Learning Paths Podcast
Lina Scroggins has held a variety of roles during 12-plus years working at Google, with one common thread being continuous learning. From her start on the information security team to her current role as a program manager at Google Health, Lina has pushed herself to learn new things, while at the same time helping colleagues pursue educational opportunities for themselves.
In this episode, she shares her approach to professional development, what she’s taken away from her own experiences, and why she still finds her psychology degree to be useful in the tech world.
Ben Rubenstein: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Lina.
Lina Scroggins: My pleasure.
Ben: I was hoping that, seeing as this is the Learning Paths podcast, that we could start by talking a little bit about your learning path and your educational background; maybe starting with undergrad. What did you study, and what did you think you were going to do with what you studied?
Lina Scroggins: Yeah, good question. So, I studied psychology in college and specifically neuroscience and I also did a little of bit of Spanish language on the side too. And when I was on that path, I thought that I would become an academic. I was ready to go to grad school for psychology and do research and potentially become a clinician and started down that path actually.
When I finished with my master’s though, I realized that there was something missing. I missed working in an applied setting and with groups of people and helping them get things done. So, I decided I wanted to make a pivot into the business world and specifically tech.
Ben: And so that’s where Google comes into the picture, is that right?
Lina Scroggins: Yes, exactly. And at Google I’ve worked at a couple of different teams. So, I’ve worked as an assistant and program manager for the most part; spent a little bit of time working on the information security team which is the group of engineers that protects users and user data from malicious hackers.
Many years working on the Chrome OS team which builds the operating system for laptop and desktop and tablet computers that are really popular in schools today. Actually, I lead a learning and development program for our IT department, and now I’m on the Google Health team building products for consumers and clinicians to help improve health care and health care delivery.
Ben: I think that’s part of the appeal of a place like Google that you can do all of those different things within the same umbrella organization. But I’m curious, with all those changes over the past several years, I imagine there’s a lot of learning that goes on from role to role as you join new teams. I mean, are you getting that from when you onboard onto a new team, you’re getting a lot of support in doing that, or are you having to do a lot of that on your own?
Lina Scroggins: For me, a lot of it has been independent learning. And I would say that learning has been critical to success for me. I was not an expert in any of those things when I first started but that was part of the appeal for me. As a lifelong learner, that’s something I’ve discovered over the years, through peer feedback and manager feedback and also just thinking about what it is that I like to do and how I spend my free time.
I really enjoyed roles that required me to learn about something new upfront. And at Google, it’s really exciting to have that opportunity to do that. There is, as with most roles, onboarding processes and recommended courses and formal and informal mentorship programs. But I spent a lot of time at the forefront of these positions reading, taking courses, speaking to experts.
And as a program manager, my job was to help groups of people execute on projects so I needed to know enough about this base in order to bring the right groups of people into the room and help them problem solve. And so, yeah, those, but I brought a different generalist skillset to the table.
Ben: And how do you make time for stuff like that as you have to do your job and not just learn about doing your job more effectively, so how do you do that?
Lina Scroggins: It is difficult, especially when I started taking the HMX courses. I truly gained an appreciation for adult learning and some call it executive learning or executive education. But when you have to balance learning with other constraints on your time like having a full time job or caring for other people – or both – it’s a very difficult problem.
So, I think it requires having clear goals, understanding why you’re doing the learning, making time and space for it, getting support and buy in from people who can support you to help you with the other responsibilities you might have.
And for me personally, a lot of the learning I did, I took a lot of the HMX courses when I was on maternity leave so I got a little bit of a break from the day to day responsibilities but still had significant care responsibilities at home. I knew going into that that it would be a risk but I was excited enough about the material to really want to give it a shot and yeah, I didn’t regret it in the end, so.
Ben: I imagine you might have had experiences where you did maybe bite off more than you could chew or maybe you just took on something and realized maybe it wasn’t as sort of worth your time as you thought it might be. I mean, are you continually reevaluating what sorts of learning experiences are worthwhile for you?
Lina Scroggins: I would say yes. As my situation changes and I have more or less time, I’ve definitely valued different kinds of experiences. I think in my professional life I’ve done a lot more online virtual courses, especially in recent years. Part of that I think is probably availability.
