A pioneer in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and the inventor of text-to-donate technology, Marian Croak holds more than 200 patents. Now a Vice President of Engineering at Google, she focuses on reliability engineering to improve the performance of Google systems and services.
Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs whose groundbreaking innovations have made a positive difference in the world. Hear it in their own words or read the transcript below.
Marian Croak: I think the more role models that people have, the more inspired they are to understand that they are capable of doing anything.
Lauren Emanuel: Throughout her career, Marian Croak has worked to help others realize their potential—both through her inventions and as a mentor. She brings to each initiative a positive mindset and a determination to find new solutions to challenging problems. As a Vice President of Engineering at Google and an inventor on more than 200 patents, Croak serves as a role model for others, encouraging them to trust their own abilities.
I’m Lauren Emanuel from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Recently, I spoke to Marian Croak about the importance of mentoring, the value that freedom of thought adds to invention, and the impact of Voice over Internet Protocol and text-to-donate technology. Here is a bit of our conversation.
[I]t seemed to me like the internet would be a perfect substitute for what we had been doing, because you could actually combine voice and data traffic into one network.
Lauren Emanuel: Innovation usually comes from identifying a problem that needs to be solved. As a pioneer in Voice over Internet Protocol, what led you to the problem you wanted to solve, and how did you solve it?
Marian Croak: I worked for many years at Bell Labs on the traditional voice network. And gradually the internet began to become a network that was popular and used by many people for communicating things like email and textual messages. As it started to evolve, it became clear to me and a few other people that you could actually transmit voice traffic over it. And then if that was true, it would mean that most of our voice traffic could actually move to the internet, and it would be a much more efficient and ubiquitous network than the one that we were traditionally using. So I spent a lot of effort in trying to make sure that the voice traffic that could be put on the internet was reliable and had a very strong quality of service.
Lauren Emanuel: How did you know that it was time to switch from wired phone technology to internet protocol?
Marian Croak: We were at a point in the evolution of the phone network where it needed to be updated and new technology had to be inserted into it, as it was beginning to age. There was an inflection point, and we had to look at different types of technologies, and it seemed to me like the internet would be a perfect substitute for what we had been doing, because you could actually combine voice and data traffic into one network.
Lauren Emanuel: You also hold a patent for “dynamically debiting a donation amount,” or text-to-donate technology. What inspired you to create this option for donating?
Marian Croak: Oh, sure. It was the confluence of two events. I used to spend a lot of time taking care of the telephone network during a very popular TV show where people could vote on different performances. It was called American Idol, and people could call an 800 number and vote for their favorite performer. And our networks would frequently become very overloaded, and we would have to shift traffic from one point to another, and one of the solutions that we had was to actually start to use text messages, or SMS, to capture voting so that the networks—the phone networks—would not become overloaded. I think most of us remember the terrible, terrible tragedy that happened in New Orleans and surrounding communities during the hurricane. And it was quite, quite sad to watch what was happening, and many, many people wanted to help as quickly as possible. And it was during that event that I thought about the possibility of being able to text a donation to an organization like the Red Cross or other nonprofits that could immediately be transferred to the people who actually needed the help.
Lauren Emanuel: Many of your inventions relate to helping people connect and using technology to solve problems. Is helping people a driving force for you?
Marian Croak: Yes, it is. When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of research on altruistic behavior and what helps people increase their proclivity to help people who are in need. I guess I grew up in New York City, and I was always seeing people that needed help and how often we just walked by and didn't help. And I wanted to understand how to increase helping behavior. And I guess I've been like that all my life.
Lauren Emanuel: What are you working on now?
Marian Croak: So, there, there are a number of things. I have a position that's called reliability engineering. So, similar to what I did in the past, I have large engineering teams that are focused on improving the performance of systems that support services like YouTube and advertising and other services that Google provides that have billions and billions of users. I also am honored to be able to lead a black leadership group at Google, that, in that capacity, I represent over 4,000 or so black Googlers. And in that role, I am working very hard to improve racial and social equity, both within Google and also within the outside world.
Because Google is such a strong, powerful company, we can go beyond just what's inside of Google and actually work with the outside world to help with the same inequities that our own employees may be experiencing, somewhat in a much more protected environment than other people in the outside world may have.
Lauren Emanuel: According to the studies, you are an anomaly as a woman of color in tech with multiple patents. How do we encourage and support more women and students of color of any gender to explore tech, to become inventors, and to seek patents?
Marian Croak: I think the more role models that people have, the more inspired they are to understand that they are capable of doing anything. I think the work that, that the Patent Office is doing in terms of making things more popular—like inventors—more popular for younger students so that they can understand that it's just people who are making these inventions and how important it is for them to advance the world by creating new things and understanding the problems that exist that can be addressed by solutions that they may come up with.
Lauren Emanuel: Who did you admire the most growing up?
Marian Croak: I admired my father. He did not have a formal education beyond elementary school, and yet he was very successful and extremely intelligent, and he was a great reader, and he just always inspired me to work really hard, you know, to think about things in a creative way. He gave me a lot of freedom in thinking, and, you know, he was very strongly advocating for my education and my achievements. And he was just a person who was very proud of me. So, it helped me a lot to keep going when things got difficult, to have him in my corner.
