Engineering grad student guides Google’s 2020 elections results experience

Meet Troy Kensinger, Technical Program Manager responsible for Google’s election results experience.

Troy also is a Vanderbilt student pursuing a master’s degree in computer science—online. Troy is from College Station, Texas, and currently resides in Los Angeles.

What was your professional path to Google?

The path started right after my undergrad from Texas A&M (S-E-C!). I was a part of an IT residency program and I worked as a Corporate Operations Engineer (basically a role doing IT helpdesk and system administration) at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. Taking this role diverged from my original career path, which was semiconductor testing. My undergrad was in Electronics Engineering and interned as a test engineer with IBM’s Systems & Technology group in Austin. Despite not really having a lot of IT experience, I took a gamble and accepted the position when it was offered. Once I got to Google, I was able to learn so much—including that IT wasn’t the field for me. Luckily, internal mobility within Google is supported. This led me to working with a variety of different teams, such as Android Security, Google Fiber, and Datacenter Hardware Platforms

It’s been close to 10 years since this all started and it’s been an absolute blast. I’ve learned so much and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

What do you do at Google? Tell us about the election results project.

For the last 2 years, I’ve been working as a Technical Program Manager for the Search Social Initiatives team, specifically working on Civics-related projects. To give you an example of what this means, I help build and launch features on Search that assist users with their Civic journey (e.g. look up who represents them in their respective government, learn how and where to vote, see the results of current elections, etc). My direct role in Civics and in the U.S. 2020 Elections experience is/was to ensure that our data infrastructure continues to be resilient and to manage high-risk work streams (e.g. ensure proper executive-level product escalation paths are in place for launch day, drive the development of system monitoring tools, establish defensive protocols in situations of product abuse, etc).

Most recently, I contributed to a project that helped people find credible information on election results. When people come to Google looking for “election results,” they’d see the official count of projected electoral college votes and vote percentages for various levels of government from the Associated Press (President, federal legislative, gubernatorial, ballot measures). Of course, I didn’t do this alone; while it may seem like a fairly straightforward feature, it involved a team of people working to ensure our users had easy, efficient access to updated, authoritative information on Google Search

I also work on products such as the Civic Info API, which is a free political data resource that anyone can use. I also helped build other Civics-related features, including the experiences people see when they search “where to vote” or “how to vote.” Our goal was to provide more than just blue links. We wanted to help people with their voting journey, making it easier to find their polling locations and provide guidance for how they could vote or register to vote. Of course, all of this information came from authoritative data providers/sources.

What was the biggest technical challenge facing the team? Any surprises?

There’s an aphorism that comes to mind when thinking about the challenges we faced: “perfect is the enemy of good.” In this space, it is critical that the information we provide users is clear, accurate, comprehensive, and authoritative. As you’d expect, this isn’t easy to achieve. In the situation of the Election Results Onebox, we had other scope that we wanted to launch, but eventually had to cut due to data limitations. However, the show had to go on and we were able to launch a great election night experience despite not being able to do everything that we thought would be useful to users.

How will this experience shape Google’s coverage/tracking/reporting? of midterm elections in 2022 and a presidential election in 2024, other future elections?

We’re always looking for ways to improve people’s experience when they come to Google looking for civic information. In the past, we’ve had election results features for the US Mid-terms, EU Parliament, Lok Sabha, Bundestag, and many others. It’s likely we’ll continue to expand where it makes sense and where possible. We’ve also got some other proactive, non-election period ideas that are regularly discussed, but are not ready for the launch backlog just yet.

Why pursue a computer science master’s degree and why the Vanderbilt School of Engineering online program?

A professor once told me “never stop learning…always push yourself to mentally ingest something new every day.” While I have ample opportunity to learn on the job at Google, I often find myself craving the structured learning environment of academia. I’ve always wanted to pursue a masters and Vanderbilt has provided exactly what I have been pursuing. What makes this program unique is that it covers both the theoretical and practical aspects of developing software, which is exactly what I need to help scale the work that I do within Google. The faculty at Vanderbilt recognize this and support me in any way they can. The ultimate goal is to propel myself to the c-level and I believe I can get there through consistent learning and dedication to my craft/the products that I work on.

Finally, as a computer scientist, what’s your opinion about the future of information gathering?

Advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing have certainly made it easier to obtain and serve data relevant to user’s interests. From the Civics perspective, combining these technologies with data from sources like the Federal Election Commission and the Library of Congress have made serving Civic related information easier to utilize. The more readily available this data is to our users, the more informed and involved people are likely to be in their civic lives.

Contact: Brenda Ellis, 615 343-6314