I’m a big theater buff, and I always wonder about all the unseen people hard at work backstage, grabbing props, making sure the microphones work, and moving set pieces. Whether you’re into theater or not, we figured you might be interested in hearing about what goes on “behind the scenes” of Gmail. With this in mind, we’re excited to bring you a new series over the coming months called “Faces of Gmail,” which will spotlight the engineers, designers, and other folks who help make Gmail what it is. So here’s our first interviewee: Manu Cornet, the Parisian engineer behind many of your favorite Gmail themes.

What do you do on the Gmail team and what did you do before joining Google?
I’ve worked on the Gmail frontend team for most of my four years at Google. I mostly work on things I can’t really talk about just yet :-). But on the side I do many small user interface-related things such as labs (e.g. I worked on Nested Labels, Message Sneak Peek, and the Unread Message Icon), themes, and various interface improvements. Before Google, I got a master’s in physics (plus some biology) and one in computer science. Then I started a Ph.D. in bioinformatics, but after a year I felt I needed to work on things that would be useful to more people in a shorter time range.

How did themes get started and how did you help develop them?
The idea of making Gmail theme-able had been around for nearly as long as Gmail existed. When I joined the Gmail team, they asked me if I wanted to be part of the first themes team. I said “yes” immediately! Working at Google is already a thrill, but talk about a dream job within a dream job! Making themes may sound easy, but it proved pretty challenging: Gmail has a huge amount of code, this was long before recent evolutions like CSS3, and we obviously had to support all major browsers. Especially for the crazy themes that involved custom borders, drop shadows, and customizations everywhere, like Ninjas, Desk, Shiny, etc. To this day I don’t believe any email client (web-based or not) provides that level of styling and customization. Anyway, people obviously like themes, so I’ve continued to work on more like Marker, High Score, and the ability to choose your own colors. On my personal Gmail account I use Zoozimps — it’s my baby, I drew all these big-nosed characters (they’re kind of self-caricatures).

What are the three Gmail features you wouldn’t be able to live without?
I’m an “inbox zero” kind of guy, so I would say archive (to move things out of my inbox), filters (everything that isn’t addressed to me directly or cc’d to me doesn’t make it to my inbox, but I do take a glance at all unread emails once every day), and conversation view (gathering all messages in a conversation in one place). With so many emails a day I’d go crazy without those.

What do you do when you’re not working on Gmail?
I like to write (I published a few books in France), draw (illustrations and comic strips), and play music (mostly jazz — I published an album back in 2004 but I don’t have as much time as I’d like for that these days).

What would your last meal be?
I think it would be a meal with only desserts: crème brûlée, molten chocolate cake, red fruit tiramisu, floating island, ice cream, etc. Alright I’m hungry now...

Photos by Cody Bratt, Google Talk team