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Portrait of a Nation: the language prodigy who helped bring Arabic to Google Assistant

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Twenty four year old Mariam Dabboussi became a ‘global prodigy’ for Google by transforming many Google services into user-friendly Arabic versions. Antonie Robertson / The National

At the age of 24, Mariam Khaled Dabboussi is carving out a career at Google that many twice her age would be proud of.

As the company’s youngest team member in the Middle East and North Africa, her rise from Tripoli in Lebanon to become a central component of Google Assistant for Arabic speakers was meteoric.

Since joining the Dubai office of one of the world’s largest tech companies, Ms Dabboussi helped to bring Google Assistant’s services in Arabic to life via laptops, mobile phones, smart watches and home speakers.

With more than 285 million internet users across the Arab world, the Mena region is a huge growth area.

When I first came into Google I think people were confused as I looked so young

Mariam Dabboussi

“When I first joined Google one of my first projects was to launch assistant in Arabic,” said Ms Dabboussi, who joined the company in July 2018.

“On the surface, it looks pretty simple – a virtual assistant that responds to questions you ask it – but there was a mountain of research that went in behind the scenes.

“We had to understand user commands that were decoded from whatever language that was spoken.”

Ms Dabboussi said the challenges her team faced included working with several languages and dialects to ensure Google’s response was accurate enough for Arabic users.

Because of the nuances between regional dialects, the process was long but ultimately a success.

“We had to ensure Google Assistant understood all the commands it received, which was hugely complex,” she said.

“For example: Saudi Arabia has six different dialects and the word ‘hello’ can be said more than 170 different ways depending on where you are in the region.”

Ms Dabboussi’s career in technology was forged at the American University of Beirut where she thanks the strong mentorship she received from her peers for shaping her career path.

Strong and supporting parents also played a vital role in keeping her grounded and on course for her dream job.

Google’s most searched-for people in 2020  in pictures

“My father in particular strongly believed in the power of education, specifically in women,” she said.

“He thinks we can change the narrative in whatever path we set out on. Dad was my driving force.”

At 19, Ms Dabboussi directed a team of 30 students to develop 16 solar-powered lamp posts and 10 solar kits in El Mejdel in northern Lebanon, bringing light to an area plagued by outages.

A move to Dubai in May 2017 for a role with the Boston Consulting Group offered new experience in building financial models for a new corporate subsidiary.

In July 2018, an opportunity with Google arose with a position as a product marketing intern that proved too strong a calling to ignore.

Three years later, Ms Dabboussi now leads Google’s consumer research strategy across the region.

As part of her role, she is in charge of Google’s efforts to make the Google Assistant helpful and useful for users in Arabic, and to understand user habits and interactions with Google products in 22 Middle East and North African countries in Arabic.

A highlight of her career so far was organising a Guinness World Record-setting iftar livestream that attracted more than 3.5 million playbacks in 24 hours.

“When I first came to Google, people were confused, not really in a negative way, just that I looked so young,” Ms Dabboussi said.

“The company sets you up to deal with this by showing who you are and what you can do.

“Everyone has a story to tell, regardless of their age or experience.

“I believe we have something to learn from everyone we meet, and that is how I go about my life.”

Nick Webster Nick Webster

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