2019 Focus: Half Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2019 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2019 Theme: Long-Suffering

It occurs to me that the nature of suffering is deeply related to how much one cares about the task. One hundred miles walked for a purpose can feel shorter than a single aimless mile.

2019 Challenge: Fasting in the Wilderness

I’ve done some reading on wilderness fasting and vision quests. The concept seems shared by many seemingly divergent walks of life but it generally includes some common elements; alone, undistracted, hungry and unprotected.

I’ve secured backcountry permits for two different mid-week excursions this summer and will pick one based on how the weather and my schedule shakes out.

2019 Habit: Minimizing Digital Entertainment

This quarter was a bit of a regression, despite the bar being raised. I decreased my weekly target from 3 hours to 2 hours. Despite that my average went from 137 minutes per week up to 180. This was mostly due to three particularly screen-timey weeks – I did manage to stay under the threshold in 9 out of 12 weeks, but those three really pushed it over.

Of the three weeks that racked up a lot of minutes – one was a trip in which I watched a number of things with the people I was visiting and a whole lot on the plane ride back. I should have slept on that plane ride, which would have minimized the impact. The other week was a bit of an outlier, the newest Avengers movie came out and not wanting the surprises spoiled, I saw it on opening weekend. That movie by itself was over my weekly target but I also watched Captain Marvel, the previous movie in the series the night before in order to catch up. The third big outlier week was one in which I had the flu and was out of commission for ~10 days. I’m actually surprised I kept my total as low as I did during that time, usually sick time results in a lot of screen time but I tried to sleep and read more this time.

Reading, boardgames & LEGO have continued to be my favorite non-digital entertainment. I’ve read 4.5 books this year, played 46 boardgames & sorted through a few thousand pieces in order to re-assemble sets for my kids to play with (I’ve built a few of them myself as well).

2019 Exemplar: Nelson Mandela

I recently finished Mandela’s biography and watched the movie based on it. I still need to complete my exemplar review but feel hesitant to do it without first reading a biography of him. I found his autobiography was so humble and un-antagonistic that it forced me to read between the lines to get towards the truth. I’d love to hear the thoughts of a historian that is willing to boast on Mandela’s behalf when necessary and condemn his flaws with equal strength.

2019 Bucket List Item: Run the Wonderland Trail at Mt. Rainier

I’ve been getting a bit nervous lately. This is a really big run, I’m not at all prepared for it and the dates are getting closer.

I started thinking back to a 20 mile hike I did last year that wore me out pretty good. I’m pretty confident I could do double that much, but I have no idea how I’ll do 5x that much. I’m going to need to go to a place of exhaustion I’ve never been before.

I’ve broken in the shoes I’m going to wear and collected the gear I’ll need so I could start to do some training runs with the actual weight I’ll be carrying for the run. I’ve also done enough research that I feel like I’m not just winging it – which is probably best when trying to run 93 miles in the wilderness, alone, without sleeping.

At this point I am fairly confident that there is a 0% chance this will be an uneventful run. It should make for a good run report at the least.

Why Google?

Last October I accepted a role at Google. I wanted to write about why I made that decision, mostly for me to look back on and hold myself accountable to, but perhaps it will also help anyone else going through a similar decision.

On the surface working at Google might seem like a no brainer. The company has been ranked first on Fortunes top 100 places to work eight of the past 12 years. The perks are legendary, the company has made some of the most used and impactful products in the world (Google search, Google Maps, Gmail, Chrome, Android, Youtube, etc.) and teams of Googlers are working on some of the coolest projects of the future (self driving cars, food delivery drones, cancer detection, etc.). Google known for fun offices and giving employees freedom to tackle big problems in innovative ways, of which there is a long history of doing very well.

The company is so well regarded that millions of people apply for the few thousand open positions every year. The acceptance rate is cited as being lower than getting into Harvard, Goldman Sachs, the Secret Service or the Navy SEALs. Getting a job with Google is highly coveted.

But for me it wasn’t a no brainer. I had actually turned down offers from Google twice before.

One of the big reasons is that Google is a really big company. Before Google, the largest company I had worked for was 200 people, which is three orders of magnitude smaller than Google. Big companies often come with extra process and overhead that slows things down and it is hard to get recognition when you’re working on a very small slice of a very big pie. In contrast, at my last startup, my project was on the front of the company website, I knew the C-level executives and board members and they knew what I was working on. At Google, even if I deliver 10X the results I’m expected to this year, Larry, Sergey or Sundar will never hear mention of my name.

