Google Inc

Charting a bold vision in Gen AI without sight

Photo of Arun Panayappan, engineering manager for Google Cloud, with quote saying, "I'm grateful for the opportunity to pursue my passion for gen AI at Google. It feels like something that was always meant to be."

Below is an article originally published on Google's blog. Visit the Google company page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.

My career has been largely shaped by two things: my passion for computers and being born with partial blindness. Math was always my favorite class, and I discovered my love for computer science early on – inspiring me to study electrical engineering in college and pursue my Master’s degree in software systems.

Even as a young student in India, I dreamed of a career on the cutting edge of technology. But I faced a daunting question: how would my disability affect my capabilities? Two decades later, I’ve learned (much to my surprise) that it’s what drove me forward. My disability not only empowered my career path, but it helped me discover my strengths, my passions, and who I am.

I discovered where my strengths can take me in my career

After working at tech companies in the U.S. for several years, my vision continued deteriorating until I became 90% blind. I needed to find a new way to support my family and continue the work I loved. After reflecting on my skills, I realized my disability is a unique set of capabilities, not a barrier. Once people with disabilities discover our own way to do something, nothing can stop us – especially when we have a vision.

Deciding where I wanted to take my career was the next step. When my wife and I moved back to India, she encouraged me to use my strong presentation and communications skills to teach. I designed a corporate training course for statistical machine learning – which brought the opportunity to travel across India and do what I love – but I was also charting a new course. I hadn’t seen anyone with my disability achieve the career I wanted before. It was important to me to become the role model I didn’t have growing up.

Inspired to give back, my wife and I founded an educational trust called the Karka Nirka Trust, dedicated to providing scholarships to children in rural India and building school facilities, like libraries and toilets. I also founded another startup that crowd sourced AI models and made them available to small companies, including My Third Eye, a tool that helps blind children move through the world using computer vision.

“Once people with disabilities discover our own way to do something, nothing can stop us – especially when we have a vision.”

I realized support empowered me to follow my dreams

In 2021, I was working at a well-known telecom company and couldn’t imagine opening another chapter in my career – until a Google recruiter asked me to interview for a role. While I was inspired to continue pursuing my passion for AI, I had my concerns. I wanted to make sure the recruiters understood my vision is 90% impaired, but they assured me Google hires people for their skills and encouraged me to apply.

I heard Google is supportive, but I was blown away by how empowering the interview process was. The Google recruiters asked what accommodations I needed, and I immediately realized how much the interview process was designed to help me succeed. Recruiters offered to extend interview times and encouraged me to use a tablet and pen to write code because it’s easier than typing. I know we often hesitate in asking for accommodation but my experience with Google empowered me to give my best and I thought of sharing a short video here to demystify the candidate accommodations at Google.

“The culture at Google makes me feel comfortable and empowered – nothing holds me back.”

After the interviews, I talked to nearly 20 Googlers across multiple teams to determine which AI initiatives interested me most. Google also recruited a full-time support assistant for me, who helps by accompanying me to meetings and providing context as I navigate the Google campus. I was touched to receive help I didn’t have to ask for. I knew the company was different, and I wanted to experience what it meant to be a Googler.

I found new ways to bring my love for Gen AI to Cloud

Now as the AI lead on the Google Cloud team, I’m thrilled to be building the next generation of generative AI for Cloud and Workspace in India. When I joined the team a year ago, I saw how AI could help us reimagine customer experience – saving customers time while easing frustrations with a human experience. Today, our team is focused on innovating AI and ML solutions that will transform the Cloud customer experience. Our vision is to help as many people as possible by providing up-to-date information whenever they need it.

My team members care deeply about helping people, which extends to me as well. They accommodate my needs, like using black backgrounds for our presentations (which I can see more clearly!). Their thoughtfulness, along with a support assistant, has made it possible to tackle projects that inspire me every day.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue my passion for gen AI at Google. It feels like something that was always meant to be.”

As my team and I chart new frontiers together, my approach to coaching and mentorship is closely tied to my personal experiences. I believe being transparent, vocalizing needs and finding new ways to use our strengths is the key to innovative thinking. That’s why Google is a great match for me. Every day I’m reminded that I have the support I need to further my career and be my authentic self – at work and beyond.

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