When I was in college, virtual learning wasn’t a thing. And so, as technology has evolved I think education has evolved to meet students where they may be. But also, I’m definitely – and certainly now that the country and a lot of the world is lockdown, in quarantine, lots of things are virtual so I’ll even send my kids to virtual ballet and tap classes. And I know that they’re doing things for adults too, art classes and dance classes too in certain parts of the world.
So, I think the long and short of it is, yeah, as the world changes and technology changes and my personal situation changes, the kind of learning I seek to do and the ways in which I do it definitely change. It’ll be exciting when folks go back to doing more things live. You can’t do things hands on and there’s a lot of value in back-and-forth dialogue.
You learn a lot of things from that, the banter and the sort of kind of spontaneous Q and A as opposed to the more planned Q and A that you do if you’re doing things remotely. But I think it’s really cool that you don’t have to be in a certain place at a certain time to do the majority of learning anymore.
Ben: Yeah, there are benefits that people have realized and maybe things that people who wouldn’t have considered a virtual learning experience before now see maybe it’s not totally a compromise.
I wonder, based on all the experiences that you have had, you mentioned leading learning and development for an IT team and you’ve worked with the HMX team on helping other Googlers get into the courses. How much of your own experience, how has that kind of shaped how you present stuff to the teams that you work with, what kinds of opportunities you surface, just how you communicate to your colleagues about what you think is valuable or relevant?
Lina Scroggins: I share personal experience because I think that’s really powerful and it is one type of data. It’s the data that I guess I know or one knows the best. But I try to offer personal experience as objectively as possible because learning is a very individual endeavor. Different people learn in different ways.
Some people don’t like the more traditional classroom-based learning and they really prefer to learn by doing, others are the reverse. So, what I find valuable may be valuable to other people or it may not be. So, I try to present my experience as such, one kind of experience, and persuade folks to take advantage of that to the extent that makes sense for them.
Backing up, I think it’s important to offer folks a variety of opportunities again because the data shows that not everybody learns the same way. So, I would try to give a little bit of both, right, frame the personal experience or ground it in data.
Ben: Do you think any of your psychology background plays into your approach to this?
Lina Scroggins: Probably. People will sometimes ask. Actually, this used to happen a lot more, earlier in my career but when I told them I would work at Google or in tech and they knew I had a psychology background and say, “Well, you’re not using your degree” and I disagreed vehemently. Psychology is about not only understanding people as such and how they think and why and how they behave but it’s also a science.
And I was on the academic research track for a long time so understanding how you approach problems and isolate variables and methodically rule out possible solutions or hypothesis until you get to one that is I think core to the field and that I bring to what I do at work every day across teams, across problems, so absolutely.
Ben: And you mentioned a little bit about data and what the data says about what makes for effective learning experiences for different people and I wonder is there anything you’re looking at or thinking about to say, this program that we did was successful? And is there any way you think really to quantify that or if not to quantify it, how do you evaluate both for yourself and maybe for a team that you’re working with? Is there anything you look at?
Lina Scroggins: To be honest, we should look at it a lot more than we do. Things that would show that a learning and development program is successful: number of people that take the course, performance in the course, whether or not they enjoyed it, refer other people. And these are all things that we have thought about doing and wanted to do but unfortunately haven’t done a great job of. But it can be hard, I think learning and development metrics are hard to get right.
Ben: Sure. And I think just in the same way that you talk about styles of learning are varied, what an individual or they might be looking to get out of a course can be pretty different and so engagement looks different and all of that.
Lina Scroggins: Yeah. And I think also when you’re in the business environment, what you learn, you want to turn it around into something tangible. You’re either building a product or delivering a service. And it can be hard to connect the two. How do you know that this fact that somebody learned or these series of facts or a skill that somebody learned directly contributed to a business metric going up or a business metric going down.
I think it’s not as direct as that. And as we know correlation doesn’t always imply causation. So, again, making that connection can be difficult. I don’t think anybody would argue with you that learning is not valuable or learning is not helpful but when you really drill down to cause and effect, I think people have difficulty there.
