When Komal Singh read to her four-year-old daughter, she found there was something missing. Where were all the books about women in engineering, or any other STEM field for that matter? So the Google program manager and mother of two young children recently became a children’s author. Ara the Star Engineer (Page Two) is the illustrated story of a young girl who learns to use courage, creativity, coding and collaboration to solve a big problem. Singh hopes her book will encourage children, girls especially, to work hard and to pick up coding and computers. To learn more about Singh, The Globe and Mail asked 10-year-old Beatrix Mastai to interview the busy engineer at work.
Komal works at Google in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., a building full of amazing things. At the Google campus, there is a bookshelf that opens into a secret room, a wall that slides away to reveal a hidden kitchen, a nap room, a gym, a climbing wall, a yoga studio, a bike garage, cafés and cafeterias, a music room full of instruments and scooters you can borrow when you need to make a fast trip down the hall. And a cyborg moose.
You may be wondering: Does anybody work here or do they just hang out? Unfortunately they do have to work. But the staff find ways to make what they create interesting and fun as well. Here is how my interview with Komal went.
Komal, why did you choose to write this book?
I wanted to show my four-year-old daughter what it’s like to be an engineer, a computer scientist, in a fun manner, but I couldn’t really find many books. I wanted to introduce her to some really amazing role models in engineering. We hear about princesses, but we also want to hear about some women who invent things. That’s why I decided to write the book. To show girls that, if they want, they can be engineers. And at the same time to show all kinds of kids, boys and girls and other genders, how cool engineering can be.
When did you decide to be an engineer?
I grew up in India. My dad was an engineer and my mom was a homemaker. I just really liked all these things that he would do. And I didn’t see many girls around me who were as interested in science and engineering. I just wanted to be cool like my dad. Because to me, being smart was important. I saw him as a smart person and I wanted to be like him. That’s how I got interested in engineering in the first place.
What sort of challenges do you face as an engineer?
I wish that in engineering in general, not just at Google, but worldwide, we had more women, we had more girls. Because half the world is made of girls, so naturally I find the tech work forces should also be made half of girls. And the challenge with not having more girls, when they’re not represented in the work force, is the products that we build do not represent women and girls, so we do not end up solving things for the entire population.
How do you overcome some of these challenges?
I’ll give you a funny example. Once we were in a meeting and it was just me as the girl in the meeting and there were five other men. And we had to come to a decision. But then we were talking about it for a very long time and we had to take a break. So, we all took washroom breaks and all the men went to the men’s washroom and I went to the women’s washroom, and then we came back. And someone said, okay, let’s start talking about the next topic. And I said no, wait, we have to finish talking about the first topic, we have to decide. He said, no, we’ve already decided. I said when? They said, when we were in the washroom, we had a quick vote and we decided. And I said, no, but my vote was not represented because I was not in the men’s washroom. Sometimes people do not know they’re doing this and they’re probably not even doing it on purpose. The way that you overcome these challenges is to acknowledge it. Don’t get angry about it, don’t get frustrated about it. But speak up. You have to always speak up and you have to always make others hear your voice.
What do you consider to be some of your greatest accomplishments as an engineer and as an author, in both fields?
I’m a first-time author, so I cannot yet say that I’ve accomplished too much. Hopefully in a few years I can say that. But right now my accomplishment as an author is I feel I’ve written a book to inspire kids in engineering and teach them about coding and computers from some real-life trailblazers themselves. As an engineer, my accomplishments have been in getting products out that people use. One example of that is in my previous work, I was on a project in which we were building a banking system for one of the biggest banks in Canada and I wrote some of the original code on that system. And even now when I go to the bank, I see that system being used by customers. So that’s quite fun to see.
What advice would you give people starting in the engineering field or in the writing field?
My advice for both engineering and writing would be along similar lines. And a lot of that advice applied to me when I was writing my own book. I had to remind myself of these things that I had learned from my engineering experience and apply that to the writing experience. Firstly, build a team. There are always different kinds of people who have very different skill sets. And it’s very important to recognize what kind of a skill set somebody brings. Understand that, yeah, this person is very detail-oriented. And this person is super creative. This person is very good at problem-solving. So, understand the different skill sets that different people have and build your team based on that. And use your team to lean on. As a team, you can make really, really big things happen. I tried to do the same thing when I wrote my book. I had an editor, an illustrator, a proofreader, and I really tried to understand their skill sets and put together that team. The second thing is put in the hard work. We always want success in the end. But the path to success is not always pretty or easy. Don’t be afraid of that path. Put in the hard work, enjoy the process, and let the outcome be whatever it is.
Do you feel that you use the qualities that Ara learns to display – courage, creativity, code and collaboration – on an everyday basis?
It is so important. I might not use all of it all the time. Some days I will be more creative with ideas. You never know where it can go. And then some days I’ll be more code-oriented, at my desk. There are days when I have to find the courage to start something new. For example, writing the book. It took courage to write that book because it’s not my field. But I wanted kids to have something like that, to inspire them. And collaboration is so important. It’s so important to be able to work with others and understand the other person’s skill sets. So, I think those values apply not just to engineering or book writing but to many other fields. It’s a really good mantra to have.
Thanks for doing this interview.
Those were wonderful questions! I loved talking about all of that.
Beatrix Mastai is a 10-year-old girl who lives in Toronto. She has a sister named Frances and a dog named Ruby. She loves reading, writing, drawing, cycling, swimming and exploring new places. Interviewing Komal was really exciting and the first step toward her dream of becoming a writer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.