Googling for inclusive workplace

Hi! Today we are meeting with Andrew Tjia, hard of hearing software engineer at Google. Read interview with him below!

IRINA IVANOVA.
Can you shortly introduce yourself to readers and tell us what is your job position in Google?

Andrew Tjia
My name is Andrew Tjia, and I'm a software engineer at Google. I was born with a severe/profound asymmetrical hearing loss and after studying computer science in university and later going to graduate school, I joined Google, and worked for a couple of years in the San Francisco Bay area before relocating to Google Tokyo about 4 years ago. I've worked on a lot of different things, between search, maps, Android, and most recently on advertising systems here. My main responsibilities include writing software for the web that you see on computers and mobile phones, as well as software that runs in the datacenters to make everything work together.

I. I.
Did you join to Google after graduating or after gaining experience in different companies? Can you tell more how did you get hired to Google and was your hearing loss is barrier then?

ANDREW TJIA
So, Google was my first real job out of university, however, I did a few internships in smaller local companies around Canada, and also a few big ones like Microsoft and Research in Motion as part of my university's cooperative education program (a program where students take a few academic terms away from studying to do internships). Google actually was initially one of those internships I did during my Masters program. After I finished and went back to school, they invited me to come and work full time after grad school. So, naturally I accepted

As to how exactly I got hired, I did a lot of interview preparation during my studies. At the time when I interviewed for Google, and also for all my other internships prior, phone interviews were pretty standard and still are. I remember dreading phone interviews, especially if the interviewer had an unfamiliar accent, so it was challenging at times. But once these interviews moved from the phone to an on-site, in person interview, things were much easier, and it's common to use a whiteboard as an aid to record answers and communicate ideas during the interview. Of course, lots of the other communication with recruiters and so on are done over email, so this was no problem at all. In summary, yes, my hearing loss was a barrier, but not an insurmountable one.

I. I.
Can you speak via phone due to hearing aid or understand recorded audio or you asked somebody to take phone for you or decipher the audio?

ANDREW TJIA
My hearing loss is about 85 decibels in my right ear, and in excess of 100 decibels in my left ear. Generally, I can speak and hear on the phone with hearing aids in very ideal conditions, but it can be challenging if anything is not quite right - for instance, an unfamiliar accent, background noise, or a bad connection. Often times, I will use strategies like repeating back what I think I heard, clarifying or asking people to use different words to say the same thing, or if all else fails, steering the conversation in a familiar direction Very recently, I have been experimenting with using telephone relay services and automated voice transcription, but when I did my interviews years ago, I somehow managed to scrape by on my own without these services. Also, in recent years too, when I do video conferencing during work meetings, I often use Remote CART services.

I.I.
We see that it required a lot of work from you side. Do you need to pay for Remote CART services yourself or you can apply for State help? When you was hired, HR-manager considered that you hearing loss is not barrier. But HOH people sometimes or often find themselves in situation that work team or colleagues are not ready for it. What Google team did so that the workplace was adapted for the hearing impaired. Or it's only you were thinking and looking for way to workplace adaptation?

ANDREW TJIA
In terms of Remote CART services, they are paid for by my company when I use it at work. For other deaf people that I've met, they might use other accomodations such as sign language interpreters, also provided by the company. I haven't used Remote CART services outside of work yet though, but I am not aware of these services available as a public service from the government in any country I've lived in. However, telephone relay services are now available at no-cost for deaf and hard of hearing users in Canada, USA, and Japan, so this is good to know. I definitely agree that hard of hearing people often face challenges in the workplace. I feel though that I have it a bit lucky in that in this day and age, we use a lot of electronic email and other systems to communicate and rarely use the phone, so I don't feel as disadvantaged here. In person meetings are not so bad, but video conferencing is always challenging - people aren't speaking directly into microphones, there is lots of cross talking, and the room acoustics are always poor. So, the company was happy to provide Remote CART services for me. I think that I'm also lucky that meetings at work are often just another way to confirm information that is also recorded elsewhere, and my team keeps a very good practice of taking meeting notes for posterity, so it's always easy to remember what happened earlier and what was decided. However, it is an ongoing conversation - best practices are that one should not just simply assume that someone needs help or a given accomodation because we experience our disabilities in so many different ways. So, it's important for hard of hearing people to be good self advocates and be able to let those around them know when they need help when some new situation arises. For example, videos are often distributed internally for announcements and training. Recently, these are now required to be captioned before being sent out after employees advocated for the change.

I.I.
Cool, it was not required for you to fight for worplace accomodation in Google and company met your needs. Are there other people with any disabilities in Google too or you are single HOH person in your branch?

ANDREW TJIA
There are definitely other people with disabilities at Google Japan - visual, mobility, as well as other deaf and hard of hearing employees, and certainly more worldwide. Generally, Google takes the perspective that in order to build products for a diverse world with many different people, Google itself needs to be diverse in order to understand these needs better. For instance, one of the creators of Live Transcribe is deaf themselves, which you can read more about here (https://www.blog.google/…/making-audio-more-accessible-two…/).

