September 29, 2011 |

HHS alum now Google engineer

Teachers, tinkering and tenacity - that’s how Michael Hagen came to work for one of the world’s biggest and far-reaching companies.

Hagen, 36, is a software engineer at Google in Seattle. He grew up in Haines, spending his childhood at the big stone house on Union Street, attending Haines School and tinkering with circuit boards, mechanical components and computers. After graduating Haines High School, he attended Stanford University for electrical engineering and later received his master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for the State of Alaska, and Expedia, Inc., before getting what he calls his "dream job" with Google in 2010.

Working at Google has its advantages, said Hagen, like a fully loaded snack kitchen, free meals on campus, massage therapists and gym memberships. He doesn’t have to punch a time clock and gets to plan his own schedule with his team. But Hagen said he enjoys the work as much as the perks.

"I also enjoy the challenges the job presents, such as making sure the code is working 24-7 on thousands of servers, for thousands of users every second," he said.

His job has also taken him to places like California, Colorado and Australia to work with teams at other Google locations.

Hagen said he always had a penchant for electronics and computers. Growing up, he would take apart appliances just to see how they worked.

"Most of my interest in computers was self-driven," Hagen said. "I viewed the computer as a tool that I needed to master and accomplish a problem at hand. Luckily, there was a computer lab and a few computer courses available to us in high school. It wasn’t cutting-edge by any means, but was better than nothing."

Teachers here instilled in him an interest in math, electronics and computers, Hagen said. He remembers teacher Bill Finlay shared with him a book on fractal computer art.

"At that point I didn’t have any experience with computer programming, so I sought to teach myself how to code up the designs," Hagen said. "Several of them ran for hours on the old Macintoshes, but the results were worth the wait."

Hagen also took part in the Rural Alaska Honors Institute program his junior year of high school. The program is offered by University of Alaska Fairbanks and helps prepare college-bound students for the rigors of university life. Hagen planned on attending UAF on scholarship, but teacher Harold Morgan urged him to think bigger.

"Harold insisted that I cast a wider net and see what happens," Hagen said. "If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have even thought of applying to Stanford."

Hagen was the first in his family to attend college. His parents, John G. Hagen and Kathy Enright, encouraged him and his brother and sister to continue their education after high school. And Mary Anne Ebnet, Hagen’s aunt, helped him navigate college applications and scholarship applications.

In some schools, being interested in computers and electronics could mean difficulty in the social circles for kids. But Hagen said students at small schools like Haines are usually lucky to have more accepting peers.

"Haines was a great place to grow up," Hagen said. "You didn’t have to worry about gangs, hard drugs or other big city problems. You could be a jock, a geek and student body president all at once and nobody would think anything of it. Your teachers knew you by name and actually cared about your success."

Hagen also said his family and friends kept him from getting bored or feeling "stuck" in Haines. As a family, the Hagen kids would hike, hunt and help their dad on his commercial fishing boat in the summers. Hagen admits he and his siblings and friends could get wrapped up in the occasional pranks – usually involving a pellet gun or fireworks – but said he was also self-motivated to stay occupied and out of trouble.

"Additionally, I think my aunts did a good job of keeping me in line, where I didn’t stray too far from center," Hagen said. "I also knew that community members had expectations of me, too, and knew well enough to not do anything to bring disrespect upon myself."

But Hagen said he can see how some students and kids may not always have the best or easiest time in high school. He said he wanted to move from Haines and Alaska to see and experience the "bigger world." But even with that desire to eventually leave, he said Haines can offer a base for success, if you stay positive.

"First and foremost, remember that the world is a big place and high school is such a short time period in your life," he said. "There’s so much that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And don’t forget the value in having a good sense of family and community. There’s a lot of strength that you can gain from having close friends and a good relationship with your family."

"Over the Mountains" is a feature focusing on former Haines students who have achieved success. To nominate a person to be featured, contact the CVN.