Sunday, October 09, 2011

Wickre ankles* Google


After 9 years in the trenches, my last day at Google was Thursday. This long stint marks a personal best with one employer, handily beating my last record of 4 years (IDG). In my pre-Google life, I tended to get bored after a couple of years. Now, it's clear that when I'm talking about my career, there will be two phases: Before Google (BG), and all that follows. I say this because working at Google really and truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and never boring.

If you know me you know "starry-eyed" isn't the first descriptor that comes to mind. But trust me: Google is an astonishing, life-changing place to be. Of course, its (incessant) output has changed the lives of everyone who searches the Internet, has an Android device, uses Gmail, Maps, Apps, and all the rest. In fact much of the work Googlers undertake has a huge impact on the world, which, let's face it, is not something most workplaces can offer.

At the risk of sounding ancient, I remember a time before there was good search (or before there was an Internet, but that's another story). The emergence in 1999 of a funnily-named service with a plain page that "just worked" was nothing short of miraculous. Even more astounding: that fast, accurate and efficient search mechanism still works 13 years later—today with billions of people performing surely tens of billions of searches in dozens of languages. We all still expect—and we still get—accurate results in nanoseconds, now on multiple devices in umpteen locations. It is nothing short of awesome. The core Google search team, led by the wonderful Amit Singhal with able veterans like Ben Gomes and Matt Cutts among many others, are real heroes.

Even for a peripatetic type, it hasn't been hard to stay at a place like Google. The benefits, as you've heard, are great. It’s certainly fun to work for a company, and this is my first, that absolutely everyone knows and virtually everyone loves. And then there are the people. From the start I fell for the friendly, informed, wry-but-curious worldview shared by so many of my colleagues. I've felt true and lifelong kinship with people very unlike me in nationality, age, education, and interests—it’s a veritable United Nations. If you are sensitive to such things, being a Googler can make you a citizen of the world. I'm a better person for it.

Since I was inside so long watching Google grow up, I’m struggling to characterize what is second nature to me now (like breathing out and breathing in). Let me try to distill a few elements I think the Goog offers.

Wisdom of the crowds. One example: Google has thousands of internal email/discussion lists for product teams, affinity groups, technology news, and an untold number of interests (chess, politics, photography, music, dogs, Burning Man, etc etc). There is a wonderful self-managing quality found on all of them. It’s a joy to meet and kibitz virtually with smart people. The best of these discussions do what Google does: point concisely to useful information, clarify answers, summarize, suggest next steps—and build virtual friendships. (There’s also crowd-wisdom to be found in teams, where everyone is free to have thoughts and suggest ideas that get serious consideration. And no small number of these succeed.)

Questions are valued. At the Friday all-hands meetings called TGIF, Googlers famously ask about everything from benefits to facilities to geopolitics and public policy; Google Moderator is used to solicit questions from those not in the room. Such questions are rarely softballs. Questioning product development or strategy (even about what’s already underway) is fair game. The point of asking is to understand better, raise unconsidered angles, improve on something or bring it to light. The assumption is: asking > information > exploration > greater intelligence > better outcome.

Humor is a strength. Googlers are typically very funny. They savor irony, they quip naturally, they make knowing jokes, and jokes have layers. April Fool’s hoaxes aside (even these are quite cerebral), there is a humorous sensibility that makes much of the work more pleasurable and improves the output of ~30,000 people. (Because there is an equal measure of earnestness among Googlers, thank god humor is a vital attribute at the office. Without it, the air at Google might be too thick with sincerity.)

Creativity is encouraged. Googlers are often quite accomplished in their outside pursuits, which range very widely— from photography and music to Maker Faire and Burning Man to chain mail, wine, and comics. Many avocations are celebrated with company exhibits, talks and meetups. Quite a few of the eulogies about Steve Jobs mentioned his belief in the intersection of liberal arts and technology. It’s a byword at Google too.

Agility is key. Perhaps the most significant skill I absorbed, and the one that will help Google as it continues to grow, is to stay limber. It would be easy for an unbelievably successful company to start codifying The Playbook and refer to that and that alone for all future roadmaps. Much credit goes to Larry and Sergey, whose very natures seem compelled to question past (often successful) approaches in favor of bigger new ideas. As work, so life: I think it’s infinitely more rewarding to be mindful and alert to the swirl than it is to rely on the bound volume on the shelf. As a work environment, of course, that doesn’t suit everyone. It can be messy, things never seem finished, there are long beta periods, you have to turn on a dime. To me, there’s no contest between this kind of ‘foolishness’ and a staid place where the checklist is tidy and the work is rote. Give me this road!