Another big reason Google wasn’t a no brainer is that there are compelling alternatives. When it comes to awesome culture, compensation and perks offered to employees, Google is no longer singularly unique. My last startup also offered free food, generous insurance and a fun culture. Meanwhile, while I was interviewing with Google, I was also exploring positions with Dropbox, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon, all companies that take care of their employees well.

In the end I decided on Google though, here are some of the items my decision came down to.

1. The Google Halo

Google has long been regarded by many people as a top tier company – a place where the best and brightest go to tackle the biggest challenges. This is especially true for certain roles like engineering and product management, my role. I believe that notion is largely built on truth, but it has reached the point where even if things were to change, the perception would live on for a while.

That halo is beneficial for me as it allows me to associate myself with that perception which will likely create residual benefit for the rest of my career.

Google’s brand is particularly valuable because of the near universal recognition. Consider in contrast Palantir, a company that may be worth nearly $50B, employs some very talented people, and is generally regarded as a high caliber company. Most of the general public has never heard of it though, and so the chances of that association opening the door with anyone not highly involved in tech, seems less likely.

Association with a well known and well regarded brand name is particularly important to me because I went to a small unknown college and have only worked for small companies whose names never became recognizable. The impact of that is that it is harder for me to open doors because it is harder for people to quickly calibrate if I am legitimate. Having a familiar name to associate with is one way to do that. If having Google on my resume increases my ability to get a human to respond to me, that will result in a material difference to the number of opportunities I have to select from in the future.

Applying for jobs isn’t the only place it matters though. If I decide to start a company, being a Xoogler (term for former Google employees) carries a huge value. I believe investors value that name, as do reporters who know that writing about new startups from former Googlers gets clicks, as do potential customers who I believe are more likely to trust a startup if the person pitching the new product used to work for the company that built many of the tools they use daily. Being able to more easily build trust with investors, generate press attention (and thus customers and employees), and acquire potential customers could be the difference between success and failure for a startup.

I believe that today there are few company names that carry more value in terms of impact and breadth than Google, especially in the areas I foresee my career going in. There isn’t much of an action item needed for this halo to be beneficial, once you start, you get it, though I’m sure the longer you are at the company, the more senior you become and the more high profile of a project you work on, the more benefit you will receive.

Action Item: Learn to effectively take advantage of this halo. It adds no value under a rock but at the same time, it is probably counterproductive to rely on it too much, as many people are tempted to do with the various halos they accumulate.

2. The People

Google has a lot of very bright people working in the company – the types of people that build world changing technology, start exciting companies, hack on things related to their hobbies, etc. Over time these people will branch out to new companies and projects, and those new projects can become your potential opportunities if you know those people.

One of the best ways for me to increase my awareness of and chances of getting offered amazing opportunities is to work with the types of people that are amazing and looking for amazing opportunities themselves. One of the best ways for me to get to know those people and earn their respect is to work with them on projects. Working for the same company is a great way to do that.

Along with general awareness and referrals, the people I work with now might end up being people I work with directly again later. This is particularly important as you think about leadership roles where your ability to attract a team is critical to achieving success. It is very hard to be a VP or founder if you don’t have a network of talented people that trust you that you can use to jump start your team.

Mentors are another place where who you work with matters a lot. Though mentors can come from anywhere, working for the same company creates a commonality and also a motivation for the mentor to offer their valuable time – their advice might help me achieve success on a project that helps their team/stock value/etc.

The above are all possible at any company where there are great people. A company of 5 could have 5 amazing people you connect with really well. I’ve found that connections happen somewhat by chance and often over some common ground, a shared hobby or similar style of operating. I believe that working at a bigger company increases your chances of bumping into people you connect naturally with. Google’s Seattle office is of a size where there are plenty of people I don’t work directly with but might meet through a running club, social event, while riding the bus together, etc. That means there are more potential people for me to form those connections with.

Finally, there is the extended network of all former Googlers, called Xooglers that I now share something in common with. Like an alumni network from a college, sometimes even the smallest connection could mean the difference in someone accepting a coffee meeting or not. I’m not sure how many Xooglers there are, but given there are nearly 100k employees today and the company is 20 years old, I would guess it is in the 200-500k range based on some napkin math. A younger and smaller company wouldn’t be able to offer quite the same reach.

