A Chat With Michee Smith, Google’s Security And Privacy Product Manager

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Written by Ann Brown
Google
Google security and privacy product manager Michee Smith talks about being Black in tech: “I’ve had co-workers treat me like a ghetto-meter.” (Photo: cloud.google.com)

Michee Smith grew up with dreams of being a lawyer until a movie unlocked her desire to be in tech.

As a teen, Smith saw the film “Hackers” starring Angelina Jolie and realized that being a computer geek was just her thing. As Google’s security and privacy product manager, she not only keeps up on hacking but on almost all things tech.

Smith earned a computer science degree with a concentration on artificial intelligence from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She landed at Microsoft right after college and stayed there for more than 11 years in a variety of roles. But when she volunteered as the security and privacy champion for her team, she discovered her passion for privacy.

Soon after, Google hired Smith to work as a privacy product manager full time. She is also a product manager at Google Cloud, where it’s her responsibility to help build products that help protect customers’ privacy when they store their data in the cloud. 

Smith talked to The Moguldom Nation about privacy issues and the challenges she has faced being Black in tech.

Moguldom Nation: What first attracted you to the tech world?

Michee Smith: The movie “Hackers” really resonated with me and it was the first time I had seen a woman (Angelina Jolie) cast as a computer geek. Following that film, I began to explore what I would have to study to become a hacker. This is when I discovered the Computer Science major. When I was offered the role in security and privacy at Google, it actually felt like I had come full circle to what sparked my interest in tech in the first place. 

Moguldom Nation: Data privacy is a major concern in big tech. How is Google ensuring data privacy for its users?

Smith: Protecting user data is core to our mission. We build privacy into everything we do, which is why I am so passionate about my job. I work on products that make it easier for users and customers to understand and control what happens with their data. It’s a fascinating challenge — privacy means different things to different people. 

Attitudes and preferences shift from culture to culture, so it’s important that we don’t make it one-size-fits all but instead build products that are understanding of and respectful of the different ways people view privacy. That’s why we do things like centralizing privacy controls in one place in My Account, nudging users to review their settings, and releasing an annual transparency report. In Cloud, we put customers in control of their data with products like Access Transparency and Access Approvals, which give customers full visibility and control over who is able to touch their data, for example, when they reach out to customer support. I’m passionate about privacy and helping to drive forward innovation in this area.

Moguldom Nation: Please tell us more about your time at Microsoft.

Smith: I started at Microsoft right after college, as a software engineer in test, where I coded and designed software that emulated our production partner systems. This was to ensure we could meet quality, reliability, and scale targets before going into production. 

I worked very closely with reliability engineers on the commerce platform that supported Xbox, MSN, Bing, and more. From there, I moved to a role in program management for Windows which allowed me to be more upfront in the software lifecycle and put me closer to the customers. It was in that role that I started to work closely with the central security and privacy teams and was trained in threat modeling, data collection, and its impact on the privacy policy, and how to assess privacy risk.

Moguldom Nation: What made you want to join Google?

Smith: In my 11 years at Microsoft, I found a passion for privacy, and became the privacy champion for my team. Then Google brought me on to work as a product manager in privacy full time and I’ve been at Google for almost five years now. In my role, I build tools that help keep user and company data private and I provide transparency around how Google processes data. 

Moguldom Nation: Tell us what your typical day is like at work?

Smith: As a part of Google Cloud, I lead a team that builds products to make sure we are a trusted cloud for customers to put their data. At Cloud, I have the opportunity to help not just Google, but many companies across the world, work to ensure the privacy of their data. I’ve worked on a bunch of interesting projects, including Google’s efforts to comply with the GDPR, Europe’s broad privacy regulations. 

I’m focused on meeting with customers to understand their expectations and needs around data confidentiality and privacy compliance in the Cloud. From there, I translate those needs into product strategy and work closely with our engineering team to deliver the right products and services for our customers. Additionally, a big portion of my role is empowering my team to deliver products that meet our customers’ needs. 

