I recently finished my first year at Google and so I wanted to take a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned and see how I’m progressing along the goals I set for myself when I joined.
Things I’ve Learned During My First Year at Google
1. Google is Still a Startup
When I joined I wasn’t sure what the company would feel like and how things would work. Would it feel like a big company where everything had lots of process? Would I be able to get things done at the pace I enjoy or would the overhead slow me down?
What I’ve found is that generally, in both good and bad ways, the day to day work of my project area still feels like a startup. It took me some time discover that but I now feel like I have a decent read and have been able to translate my startup GSD skills into making things happen at a scale that is one hundred times as big.
To give a concrete example, when I joined, I somewhat expected I was going to have to go through some heavy approval process to get approval to change the scope of my role, shift our vision and start building new high impact features I had identified. I have found that to not be true. With very little friction I’ve been able to redefine my area of ownership to one that is a bit broader and opens new doors, set a new vision for what we want to accomplish and start executing on it.
There are a few places Google does feel like a big company though – HR, accounting, and facilities particularly stand out. That generally makes sense though as those are areas where more strict policy and tighter process are important when you’re dealing with a large scale publicly traded company. Does the extra process there make some things harder for me? Yes. But at the same time, that officialness is also the source of a number of key benefits and a large reason for the financial stability the company offers me.
One area that Google does feel like a big company, in the best way, is tooling. Google employs tens of thousands of engineers who are all allowed to spend 20% of their time working on projects they pick. As a result there are all sorts of cool internal tools that engineers have built over time based on their own initiative that make my life easier. After getting used to them, if/when I go to another company, I will greatly miss them.
2. Transitioning to a New Company Requires a Heavy Lift
I expected that after about 8 years at a single company, transitioning to a new company would take some effort. This was likely true no matter where I went. I greatly underestimated how disruptive it would be though. Not only does transitioning take effort, but it is a skill that I hadn’t had to practice in nearly a decade. I had also never done it at my current level of seniority.
Three areas that I noticed were particularly difficult were: recalibrating myself, learning the secrets of how things really worked and building up trust.
I knew I was joining a bigger company when I accepted the Google offer, but one thing that took me some time to get used to was my calibration on how large a number something had to be for me to give it special attention.
It turns out the numbers are about 100X what I was used to, which took some getting used to. It means that I now hear numbers that are quite new to me.
Similarly I needed to recalibrate my read on what efforts were important and what types of projects would actually succeed. I’ve found that knowing where effort has a high return, in terms of impact to the company and visibility, lets me make wise decisions on how to invest my time to achieve my career goals. Most of this varies by company and by senior leadership and so in joining a new company and team, I needed to populate that knowledge from scratch so I could be effective again.
How Things Really Work
I’ve found that at any company there is an official way things work and there is the secret way things actually work. Knowing the difference usually comes with time. The long tenured employees can all tell you what matters. The faster you can do figure that out, the faster you can be impactful, which is important to me.
One example of the difference between these two is apparent in team meetings. My calendar tells me that officially there are 5-6 levels of team meetings that I am a part of. On paper all of these are important, though most people would likely agree that in general the more specific ones are probably the most important. I’ve found that the secret reality is some are really important, even some oddly in the middle of that stack, and some I can just skip and catch up via email summary and/or other methods. Understanding that saves me hours every month, which makes me more productive.
Similar differences exist in areas like; goal setting, overhead processes, trainings, internal events, etc.
When I first joined, I didn’t understand how things really worked and so I was spending some portion of my time on things that were important on paper but not really important in practice. Now that I have a better read, I save all of that time. Getting that knowledge took a good bit of effort and time though. One tip I took away from this experience is to find a few people that already know the secrets to how things really work at the company, and have them mentor you. There are three people I work with that have a combined ~40 years and 6+ promotions at Google. Those three people are a big part of why I joined my current team and have been extremely helpful in my ramp up.
3. Cloud is a Critical Area
Before I joined Google, the information I was able to gather said that Google Cloud had about $4B a year in revenue. Recently Google shared an update that it had reached $8B ARR, was the third biggest driver of revenue growth for Alphabet and was going to triple its sales force over the coming years. This all emphasizes how important the cloud area is to Google.
