Meet Dr Marian Croak, a woman whose over 200 patents have shaped your use of WhatsApp, Zoom, among others

BY Preta Peace Namasaba July 1, 2024 12:09 PM EDT

From work and education to social interactions, the internet has revolutionized every facet of our lives. It has impacted how we communicate, access and disseminate information, and approach the contemporary world. At the core of this digital advancement is Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP), a technology that allows users to make voice calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line. VoIP powers popular services like Zoom, WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber.

According to a 2024 study, the global VoIP services market is projected to increase from $134.86 billion in 2023 to $151.21 billion in 2024. It is expected to grow even further and reach $236.25 billion in 2028. This anticipated growth during the forecast period can be attributed to the increasing adoption of mobile VoIP solutions, the growing prevalence of smartphones, and the enhancement of call centers and customer service through VoIP technology.

Dr. Marian Croak, a technologist at Google is credited with over 100 VoIP patents. Her inventions fuel the rapidly growing multi-billion dollar industry. These inventions serve as the backbone of one of the world’s largest wireless and broadband networks, connecting billions of people around the globe.

“I find that it inspires people when they see someone who looks like themselves in some dimension, and I’m proud to offer that type of representation. I want people to understand that it may be difficult but that they can overcome obstacles and that it will be so worth it,” Croak said about her transformational journey.

A corporate executive, inventor, and civic leader, Dr Croak has always been fascinated with how to make things work. As a young girl, she would follow the plumbers and electricians who came to her house, watching them detach and fix pipes and wires. Her father, who had no formal education beyond elementary school always encouraged her to pursue her passion in science. He built her a chemistry lab at home so that she could have a dedicated space to develop creatively. Dr Croak’s teachers at the local public school also supported and fostered her interest in STEM.

She went on to pursue her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and earned a Ph.D. in qualitative analysis and social psychology from the University of Southern California in 1982. The intersection of statistical analysis and psychology influenced her development of technology that can positively impact people’s lives. While at a USC career fair, Dr. Croak was scouted by a recruiter from AT&T Bell Laboratories (formerly Bell Laboratories).

Starting in a graduate position in the company’s human factors research division, Croak would go on to serve in various roles at AT&T for three decades. She was in charge of more than 200 programs and oversaw over 500 engineers and computer scientists as vice president of the services network in research and development. As senior vice president of applications & services infrastructure, Croak supervised over 2,000 computer scientists and engineers. She notably multiplied the number of programs at the company from 200 to over 500.

“I have always been motivated by the desire to change the world, and to do that I try to change the world that I’m currently in. What I mean by that is I work on problems that I am aware of, and that I can tackle within the world that surrounds me. So when I began working on VoIP technology, it was at a time in the late ‘90s when there was a lot of change happening involving the internet. Netscape had put a user-friendly web browser in place and there was a lot of new activity beginning to bubble up all over the online world,” Croak explained.

Dr Croak and her team at AT&T saw and optimized a significant opportunity when the internet was in its initial stages of development. They noticed that digital communications were being ignored and began working on Internet protocol technology. Although there were some existing proprietary technologies, Croak wanted to make voice communications over the internet scalable, reliable, and able to support billions of daily calls. They experimented with packetizing voice, running the data over an IP connection. The technology was initially unreliable but got better over time with senior leaders at AT&T adopting it for their core network. Croak had successfully invented Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies.

Dr Croak listened to feedback and was motivated to improve the weak aspects of the technology. She continued advancing VoIP, ultimately converting voice data into digital signals that are easily transmitted over the internet. This innovation advanced calling and text messaging technology on mobile phones with features such as voice calls and voice notes that are now widely popular. It also transformed audio and video conferencing and made working and studying virtually through apps like Zoom and Skype possible.

Since the invention of VoIP, Croak has tweaked the technology for distinct usage in entertainment and humanitarian purposes. Croak and her team were inspired by American Idol to create a reimagined text-to-vote system. They sought to fix the monumental network issues caused by multitudes of viewers voting for contestants in the popular show. The text-to-vote system ensured that the flow of traffic votes could be redirected from the core network. Furthermore, Dr. Croak and her team developed a text-to-donate system for charitable organizations which was extensively used in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, raising $130,000. Croak’s technology helped raise $43 million in donations after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

In 2014, Croak joined Google as its Vice President for site reliability engineering for ads, corporate engineering, and YouTube. She currently serves as the vice president of responsible AI and human-centered technologies at the tech giant. Croak as a part of Project Loon, Google’s network which extends internet access to disaster areas and parts of the world where it is unavailable, led the the team that brought broadband technology to numerous developing countries. Google has consequently built fiber networks in Africa and introduced Wi-Fi into Indian railroad stations. Additionally, Croak is instrumental in racial justice initiatives at Google. She leads training and accountability for staff and managers and provides support to minority-owned small businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Croak holds over 200 patents, with more than half of them being in VoIP. She is one of two Black women to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.