How Dalya Gershtein channeled a passion for art into creative computation

This Google software engineer dreamed of being a painter or musician, but discovered that programming allowed her to flex some of the same muscles

Dalya Gershtein

Dalya Gershtein

Dalya Gershtein was six years old when she saw Fantasia and decided that, when she grew up, she was going to be an animator for Disney. She held fast to that dream throughout high school, toiling over her art portfolio and racking up painting awards, all the while maintaining top grades, earning her grade 10 Royal Conservatory of Music certification for piano, and playing saxophone in seven different bands.

But when Gershtein didn’t get accepted into the college art program of her choice, she opted to make painting her hobby and focus her post-secondary career on math. She soon learned, though, that her new career would lead her back to her passion for art, not away from it. It also earned her recognition as a member of the Developer 30 under 30.

Now a software engineer for Google, Gershtein works on projects such as Smart Reply, an email feature that uses machine learning to send automated replies; and Save to Inbox, an extension that lets users send what they’re watching, reading, or listening to directly to their inbox so they can easily access it later. While it’s different from the animation job she envisioned as a kid, Gershtein’s background in art has given her a distinct advantage over her fellow programmers. “I’ve learned that it’s easy to combine art and design with technology,” she says, “and so I never really had to choose between one path or the other.”

In many ways, she came to that conclusion by ignoring convention. During her undergrad at the University of Waterloo, she designed her own co-op program (there was no co-op option for her degree in math), alternating between school and work with each semester. It was during her work placements where Gershtein honed her coding skills and discovered how she could incorporate animation into programming. “I wanted to do a portfolio for my art online, so I made my own website to showcase my work,” she says. “I really got into web design then, and realized it was a lot of fun making images appear through code, not just through the paintbrush. It was math, computer science, and art combined. I knew there was a lot I could do with that.”

By then, Gershtein had transferred into a computer science program with a minor in fine arts. While she was becoming more and more passionate about the work she was doing, she struggled with the feeling that she didn’t belong. Gershtein felt like an imposter as a beginner coder on a classroom full of students, mostly men, who had been coding all their lives. “In high school, I was one of the top students. It was a really big shock for me to come to university and get much lower grades than I was used to,” she says. “I was pretty down on myself. I remember calling my mom one day and saying ‘I can’t do this, it’s too hard.’” Eventually, with support from classmates and a lot of late nights, Gerstein was able to get her grades and confidence up.

By the time she graduated, she had earned enough experience and expertise—mainly through co-ops and hackathon victories—to land a programming job with Amazon in Irvine, California. She moved back to Canada to join Google nine months later, where her work combines art and programming. “I usually find that people are either really good at design or really good at programming, and there’s always a huge gap between them—they’re speaking different languages and it’s hard to communicate,” says Gershtein whose ability to bridge that gap has proven to be a major asset.

Still, she says being hired at Google triggered another bout of imposter’s syndrome, including doubts that she could contribute anything to the behemoth company. It was through mentorship from other women at Google that Gershtein was able to build back her confidence, and today she pays that mentorship forward to other young women and students entering the programming world. Her outreach ranges from teaching girls in elementary school how to code, to motivational talks on how to have impact as a junior in a giant company, to enforcing the message that you don’t need to choose between your passions. “Most of the time, there is a way to combine whatever artistic skills you have with technology,” says Gershtein. “For example, my first program I ever coded was a Simon Says game with a piano keyboard. The computer would generate a random melody, and you would have to repeat it back by pressing the keys on the piano. Since I was really passionate about music, I was able to combine that passion with technology to make something.”

Some day, Gershtein hopes to combine that love for art and technology in her own entrepreneurial venture. “I’m still looking for what that is,” she says. “Once I get passionate enough about something, I tend to take it all the way.” She plans to take the next few months, while on maternity leave with her first child, to consider what that project could be, but she admits that her childhood ambition has never fully extinguished. “I still do have a bit of that dream to work for Pixar.”

The Developer 30 Under 30 is a new program celebrating Canada’s rising talent in the tech community. The selection committee included top executives from companies such as Plastic Mobile, RBC, Sun Life, Pizza Pizza, Indigo, Rogers and Canada Goose.