Alumni Profile • Jack Veenstra '83
Google, from the inside

Jack VeenstraOther kids went to sports camps. Jack Veenstra '83 went to computer camp. This was 1976, when few people had even heard of computers.

At age 15 Veenstra bought what was, at the time, a sophisticated calculator-a Texas Instruments TI 58. He read the manual and programmed it to count on its own. His parents smiled, bemused, but, Veenstra said, "A lightbulb went off in my head. I saw all kinds of possibilities."

Still, he couldn't have foreseen the complexity of the programs he would write as a software engineer for Google 30 years later. He can't discuss the particular one he's working on now, except to say that it will expand the capability of mobile phones. He can talk, though, about the project prior to this one.

"If you've ever misspelled a query in the Google search engine, you've had it ask you, 'Did you mean . ?' and then give you the proper spelling. Well, as a result of some programming I did for mobile phones with browsers, you now get that spell suggestion feature when you search Google from your phone."

Veenstra didn't start out working in the mobile phone division when he joined Google in 2004. He started in the "platforms" group but moved to phones as a result of an innovative program the company has for encouraging creativity.

"It's called '20 percent time,'" Veenstra explained. "Google allows all of its engineers to use 20 percent of their time to work on anything they want. You can bank it and then spend months working on nothing but a project of your own. Or you can spend your time making improvements to an existing project, like Gmail or Google Earth, that millions of people already use. Spell suggestion for mobile phones is one of those improvements that I can proudly point to on my friends' phones and say, 'I did that!'"

Incentives like this make Google a place of high employee morale. There are other perks, such as free meals prepared by master chefs, so employees often brainstorm over breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. In winter there's a free Lake Tahoe ski weekend for engineers and in summer festive picnics for families.

Not surprisingly, Google gets 3,000 résumés a day from hopeful job candidates, most of them young. Veenstra said that with all the bright, budding talent in the house, there are more interesting, creative projects going on than he can keep track of. If there's a down side, he said, it's that "you never feel like you can just relax. It's a real challenge to stay current and efficient."

Veenstra would like to see new Calvin grads joining the talent pool at Google. He's a member of the computer science department's Strategic Partners Council, a group composed of professionals in the field that advises the department on useful ways to prepare students for the marketplace and to network there.

Veenstra knows it's tough to stay ahead not only of a technology changing almost hourly, but also of students with curiosity and ingenuity. He laughs remembering his own days in Calvin's computer lab in the early 1980s: "A small group of us knew more about the computers than the professors did, and we tried everything we could think of. We were just curious-and pretty proud of ourselves."

Jack invites readers to visit his blog at www.laura-sayings.blogspot.com.