Action Item: Make sure I’m meeting people. If one of the big reasons I joined was because of the chance to meet people, it won’t do me well to hole up and talk to as few people as possible. Thankfully my role naturally requires me to interact with hundreds of people, but in addition I’m already meeting people though some shared hobbies and I even signed up for a program where I get paired for lunch with a random person periodically.

3. Believe In The Company Mission

“Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon,” said the janitor when JFK asked him what his role at NASA was.

Whatever job I do, I will be contributing to the mission of the company and impacting the world in that way with my hard work. There are companies I did not consider working for at all because I don’t believe in what they do. There are other companies where I was comfortable working on some of their projects but not others.

Google has long been a company who I’ve generally liked the motivations behind most of their products. Most tech companies are motivated to get you to spend as much time as possible on their technology but Google is often motivated to do the opposite. That aligns well with my value system.

The particular product area I work within is helping make large scale computing easier and more affordable for every company out there. If we succeed, we are going to help make a lot of really impactful technology possible. Even if we don’t succeed in the way we want to, any progress we make will force others in the space to continue to improve which will raise the bar.

Action Item: Periodically evaluate if this remains true. My alignment with the company mission could change based on new developments, new information I become aware of or changes to my values.

4. Flexibility To Change Projects Without Changing Anything Else

One of the biggest benefits of a big company is the ability to change one aspect of a job without changing a lot of others.

If you are at a small startup and want to work on something different, you likely have to go to a new company, which will require changing teams, managers, salary, stock, health insurance, retirement plan, and might result in a very different culture and commute.

At Google, there are options to change teams where the only thing that will change is your team and manager. You can keep the same title, compensation, vested stock, health insurance, retirement plan, gym schedule, commute, etc. That is very attractive as projects are something I’ve found I like to change every 2-5 years where as health insurance is something I generally never want to have to think about, so long as it stays good.

Action Item: It will benefit me to become aware of other teams and opportunities that might be interesting and keep a short list in my head of alternatives.

5. Personal Financial Considerations

In my opinion, for my situation at the time, Google was a financially wise decision.

I mentioned above that in terms of compensation, there are other companies that pay the same or sometimes more than Google. One case where this isn’t often true is with startups. Often startups have lower base salaries and a larger portion of compensation depends on the upside of stock that might have no present liquidity. Worse yet, sometimes the liquidity event is a decade away, even for a very successful company – more of which seem to be waiting longer and longer to go public. Based on my current financial goals and the percent of my net worth that is still tied up in pre-liquid startup stock, it felt wise to take a position that provided liquid equity for a period.

The first consideration is the benefits which are often really hard to put a value to. It is crazy how much Google does for us. Even though I knew this going in, I’ve been repeatedly surprised. Already I’ve discovered and taken advantage of benefits that will result in tens of thousands of dollars of savings/gains for my family. I’m not sure which are publicly known, and some might not be available in all regions, so I won’t make mention of any specifically, but generally Google doesn’t want you distracted by personal issues they can help solve and the company operates at a scale where we can solve them cost efficiently, so they are just taken care of. Perhaps other companies also have many benefits like this that they don’t advertise, in my experience Google has a strong edge.

The next consideration is future earnings potential. My impression is the sky is the limit at Google and that high achievers are rewarded handsomely and disproportionately compared to average performers. I don’t yet have any personal experience with this or comprehensive data, but I have read public articles about employees who started big projects and were rewarded to the tune of nearly $100MM. I’m sure those are the extreme long tail, but even the part of the tail I hope to be in is rewarded handsomely for performance. Some companies do their best to match starting salaries so they can attract talent, but that doesn’t mean things will increase at the same pace.

The final item I will touch on is stock performance. At tech companies it is common to receive stock as a large part of a compensation package. For stack rank tech employees, 30-50% of total compensation might come in the form of stock grants. For executives is might be closer to 90%. With that in mind, the performance of the stock has a huge factor on how much money an employee takes home. If the stock price goes up, the employee ends up being able to sell the shares for a higher price but if it goes down, by the time the employee gets the stock, it isn’t worth as much as they originally thought. In that sense, accepting a job at a company is essentially making an investment in that company’s stock on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars. When I made my decision, I looked at the fundamentals of a few companies. I looked at their stock price, their revenue and their business model and I felt Google was a company I wanted to make a big investment in.

