Reflecting On Three Years At Google
I recently finished my third 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. You can see previous updates for my 2nd year, 1st year and upon deciding to join.
Things I’ve Learned During Three Years at Google
1. Things can Change Very Quickly or Very Slowly
My first two years at Google were pretty stable in terms of the team around me and our mission. Our team grew a lot, which meant new people were joining the team, but there was very little attrition, especially from my management chain. My third year was a completely different story. In a period of six months I experienced churn in my SVP, VP, Director, manager, ENG manager counterpart, ENG TL, and TPM counterpart. I would have a hard time pointing to anyone I work closely with today that I worked closely with when I wrote my update last year.
One of the things I’ve been asking myself is why there were so many changes this year and if that means I should be considering a change too. Some of the changes are unrelated – personal life events or financial considerations just brought individuals to new career decisions. Some of it is just natural attrition due to having smart people that like working on new things. The average tenure on a team at tech companies is ~2-3 years, which is mostly by design. Transition is good for the team as it cross pollinates knowledge between unrelated areas and keeps smart people engaged and learning. Some of it also has to do with product lifecycle stages – the type of people that enjoy working on a new team or turnaround project might not be the same people that enjoy working on something that switches modes to steady growth, maintenance, etc. Finally, the impacts of COVID can’t be underestimated. Part of the reason I had two years of stability is that six months of that were during a pandemic when everyone was cautious to change things or unable to find the extra energy needed to do so. Once things started returning to normal, there was a backup of normal attrition that all sort of came out at once.
Some of the changes feel related though – as new leaders are brought in, the people reporting to them might find the direction is changing and prefer to take that chance to move to a new team. That then has a tendency to slowly trickle down the org as each layer of the management chain sees change and their reports react.
2. The Transition Back to the Office Will Be Rough But Beneficial
I’ve now reached the point where the majority of my Google tenure was spent working from home. I have a pretty sweet work from home setup. I had an 8 ft by 8 ft office built into the back corner of my detached garage that is simple, but wonderful in terms of creating focus. I have fast internet, two big monitors, a little space heater and my desk can switch between sitting, standing and treadmill pretty quickly. I spend most of my day in meetings and I can happily walk on my treadmill and talk without worrying about disturbing anyone.
All of this means I find it very easy to get work done. I enjoy that the commute is a 30 second walk but that it gives me some space from the hustle and bustle of our house, where my wife is homeschooling our four children. At the same time, I enjoy getting to see the kids pop in periodically to say hi or bring me my lunch. It really feels like the best of both worlds.
I went back to the office recently for a day and found the whole experience jarring. Despite the fact that I’ve worked from an office for the entire rest of my career, everything felt so strange. None of this was helped by the fact that the office perks were greatly diminished for safety reasons and I had to wear a mask while walking around the building.
The plan is for us to begin returning to the office more regularly early next year and I have mixed feelings. Once our commuter bus returns and the food service resumes at work, it will be great to have those things, which I previously enjoyed a lot. At the same time, I’ll lose the flexibility of being able to pop into the house or the luxury of a private bathroom that never has any lines.
That said, it was great to see people in person, to feel more connected, to have more casual conversations, etc. I also know that getting back into the office will be important for deep innovative work. My team has been able to carry through the last year or so based on a lot of momentum that we had going from before the pandemic, but I can tell we’ve been slower to start new big projects. As. we look at the next wave of big projects, it will be good to be able to whiteboard in person, or to do longer workshops, some of the things we haven’t found great ways to do during the work-from-home period.
3. Four Year Stock Grants and Rapid Market Appreciation Make for a Nice Payout
When I joined Google in 2018 they gave me a four year stock grant that was on par with what someone of my skillset gets paid at a place like Google. The way it works is they determine an approximate dollar amount per year and then translate that into shares of stock at the market price. Since then, the price of Google stock has tripled, meaning now when I get my designated shares each month, they can immediately be sold for three times more than I originally expected. Part of this is due to luck, I happened to join at a time when the stock market was in the middle of a dip that lasted a few months and so I’ve been able to take advantage of that extra appreciation.
What this means is I’m going to be getting paid a lot more than I expected to be getting paid this next year. That is a double edged sword, in some ways it is really nice to get the extra money, but it also acts as golden handcuffs where I can’t leave Google without taking a bit hit in compensation, unless someone was willing to match an above-market offer.