Moguldom Nation: What do you find the most challenging about your role at Google?

Smith: The most challenging aspect of my role at Google is making the right decision when the impact for that decision is global or could change how the entire business operates. 

Working in privacy means that you work in an area that is not only important to tech but intersects with public policy, laws and regulations, regional culture differences, and personal beliefs. Designing products that deliver a respectful experience for the user taking all of these items into account and the quality of the software can be very challenging. I am not just considering how much users will be satisfied with my product or how much this product will move Google Cloud closer to its revenue targets, but also how will this product impact Google’s overall reputation and the public’s trust in Google Cloud. I have found that when these larger decisions come up it is important to take a principled approach that aligns with Google’s broader principles as well as my own principles around making privacy more natural to the development process, such that privacy is the easiest thing to build into the product and not an item at odds with innovation.

Moguldom Nation: What advice would you give to Black women who want to enter the tech world?

Smith: I’m not here because I’m necessarily special, but because I haven’t let rejection stop me. Rejection isn’t a value judgment on you. Persevere and believe in yourself. Continue to prepare yourself and pursue your career aspirations. The right opportunity will come.

Moguldom Nation: In your view, has the tech world become more representative of people?

Smith: In many ways, tech companies have taken a lead with ground-up approaches to make the workplace more inclusive such as unconscious bias training, establishing principles around D&I, and creating recruiting programs to attract and prepare diverse talent to enter the tech workforce.

There’s much more work to be done. We’re starting to see a bit more accountability in the incentive structure for tech company leadership, which I think is key to seeing real change. For example, California instituted a rule that says any board of directors in California of a certain size must have women on it, which gives leaders incentives to go beyond their normal avenues to see other talent that they wouldn’t have found if they didn’t have the right incentive to do it. 

Moguldom Nation: Have you experienced challenges in tech because of your race and gender?

Smith: Yes, there are challenges that I experience in tech because of my race and gender. 

The major challenges have been around understanding what biases exist in those who I work with that I’ll need to address to ensure my career isn’t impacted or that my communications with them aren’t misconstrued. For example, I’ve had co-workers treat me like a ghetto-meter asking me about “how ghetto is a certain situation like a broken microwave in a Microkitchen.”

This assumes a background about me that may or may not be true and can come with other biases. For example, a manager may then feel over-invested in ensuring that I’m successful because of this presumed upbringing and not give me projects that would stretch me because they don’t want me to fail. While the sentiment is genuine, the result could be detrimental to my career.  

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As a woman, I have to be aware of unofficial gatherings amongst men that lead to key decisions being made or valuable networking time with senior leaders. I have to look for ways to not only ensure I’m a part of these gatherings but also that my thoughts are conveyed in a way where they’re heard and not dismissed. When I build up credibility in these environments I also feel compelled to make sure they evolve to be more inclusive so that ideas and thoughts from other diverse backgrounds are heard.

Moguldom Nation: How can tech companies be more inclusive?

Smith: This is an area where I’ve been impressed with Google’s culture. Yes, there is still work to be done but overall the intent is to make people of all backgrounds welcomed at Google. 

Across tech, I am still hearing stories where people are being referred to as a “diversity hire” or they try to start a diversity initiative and it’s received with statements like “I want to hire the top talent” as if the top talent can’t be more diverse than the mainstream talent that exists. Hiring top talent and hiring diverse talent aren’t opposing goals but complimentary. This is the major paradigm shift that needs to happen to make tech companies more inclusive. 

In addition, strengthening programs in the workplace that teach managers how to give feedback and grow leaders of diverse backgrounds will also go a long way to retaining diverse talent and making the tech company environment more inclusive. Finally, increasing incentives at senior leadership levels to grow diverse organizations will lead to more representation in tech companies, which leads to a more inclusive environment.