2022 NIHF Inductee Marian Croak: The Problem-Solving Engineer
By leading the development of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies while working at AT&T Laboratories, Marian Croak played a key role in transforming the way people communicate. Because VoIP technology converts voice waves into a digital signal, thanks to Croak’s work, today we are able to make calls directly from a computer or other electronic device connected to the internet.
As we celebrate both Black History Month, and Women’s History Month that’s right around the corner, Croak’s many accomplishments stand as an inspiring testament to the power of innovation. In recognition of her incredible contribution to the technology we use to stay connected every day, we are delighted to welcome Croak into the 2022 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductees.
An Inquisitive Mind
Born in 1955 and raised in New York City, from an early age, Croak possessed an inquisitive mind and was fascinated with how things worked. When electricians, plumbers and other technicians came to her house to fix various appliances, she would follow them from room to room, asking them questions about how they were solving the problem at hand.
As Croak grew up, her parents were very supportive of her interests — so much so, her father even built her a chemistry set. In the 10th grade, she transferred from a private school to a public school where she could further her science education. Following her high school education, she attended Princeton University and then went on to complete her graduate work at the University of Southern California (USC) where she studied statistical analysis and social psychology — the combination of which opened her eyes to how technology can improve people’s lives.
At a job fair at USC in 1982, a recruiter from AT&T’s Bell Laboratories scouted Croak to be a part of the company’s Human Factors research division. When that division dissolved, Croak went on to work on network engineering.
While at AT&T, Croak became increasingly convinced that the internet could one day enable digital telecommunications that had the potential to revolutionize the way people could communicate with one another.
“It was before the advent of the web browser, which really helped change things, but the internet was starting to be an interesting technology,” Croak said in an interview with USC. “And so, we tried experimenting with packetizing voice and treating it just like it was data and running it over an IP connection, and it worked.”
However, because VoIP was still in its infancy, many at AT&T were skeptical, and Croak had to advocate for converting AT&T’s existing voice network into a VoIP system. With continued persistence and belief in the project, she persevered and was given the go-ahead to begin development in earnest.
“We got it so that it was fairly easy to adapt the internet protocol to carry voice traffic reliably and at scale,” Croak said. “Suddenly, everything shifted, and the very people that had argued against it started working in my organization.”
AT&T would go on to merge its voice networking engineering and internet protocol engineering teams, and Croak was tasked with managing a team of 2,000 engineers. During her 32 years working at the company, she earned more than 200 patents, many of which were related to VoIP technology.
During the early 2000s, when cell phones were becoming increasingly popular across the United States, Croak saw a new opportunity to use their text messaging capabilities for philanthropic purposes.
This was especially true when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Waveland, Mississippi, on Aug. 29, 2005 causing a catastrophic storm surge that breached the levees protecting New Orleans.
“It was horrific to watch what was happening. Many people felt helpless, and they wanted to help,” Croak said in an interview with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “Sitting there watching that, I thought: ‘How can we get help to them quickly?’ And that’s when I thought about the concept of using text to donate.”
In response, Croak created the concept of a text-to-donate system which raised $130,000. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the technology was used to raise $43 million in donations.
The Cutting Edge of Science and Technology
In 2014, Croak began working at Google and leading the company’s reliability engineering team. She ensured that Google’s Ads and YouTube systems functioned reliably and performed well. Additionally, she worked on Project Loon, a network of high-altitude balloons designed to provide internet access to disaster areas and other places in the world where the internet is unavailable.
Recently Croak has transitioned to a new role at Google where she serves as vice president of engineering and leads the Research Center for Responsible AI and Human Centered Technology.
Throughout her career, Croak has continued to find herself at the cutting edge of science and technology. However, she is quick to point out that science should not be separated from the people who advance it or from those who benefit from its implementation.
“What I’m learning after 40 years in technology, and I think I’ve always known this and practiced it but now I can articulate it, is that we can’t really separate science from people,” Croak said in an interview with NIHF. “People discover things, people are the ones that are contributing and making science. I want to see things become better in my lifetime, and fortunately I have seen that, but I want it to keep going in that direction.”
To learn more about the Hall of Famers in NIHF’s 2022 class, please visit our Inductee Search Page.