From Phnom Penh to Silicon Valley

Google software engineer Ky Vilayvann shares her inspiring journey from Phnom Penh high-schooler to being one of the only female Cambodians working at the global tech giant’s headquarters in the US.
Ky Vilayvann (left), a software engineer at Google in San Francisco. Photo: supplied
Ky Vilayvann (left), a software engineer at Google in San Francisco. Photo: supplied

In mid-2018, Ky Vilayvann put on a rainbow Noogler hat. Before becoming a software engineer at Google in San Francisco, she spent two stints as an intern at the global technology company, owned by Alphabet Inc, started out as an Engineering Practicum intern for Google Ads developing an Android application in New York.

Before working as a software engineer with Google Play Commerce Infrastructure, she was an Artificial Intelligence teaching assistant at Ivy League, Brown University, where she also graduated with a bachelor in computer science.

However Vilayvann, one among a few Cambodians from Cambodia to land a job at Google, started with stories told by her high school teachers.

It all started at the age of 14, when her physics teacher told everyone in the classroom about his former top mathematics and physics students, who were awarded scholarships abroad.

Vilayvann at Googleplex. Photo: supplied
Vilayvann at Googleplex. Photo: supplied

When Ky Vilayvann was a high schooler, her teachers were her window to the outside world. She listened to what they said about top students who travel abroad through scholarships.

“These stories resonated with me greatly since I wanted to experience living in a different culture among a different group of people, and to be in a rigorous academic environment.”

She added, “So, I aspired to be that person who would be granted a scholarship abroad. I applied to most of the scholarship programs I could find, even the ones I didn't qualify for.”

What young Cambodians need to prepare for future digital workforce

While she doesn’t think she has all the ingredients and advice for Cambodia’s young generation to prepare themselves for a future career like hers, she said, “I probably don't have a good answer to this. One thing I want to emphasize is learn good work ethics: have integrity, be diligent, be reliable, don't complain, and don't gossip, among others.”

She noted, “No matter what time period we're in, having good work ethics has always been an important factor to success at work.”

However, Vilayvann said, “Young people should be able to accept that it's okay to obtain a degree in one field, but have a job in another field.”

She recalled, “When I was growing up in Cambodia, society seemed to give less value to those who didn't use their degree at their jobs.”

To her, majoring in one specialized subject while venturing in another field, either in a career or a business, can be a great combination and complementary to each other.

“Some were told by their parents to study law when their passion lies in business. It's okay to start and run a business.” She said the law degree might even come in handy, and the knowledge obtained in law school may even help the business run successfully.

Nothing is "wasted" as our society tells our young people, Vilayvann said.

She also pointed out that online courses and resources are key to help young Cambodians “ramp up a job that's not related to our degree. What we need is the willingness to learn and the ability to be flexible”.

“At Google, while the majority of engineers have a computer science degree, I personally know many people who studied neuroscience, biology, architecture, or economics, and are doing well at their job as a software engineer,” she told Kiripost in a recent email interview from Silicon Valley.

On the importance of asking questions

“Asking questions increases our boldness and self-esteem. We don't raise our hands to ask questions when we have questions because we are shy or afraid that someone may think we've asked a dumb question,” explained the Google engineer, who has also helped arrange exchange programs for Cambodian university students to visit Googleplex in Mountain View.

“Sometimes, we are too proud to ask, because we are afraid someone may think we're not smart enough. It is risky. Ultimately, not asking questions is rooted in fear.”

Instead, learning to ask more questions helps us overcome these fears, and as a result makes us more bold. “Boldness is necessary to pursue anything,” she noted.

Whether students or problem-solving software engineers, “Asking questions expands our knowledge and creativity. Every good answer to a question tells us something more that we don't already know. It clarifies any ambiguity. It could lead to new ideas or it could lead to more questions that lead to new ideas.”

Everyday at Google, she has many questions when it comes to working collaboratively as a team. “Questions help us understand the issue, which is necessary when brainstorming solutions.”

When Vilayvann was a student, she had to overcome the fear of raising her hand during class, saying, “It really limited my understanding of the lessons and prevented me from learning more than the lessons. [But] I become more efficient at work, and have more ideas,” she said after learning how to ask more questions.

On challenging the challenges

When asked about going through challenges, she told Kiripost that while she has to handle small-scale versus large-scale issues differently, there are approaches that help her in problem-solving.

“First, I pray. I believe in Jesus Christ, so I tell Him about the challenges I face, and I wait for Him to show me how to resolve them. Praying gives me comfort, which sets my mind at peace, so that I can think more clearly.”

Vilayvann said swimming also helps her to decompress, especially when the challenges also cause stress. “I think exercise in general helps. I've found that when my body is fit, my mind is also fit.”

She said talking openly about the problem with her close circle allows her “to get ideas and wisdom from them to help me resolve those challenges”. The Google software engineer explained, “I talk to my friends and family. When comfortable, I share them with my challenges and verbally process my thoughts with them.”

On giving back to Cambodia and inspiring young Cambodians

In an interview earlier this month with Kiripost, entrepreneurship lecturer Stephen Paterson told Kiripost of Vilayvann’s journey,

“She decided to get an international high school in Norway one year and then she got a scholarship at Brown [University] which is one of the top universities in the USA.”

Not hailing from a wealthy background, she managed to get to Norway for one special high school year, Paterson said during the one-hour interview, as he pointed out a number of top talent students from Cambodia who contribute their expertises in global companies.

As he regularly takes his Phnom Penh students at National University of Management to visit global companies, he said, “For the last three years, every time we go there [Google], she opens up the door to allow me to get Cambodian students to visit the company.”

During her spare time, Vilayvann also mentors high school and college students who are seeking to secure scholarships in another country. She enjoys these one-on-one mentorship and reading essays.

Horng Jessica, a Cambodian university student, first connected with Vilayvann online before meeting each other in person and becoming mentee and mentor. Jessica said of her mentor, "She personally encouraged me a lot and gave me more effort, no matter what the obstacles were."

The mentee noted of her role model, "Her academic efforts, kindness, and influence inspire young Cambodian women to study computer science abroad and want to work at Google (a big dream come true). She has been a personal mentor and guided me in scholarships in the United States.”

Jessica said in the future, she will be able to help the next generation as Vilayvann helped her.

“I keep in touch with them, give them advice, and review their essays, etc. I've shared about my experience at Google on several platforms, and have made myself available to anyone who feels my experience would be beneficial to them,” the Cambodian Googler told Kiripost.

Cambodian Female Achieves Dream of Working at Google

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