Sneha Popley Is a Champion for Young Scholars
Sneha Popley earned a scholarship from Google. Now she works for the tech giant.
The first time Sneha Popley ’10 set foot on the TCU campus was move-in day. She applied, was accepted and committed to TCU all sight unseen.
“I’m from a lot of places,” said Popley, currently working remotely from San Diego as a Google product manager. “I didn’t even live in one place while I was growing up.”
She spent much of her childhood in Kuwait and Oman and was living in a small town outside Mumbai, India, when she met with Karen Scott, TCU’s director of international admission.
“My sister went to TCU for her MBA before I got there and she had amazing things to say. When Karen visited Mumbai, we made a point to meet up with her to see what TCU would be like because I wouldn’t get a chance to visit campus. That was a really good meeting. I applied for early admission, and before I knew it, I was moving to Texas.”
Among her goals: Learning about the world and how she wanted to be a part of it.
“The Chancellor’s Leadership Program was a good opportunity for me to meet smart, well-traveled people with a lot of different life experiences and to learn more about how things worked beyond my computer science and math degree,” she said.
Popley said her participation in the John V. Roach Honors College was also particularly impactful. “They had a very flexible program where most of my last year was spent doing research.”
Her research to make systems and programming languages more secure and run faster by going all the way down to the logic of the math that powers them garnered more than $20,000 in grants and scholarships, including Google’s Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship and TCU’s Boller Award for best honors research presentation. “My field was so theoretical that I didn’t think a liberal arts school would look at my project very closely, so receiving the Boller Award was very flattering. I still remember that moment.”
“Sneha always saw beauty in complexity and knew how to convey difficult ideas with clarity,” said Ronald Pitcock, interim dean of the John V. Roach Honors College. “In her residence hall and the hallways of Sadler, Sneha was always teaching. Her honors thesis presentation continues to stand out as one of the best demonstrations of teaching I have ever witnessed. Sneha taught an incredibly technical and theoretical topic — SASyLF (Sassy Elf) — using the Lion King narrative; I remember sitting in the chamber and marveling at the control Sneha had over both the subject and her audience.”
PhD Path Interrupted
After a summer internship in California as a backend software engineer at Facebook — where she worked on what would become the Messenger app — Popley headed to the University of Chicago to pursue her PhD. A couple of years in, her adviser said she would need an internship and offered to find her one in Chicago. She thought Paris sounded better.
“He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know anyone there,’ and I said, ‘That’s OK, I’ll just email them.’ The worst they could say is no, which is fine, because you don’t lose anything,” she recalled. “I cold emailed a few professors across the world and I got an email back from what is basically the top research institute of France funded by the government asking if I wanted to come for the summer.”
She was awarded a travel scholarship and, in the summer of 2012, served as a research assistant at the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation near Paris, where she verified security and cryptographic properties of Java code for Android phones.
Returning to Chicago, Popley learned her adviser was retiring, leaving her with two choices: Pick a new adviser or switch paths and get a master’s degree in computer science.
“I took a few months to decide, but I think I made the right decision to just get my master’s. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and ended up at a travel startup called Hipmunk. That was perfect because I’ve been traveling my whole life — I’ve been to 25 countries,” she said.
“As a backend software engineer, I worked on everything from talking to Marriotts and Hiltons about how they wanted to work with our company to figuring out how the ‘Trips’ feature should launch. It was cool to be out of school, to see how the travel industry worked and to be in Silicon Valley and be part of all of that.”
Then Google called.
Return to Her Google Roots
As a past recipient of Google’s Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship — now called Google Scholarship — Popley had kept in touch with the tech giant. When Google contacted her with an opportunity to be a technical solutions consultant based in the Bay Area, she couldn’t resist. Open for whatever adventure lay ahead, she said she was delighted when she was randomly assigned to Google’s hotels and travel category.
She spent the first two years working as a product and technical lead on Google’s hotels infrastructure for third-party providers. “I got to talk more directly with companies like Booking.com, Marriott and even small hotels and understand how they run their business, what they are trying to do and how larger platforms like Google can help them so they can be successful and have people find them on the web.”
In 2018, she was promoted to product manager based out of Boston.
“My role is to figure out what we need to build, get it launched and landed, and make sure people use it,” she said. “Every day is a mini adventure.”
Her roles include collaborating with engineering teams to help define the new feature, helping marketing, sales and business development understand how the feature actually works for customers and then — after launch — working with customers and Google’s customer support team to learn how they use it and how that experience can be improved.“Every day is different. It’s anything from writing a design document saying this is what we’re going to build to meeting with our lawyers to figure out if we can actually launch this as it is or if we need to change our features, and so on.”
She recently helped launch a new online pricing system — called Availability, Rates and Inventory system or ARI — based on customer feedback.
“A lot of smaller hotels have been wanting to come on Google for a while but they couldn’t because we didn’t have the right technology for them,” she said. “We launched it in August 2020. It’s been great to get on calls with customers like a small hotel company in Italy and hear how they run their business and how we can help them — especially during Covid times. I like that I get to talk to so many people in different roles so I can actually see the impact of what we’re building.”
During the pandemic, Google gave employees the flexibility to work remotely, so Popley opted to forgo the fierce Boston winter for the milder climate of San Diego. With her hectic pre-pandemic work travel schedule, she was already used to logging in for virtual meetings. Now she said she’s eager to see the travel industry rebound.
“It’s heartening to see some of it come back, but also realizing it takes a little while for travel to return, we try to understand how we can help these companies in the meantime.”
A former teaching assistant at both TCU and the University of Chicago, Popley eventually would like to use her teaching skills as a way to give back.
“I’m hoping that longer term I’ll be working directly with people who need access to technology and show them how to make the best of it.”