Sign In

Communications of the ACM


An Academic's Observations from a Sabbatical at Google

bike parked on Google campus

Credit: Dreamframer / Shutterstock

I have spent the majority of my computing career in an academic environment, with a Ph.D. in Informatics from the University of Edinburgh (2007), postdoctoral experience at the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, and Melbourne (2007–2010), followed by a faculty position at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. However, several questions had always played on my mind: "What is industry really like?", "Am I working on the right problems?", "How can I get people to use my research?" To answer some of these questions I applied to the Google Visiting Faculty program,3 where I spent nine months as a Visiting Scientist in Mountain View, CA, as part of the Borgmaster team. Borg8 is Google's cluster management framework, which runs hundreds of thousands of jobs, across a number of clusters each with up to tens of thousands of machines. This Viewpoint summarizes some of my experiences working in software engineering at Google, with each subsection derived from observations inspiring the core lessons I am bringing back to academia in order to improve both research and teaching.

Back to Top

Production Software Engineering

One of the most useful experiences during my time at Google was writing production-quality code. This is not something I had a great deal of experience with, coming primarily from an academic background, where the output is usually research or prototype code. The differences and motivation for code between academia and industry are stark: in an academic environment, code is primarily written for the purposes of demonstrating a proof of concept and is often of low quality and even disposed of after a paper deadline or project finishes. The reason behind this is not that academics cannot write code, but that the code is often a means to an end. The new knowledge and insights, written up as a research paper, are the artifacts that researchers value. In industry, code is written for a group of end users and developers who must maintain and extend its functionality. It must, therefore, pass rigorous testing and code review before it is checked in and made available to the rest of the company, and eventually the outside world.


No entries found

Log in to Read the Full Article

Sign In

Sign in using your ACM Web Account username and password to access premium content if you are an ACM member, Communications subscriber or Digital Library subscriber.

Need Access?

Please select one of the options below for access to premium content and features.

Create a Web Account

If you are already an ACM member, Communications subscriber, or Digital Library subscriber, please set up a web account to access premium content on this site.

Join the ACM

Become a member to take full advantage of ACM's outstanding computing information resources, networking opportunities, and other benefits.

Subscribe to Communications of the ACM Magazine

Get full access to 50+ years of CACM content and receive the print version of the magazine monthly.

Purchase the Article

Non-members can purchase this article or a copy of the magazine in which it appears.
Sign In for Full Access
» Forgot Password? » Create an ACM Web Account