Ben: Sure, but I guess put you on the spot a little bit. Having taken these HMX courses, can you think of a way that they have directly had an effect on your effectiveness at Google Health?
Lina Scroggins: So, I’ll maybe answer that in two ways. I took my first set of HMX courses when I was running the learning and development program for the IT department. And the team and I, we had been talking about going digital and doing e-learning for a long time, but we hadn’t gone over the top of the hill so to speak.
Taking that course, even though it was in a different domain for me than the program that I was running, really brought home to me that it’s not just the future, it’s the now. And that it can be done effectively really well and that it would solve a lot of the problems that the team was facing in terms of delivering a curriculum and teaching curriculum at scale.
So yeah having had that experience, having seen it done really well, and experience that myself in a really holistic way, convinced me that this is where the team had to go next.
Now, it also made me realize that getting to that final product is not easy. I mean, I think it took you years to develop those courses. So, going from a traditional classroom setting to online, you can’t do it at the drop of a hat so you need to invest and you need to plan and you need to test. So yeah, it’s a long road.
When it comes to Google Health, let me think about that for a minute. For me, since I’m not a medical professional myself but I work for a team that’s building products for clinicians or we’re building tools that the patients of clinicians will use, I think it’s important for credibility purposes to have gone through part of the experience, or a similar experience to what my users or my customers have gone through. And what HMX did was med school lite, pre-med school 101.
So, I got a sense for the kinds of things and the ways in which doctors learn, which I think is important. And it gave me a sense for the clinical linkages that the courses provide, really brought me into the clinic.
And I got a bird’s-eye view or a fly-on-the-wall view of what it’s like to be in the middle of an intense doctor-patient interaction, so it makes me a better product developer to know what that is like because I get a little bit of a sense for who it is that we’re building for, and the kinds of situations that they’re in, and the kinds of problems that they have to solve.
And because the courses are offered to many employees, I can then be a witness to that experience too and helps folks decide if that learning experience is relevant for them, if they’re going to benefit from it in a similar way so, yeah.
Ben: Well, that makes sense. There’s value for sure in a lot of different ways even in ways that we as the HMX team probably wouldn’t have expected, right. So that’s really interesting to hear. So, I think given all of the different things you’ve done at Google it would be foolish to think you are just going to be doing the same stuff that you’re doing right now forever. So, what are you looking forward to taking on next?
Lina Scroggins: Very good question. So, I mean I’ll be honest with you I’m really excited about sticking around in the health space for a while longer. My background was psychology so life sciences and my family background is medical. My parents and my sisters are doctors so I grew up with that in my environment. And a couple of years ago felt a hankering to come back and so was really excited to hear that Google was reinvesting in health care as a strategic area.
And it hasn’t been very long since that so I want to stay with that to see where that goes and see what we can do. I think there’s a lot of potential to do a lot of good for the industry and for patients. So, I would like to be in the space for a while.
Where the long-term future holds, that’s hard to know. I wish I had a crystal ball but part of the fun I think is doing a little bit of meandering along the way. What I will say is that each role that I’ve taken on at Google has built on the previous one.
At first glance, when I think about the roles that I have had it may seem like there isn’t a connection but there is. I started in information security then moved to Chrome OS which was the, well, I like to just call it a well-funded start up because it grew. It was a scrappy project that grew at a well-established company- then learning and development and then health.
And in health, my first project was in data privacy which went right back to the beginning, the beginning of my time at Google, information security. These experiences do build on each other and where the next step will be is yeah, it’s hard to know.
Ben: Yeah, you may not know exactly what it is but it’ll probably be something that builds on what you’ve done and you’ve put yourself in a situation to do that. Yeah, I think that’s part of it. Having the right level of uncertainty about that is probably good.
Lina Scroggins: Exactly.
Ben: Well, that’s great and I think a great place to end our conversation. I really do appreciate you joining me and sort of walking me through this progression. I mean it’s really interesting how you have done your own work and understood where that fits, and what you can take from that work to help others learn and be more effective in their roles. I think that’s really interesting and something that our listeners are going to really appreciate hearing as well. So, thank you and good luck in whatever comes next.
Lina Scroggins: Thanks for the opportunity.