Discover more from The Muse
The green tortilla soup
How I came to work in AI, and the real reason I started this Substack
Hey Google! Is that an AI algorithm in your cloud server or are you just happy to
see talk to me?
Once upon a time, a little AI-generated gremlin snuck into a Google café and ran around looking for something to eat. He didn’t like the organic vegan salads. He didn’t like the fancy grilled steaks. And he especially didn’t like the sushi bar. He was a green gremlin, and he really liked soup. But all the other cafés he had raided before always had the wrong color soup. Red tomato soup. Orange pumpkin soup. Yellow red lentil soup. Dark brown black bean soup. Clear chicken broth soup. He needed green soup so his green gremlin skin wouldn’t fade away.
He ran from one station to the other, looking for green soup. And finally, he saw it: a big pot labeled Green Tortilla Soup. He couldn’t believe his little gremlin eyes. But then he remembered the trick his gremlin bros had played on him the previous Halloween, disguising lentil soup—his most hated soup of all—by pouring salsa verde into it. He’d turned a vile shade of purple when he ate it, and spent a week recuperating. And so, all the wiser now, he approached the Pot gingerly, slowly. He could see the steam lifting up from within. He came a little closer, and the fragrance of cilantro and avocado swirled around his little gremlin nose. His heart beating a little faster, he climbed to the rim and peered in.
Glory! Hallelujah! ‘Twas true! Real green tortilla soup! Oh Heaven on Earth! And it was all his! He leaned in and slurped a little. Ohh this was indeed green tortilla soup. The best one he had ever tasted. The flavors danced in his mouth: the garlic and cumin, the yellow onion and bell peppers, silky creamy avocado and tender shreds of chicken. And those crunchy, crispy yet half-soggy tortillas! He ate and ate until he was full. Teetering on the edge, a little drunk from the cilantro and cumin, he thought, oh just one more slurp! He leaned in a little deeper, and… fell in.
Yes, there was a gremlin in the soup.
Just then, a loud clang and darkness. Someone had closed the pot with a heavy iron lid. Inside, the gremlin could hear the murmur of voices. First a few, then more, and then so many it sounded like a summer storm. Oh no, he thought. The Googlers1 had arrived. It was lunch time and they were lining up. He was trapped in a big pot of green tortilla soup, and sooner or later he’d end up in one of the plates. His life would end in the stomach of a Googler.
Terrified, he started to scratch up the inner walls of the Pot, but they were slippery and he kept falling back in.
Suddenly, a shaft of light streamed in, and a great big Ladle slid inside. The gremlin scrambled out of its way, pushing through the chunks of avocado and peppers. The Ladle just missed him, dipping into the soup and coming back up. Above, a plate was filled and carried off by a hungry Googler. Inside the Pot, the gremlin trembled pale green with terror.
The Ladle came in again to scoop up more soup. As the gremlin watched its long, black handle swoop past his nose, he got an idea. What if he grabbed on, held on just long enough to be lifted out of the pot, and then jumped off before the Ladle poured the soup into the plate? It was his only chance.
He waded his way to the center and waited for the Ladle to come down again. Ok, here it comes. He took a deep breath and sprang for it. Oh, but the Ladle was too big and slippery—he slid right off as it rose, and splashed back into the soup. This time, he thought, he’d try to sit inside. Yes, good idea. No way to fall out then. He shimmied his way over a bit, gauging the right angle. The Ladle’s coming, get ready gremlin! It reached in just behind him, scooped up a great big gob of soup, and started to lift. He felt himself lifted along with it, and soon he saw the top of the Pot. He’d done it! He was free! Ok, ready to hop out gremlin? Hop out, now! Gremlin!
The Ladle moved too fast, and the soup was too thick. Too many tortillas in the way. He couldn’t move fast enough to jump off the Ladle. And now he was in a plate of soup, swaying to and fro as it was carried through the café. He didn’t dare open his eyes. It was over. The human carrying the plate would eat him, and probably never know—gremlin bones were crunchy like tortilla strips. He wept long streams of gremlin tears that made the soup even saltier.
Suddenly, the plate slammed down and stopped moving. Dead silence. The gremlin hung his head and awaited his fate.
“Ohh look, a little gremlin!” A woman’s voice pealed. “How adorable!”
The gremlin squeaked open an eye. Staring right at him was a blonde woman. She was grinning. He felt something behind him, so he turned around. Another woman—tall, olive-skin, black hair and glasses—was leaning in from the other side.
“What are we going to do with him?” asked the black-haired woman. The blonde woman furrowed her brow. She cocked her head and looked long and hard at the gremlin, so long and so hard until he started glitching. He was, after all, AI-generated.
“You’re a new one,” she finally said. “But we can use you. I won’t eat you if you hop onto my hand. All you’ll need to do is keep my trixes2 clean. Deal?”
The gremlin slowly stood up, chicken shreds and cilantro leaves dripping off him. AI gremlins couldn’t look directly at humans for too long, because they would degrade into hallucinations. Their code would corrupt and break apart. He looked down, wiped himself off as best as he could, and leapt onto the woman’s hand. She closed her fingers around him, and he sizzled into a swirl of code which she deftly sifted into a small flash drive.