I learned a valuable lesson from reading Jack Welch’s biography. He was the former CEO of GE and rose in his career during the rise of the plastics industry, which he worked in. The lesson was that if you put yourself in the middle of a rising trend and worked hard to rise to the top of that area, you could have amazing results. Cloud feels like that area for this decade.
4. At Big Companies, You Have to Let A Lot Go
I had gotten pretty used to saying no to projects during the last decade of my career at startups. Being effective requires focus. I’m blessed with the curse of competence, which means people I work with tend to come back to me with new questions, problems, etc. That was great early in my career when I was working on menial tasks and the things coming back seemed exciting and important. Eventually I reached a point where my plate was as full as I wanted it to be with exciting projects and I needed to start saying no.
Over the last year at Google I found the amount I had to push back on and say no to was orders of magnitude higher than anything I had ever experienced at smaller companies. Essentially there are 100k employees running around trying to make things happen and the area I’ve become an expert at is important for many of those. Different teams within Google Cloud want to launch new products or new billing mechanisms, teams in other parts of Google want to integrate with Google Cloud or do joint promotions, Google’s partners want to experiment with new go-to-market motions. Any of these projects could be great and impactful, but at the end of the day, our team simply isn’t big enough to take them all on right now.
What I’ve learned to get more comfortable with is the idea that at a very big company, I am not actually the bottleneck I sometimes feel like I am. At a startup, me saying no to a project that needed my team’s help often meant the project would simply not happen. At a big company, like Google, there are often lots of other options. My team might be someone’s favorite option at the moment, but if we’re not able to take on a project, there are often other approaches they can take – there are simply more build/buy/integrate options available to them if the project is important.
The other thing I’ve learned to get more comfortable with is letting people escalate. I used to have a bit of hesitation to ever let someone go to a higher up with a problem related to me. I’ve gotten very comfortable with that over the last year though. Often my ‘no’ is just reflecting the current state of staffing investment – a decision that was made by one of the VPs at the company. Letting the consequences of that decision go back to that person is perfectly fine. They can either stand by their decision, or, based on new information, change their decision. What I now focus on is providing more transparency about what my teams are working on, why it is important and how the other project would impact our schedule. I’ve found that given the same information I have, executives often come to the same conclusion I did.
5. My Productivity Management Skills Have Improved
This one is mostly due to necessity. The volume of email, meetings and questions coming towards me is a factor higher than I’ve ever experienced before. In order to remain productive I’ve had to learn some new tricks.
One that I’ve found very helpful is to maintain an explicit list of my projects – categorized into top 3, top 10 and on hold. I then track my work & meeting time against those categories to make sure I’m spending a majority of my time on the top 3. I’ve found this is mostly necessary because there are many more projects that are long term efforts that slightly involve me now but that I can’t afford to spend much time on yet. This was less true at startups as longterm projects weren’t as common because the company was operating with a more immediate perspective.
In order to deal with inbound questions I’ve implemented a lot of my old favorite tricks like FAQ docs but I’ve also started to experiment with pre-canned responses, office hours and delegating to others.
6. Crispness is Key for Exec Communication
In my career I’ve learned that the larger the responsibility owned by someone (in terms of people, business size, complexity, etc.), the more succinct you need to be when speaking with them. Even though they are often very bright to have gotten there, the laws of physics simply limit how much attention they can put into any one thing when they have so many things that need their attention.
I gained a lot of experience speaking with leaders that manage teams of tens or hundreds in the past. Lately I’ve had to get even more crisp as I spend more time with folks managing orgs of tens of thousands of people, billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of projects of scope.
I picked up a few tips along the way from some coworkers with management consulting experience as well as feedback I’ve gotten as I prepared for various presentations. A few that stand out:
- The pyramid style deck – start with the conclusion, break it up into its important parts, and then provide details on the sub-areas of each of those. Best case your conclusion lands immediately and you don’t need to go deeper – worst case you’re prepared to go deeper.
