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Editor’s note: This story was published Aug. 17, 2011
Twenty-six-year-old Frances Haugen of Oakland, Calif., is working on one of social media's hottest projects — the Google+ social networking site launched last month.
The Iowa City native was part of the first graduating class for one of engineering education's hottest new concepts — the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, which uses a project-based education concept.
Yet Haugen, hired into Google right out of college after a professor's recommendation, says her Iowa education as much as anything else gave her a leg up.
"A big part of my success in science and tech is because of where and who I grew up with in Iowa," Haugen said. She said her four years with enrichment teacher Jan Bohnsack at Iowa City's Horn Elementary was one of the best education experiences of her life.
"She gave me so much attention in four years, and taught me how to program and accelerated math," she said. There were six or seven excellent teachers who helped put me on that path."
At Google, Haugen started out working in the reporting functions of Google Ads. She said the experience required her to learn better ways of communicating with numbers. She then moved on to Google Book Search, helping launch book reader for mobile devices.
"We beat Amazon to the iPhone, and I'm proud of that," Haugen said.
Haugen also worked on the settlement of class action litigation after Google was sued by publishers for its project to publish book content on the web. Even though Google might have preferred a different outcome, Haugen said it was a worthwhile project.
"You need to be able to push the boundaries of what is possible," she said, adding that the project especially benefited Google users who read different languages than English, and don't find the richness of Web content that English readers enjoy.
Not far into her Google career, Haugen took time off to move to Boston, where she completed a Master of Business Administration degree at Harvard University paid for by her employer. Most of her peers wouldn't have been interested in the opportunity, she said, because their interest was focused on technology.
The Google+ project may occupy Haugen for a long time. It was launched June 28 on an invitation-only basis. Membership expanded so rapidly that Google's servers were briefly overloaded, and within four weeks Google+ had reached 25 million users. By comparison, it took Facebook 3 years, and Twitter 30 months, to hit that number, according to the analytics firm comScore.
"Google+ is a very long project," Haugen said. "What you see today is only the beginning."
Aimed squarely at winning over the audience dominated by Facebook, Google+ was designed to mirror the way people interact in their everyday lives, Haugen said. Users organize their contacts into circles, such as family, co-workers, friends, and co-worker circles from previous jobs. Content posted on Google+ goes only to the desired circles.
"It allows you to very quickly put your friends into these contexts," Haugen said. "One can very quickly share their photos from Friday night out with your friends without showing them to your mom."
A feature called Hangout on Google+ has probably attracted more than any other. Members can video chat in groups of up to 10. It's even possible to play a music video in the background during the conversations.
Haugen said really grew to like the feature while she and her husband were living on different coasts. She would set up her laptop on a stand in front of her while she rode the elliptical trainer at the gym.
"An hour would just fly by that way," she said.
Bohnsack, who taught Haugen in the Horn Elementary's Extended Learning Program, remembers her vividly. She said Bohnsack was a non-conformist with a very adult sense of humor who sometimes wore things like mismatched socks, and didn't seem at all self-conscious.
"I'll never, ever forget Frances," Bohnsack said, calling her "one in a million."
"You knew she owuld be successful because she was so comfortable with who she was, and yet horrifically bright and creative," the teacher said.
Haugen's recent posts on Google+ seem to reflect a sense of wonder at human discovery, nature and innovation, from toilet paper art to the design of a new train station in the Netherlands.
Haugen has been so busy working on a new social network that she hasn't reconnected with her former teachers. She said she'd like to find time for that some day.