“Soup’s still warm, thank heaven,” she said, taking a spoonful.
“Great job Birgitte!” a third woman’s voice called out. Asian, also glasses, pepper-white hair. She sat a few feet away, watching and typing into her laptop. “How’d you know to get him to jump into your hand? No one’s ever done that before.”
“Let’s just say I’ve known a few gremlins in my life,” Birgitte winked. Her black-haired friend gave her a big warm smile. “Congrats!!”
And that was how Birgitte got her first job in AI.
Do you want your own AI gremlin? I have the secret sauce, but I only spill it for paid subscribers. Well, maybe finish reading first.
Actually, it didn’t happen quite like that. This is how it really went down. By the way, I’ve never told this story publicly. It may get me into some trouble with the chefs at a certain Google café. Appreciate this great risk I’m taking so you can enjoy the story—and maybe a bowl of green tortilla soup.
In the late summer of 2016, a friend invited me to lunch at Google. I had never been on the Google campus, and I’d heard the food was pretty good, so I said, “sure!”
This was of course long before the pandemic. No need to show vaccination cards, no triple-layer security. She printed me a guest badge and we walked in. The place was expansive. Different stations had different types of food… a sushi bar, a dessert station, a soup station, several different kinds of entrées. Googlers were milling about everywhere. I’m a big soup fan so I decided to try my luck at the soup station. They had a green tortilla soup on offer, so I went for that. The plate was of white porcelain speckled with amber spots, one of those fancy shallow plates with organic edges—in other words not a perfect circle. The soup was, well, green. I thought, this looks weird. Hope it’s good. Hope there are no gremlins in it.
We sat down outside at a lunch table. Chatted a bit, all the usual small talk that friends share as they sit down for a meal. But I can’t remember how the conversation started.. because my attention was diverted with the first spoonful.
This. Soup. Rocked. The only green soup I’d ever had was the Czech split-pea soup my mom always made for Christmas Eve dinner—rich, creamy, with home-made soft buttered croutons and bits of bacon. There were all the other color soups… Tuscan white bean, tomato puree, aromatic butternut squash, black-bean with a dollop of sour cream. When I was on location in Houston during the last live action film of my previous career, we were stationed in the Double Tree hotel, where the restaurant staff came to know me, and I got to know them—I had their “soup of the day” every single day, without fail.
But this soup was different. Decidedly a Mexican dish, and a flavor profile worlds away—cilantro, lemon, peppers, shreds of chicken, and the softening crunch of tortilla chips. No doubt house-made. It transported me to another continent, where song is infused in the air you breathe, your footsteps take on a different rhythm, and life flows a little slower.
“This soup is really good,” I said, trying to hide the understatement. My friend smiled. She couldn’t remember having that specific soup before, but, thought I to myself, if this is what they serve on a random weekday, no wonder she can’t be bothered to remember—what other heavenly delights must she have the difficult pleasure of choosing from on a daily basis!
I couldn’t stop marveling at this soup. I was hooked. What I was hooked on, wasn’t immediately clear. Was it the texture, or one of the ingredients, or maybe two? Or all of them, the magical way the chef had blended it? As my friend talked, I confess I drifted off to the Google stratosphere, floating above this oasis in an oasis. The clouds parted, and a single thought shot through my brain: This soup is amazing. I need to work here. And then it was gone, never to be thought again. It wasn’t realistic—I had published my first novel just six months prior, and was about as skilled in computer science as a gremlin was in climbing the walls of a pot of soup.
You might wonder why I didn’t apply at a fine restaurant. But you’d be misled. The point isn’t to make the food. The point is to enjoy it. Savor it. Be blessed by it. While working and getting paid of course.
The dream comes true
A few days later, I was browsing job listings online. Unexpectedly, I tripped across a creative writer listing from Google. Scanned the list of requirements—and stared at it, incredulous. How did they know I exist? This was the most eclectic, non sequitur job post I’d ever seen.
Creative writing. Project management. Passion for pop culture and current news. Experience designing or producing mobile apps. Interest in product and game design. Interest in artificial intelligence. Experience writing dialogue for film or plays. Managing translation at scale. Oh and a speaker of one or more foreign languages.
I didn’t think about the soup at that point—I was too blown over by this… this… possibility. Never in my entire writer’s life had I thought I’d end up working at one of the world’s top tech companies. Surely you had to have a math degree. A computer science PhD. Maybe a minor in quantum mechanics. I had none of those. But I sure checked all the boxes of this job description. And hell yes I went above and beyond in the interview exercises they gave me—it was just too much fun. Google is infamous for their very tough and most impossible interview questions, like how many tennis balls would fit inside the Pixel smartphone in an alternate universe on a Thursday. I must have breathed green tortilla soup elixir at my interviewers and hypnotized them all because I passed those interviews with flying colors. And I didn’t even have to use my gremlin whisperer skills.