- Put things in their terms and their timelines. Rather than explaining the finer points of why we need the flux capacitor to get up to 1.21 gigawatts and what is stopping it, execs often just want to hear ‘the DeLorean is scheduled for Alpha testing on Sep 1. We could accelerate it to July 1, with and extra Y.’ The outcomes will then usually be either a pass to proceed as planned (with some minor feedback) or a request for a deep dive, perhaps with a delegate of the decision maker.
- Don’t argue about the details live, take the feedback and loop back later. I’ve seen a few folks do this very well – they say ‘Yes, is an area worth looking into. We will work with X to come up with a plan and loop back.’ Often if the item isn’t important a quick update will suffice and not get responded to. If it actually is important, you’ll need to put more time in eventually anyways, so you might as well leave the meeting on a positive note and save the debate for when everyone has the facts and has had more time to think.
- The one sentence email recommendation with link to document for a double-click deep dive. If they want to know even more than that, you will hear about it.
- Catchy names or metaphors repeated often to help jog everyone’s memory. I have successfully introduced a few terms I stole from places as diverse as Batman and the NFL to help explain my complex area to a bunch of folks that don’t have much time to think about it. When a conversation starts heading towards one of those areas I mention the term and see everyone’s faces realize ‘oh, this is one of those things, I’m happy with the way we’re handling those because I did a deep dive on that recently,’ at which point the conversation usually goes much better.
7. People Transition Much Faster Than I Anticipated
I’m used to some amount of employee turnover. At the eight years I spent at my last company as it grew, many folks came and left during my tenure. For the most part I had a lot of stability though – the four or five people I worked closest with were all there for a very long time.
For some reason, I thought that at a larger company, transitions would happen at a slower pace. I had heard about many people that had spent 10+ years at places like Google and knowing the company was older and bigger I just sort of assumed people transition would be slower. What I realized is that in reality, there is some confirmation bias to that belief.
In the past year I’ve seen a lot of new people come and a lot of people switch teams. Sometimes that is more difficult to swallow than other times. The pace of change is a bit quicker than I anticipated nonetheless. The fact that the company is bigger means that internal mobility is easier and so a lot of folks take internal transfers with relatively short notice. One common reason for this is manager or project fit. At a startup with one project, getting a new manager while staying in the same role is often not possible, but switching companies is a big move. At Google, getting a new manager or project can take you far away from your current area while not impacting your commute or benefits at all, it seems like it practice that encourages movement.
Part of the high movement I’ve noticed might be particular to this year though. Right after I joined our business brought in a new CEO and as is expected, that CEO has a slightly different vision for the team structure and people needed to lead those teams. Over the year I’ve watched change trickle down from VP replacements, to director imports to manger shuffling to an acceleration of IC movement. Time will tell if this is normal or an outlier year.
8. Being on PST is Really Helpful
Being close to the center of gravity of a company has its advantages. Being separated from the center of gravity has its advantages as well. In many ways I feel like being in Seattle for a company whose center of gravity is in the Bay Area is the perfect distance.
I am on the same timezone, so I don’t feel the pressure to work odd hours that many folks in Europe and Asia experience. I am close enough that I can do a day trip to the Bay Area if I have some critical meetings where it is best to be in person. I am at a smaller campus though, with fewer VPS and SVPs, so I generally feel more at home and comfortable on a day to day basis.
I hadn’t realized quite how beneficial this was at a company of this size until this year, but I’ve found it very helpful.
How I’m Doing At the Goals I Set For Myself When I Joined
A year ago I wrote about why I decided to join Google and I set some goals for myself related to those reasons. Here I’ll look back on each of those to see if my predicted value was accurate and if I’ve been taking advantage of it.
1. The Google Halo
This is very real. Since joining Google I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of people who are interested in hearing about my job. I’ve also noticed an uptick in recruiter outreach.
My job isn’t dramatically more interesting than my last one and I’m not magically 100x better at what I do than I was a year ago. The uptick is because of the halo, which was predicted and desired.
Action Item: Learn to effectively take advantage of this halo.
I think I’m doing this fairly well. I’ve learned that often the most effective way to communicate where I work in social settings is to not do much of it. I haven’t been investing much effort at using the halo outside of the company, but one thing I’m doing a lot of is diving into the company culture so there is some substance behind the name on my resume and all that it is associated with.
