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.