Action Items: Take advantage of the benefits. Work hard to reach the percentile of employees that are highly rewarded.

6. Seattle Campus Size

I’ve found that different sizes of campus come with their own pros and cons. Larger campuses are often able to offer more perks an amenities than smaller ones because the cost of those is split among more people’s overhead. Smaller campuses tend to be more personal and you have a bigger say in the culture.

Google’s Seattle office is at a large enough size that it offers some perks that I find really useful. Specifically cafeteria options, commuter shuttles (including one that picks up a few blocks from my house) & a gym with showers & towel service. I’ve also been known to use one of the massage chairs or the nap room on occasion.

The campus is also big enough that you can find hobby groups. I’ve found a group of runners I join a few days per week and another of board game players I play with once or twice a week. For any group like that to be sustainable you usually need a certain volume of people so that you can have some regulars and a few periodic participants. In a 10 person office, or even 100, you’re less likely to get something like that.

Going along with my second point above about people, a bigger campus gives you more chances to bump into people that become acquaintances, even if you don’t work with them directly.

Action Item: Continue to take advantage of the perks of this size campus.

7. Ability To Gain Knowledge About Specific Topics

My final big reason to join Google was the ability to learn.

First, I am going to learn a ton about cloud infrastructure. Seattle is really the epicenter of the cloud industry with Amazon and Microsoft both based up here and Google having a large presence. I realized that if I’m going to live in Seattle, it was very likely that I was going to work in the cloud at some point, and I would probably do well to figure out early if it was a space I enjoyed. The team I joined is at the center of Google’s cloud and works with all of the other teams, so this felt like a great place to learn a lot very quickly.

Second, I want to get better at running a software company. One way to do that is to keep trying and to learn from your mistakes. Another is to take a company that has done a pretty good job doing that and learn from their best practices. I’ve done a lot of the former and figured a bit of the latter would be nice as well.

Third, Google is a really big company, and I wanted to learn if I liked working at a really big company. All of my past experience is at companies of 200 or fewer people and I don’t have a great datapoint for whether I would like being at a bigger company. This felt like it was worth finding out.

Outside of my main responsibilities, Google felt like a really good place for me to learn a lot about some of the other topics that interest me. There are a number of opportunities to do so including attending internal talks, reaching out to other employees for coffee or doing a 20% project, a practice where you get to spend one day per week working on something of your choice. For almost anything you can imagine in the technology space, Google has people thinking about that problem and generally has a culture of openness amongst employees. Being able to learn about topics that interest me from leading experts was very attractive.

Action Item: Learn as much as I can about the cloud business, Google’s cloud teams & the key people in this industry. Surround myself with capable people and soak up lessons on how to build software & run teams effectively. Make time to learn about topics outside of my primary role.

2019 Focus: Quarter Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2019 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2019 Theme: Long-Suffering

2019 Challenge: Fasting in the Wilderness

No progress yet except a few potential backcountry permits acquired.

2019 Habit: Minimizing Digital Entertainment

This habit has started out strong. I stayed under the threshold for 11 of the 13 weeks and my average so far is 2.27 hours of digital entertainment per week.

I actually decided to adjust my 2 hours a week goal to be different for each quarter. Q1 was set at 3 hours per week, Q2 at 2 hour, Q3 will be way down at 1 hour and then back to 2 hours per week for Q4. The reason is seasonality – winter months bring more reason to be inside.

This has come in the form of 4 movies, some time playing 2 different video games and a smattering of episodes from various Netflix shows.

Right off the bat I noticed I had to change some habits to make this work. Airplanes used to be near-guaranteed screen time for me but lately I’ve had to find other things to do when in flight. Some flights I read, others I go through and organize things on my computer and once I actually spent most of the ride talking to a stranger. I’ve also been finding other ways to be entertained. So far I’ve read 2.25 books and played 26 boardgames this year both well above my pace from last year.

2019 Exemplar: Nelson Mandela

Mandela wrote a pretty thick autobiography so I figured I would start there. I’m 25% of the way through it, which is a good bit farther than I usually am this time of year.

2019 Bucket List Item: Run the Wonderland Trail at Mt. Rainier

I’ve gone so far as to buy a running vest, some trail shoes and a set of poles. The rest pretty much comes down to seeing how much my body can take.

As a secret double-bucket-list I also signed up for a 150 mile bike ride around Mt. Rainier. I don’t plan to train for that much either.