4. First you learn, then you act, then you teach, and then…
As I’ve reflected on my tenure, one thing I think about is how much time I spend learning, acting and teaching. My first year I spent a lot of time learning. I had to learn about everything; how Google works, the broad domain of Cloud, the specific domain of billing, how to operate at a big company, etc. Eventually I got to acting and with that I had even more things to learn – the best way to present my roadmap to the CEO of a 25k person organization, how to train a multi-thousand person sales team, etc. At some point, as we hired new folks to the team, I began doing a lot of teaching. What is interesting is at first most of that teaching was a trade – I taught people about the specific billing domain and they taught me about things they knew about, how Google works, how to operate effectively at a new scale, etc. Then together we would act and would accomplish new things as a team.
At some point in the past year I feel like I crossed a point where I am no longer learning very much and instead spend most of my time teaching. Most of the people I work with are new to the specific domain and many are new to the company. I mentioned above there has been a lot of churn in my team and that comes with the dual impact of there being more people to teach and fewer people to do so – a large part of that teaching burden is falling on me.
While in some ways it is nice to be able to pay forward the lessons learned, in other ways it feels stagnant. On the nice side, I get to teach things and I get to spend more time with new leaders in our organization who are eager to learn from me. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like I am spending so much time teaching that I’m not spending as much time acting, which is concerning.
Are The Reasons I Joined Google Still Good Reasons To Be Here?
Three years ago I wrote about why I decided to join Google and I challenged myself to make sure I fully utilized those benefits. 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
The Google halo remains real. There are companies whose products and practices are more respected in certain market segments, but Google remains well known as a place with a high hiring bar that is a desirable place to work. I’ve interviewed dozens of folks from other well respected companies and crossed paths with even more and the fact always remains that the notion of Google holds a special place in their minds. This halo carries career benefits for those that wear it.
I’ve continued to invest in becoming a well-established Googler. This year I got involved in career mentoring, using the knowledge I gained in my first two years, that allowed me to get promoted so quickly, to help others get on a career path they are happy with. I did longer term mentoring for four Googlers, hosted a weekly one-on-one coaching session that a few dozen people have attended so far and I helped prepare some documents and training material that was shared more broadly. I’ve now become something of a hot commodity in the career coaching space – I rank first on the company’s internal coaching search site for the term ‘promotion’ and have a five star rating so I’m currently booked every week through March. I realized I cast a big wide of a net in that people in roles I know nothing about are coming to me for advice, often that I have a hard time giving so my plan is to focus a bit more on the Product Management role, where I’m most familiar and where I can be of the most help.
Speaking of becoming a known Googler, I recently had my name mentioned on the Google Blog and our daily internal company news email for the first time in a post about our annual walking competition. As an ultramarathon runner, I’m a bit of a ringer when it comes to that competition and my team has placed first out of 2,000+ teams each of the last two years. This year my team did a fundraiser, which was a cool way to use the competition to give back and I also set a new record for logging the most steps in a day by getting 204,378 steps on October 30th after walking/running for 24 hours straight (though that record was broken the next day by another Googler, because that is how Google works). It was my first time being publicly recognized as a Googler though, which felt like a big milestone, even if it wasn’t for my work specifically.
Action Item: Same as last year – continue to find ways to effectively take advantage of this halo.
Specifically, I would like to start thinking about is becoming more of a public figure that carries the Google brand. Perhaps a speaker at events related to product management or the cloud. Maybe someone that hosts recruiting events in Seattle. I’ve now been able to spend enough time at Google that I feel like I’ve absorbed the culture (plus it aligned pretty well with my natural state anyhow) and so this seems like a great way to leverage that.
2. The People
When reflecting last year I said “if the people changed significantly, that might cause me to look elsewhere for my next projects. I selected the team I’m on because of a handful of people I felt I could learn a lot from. Most of them are still here and working with me. If that were to change and I couldn’t find a similarly excellent group on a project that interested me, I would consider other companies.”
This ended up being prescient as this year my team saw a lot of transition. I am now having to figure out if the new group of people I am going to work with is similarly excellent. I’ve always felt my work was the most enjoyable when I spent time with people I respected, connected with personally and had a lot to learn from. This next year I’ll be asking myself if my current team still has enough people that fit that bill or if it is time to look for a new project.
