By Rob Copeland 

Two years ago, Marian Croak was hiding in her office at Google's YouTube offices, convinced the police would enter and shoot her dead.

There was an active shooter on the San Bruno, Calif. campus, and police were moving door-to-door to clear out staff. Though the soft-spoken, petite Ms. Croak was clad in her Google lanyard, she was unwilling to raise her arms and open the door as instructed, lest the officer perceive her as a threat.

"I didn't understand how anyone could feel safe doing that. My whole body felt like it was on fire," Ms. Croak says. "That's when I became aware that I was a black person in that situation. All kinds of fear and dissonance went through my head."

The graduate of New York City public schools (she later went to Princeton University and the University of Southern California) has long been an outsider in corporate America. At AT&T Inc., where she worked for more than three decades, she initially met internal resistance advocating for routing phone calls over the internet rather than over the usual telephone networks. That technology now is widely used to make free voice and videoconferencing calls between computers, and has resulted in hundreds of new patents.

At Google Ms. Croak is vice president for site reliability engineering, overseeing hundreds of staffers who troubleshoot complicated software problems across the conglomerate. That makes her one of the highest ranking black female executives among Google's roughly 200,000 full-time and contract workers.

She spoke to The Wall Street Journal about her career as an outlier, and the catharsis of the past few weeks. Edited excerpts follow:

WSJ: How did that day at YouTube affect you?

Croak: I remember seeing officers with AK-47's in their hands every time they walked past my office. I had all my identification but I was terrified to come out because I was afraid I would startle them. [Google security] said they would accompany the officers to my office. I remember telling the officers when I was walking out that I was afraid they were going to shoot me, and they just sort of looked away. I told my children and then I just stopped thinking about it.

WSJ: How else has your race been a factor in your career?

Croak: Years ago, when I was working at AT&T in New Jersey, I was hit by a car in the morning on my way to work. I was on my way to an important business meeting and this was a time when women would wear dresses and be in curls. I woke up, surrounded by first responders, and the first person I saw was a police officer asking if there was a warrant for my arrest. He said, "Have you fled bail?" and ordered me out of the car. This guy was relentless. I was driving a Toyota. It was a car where you wouldn't think I was a criminal and I didn't feel I looked like a criminal. I don't remember being put into an ambulance.

WSJ: Did you tell anyone about it?

Croak: I didn't even tell my parents, and I never shared that story with my children. My parents, who are deceased now, would have been heartbroken. They always believed that they had been through difficult times but that somehow my being a doctorate or having a great job would protect me from what they had experienced.

WSJ: What makes you bring it up now?

Croak: I recently shared that story with [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai. All of these incidents are coming back into focus for me, things that I try not to focus on and just don't want to give voice to. It's too distracting. But we are all distracted now. It's so therapeutic and cathartic to finally talk about it. People want to listen. It's validating.

WSJ: Just 2.6% of Google's leadership is black. The company last week said it would try to increase the ranks of underrepresented groups in leadership by 2025. How?

Croak: We want people to realize that we care and they are going to be welcomed. Some people have misinterpreted the companies that are setting aspirational targets -- it's not like we are going to lower the hiring bar. So many people are choosing to not even apply. We are hoping that we can change that.

WSJ: In January, you became chair of Google's Black Leadership Advisory Group. How has this year gone?

Croak: If you asked anyone, "Would Marian wind up ever being a leader of the black community?" they'd say, "She's so quiet, she's so introverted." I do care more about doing well at work, and yet many of the things I hear people say they've experienced, I've experienced as well. I feel immensely comfortable having white colleagues and friends and relatives, but sometimes there's just this slight unawareness that we live in parallel universes.

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Write to Rob Copeland at rob.copeland@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 26, 2020 10:14 ET (14:14 GMT)

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