An unexpected dream

Nadia Payet did not expect to find herself at Google when she was growing up in Réunion, a French island near Madagascar. But Oregon State University expanded her vision of what she could become. Her story is one she hopes will inspire others, especially other women in technology fields and young people from her home town.

As a student of electrical and computer engineering in Lyon, France, Payet decided to study abroad for six months at Oregon State. Her interest in electrical engineering was waning, so while at Oregon State she focused on “all the fun classes in computer science,” and discovered a passion for image processing and data visualization.

“This is why I have a special place in my heart for Oregon State — because it started me on my career,” she says.

Her experience inspired her to return to Oregon State to complete a master’s project for her home school in France. When she was offered an assistantship to stay at Oregon State to attain a Ph.D., she jumped at the chance. She persevered through graduate school even when her first advisor left Oregon State and she started her research anew with a focus on object recognition under Professor Sinisa Todorovic.

For her first job, Payet deliberately stayed in the Pacific Northwest where she “loves the weather and the people.” She started her career at Amazon working for Kindle Direct Publishing which helps people publish their own book. She worked on the software that uses machine learning to compare book submissions with Amazon’s database of books to check for copyright infringement.

“That was pretty cool because it was my first experience with large data — millions and millions of books — and I also got to use my vision background to analyze imagery content,” she says.

But after a year, she decided she was very interested in working on mobile phones. Rather than moving internally within Amazon she took an opportunity to join the Google maps team where she has been for four years.

“I have stayed because I love the projects and opportunities I have there. Once you find your happy place you can stay and create new opportunities,” she says.

Engineering is hard, it would be a lie to say it’s easy, but it’s hard for everyone — men and women.   – Nadia Payet

To encourage students from her alma mater to join Google, Payet visits Oregon State once a year to give advice about how to apply for internships. She also makes a point to spend time with the Women in Engineering group to talk to them about the issues they are facing as a minority in engineering and motivate them to stick with it.

“Engineering is hard, it would be a lie to say it’s easy, but it’s hard for everyone — men and women,” she says.

Payet is also working with other women at Google to encourage more women in leadership positions by building community, fostering mentorships, and offering trainings and presentations.

“I think that a support system is starting to build up and I see it in other companies as well,” she says. “So hopefully that will eventually be the solution — to where there will be enough women at the top and it will feel more normal than it is right now.”

She recognizes that improving the pipeline of females interested in technology is an important step in changing the numbers of women in technology. She serves as a role model to high-school students and tells them about the opportunities they could have at Google. She hopes to do the same in her home island where there is now an engineering school.

“I feel it is important to make them aware of what is possible. It’s within anyone’s reach, you just need to set your mind to it,” she says.

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