Finally, last year I challenged myself to meet more people that don’t work on my specific team. I think I’ve achieved this for a few reasons. The first is exactly what I described above, the transition of folks that were on my team to new teams. This means I now know people who are currently on a wider variety of teams. The second reason is that I started mentoring and coaching other product managers, which means I’ve gotten to know a lot more people from across the company. I also joined a peer group of other PMs which was a nice way to meet a few people that don’t work in my domain but are in a similar stage in their career.
Action Item: Make sure you are surrounded by people you respect, connect with and can learn from
3. Believe In The Company Mission
Of the major tech companies, I remain most inspired by the overall mission of Google. That mission is becoming increasingly broad and diluted though as the company branches into other areas. This has me wondering how much I should care about the company mission vs my team’s specific mission. At a certain point it becomes possible that the similarity in mission between two teams at different companies is closer than that of two teams under the same umbrella company.
Action Item: Periodically evaluate if this remains true.
4. Flexibility To Change Projects Without Changing Anything Else
I wrote last year that two years is about how long I last in a role before needing a bit of scope change because of the fast pace I work at and how quickly I get bored from the diminishing returns on a mostly-solved problem.
I crossed that two year mark last year but decided to double down in the area. Unfortunately the expansion in scope I had hoped for was muddled a bit by all of the team transition we experienced in 2021. What was nice is that eventually everyone else realized the team definitions needed some updates and we’ve recently made some changes that make my scope quite different and once again exciting.
During all of that change I took a chance to look around and see what else was out there for me to do and was delighted with how many exciting opportunities there are. Being at a large company like Google means that I can change to a dramatically different project while keeping my compensation, health insurance, 401k and commute exactly the same. That is a big perk because changing all of those things is a time sink.
I found that transitioning to a new project was as easy as I thought it would be. The decision is always tough but the act of doing so is pretty straight forward. Hiring managers were generally happy to talk and my current performance ratings provided a nice benchmark to help them vet if I would be a good fit. I think this benefit is one of the reasons you see some Googlers last 10, 15, or 20 years at the company, something pretty unheard of in tech.
Action Item: Continue to have your pulse on other teams in Seattle that might be good places to work in the future
5. Personal Financial Considerations
When I was considering joining Google I was looking at some other companies, both large and small. Part of the reason I chose Google is that I wanted to be able to buy a house so my family didn’t have to keep moving to new rental houses every few years when a landlord kicked us out. I figured working at Google would be a good way to make that possible given our compensation tends to be pretty high for a market and it is fully liquid (unlike stock in a startup that you might not be able to sell for five or ten years, if ever).
Last year we bought a house thanks in large part to my decision to join Google. Specifically, Google stock has tripled since I joined which meant we had a lot more cash available than we expected, enough to bid on a house we love. The only company whose stock has done better, of the companies I was talked to when I made the decision to join, is Microsoft, and theirs has only gone up by a tiny bit more.
I am starting to hear that other companies have overtaken Google as the market leaders in compensation, so I plan to keep my ears open so my info doesn’t become dated. Money isn’t the only reason to take a job, but I feel that if you are going to work hard on a project, and you are in your prime earning years, you should make sure you know what your options are so that you can make an informed decision. I have six mouths to feed with my work and don’t have much to show from a decade of working at a startup that never panned out, so I am biasing towards higher pay right now to build a retirement nest egg. Eventually I might have enough saved that my weighting changes a bit.
Action Items: Keep a pulse on the salaries in my market
6. Seattle Campus Size
Campus size was moot in a year of working from home due to COVID. I have been into the Seattle office twice in the last year, and only recently at that.
Action Item: None for now
7. Ability To Gain Knowledge About Specific Topics
I didn’t gain much knowledge this year, which I’ve addressed above as a problem. Reading back on what I wrote when I joined, I talked about learning about how the company operated, things about the domain and also learning on the side about random topics. That was 100% true my first year, mostly true my second year and I feel like my third year was pretty stagnant.
Part of the problem is likely that I wasn’t seeking out chances to learn enough. But at the same time, what was so nice about my first year at Google is that I was forced to learn in order to survive and that made it easier as I didn’t need to drum up any extra motivation. I’d like to get back to that sort of pace of learning, and that likely requires some changes.
Get myself back into a situation where the only way to survive is to learn at an incredibly fast pace.