Long interview story short, I got the job. I was the 4th creative writer hired on the newly forming, soon-to-explode international creative writer team for Google Assistant. It turned into one of the most memorable experiences of my career. So many stories, so many wonderful people (and one not so wonderful, but there’s always one rotten, putrid apple isn’t there), so much learning, creating, curating. So many cafés and eateries on campus to choose from. (One rather unassuming sandwich bar had the absolute best popcorn).
The first day
I remember the first day like it was yesterday. Late the night before, I had returned from the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle, where I had given a talk about my novel The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree and sold an entire case of the book. It was a fantastic trip—imagine a football stadium full of chocolate vendors with free—yes FREE—samples of craft chocolate. The next morning, back home in the Bay Area, I ended up having no time for breakfast and went straight into orientation. Orientation took place en masse in a large nondescript office building near the 237/101 interchange in Sunnyvale. There must have been at least a hundred people getting onboarded to various departments that morning alone. Yep, those were those heady days of non stop hiring.
After that, I drove to the Google campus in Mountain View and found my building. My new manager, a youthful-looking Asian lady with pepper-white hair, met me downstairs, said Welcome! and wasted no time bringing me into my first meeting. As in, the literal middle of my first meeting. No introductions, just in you go and see if you can swim! There were three people there, two women and a man, about a decade younger than me, speaking in a strange language. Words I’d never heard before. English, but Google English. My mind reeled. All I could do is sit there, listen, nod as if I understood, and try to drink in as many of these strange words as possible, while putting on my best poker face.
By noon my head was splitting open. Dehydrated, hungry, I finally made my way down to one of the cafeterias. For a food enthusiast, Google is an absolute paradise. You could go to any cafe anywhere and order any food on the menu, for precisely $0. No wonder they get so many job applications.
But you sure work for that free food. In my Hello Google! introduction sent via email to my new team, my big mouth (er, fingers) let it slip that I speak 5.5 languages, and because they hadn’t hired anyone for French or Italian, they asked me if I’d like to help out with those regional markets as well. Bien sûr! Ma certo! I said, and my fate was sealed.
A few sixty-hour weeks later, el Asistente de Google in Latin America, l’Assistant Google in France and French Canada, and l'Assistente Google in Italy were getting ready for their big debut.
I’ll spare you the details of the time I spent at Google—also because, you know, otherwise I’d probably have their legal counsel knocking on my door—but suffice it to say the work we did was all pre-generative AI. It took a team of writers to “teach” the Assistant how to respond, what questions were too provocative or political to reply to, and in general how to navigate the quicksand that is humanity. We barely scraped the surface during those early years. We were spoon-feeding a gargantuan baby that was growing by entire hillsides on a daily basis. Thousands of lines of grammar rules and patterns, variations of user questions, and even more variations of responses. This was all the work of our very human—and very tired—brains, powered, admittedly, by Google’s well-stocked kitchens.
So when you turn on your Spanish- or French-speaking Google Assistant, you might just hear a line or two that I wrote. Or a poem I curated for the French Assistant.
Closing the tortilla loop
I did go back to that café where I had first tasted that fateful green tortilla soup—many times. It became one of my secret favorite places—it was far enough away from my building that I had to drive there, which meant no one could find me. On the days when I didn’t have morning meetings, I’d slip away and snuggle in with my laptop and savor whatever breakfast delicacy was on offer that day. Only once in my entire time at Google did I manage to hit it on the day they served the soup, and that was a special day. Celebrated quietly by just me and a green gremlin or two, but celebrated.
The glory of food simply cannot be overstated, over celebrated, or over appreciated. I never told my bosses this, but they could have paid me only in Google food and I would have been thrilled (although maybe not so much after that 40th hour).
And that, my friends, is how a simple green tortilla soup altered the course of my career. A green tortilla soup is why this Substack exists.
I never lost my fascination with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Having emerged now from a 4-year stint in fintech, it’s right back to AI and creativity. Except that generative AI has been turned from a gremlin that likes green soup into a Godzilla that wants to eat the world. It’s not your fault, Godzilla. It’s us humans. We’re trying to figure ourselves out, and we get too carried away with shiny new tech toys. So please don’t kill us yet.
And to the chefs out there… your job is safe (unlike us writers). No AI gremlin could ever make a green tortilla soup like this. Or could they…
I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading this story as much as I did cooking—er, writing it. My little gremlins would love it if you said hello to them in the comments. 🙏🏽 🤓 And if you’re a Googler (past, present, or imminent future) and you want to venture a guess as to which café it was that this story took place in, post it in the comments!
*Original art created for this post by 12-year-old artist Cairo.
For the blissfully tech-uninitiated, a “Googler” isn’t a green gremlin, or any kind of gremlin. (Well, maybe sometimes.) A Googler is a person who is either smart enough, lucky enough, or wily enough to have passed Google’s Sphinx-like series of interview questions and get hired by the company. Similarly, a “Xoogler” [pronounced ZOO-gler] is a person who is either smart enough to have finally left the company to launch their own startup, lucky enough to get laid off with a healthy severance package, or wily enough to have climbed the corporate ladder to a point where literally any other company will hire them at 2x their Google salary.
A “trix” is internal Google slang for “spreadsheet,” especially on Halloween night. Don’t ask.