Engineering Alumnus at Google Ensures Equality Gets a Seat at the Table

10 questions with Thomas Cliett (B.S.E.C.E. ’10)
Thomas Cliett poses with SCE Dean Kevin Truman while receiving an award

School of Computing and Engineering Young Alumni Award recipient Thomas Cliett (B.S.E.C.E. ’10) credits his experience at UMKC as his initial motivation to advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Growing up in Beavercreek, Ohio, Cliett said he walked around blissfully unaware of how different his world was compared to that of his friends and fellow students, a mix of women and people of color. As a strategic cloud engineer at the Google France office in Paris, Cliett continues to volunteer and make conscious hiring decisions to help close racial and gender gaps in STEM.

Learn more about his journey from his hometown in Ohio to Paris, France. Roos are everywhere and Cliett sat down to share how he got there.

Why did you choose to attend UMKC?

I was working for Sprint at the time, and UMKC was the first school I visited. I was so impressed by the amount of time the school took to talk to me and help me decide on a degree that I stopped looking right there. Sprint paid for most of my school.

How did your relationships with faculty influence your success as a student?

The faculty at UMKC were amazing. I’ve attended three universities and the level of availability of UMKC faculty and their willingness to help students find interesting ways to engage is similar to what I expect from an excellent manager in my career.

The encouragement I received from Rhiannon Dickerson to participate in speech contests and develop my public speaking skills has been extremely valuable for when I’m giving C-level presentations and for being an effective technical speaker at conferences. Also, the work in neural networks that was encouraged and facilitated by Dr. Reza Derakhshani continues to influence my career decisions and my technical passions. I am currently building a smart-home control platform that uses tensor flow lite models to make decisions on controlling lights and heating in my house.

Finally, Dr. Cory Beard taught me a lesson about customer management that I come back to constantly in my career. He says at the start of each quarter that we pay the tuition so he works for us, and therefore he should do whatever it takes to make sure we get a good education in the area he is teaching. A variation of this phrase still shapes the way I think when working with both internal and external customers.

“Still today, I first ask myself ‘why are we proposing this approach?’ and if the answer is unsatisfying,‘is there a better approach?’ I thank Dr. Derakhshani for a lot of this acquired muscle in critical thinking.”

Who was your favorite professor and what did they teach you?

There’s a saying that goes “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and working with Dr. Derakhshani really drove this point home. While the information I acquired in his class around machine learning and neural networks helped me to understand how many Google tools work fundamentally, the real lesson was to look for the right tool for the problem. In class and in the lab, Dr. D would consistently drive home the point with data and examples that we needed to suit our approach to the problem instead of the other way around. This simple lesson has made me a vastly superior engineer to the one I would be without it. Still today, I first ask myself “why are we proposing this approach?” and if the answer is unsatisfying, “is there a better approach?” I thank Dr. D for a lot of this acquired muscle in critical thinking.

What is your role at Google and what does it entail?

I manage an engineering organization. My engineers support all customer cloud deployments valued at $1 million a year or greater in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. My — fairly enviable — role is to hire the smartest people in the world and get the heck out of their way. Secondary to that, I set strategy regionally and globally. I find problems that need high-level engagement to solve and I solve them. I provide coaching to my engineering managers so they can build the strongest teams possible and I try to stay relevant as an engineer.

Thomas Cliett reconnects with former professor and mentor Reza Derakhshani

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in your career?

The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that everyone has a list of problems, the most valuable engineers are those who can bring and execute on solutions. This was true when I was an engineer individual contributor and it is true now that I manage an organization. In fact, I keep a list on Google Drive called “cool things we should do” where I add every problem I come up against that does not have a solution today. I share this list with my entire organization because I am definitely not smart enough to know all the answers. When I do know how to solve the problem, I take it off the list and own it from launch to landing. My team does the same. The net effect is our engineering team has a reputation for execution excellence and that makes me feel proud of them.

Briefly outline your career path and how it led to Paris.