As for what comes next, I’ll write again in a couple of weeks as I plunge into an exciting new realm. Meanwhile, all thanks to Google for the amazing, memorable ride. I am lucky.

*I’m a long-time fan of the ‘slanguage’ of Variety, and at last have a reason to use “ankles” in a hed.

27 comments:

Rick Klau said...

So grateful to have worked with you for so many years, and very excited for what comes next. Going to miss you at the 'plex!

Nelson said...

Wow, congratulations! Looking forward to hearing about what's next for you. Drop me a tweet if you've got time for a nice breakfast at Toast some time :-)

Scott said...

Thanks for all your guidance, Karen! Best wishes to you in all future endeavors.

Ann Farmer said...

I've learned so much from you, Karen, while navigating the Authors@Google waters. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I'm not going to say "I'll miss you," because I know we'll stay in touch!

debic said...

Congratulations Karen, I am reminded of my own decision to join Google 6+ years ago. I thought at the time, oh boy that's a big co. (almost 4000 people) I'll stay two years and then move to the next startup... look at it now, 30k+, and ever changing the technology landscape. Google certainly attracts beyond the usual 3-4 year average Silicon Valley tenure...

James A. Martin said...

Ankle on, girl! I know Google was a better place for having you and vice versa. Congratulations.

Unknown said...

Wow! That's some big news... sounds like you're excited about whatever comes next, and I'm interested to hear about it. And fwiw, I love the use of "ankles" in the head (hed!) too. ;-)

don at donloeb.com said...

Wow, congratulations.

Unknown said...

I've always admired your independence, curiosity and sense of adventure Karen. I trust you to land butter side up on this one.

Cliff Squared said...

You'll definitely be missed, Karen! You taught me so much during your time at Google!

Dylan Casey said...

Congrats Karen, it's been a pleasure going business. I look forward to written our paths cross again.

Matt Cutts said...

I'm already missing you, but I hope you have a great time at whatever you tackle next!

DebbieN said...

You've distilled the essence of our culture...miss you!

Clint Boulton said...

Karen:

really enjoyed your work with the Google blogs, which were xceptionally useful for us media types. thanks and good luck!

Tony Ruscoe said...

Karen, it’s truly been an honour and a pleasure to have worked with you. Best wishes with your next challenge!

Louis Gray said...

Karen, you were an amazing friend and partner before I joined the company, a great resource and advocate as I was looking to join, and so briefly, we overlapped at the Plex. It won't be the same without you. Don't lose touch. Hoping to hear great things about you from new places for years to come.

Mario said...

Hey Karen, it's been great looking up to your work at Google as you innovated on some really cool stuff in corporate social media these past few years.

Whatever you choose to do next, I bet it'd be awesome.

Wish you the best!

ElisaC said...

Wow.

That is all.

It's been great working with you...and I look forward to hearing what's next!

Michael Wiley said...

Best of luck to you Karen.

Scott Rosenberg said...

Congrats, Karen, and will look forward to see what you do next!

KVOX said...

I'm grateful to hear from so many friends and colleagues - the same people who have helped and inspired me along the road. And I look forward to more exchanges and encounters with each of you.

dt said...

kvox: and there I was, hoping and dreaming that one day you'd hire me and I could become a googler too. sigh. maybe in my next life.

congrats on the long run in G-land. what's next?

dt

Nina Weinstein said...

Great note. Good luck ahead and hope to cross paths.

generika. said...

Karen, wishing you the best with your next steps! It's been a pleasure working with you on @Google Talks. Whatever lies on the horizon will be lucky to have you.

Cyndi said...

Thank you for being such a wise sherpa. What a pleasure it has been to observe--and to be the beneficiary of--your serene mastery. Here's to your next chapter!

Fitz said...

Well, that's the last time I go on vacation. :-)

Seriously though, you'll be missed--you taught me a lot about what it means to be Googley!

Tamara Micner said...

Thoughtful and sage. You said it well!