Ever dream about finding a way to do what you love for a living? In my "Do What You Love" column, I ask people who've done it to tell me their secrets. Here's hoping they inspire you to do the same.
When he was growing up, Keith Stevens admired his dad, a computer programmer who worked on all sorts of cool projects, including video games. Despite that, Stevens just couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do for a living. It wasn’t until graduate school that he settled on programming and now, as a Google engineer working on improving Google Translate, he’s found a career he loves. He tells us how he did it and how you can find a way to do what you love, too.
BusinessNewsDaily: Explain you what you do for a living.
Keith Stevens: I’m both a software engineer at Google and a Ph.D. student at UCLA. Right now I’m working on making Google Translate a lot smarter when it comes to using dictionaries. A lot of people need to look up how to say common and not-so-common words in new languages that they are learning and dictionaries have historically been a great way to do this, but aren’t always the easiest to use or understand. I’m trying to fix both of those problems.
BND: How did you end up doing this for a living?
K.S.: I’ve had a really circular career route. I spent nine months at Google as an intern, but I didn’t feel a major drive in what I was doing on a daily basis. Then I went off to get a Ph.D. in natural language processing at UCLA. That time as a Ph.D. student gave me the time to explore a lot of really fascinating, abstract, and sometimes completely impractical topics. I had the time to do research that intellectually stimulated me, travel, present my work, and meet others in the field. But towards the end, I knew that I wanted to make sure the results of my efforts would impact as many people as possible. That meant not only pushing the boundary on what could be done, but make sure it’s practical and accessible by the world.
So about a year ago I started considering different places where I could make a really serious impact, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to make the impact I wanted in academia at this time. I had to debate between a national research lab, a startup and downtown San Francisco, and Google. When I found out that I had the chance to work on Google Translate, I knew that this would be a great way to apply my Ph.D. efforts while helping people all around the world read and access material they never could before or learn new languages.
BND: What was the crucial decision you made (age, place, reason) that led you to this place in life?
K.S.: I strongly feel that making sure people have access to information stands as one of the best ways to make the world a better place. So when I was ready to move out of my Ph.D. program, I judged my potential career paths according to how well they achieved that goal. Google’s mission statement is to make information accessible and useful for everyone in the world, and they have the resources and motivation to make this happen. The other companies I considered wanted to bits and pieces of that bigger mission, and they didn’t really have the resources to make the kind of impact I saw possible. So for me, Google was by far the best choice.
BND: What did you want to be when you grew up?
K.S.: I was a terribly wayward child when I grew up. My dad was a programmer that had his own business and worked on all sorts of awesome projects, like the car scanners that work on the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland and the most excellent game "Super Zaxxon." So I had an early interest in programming just because I admired my dad, but, sadly, I never had any specific or burning drive for anything in particular. It really took me until graduate school to fully decide on what I wanted to do.
BND: Why do you love your job?
K.S.: I’ve only been at Google for two months now, but I already know I love it because the company has this culture of making things as easy and accessible as possible. This applies not only to the products we make for people, but, equally importantly, this applies to making sure everyone at the company can get their job done as effectively as possible. In graduate school, and my other research positions, it was sometimes really hard to get the simplest tasks done. So even if I had a really great idea, it might have been close to impossible to turn the idea into a reality. At Google, they push us and give us the resources to try these ideas and make them possible.
BND: What's the biggest misconception about your job?
K.S.: I usually tell people that I’m a computational linguist or that I study natural language processing. Either description seems to break people’s minds. They have no idea what to think or what I might even do. So I’d say that the biggest misconception is that what I do is really complicated. They’re both right and wrong. What I’m trying to do is really simple, use computers to understand human languages. But how you do that? That part is really complicated.
BND: If you didn't do your job, whose job would you like to have, and why?
K.S.: That’s such a hard question for me to answer. I’d want to do something that helps others. I don’t know if there’s anyone with a particular job that I’d want to do. I’ve thought that working for or with the Rand Corporation would be really interesting and impactful, they do a lot of really meaningful research. But I sometimes also want to do something more physical down-to-earthy like work with food banks like Second Harvest and make sure everyone around the world gets the food they need.
BND: Do you think having a job you love has made you a better person in other areas of your life?
It’s hard to say which caused which. I think finding out how I want to be a part of the world pushed me to better myself and not compromise on what I would do for a living. It’s easy to do something you don’t love and create excuses for why you’re doing it, life situations and what not, but if you find that inner drive, you’ll find a way to make the thing you love into something you can live off of. And for me, it’s that drive that makes me a better person in general and which led me to a job I love. But it’s also led me to volunteer wherever I go. I spent two months working in Tokyo as a visiting researcher but while there, I also volunteered for one of the few food banks and got a lot out of it. I also volunteered with a youth group, a homeless shelter and a national park, all before I loved my job.
BND: What's your best advice to other people who are trying to pursue their career dreams?
K.S.: So I just saw [the movie] "Cloud Atlas," and deep in the movie there was this quote that summarizes everything I’d try to say, “Do what you can’t not do.” That’s a kind of funny sentence to parse, but I read it to mean that you shouldn’t do what you want to do most, you do the thing that you’d always regret not doing in life. That thing that people are too afraid to try because it’s foolish or bound to fail. Once you figure out what that thing is, do it and figure out how to make it a career. For me, it was making the world easier to understand.
BND: What's your idea of the perfect retirement?
K.S.: Not retiring. I probably won’t be a software engineer by the time I’m old enough to retire, but I don’t ever want to stop working. Sitting back and doing nothing is great when you’re sick or after a long day of doing something productive, but it’s not what I want to do full time. Maybe I’ll do something wild, like help rebuild Taoist and Buddhist temples in China or figure out ways to improve public policy and public health.
Jeanette Mulvey has been writing about business for more than 20 years. Know someone who loves what they do? Tweet me @jeanettebnd with the hashtag #dowhatyoulove.