I became very interested in how things worked and then how to fix them when they were broken. And I continue to keep that interest and motivation. My whole profession has been looking at something that needs to change or to be fixed and trying to do this.
Lauren Emanuel: What do you consider your origin story as an inventor? Where did it all start?
Marian Croak: Well, I remember being a child and my mother, she was working at home as a house maker and, frequently when things would break, she would call my father, and then my father would call an electrician or a plumber, and I would follow them around our house. And I was really interested in how they would fix things that were broken. And I thought I was going to be one of them because I wanted my mother to call me when something was broken. So I, I became very interested in how things worked and then how to fix them when they were broken. And I continue to keep that interest and motivation. My whole profession has been looking at something that needs to change or to be fixed and trying to do this.
Lauren Emanuel: In addition to family, were there any teachers who influenced your journey?
Marian Croak: Yes. I attended Catholic schools as a young child, and then I went to a public school in New York City. It's a school that has actually been closed now, but it was, it was an amazing experience. It was full of teachers that really knew how to capture your imagination and inspire you to do great things. I remember I had a, a female chemistry teacher. I had, you know, math teachers that just made things so interesting and so practical that I really fell in love with learning from that experience.
Lauren Emanuel: Over the course of your career, was there a specific time where you felt that you failed or wanted to quit? How did you continue to move forward?
Marian Croak: Yeah, there's many times when I feel like that, actually, and it's not as if it lingers for, you know, days or weeks, but when you're trying to do new things and you're trying to change things, you're going to fail a lot because it's almost like learning how to walk. You know, you're going to fall a lot. I don't know if you would call that failing, but it feels like that, you know, once you're an adult, and you don't quite understand that, you know, you need to practice something and you need to experiment with something before it actually becomes powerful enough to actually use. You know, the best thing to do sometimes is just to take a break.
I would always take breaks. I was a runner for a long time, and now I'm a walker, and just let things go, and then, then I'll come back to it and, you know, it will seem a lot better. And it's the passage of time, you know. By the next day, things always seem a bit brighter, and you can move ahead. I've always enjoyed working in teams, so I find that if you collaborate with people, you know, sometimes you'll feel discouraged and down, but your partner will not, or some teammate will be able to see a better solution or a different path. And then that helps a lot, too. I rarely work all by myself.
Lauren Emanuel: Do you mentor others?
Marian Croak: Yes. I, I spend a great deal of time mentoring people, especially as I’ve advanced in my career. I think that's one of the most important things that I do. Many people that are just starting out—it seems so daunting, and it seems like, well, how could you ever do that? People question their own confidence—their own abilities—because they just lack confidence. And I feel like it's important for me to help them understand how much they're capable of doing, and that, you know, it can be a hard journey, but it's well worth it.
Lauren Emanuel: What advice do you have for students and young people who aspire to work in tech and to invent?
Marian Croak: I think the most important thing is try to find different areas that you are most interested in because you will need to, you know, be inspired to keep going when things are hard. And it has to be something that you're intrinsically motivated to work on. You may want to find a solution to epidemics or social injustice. There are a whole range of things that you can apply technology to help with, but just find, you know, the area that you're, you're most inspired to keep going in, despite what may be, you know, hard days or hard moments or discouraging people in your life, that you know that, kind of uniquely, that you want to solve this problem, or you want to contribute to the solution of a problem.
I find that it's easy to inspire people to think about becoming more creative and solving problems. I think what happens is then they don't understand how to apply that to a patenting process and the steps that are involved. As much education as we can provide and also the tools to help people file patents in an easier way and have them understand what they need to do in order for something to be patentable. I think it would be great. You know, so many people that you just would never expect have these just tremendous ideas, but they don't know how, you know, to actually use the patenting systems and how to go about it. So, I think any education that can be provided along those lines would be extremely helpful to people.
Lauren Emanuel: What inspires you?
Marian Croak: The thing that inspires me the most is actually problems. You know, something that looks really hard, but realizing, okay, you know, that there are a lot of people that you can collaborate with to change the really hard problems, and the really hard problems are the ones that are most likely for people to walk away from, and so, therefore, they're the ones that most likely need the most attention. I would say that, you know, I'm inspired by something that's hard and challenging and difficult and seems impossible. That inspires me to really focus on those things.
Lauren Emanuel: What role have patents and intellectual property played in your career?
Marian Croak: It's been very rewarding and, surprisingly so. I did not realize how important they would be. It was something that I did because I enjoyed doing at the time, but then once I actually received so many patents, it made my life much easier. I no longer felt like I had to prove myself so often to people, you know, to walk in a room full of brilliant scientists and have to engage in behavior where they would understand that, you know, I was equal to them. It kind of allowed those doors to be opened. I think it helped my career mentally in surprising ways that I had not anticipated.
Lauren Emanuel: How did you take your inventions from prototype to patent?