I.I.
Ok! It's cool that Google takes the perspective that in order to build products for a diverse world. It's highly possible that HOH people from different parts of world do not know some products. Can you list the he products made by Google for HOH which can be used by HOH and deaf now or in future. Or Live Transcribe is the single product now?

ANDREW TJIA
Lots of products have multiple uses - so we often don't talk about a product being designed exclusively for hard of hearing users. For instance, Live Transcribe might be just as good for hard of hearing users as for a second language learner. Another one that comes to mind are automatic captions on YouTube, which might also be useful for someone trying to watch a video with a muted speaker in a quiet environment. Perhaps another one that seems to be right around the corner are assistants that can make phone calls for us to do everyday tasks (https://ai.googleblog.com/…/duplex-ai-system-for-natural-co…) - this could be great for someone who has a speech impediment.

I.I.
You said that you was transferred to Google Tokyo 4 years ago from San Francisco Bay. I guess, it means changed enivornment including language. It's not easy task to learn new language. Did you need to learn Japanese for your daily life? If yes, how much time was required for you?

ANDREW TJIA
Yes, I've been studying Japanese for the past 4 years or so. At work, we use mostly English, so there are no problems there, but I did want to be able to expand my social circles and also make daily living easier, so from very early on, I knew that I wanted to study Japanese if I moved here. I'm nowhere near fluent, even after 4 years here, and I'm not sure I'll ever reach a point where I'll be confident to assert that I'm fluent. That said, in the past 4 years, I've been averaging something like an hour a day of studying in some form - whether that be reading, speaking, or listening to some material.

I.I.
Do you study only oral Japanese language or sign language too? When you can communicate in Japanese. For example, you can understand Japanese only in shop or you can even listen to lecture? Some people complain that they spent about 8 months when they begin to understand new oral language by hearing or lip reading while hearing people usually begin understand language about after month. What about you? Do you use some methods to understand foreign language faster?

ANDREW TJIA
Formally, I've studied mostly spoken/written Japanese language, but I did take a short course to learn Japanese sign language. However, the JSL I know was mostly acquired outside a classroom. Learning a new language is hard, and I have difficulties understanding spoken Japanese in common situations even though I've been studying for a while now. But my comprehension is getting better as I become more familiar with the language.

I agree that it probably takes longer for hard of hearing people to be comfortable with listening comprehension in any second language, but because there are hard of hearing people all over the world speaking it as their primary language, I know it can't be impossible I use different methods to learn each of speaking, reading/writing, and listening differently. For listening, unfortunately, there is no good substitute to just listening to as much native material as one can find. To aid in that comprehension, just like English, I use subtitles, as well simultaneous communication where I listen at the same time as reading sign language.

I.I.
You lived at San Francisco, now you live at Tokyo. Travellers, foreigns usually notice some things, some differences in style of life. Is it possible to say that Japan is adapted to the life of the hearing-impaired and deaf from your personal point of view? We are speaking about your life outside of Google. More about your daily life in Japan?

ANDREW TJIA
Ah, that's a bit of a difficult question to answer. I think, especially with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Japan has made a lot of efforts to be more aware of diversity and there is a lot of top-down initiatives to make this happen. So, generally, things are moving in a positive direction, and the concept of the social model of disability is more widespread now than before. There are the occasional friction points - say, some services are only available over the telephone, or the rare refusal to accomodate, but it is on par with other societies that I have lived in.

I.I.
What do you suggest to hoh and deaf who want to be a software engineer and work in big companies in light of your experience? Is there something that hoh person should take into account specifically

ANDREW TJIA
If I had to give some advice regarding Google specifically, I would say that don't be afraid to reach out to the recruiter to ask for accomodations if you need it for an interview or for workplace. I wasn't aware of it 7 years ago when I started, but recruiters take hiring seriously and do make every effort to make sure candidates feel comfortable during the interview process. Now that I've seen the other side of the process being an occasional interviewer myself, I know that there is lots of flexibility in how we do interviews and the types of accomodations we can do - for some deaf candidates, we can do interviews over text chat instead of the usual phone interview.

If I had to speak on the topic of software engineering, it is a great time to be a software engineer - almost every field and industry relies on software in some form. What you learn is really a general problem solving method, and then it's up to you to apply it to whatever application is demanded - whether that be finance and keeping track of money, advancing scientific research and knowledge, or applying it in creative ways such as the arts and music. Our hearing aids also are running software Lots of people get caught into the trap that software engineering is all about writing computer code - but the code is only a means to an end; software engineering is as much about writing code as say, memorizing English words or grammar is to journalists, who are trying to tell a story or communicate an opinion. It also so happens that a lot of these innovations have also made life easier for the deaf and hard of hearing. I don't know if there is such a thing as an ideal career - I've met hard of hearing people in all kinds of surprising and admirable occupations - but I'm glad that in some small way, I can contribute back to some of those technologies that have aided me along the way.

Interview was taken by Irina Ivanova

Ediz Tekok

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