Now as a UMass Lowell Alumna She Mentors Others

Sylvia Isler

Google's Sylvia Isler.

By Katharine Webster

Two crucial mentors opened doors for Sylvia Isler ’96 while she was studying computer science at Hampton University, a historically Black university, and at UMass Lowell. 

“So many people took a chance on me—and then, of course, I had to deliver,” she says. “If you crack open a door, I will take that opportunity and run with it.” 

Now, Isler mentors others while working as director of engineering for Google’s first and most well-known product: its search engine. “It’s hard for me to say ‘No’ to those mentoring opportunities,” she says. 

Her first professional mentor was James West, a Hampton University alumnus renowned for co-inventing the electret microphone while interning and then working at Bell Laboratories. 

West, whose mother Matilda was among NASA’s “hidden figures”—Black women mathematicians who worked as “human computers” in the early days of the space race—also founded Bell Labs’ Association of Black Laboratory Employees to advocate for equity. He regularly visited Hampton University to encourage students to pursue careers in science and technology. In the mid-1980s, one of those students was Isler. 

“I met him early on in my career, and I didn’t realize the importance of who he was,” Isler says. “He was just a cool dude with a ponytail, and I started doing internships at Bell Labs before I even graduated, thanks to him.” 

West also encouraged Isler to apply for an AT&T Cooperative Research Fellowship, the company’s pioneering program for students from underrepresented groups. The fellowship offered Isler both financial support and mentoring to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania. But as she finished up her master’s degree at Penn, she was having trouble finding a thesis advisor and dissertation topic. 

That’s when UML Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Charles Thompson, who served as an outside adviser to students in the fellowship program, suggested that Isler transfer to UMass Lowell to complete her doctorate in computer science

In Thompson’s lab, Isler was part of a multidisciplinary research team that included students in engineering, physics and computer science. Not only did she get academic and career guidance from Thompson and Kavitha Chandra, now associate dean of engineering, but she absorbed two implicit lessons: the value of collaboration and the importance of cultivating a lifelong learning mindset. 

“There was a wide variety of expertise and levels in the lab, and everybody had something to contribute,” she says. “I learned, don’t give up on yourself and don’t give up on anyone else too quickly, either.” 

After earning her doctorate, Isler got her first job in the basic science research division of MathSoft in Seattle. When the business division found itself short an engineer, she was asked to take over the lead in developing S-Plus, an enhanced commercial version of statistical analysis software created by engineers at Bell Labs. 

A Path To Leadership

That experience changed her career path, as she discovered that she enjoyed managing people and developing practical applications: “This was my first time developing something that somebody was actually going to sell and other people were going to use. I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” 

But Isler, who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, was far from home and family. So after a few years at MathSoft, she joined a financial technology startup, Kiodex Inc., in New York City, where her sister was also living and working. Isler engineered the company’s software, which was aimed at “democratizing” the energy derivatives market by opening it to smaller businesses. 

In 2003, she won UML’s Francis Cabot Young Alumni Award for her accomplishments—and she was just getting started. She went on to work for companies as big as J.P. Morgan Chase and EMC and then for smaller startups. 

Before joining Google three years ago, Isler took a job as vice president of engineering at Cityblock Health, a spinoff of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Cityblock partners with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and a range of health care agencies to provide integrated and preventive care for people in underserved neighborhoods in New York City, Boston and Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Isler and her team built a software platform incorporating recommended treatments for chronic conditions including kidney and heart disease, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, mental illness and cognitive decline. Cityblock doctors and social workers used it when meeting with patients to understand their health care needs and help them with next steps, such as finding a store in their neighborhood where they could buy fresh fruits and vegetables. 

“Our philosophy at Cityblock was ‘Nothing about the patient without the patient,’” Isler says. “We had doctors who would treat the members with dignity and not assume they were not compliant because they did not have the money” to follow a prescribed treatment plan. 

The cause was close to Isler’s heart after both of her parents and her sister died—her father of heart failure due to undiagnosed hypertension, her mother after suffering from dementia and her sister from a combination of mental illness and diabetes. 

Isler was proud of her work. But when her wife suffered a serious health crisis three years ago, she reached out to a hiring manager at Google who had been trying to recruit her. He agreed she could work remotely from her home in a New York City suburb, with occasional trips to Google’s California headquarters, and created a position for her. 

“I needed more stability,” she says. “At Cityblock, engineering, security, QA and IT were all under my purview. At Google, I didn’t have to build any of that; I just had to come in and lead.” 

And lead she has. At first, she managed a small group working to rearchitect the system that builds Android OS. In June 2021, Isler switched over to a group working on Google’s search engine. In late 2022, she was promoted to director of engineering for search infrastructure, and she now leads a team of 50 engineers working with people across the company to rearchitect Google Search, which is 25 years old. 

Isler also uses her position to offer opportunities to others. In addition to being an angel investor, she is working on a Google initiative to prepare people from disadvantaged backgrounds for jobs in tech. She also volunteers as a mentor with SEO (Sponsors for Educational Opportunity) USA, an education nonprofit that aids students who are underrepresented in their chosen fields. 

And in 2022, she joined the advisory board for the Kennedy College of Sciences. It’s a tribute not only to Thompson but to her parents, who were educators who raised her to “keep my eyes on the prize.” 

“My parents were very adamant about, ‘Your background can never be a barrier,’” Isler says. “My mom would say, ‘Keep on keeping on. Yes, you’re going to encounter people who don’t want to see you succeed, but you’re going to brush them off.’ That’s the attitude that has been instilled in me.”