Marian Croak: We did a lot of experimentation, you know, and those are where you think, “Oh, I'm failing, I'm failing,” and then suddenly it starts working. So I had a lab and we, we did a lot of work in the lab to prove in things. And, you know, fortunately I was in an environment where it both allowed for innovation, but you could then also quickly apply it to the world, and you could have millions of customers trying out Voice over IP before it was actually perfected, and you could keep perfecting it as it was going into service.
Lauren Emanuel: When was the first time that you heard the word “patent” or knew of someone obtaining a patent?
Marian Croak: That's a good question. It probably was not until I actually went to Bell Labs. The scientists that worked there and the researchers that worked there were held in esteem because of their inventions and their patents, and I think it was during those, you know, that period of time when I was first employed at Bell Labs that I understood the importance of patents.
If we can allow young people and society to have as much freedom of thought as possible and understand all different types of perspectives and disciplines, I think that really encourages invention.
Lauren Emanuel: Have you ever had a “eureka” moment?
Marian Croak: Oh, many, many times, many times. And it's funny because many of those eureka moments—they disappear, you know, after some more thought. But yeah, I often have eureka moments where I'll be trying to solve a difficult problem or thinking about how do you do something better than the way it's being done now. And I'll, I'll think, “Oh, this, this could work.” You know, and sometimes it does. Sometimes it bears fruit, and then other times it doesn't, but I enjoy those moments.
Lauren Emanuel: What's been your most memorable eureka moment?
Marian Croak: I hope I haven't had one yet. I mean, I think in life, you know, you think, “Oh, this was the best thing that ever happened to me,” and then you live a little longer, and then something, you know, outweighs that. And so I'm hoping that that will continue happening.
Lauren Emanuel: What type of environments should we create to help invention thrive?
Marian Croak: People need a lot of freedom in terms of their thought processes, and they need to have a lot of different disciplines to influence the way that they're thinking. Telling people that they're wrong or focusing on their performance, you know—are you good or are you bad, are you going to get graded in a certain way—can sometimes be quite stifling to invention, where you need like creative energy to just explore various options and an alternative path. If we can allow young people and society to have as much freedom of thought as possible and understand all different types of perspectives and disciplines, I think that really encourages invention. Also, just the belief that things do need to change, that we're, you know, that everything that needs to be invented—most things that need to be invented—haven't been invented yet, and that we'll look back at this period of time and think, “Oh, how primitive it was that we did it like this,” and just to realize, you know, the possibilities that exist for the future I think is so important.
Lauren Emanuel: Looking back at the impact of your inventions, what are you most proud of?
Marian Croak: Especially during the pandemic, I think people have appreciated Voice over IP technology. So I think, you know, that's, that's been interesting to watch how easily people have been able to continue communicating even though they can't be physically close to each other. The text-to-donate has just taken on a life of its own. You know, there've been many, many enhancements to it, and, and it's, it's well used. There's been so many extensions of it, you know. Sometimes when you go to make a purchase, it will come up on the internet now. And I think that's, that's just a great thing, like on the web, you'll be able to donate very easily. And I, I think that helps all of us. It helps the world become a better place with technologies that enable people to just quickly do something that helps others.
Lauren Emanuel: You've also managed to be remarkably successful in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men.
How do you do it?
Marian Croak: I become so involved in what I'm doing that the fact that someone's a male or their physical characteristics somewhat disappears for me, and I'm just looking at, this is another person that is interested in what I'm interested in, and we're working together on it.
My inner thoughts are sometimes much more important than what's going on in the outside environment that could prohibit or discourage me from those thoughts. It's like, I want to, you know, put those thoughts into practice, and, you know, there may be many, many people in the world that would prefer that I don't do that, but it's like, that's what's driving me, is the desire to do so. And there are many people that want to help and encourage that, and so, you know, I focus on those people and rely on them.
Lauren Emanuel: You’ve previously referenced the [James] Stockdale Paradox, which Stockdale described as: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be." How has this paradox been applicable to your journey?
Marian Croak: Well, I think, you know, what's very important is to remain realistic about things and see kind of the worst case that can happen, but then also be willing to realize, well, that has not happened yet, and there's a way out of it. There's a way out of it. We can, we can get to a better place with either technology or, you know, some solution to problems, but you, you have to be able to confront the problem and deal with the reality of the, the intensity of the problem. And then, and only then, I think, can you actually solve it. So, I think it's extremely important to remain realistic. Look at the worst cases that can happen, not deny reality, not just hope that things are going to get better, but actually look at how bad they can become. And then from that point, I think, you know, you can be inspired to do something better and to understand what it is that you have to do.
Lauren Emanuel: Many thanks to Marian Croak for her dedication to helping others and for sharing her inspiring story with us. Because of Croak’s advancements in Voice over Internet Protocol and text-to-donate technology, we can stay even more connected despite physical distance—something that is more important now than ever before. From the USPTO, thanks for listening.
Produced by the USPTO Office of the Chief Communications Officer. For feedback or questions, please contact OCCOfeedback@uspto.gov.
Interview by Lauren Emanuel. Audio editing by Jay Premack. Story production by Lauren Emanuel. Additional contributions from Joyce Ward and Marie Ladino. Photo on the USPTO homepage and the top of this page courtesy of Google. All other photos credited in the captions.