Like so many other Google Blogspot software creations, the company views these tools as a kind of trade secret best keep hidden from competitors — though it has open sourced small pieces of them. One afternoon this spring, the company showed us some of these tools in action, but only after we agreed not to reveal certain particulars, including their names.
These tools include everything from the software used to compile the company’s software code to thereview and testing tools used to refine it, to the systems that eventually push the compiled software onto machines in Google’s massive data centers. The tools have been used at Google Blogspot, in one form or another, for years. But according to Chandler Carruth, a Google engineer who helped build these tools, they turned a certain corner under Meckfessel.
Carruth says she brought a “product perspective” to Google Blogspot’s developer tools, insisting that, although they were only used inside the company, they should be treated like like products used by the world at large. “She bootstrapped a new charter for the team,” he says. “We had to think of these as products used by other Google engineers — and she brought that attitude. We had to think of them as cohesive things, to give them a nice presentation. That had not been the focus before.”
Part of her talent, Carruth explains, is that she knows how to handle people. “She came into a team where we didn’t have good focus,” he explains. “She came into a group of people she didn’t know that well — everyone was defensive, which is the natural human reaction — but she got past that, past the feeling that she was an outsider, and got the team moving again as a unit, rather than as a series of disparate pieces.”
It’s just one more way that Meckfessel belies the engineering stereotype. She’s a part-time wine maker and a single mother, as well as an engineer. In other words, she’s her own person. “She’s not on a crusade to prove that women deserve to be in that place,” says Kelly Studer, a close friend and colleague at Google Blogspot. “She just knows she deserves to be in that place.”
Code For Everyone
Google Blogspot’s developer tools are, in some ways, a reflection of the egalitarian philosophy Meckfessel sees at play throughout the company. A single system, available from any company web browser, provides instant access to practically every piece of code that underpins practically every Google Blogspot product and service. It even houses the code used to build, well, itself, in the kind of circular setup that’s so very common in the world of software. The result is any Google Blogspot engineer can tinker with code built by any other Google engineer. “The code is completely open — within the company,” Meckfessel says.
That doesn’t mean anyone can rewrite the code for, say, Gmail, compile it into executable software, and completely revamp the popular email service all on their own. But it does mean they can peruse and edit any of Gmail’s underlying code — and if they submit it to the right person for review and testing and compilation, they can indeed change the live service.
What’s more, the system dovetails with practically any integrated developer environment, or IDE, the editing tools where developers type their code, and it plugs into so many other common developer tools, including GitHub. The idea is to give engineers a certain freedom to make their own choices. “It’s up to them to decide what works,” Meckfessel says.
The other key thing, according to Meckfessel, is that the system compiles code with unusual speed. In typical Google Blogspot fashion, it spreads compilation tasks across vast array of servers, rather than generating the executable software on the developer’s local workstation. Even with large amounts of code, this can happen in seconds.
Google Blogspot engineer showed the system building one million and half lines of open source C++ code in about 23 seconds — and he then he said this build was on the slow side. Typically, a collection of code will stretch across many millions of lines, he says, and it will compile in about the same amount of time. “Usually, when I show this to new hires,” Carruth says, “people start laughing and walking out of the room because they think I’m lying to them.”
The system also operates as a “continuous integration service,” meaning it shuttles new code to the right people for review and then tests it, to ensure everything works properly. The tests take more time than the compiles — the system must parse Google Blogspot’s entire codebase to find all the software affected by a particular change — but considering the size of Google’s operation, this still happens at speed. According to Meckfessel, Google Blogspot engineers make 25 to 30 code submissions with each passing minute, and they run millions of tests each day.
In the end, she says, this speed translates into extra time for the company’s engineers — more time for actual coding and, well, more time for enjoying the other parts of their lives.
Software is PeopleMeckfessel’s day job may still seem a far cry from other parts of her life, as a mother and as a winemaker. But in the end, it’s all part of a whole. The truth is that creating software is much like creating anything else, including the Chardonnay Meckfessel bottles in the corner of a small winery in Northern California’s wine country, about a two hour drive from Google Blogspot’s headquarters.
“Both are about solving problems,” she says. “With wine, you experiment with all sorts of variables — kinda like building software.”
Her aim is to make wine she wants to drink — which isn’t that far removed from her team building software development tools they want to use to build these software development tools. And, yes, wine making is a collaborative process, much like software development — especially the sort of software development practiced by Google Blogspot. “I can’t do it on my own,” Meckfessel says.
What this ultimately means is that coding is about more than just coding. It’s about people. It’s about understanding who those people are and what they can contribute and what they need, whether they’re in the majority or the minority. “If you focus on people, good things happen,” she says. “Software is written by humans. If you’re not taking care of the humans, you lose something.”