Home » Baskin Engineering News » An engineer’s engineer: How engineering alumna Jennifer Bevan leverages testing innovation to improve Google products

An engineer’s engineer: How engineering alumna Jennifer Bevan leverages testing innovation to improve Google products

At the time, computer science and engineering Ph.D. alumna Jennifer Bevan had no idea her passion for testing first began while working as a TA during her graduate studies at UC Santa Cruz. Now, she vividly recalls her experience in the Baskin Engineering Hardware Lab as setting the foundation for a life-long dedication to improving things through the art of testing. 

To keep her students on their toes while working as a TA in the Hardware Lab, Bevan would often go around and adjust their hardware equipment settings as they were working on their lab projects. 

“I wasn’t trying to be a mean TA, but I did want them to learn that just because the equipment was set up correctly, it doesn’t mean it will stay that way so you should be able to get it back to its correct settings at any time,” explained Bevan, who is the 2023 Baskin Engineering Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award honoree. “It was a good test to see if a student was able to recover or not. This is one memory that has helped solidify my belief on what I was naturally born to do—testing.”

As an accomplished software engineer in Google’s Engineering Productivity Division, Bevan has spent the past 17 years developing testing infrastructure and tools to improve products and the end-user experience. 

Jennifer Bevan
Jennifer Bevan, UCSC alumna and Google software engineer

Bridging the gap between coding skills and engineering application

After receiving a B.S. degree in computer science from UC Berkeley, Bevan worked in automating radio science analyses at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for seven years. 

While there, she became fascinated with how code evolves over time and the desire to improve it.

“One of the realizations I had while working at JPL was that code degrades in ways that betray the optimism of its author,” Bevan said.

Bevan knew how to code but wanted to gain the skills needed to engineer applications that would improve software. So, with that goal, she began searching around for graduate schools, eventually landing on UC Santa Cruz’s computer engineering graduate program.

“At UCSC, I was encouraged to switch advisors until I found the best match for what I wanted to pursue in my program, which isn’t always something you find at other schools. Other grad programs tend to be more rigid.” Bevan said. “My advisor Professor Jim Whitehead provided me with a balance of autonomy, structure, flexibility, and open-mindedness.”

Bevan originally went in for an M.S. degree but then decided to continue onto a Ph.D. program during the dot-com boom. In addition to Whitehead, she regularly worked with UCSC computer engineering trailblazers Linda Werner and Charlie McDowell.

“All three of them were my role models. They led by example,” Bevan stated. 

The first couple years of classes she took at UCSC helped expand her perspective on the different areas of engineering but also strengthened her keen eye on the logistics of software, engineering, and testing. The bulk of her graduate program was on software evolution and maintenance. She received a four-year NSF grant to study how software evolves to design architecture that is capable of better managing it. 

Before Bevan had her two children later on in her graduate career, she spent a couple years as a TA. One of her favorite experiences as a TA was when she helped manage the student groups for an inaugural, two-quarter software engineering course. As TA, she taught students life-long lessons about the importance of documenting your work and working well with your team members.

“I instituted a new policy where at the halfway point of the quarter, I would get out my D&D dice to shake up the outcomes of team projects,” Bevan explained. “The dice would decide a fake fate for one of the team members. Some of the likely scenarios were getting fired, getting injured or sick, or getting reassigned to another team—all of which meant a wrench was being thrown into the overall team project plan. The questions I’d ask following the dice outcome would be: ‘Did you submit your code? Did you make sure to document your plans?’ Some would say, ‘Wait! I was just about to submit!’ and I would respond with ‘It’s too late. Don’t get your code perfect before you submit it.”’

Bevan continued, “By changing things up like this, it taught students the importance of the coding process, documentation, and testing resilience. Because say in real-life you’re fired or get hit by a bus, the rest of your team will still have to carry on and deliver the same software product.”

These principles Bevan instilled in her students have guided her throughout her career in software testing.

Testing, testing 

Bevan began working at Google in 2006. Her niche: everything engineering productivity.

“Engineering productivity is all about making things easier and faster and in a way that gets you a better product at the end of the day.”

The first phase of work she did at Google was developing test automation infrastructure and system integration tests to scale and automate the web browser testing process. She was a key participant in taking Selenium, an early open source project, from a single-machine browser automation engine to a scale that supported all web testing for all Google products. This effort led to the inspiration for the Selenium Grid, an open source project that continues to support large-scale browser automation.

“Jennifer’s efforts at Google to create the Selenium Grid helped popularize the idea of cloud-hosted web browsers for testing,” Whitehead said. “This idea directly led to the creation of multiple cloud-hosted web testing infrastructure companies. Today, all large web and mobile applications are tested using cloud-hosted web browsers and mobile phones.”

The second phase of software testing Bevan focused on was accessibility in Google+, Google’s social networking platform that ran from 2011 to 2019. As a software engineering manager, she built a suite of new internal and open source test tools to improve accessibility checks. 

Bevan, who is a strong advocate for making sure every product meets the needs and abilities of a diverse range of users, wanted to create testing technology that improved the accessibility of products and called out the importance of adapting an accessibility mindset.

“I wanted to empower the engineers creating these products to think hard about accessibility because you will absolutely get a better product at the end of the day if you create through an accessibility lens,” Bevan said. “To this day, helping to make all of Google’s platforms more accessible is one of the projects I’m most proud of,” Bevan said.

Now, as a senior engineer and individual contributor, Bevan directs most of her attention on running complex technical programs that improve products and the user experience. 

“As someone who has spent most of her career in testing, I believe I’m providing value not just in general but in a way that I am best-suited for,” Bevan said. 

As a woman in a male-dominated profession, Bevan is a strong proponent for increasing female representation in tech. She frequently speaks at events and on podcasts to help represent the work she does and put a spotlight on the importance of diversifying the engineering workforce. 

Her advice to women interested in pursuing a career in tech is: “Don’t listen to the first story your brain tells you. It is way too easy to take on more responsibility or more blame than the other person intended or the situation actually warrants. So just be aware that your brain is not always helping you.”

Honoring a tech trailblazer

Bevan is this year’s Baskin School of Engineering Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award honoree, an annual recognition given to one Baskin Engineering graduate student alum who has made major contributions to industry or the fields of teaching and research. Bevan was selected for her contributions to open source software engineering testing infrastructure and for her advocacy in increasing representation of women in engineering and technology.

The Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award Ceremony, honoring distinguished graduate student alumni from each UCSC academic division, will be held on Friday, May 19. View the list of this year’s honorees on the Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award webpage.

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