I dropped out of my first university to join a couple of startups back to back. After a while, I got burned out and took a less stressful job managing phone technicians at Sprint stores and depots in Nebraska and Iowa, and then in Missouri and Kansas. That’s when I started attending UMKC.

2009 happened, and I was laid off like everyone else but decided to finish my degree at UMKC. After completing my education, the economy was still terrible so I decided to take another year off to travel around the world, and spend time with friends and loved ones.

Upon returning to the workforce I spent a brief time in design, verification and validation testing for a water treatment plant on a copper mine in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Shortly after, I moved to Dallas to be a sales and integration engineer for Operating Theaters with Stryker, Inc. The amazing part about this job is that I got to observe surgical flows during live surgeries, then design operating rooms around the way top-tier surgical teams work and finally see the results of my improvements to their physical space. It was a very rewarding role.

I moved to San Francisco to take a job with Google in 2013 supporting the largest websites that use Google Ads products. In 2014, that role took me to Washington, D.C. After doing that for two years, I wanted a new challenge so I interviewed to be a cloud engineer in London. Due to customer demand and my meager French skills I was offered a role in Paris instead, which I happily accepted. Since then I have grown from the manager of an engineering team to my current role as the head of an engineering organization.

“If you propose something contentious and you look around the room to see a lot of nodding heads, you probably don’t have enough diversity of thought in the room.”

You give back to the SCE often, especially in support of underrepresented groups. Can you detail more of your philanthropic activity?

The most tangible thing I do is contribute to the Doris Markham Swinney Endowed Scholarship, which provides scholarship support to women engineers. I also do some work to support historically excluded groups in and out of work:

  • Technovation mentor. Technovation offers girls around the world the opportunity to learn the skills they need to emerge as tech entrepreneurs and leaders. Each year they invite girls to identify a problem in their community, and then challenge them to solve it. In 2017, the team I mentored was a semifinalist in the Europe competition. I also mentored five teams in 2018.
  • Help the Women @ Leadership group design and implement programs meant to empower women in Google France and in France (non-Google)
  • Global Diversity lead for the cloud engineering organization
  • CareerGuru at Google
What inspires you to give back?

I have a dual motivation for giving back. As a white male from the Midwest in engineering, I spent most of my life blissfully unaware that there was actually a disparity between what the world looked like for me and what it looks like for others. Coming to UMKC and being in a classroom setting, and subsequently forming friendships with both black and female students really opened my eyes to my ignorance, and I have not been able to close them since. It offends my sense of fair play to have groups of people excluded not only by the biases of today but also because of the weight of historical bias.

My second motivation is because I want to live in a better world, faster. By almost any metric, teams with diverse opinions outperform teams without. Whether it is my engineering team at Google or a team working on the battery technology of tomorrow or an orchestra performing, I want every team to outperform. The first step in doing that is just having the voices of historically excluded groups added, and that starts with education.

“Be curious, learn more about the things you are curious about, and never think that your tech skills today will carry you all the way to retirement.”

What’s next in your career?

Retire? I just started my own business in France but I don’t intend for it to be more than a side gig, hopefully. I am pretty happy helping to drive change in the cloud organization in Google. If this ever becomes a more settled business like Google Ads, I will probably be looking for the next messy challenge where I can keep learning, failing and growing.

What advice would you give students looking to start a career in tech?
  1. Luck is important but so is hard work. I have been handed a lot of great opportunities in my life that I squandered because I didn’t understand that.
  2. If you propose something contentious and you look around the room to see a lot of nodding heads, you probably don’t have enough diversity of thought in the room. The day I go to a leadership meeting and we don’t fight about everything is the day I will go and hire someone with a fresh perspective.
  3. Always keep growing. I have been lucky that I have never had the same job twice so I have been forced to acquire new skills regularly. Things I learned at my first two jobs still help to influence decisions I make today, but those tech skills are no longer valuable. Be curious, learn more about the things you are curious about, and never think that your tech skills today will carry you all the way to retirement.

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Published: May 24, 2019

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