2. The People
The people I would work with was one of the big reasons I joined Google. I’ve found that generally it has been true that the people I encounter are above average for their role and seniority compared to other companies I’ve worked at. Due to the scale and my ability to somewhat self-select how I spend my time, that means that I end up spending a lot of time working with a high caliber group of people.
Action Item: Make sure I’m meeting people.
I’ve done pretty well at this. In the last year I’ve worked with well over 100 people, ranging from fresh out of college engineers to our business’ CEO. Generally I’ve gotten along well with folks and the feedback I’ve gotten is that I’ve earned a lot of trust. I went out of my way to meet some people outside of my immediate working area through some side projects and hobby groups.
3. Believe In The Company Mission
This year has been rough for Google in the press. There have been a number of high profile stories related to moral issues that have been published. At the same time, governments from around the world continue to investigate the business practices of many large tech companies.
There remain projects in the company I am more supportive of than others, but in general, I think the company’s mission aligns with mine and the the closer you get to my project, the more aligned I am.
Action Item: Periodically evaluate if this remains true.
This is something I’ve gotten to evaluate a lot lately. Going forward I’m ok doing this a bit less often.
4. Flexibility To Change Projects Without Changing Anything Else
I’ve found this to be mostly true as I’ve now worked with a handful of people that have switched teams within the company, either to my team or away from it. I’ve learned that those moves are a little more disruptive than I had previously thought – but the remain much less disruptive than moving companies.
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.
I’ve done a good job gaining a general awareness of other teams around me and their working styles. More so than before I was in the company, I’m now aware of how to research a team, areas to avoid and the questions to ask to find out if a team will be a good fit for me.
5. Personal Financial Considerations
I’ve generally found that the company has delivered on my high expectations and then some, which has been very nice. Google stock is up 25% from when I joined, which is above average when compared to other companies I was considering. These were things I had predicted when considering the job, so it is nice they panned out this was.
Action Items: Take advantage of the benefits. Work hard to reach the percentile of employees that are highly rewarded.
I’ve taken advantage of many of the benefits, including some new ones that were recently launched. There are the obvious like health insurance, and the non-obvious like $200 I saved on an appliance purchase through the company discount program. My goal was to end up in the percentile of employees that are highly rewarded and to date that has been true – something that took a lot of hard work but that I’ve very proud of.
6. Seattle Campus Size
This campus has has proven to be a really great size. It is small enough that I see people I know but large enough that there are always new people to meet. There are plenty of great perks and events that I can take advantage of without needed to put in effort to get them going, but things are also small enough that I can impact them.
Action Item: Continue to take advantage of the perks of this size campus.
I’m living it up right now. I spend a good amount of time at the office, but I make sure to take some time to take advantage of the perks. I usually get to the gym 2-3 times a week for a workout or run, I play boardgames at lunch every week or so, I use the commuter bus daily, I check email from the 3D massage chair every afternoon, I write docs while walking on a treadmill desk and I eat a LOT of really good and healthy food.
I’m also proud of how I’ve been able to impact some local change. The biggest one being that I convinced the company to open up a new commuter bus stop near my house which is now well used.
This is a great size campus for my current state of life and I’m loving it.
7. Ability To Gain Knowledge About Specific Topics
My role has ended up offering me a ton of flexibility to focus my attention on areas where I have a lot to learn. This is something I was hoping for and it has proven true.
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.
These are all areas of been doing a lot of. I knew almost nothing about IaaS when I joined but I now have a solid foundational understanding. When it comes to out business, I’ve gotten a crash course. For some strange reason my area of ownership was directly in the center of attention of our new CEO – of his dozen or so focus areas for the year, 10 of them involved my team. That means I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time in meetings hearing about the top priorities and driving impact on the parts of it I own. I was not expecting to get so deeply involved this quickly, which has been a pleasant (though tiring) surprise.
The one thing I haven’t done much of is take time to learn about topics outside of my primary role. This is mostly because my role has so much breadth to it already and it has been growing as fast as I will allow it to. What I want to avoid is getting stagnant in my role. To date I don’t feel a week has gone by where I didn’t have to do a lot of learning in order to get my work done, so I feel I’m at a really good spot and don’t necessarily need to branch out too much quite yet.