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Demand for remote work, school pushed Google to adapt

Google Speech chief of staff talks changes with Maui entrepreneurs

Leonard

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Google Speech Team’s Chief of Staff Luke Leonhard said that the big tech company had to make “quick changes” to meet the demand of communities transitioning to remote work and school and hospitals overwhelmed by outbreaks.

“We wanted to make sure to provide enough devices to as many people and places as we could to ensure that if people who were deaf or hard of hearing, or if there was a translation issue, or if there weren’t enough translators at the hospital — there’s nothing that can replace professional translators in the hospital — but in an emergency situation, we wanted to be there for them as much as possible,” Leonhard told an audience of Maui entrepreneurs during a virtual event on Thursday evening.

Responsible for the speech-to-text technology behind Google’s apps, the Speech Team oversees everything from voice commands to translation to the captions on Google Meet and YouTube videos.

“From an operations perspective, it is not free for Google to process live captions on videos, and the scale difference from when schools automatically went remote, it was a massive change,” Leonard said. “It was a noticeable amount of change when the team realized we had to make quick technology changes in order to officially run captions globally at that scale.”

Leonhard was a guest for the virtual event “Applied Tech to Big Tech: My path to Google,” which was hosted by the Maui Economic Development Board as part of Maui TechOhana’s monthly virtual meetings. Leonhard, a technical IT professional whose main focus is improving user experience through tech understanding, communication and connection, discussed his journey to Google and the challenges created by the pandemic.

“This pandemic has been tough,” he said. “I do a lot of things over Google Meet and Zoom, and it’s a challenge to feel connected to people as you’re working, but there’s also a great opportunity for remote work in places that we know and love.”

Becoming the Google chief of staff was a windy and unconventional road, Leonhard said, showing how current or aspiring Maui entrepreneurs can achieve their goals no matter what the path looks like.

The Wisconsin native never expected or “even considered” working in big tech and assumed that the path to get to Google was by going to prestigious universities, being “Doogie Howser-smart” or getting personally invited to work for Google by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

“None of those things were in the cards for me,” said Leonhard, who attended a local school called Milwaukee College of Engineering and later worked for 10 years at the Brady Corporation, a Wisconsin manufacturer that made safety equipment. “If you look at my path to Google, it was definitely not that.

“But the path was definitely beautiful, similar to the road to Hana — the journey isn’t a straight one, but it was the right one for me. It wasn’t the fastest way to Google but I’m so thankful for all the twists and turns along the way.”

While taking the unconventional journey from applied tech to big tech, Leonhard was still pursuing his passion for web design, the internet and computer networking.

When he was involved with applied tech at the Wisconsin manufacturer, he worked to connect companies with simple and easy-to-use web tools like collaborative Google Docs, Sheets and Slides, and small web apps.

Leonhard stayed consistent and passionate about his job and eventually made connections with Google officials, who later brought him on board as enterprise senior program manager.

“I love being a part of the effectiveness of teams,” he said. “I didn’t have super direct contact with the engineering team at all, but I think people eventually find that when you have a passionate skill set, you’ll find those niches and people will say, ‘Wow, if we had that ability on our team, ourselves, life would be a lot easier,’ and I find that to be pretty true in most cases.”

Some of the most recent big tech projects Leonhard has led through Google’s Speech Team include building Google Assistant, which has over 60 languages; adding captions on Google Meet and YouTube; and working on other voice recording and transcribing apps.

The team is also building tech that can detect and block hate speech or inappropriate behavior on YouTube and text-to-speech voicemail technology.

They continue to improve machine learning on text-to-speech recognition and “do our best to pronounce all the street names on Maui for Google Maps,” he said.

Some of things that the chief of staff said he wished he knew before Google is that “you don’t have to be the best at everything. What you need or should focus on should align with a passion, and to bring your whole self to work.”

Supported by the County of Maui, Maui TechOhana meetings provide an informal networking opportunity open to anyone interested in Maui County’s technology industry.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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