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I don't want to be like Google
My take on Google's management style from back in a day
I have interacted with a lot of startup founders in the past two years. One thing that I hear often is that they aspire to be like Google. I usually do not disagree immediately because after all I spent over 6 years at Google and became a manager there. Probably most or all of them think when they say something like that to me, they are saying “we want you” in some way.
I think Google made immense contributions to the management culture in tech companies. But Google, as any company, also could have done some things better. At least that was my impression from the time I spent there, and I wanted to share some of those insights.
Google was the first employer I had who made a big deal out of the non-salary benefits provided to their employees. You name it: massages on site, three chef cooked meals provided for free, ping pong and pool tables all around the office. Google also had laundry rooms in some of the offices, gym for free, Christmas gifts and many other benefits. As far as employment goes, it was pretty much employment heaven.
Google was a pioneer, in my opinion and experience, in generally treating their employees better than they ever been treated before. This not only made people want to work there and stay there but also speak very greatly of Google as an employer. It was amazing for employer branding.
Treating people well went beyond benefits. Once you joined Google you'd also feel very well taken care of, Google as a company seemed to genuinely regard their employees as their most important asset. They would take every obstacle out of your way to ensure that you (the super smart person who — if you were like me — felt like you didn't deserve it but yet has been hired by Google) could focus in doing your best work.
Googlers got access to the best training available in the market to develop themselves: emotional intelligence, MBTI, situational leadership, other leadership training tailored to the company. You name it. I did it all. Google was, until 2012, the company and the job where I had grown the most in my skills, both technically as a Site Reliability Engineer and so called soft skills. I also learned the best management tools to help the members of my team to deliver their best work. I grew as a human, in fact.
Google also had a very structured set of management tools. 360 every 6 months, engineers were supposed to review their managers — that was new for me! We did calibrations every 3 months. It was a lot of overhead, but that was the cost to be such a great company with high achieving people, right?
Google was definitely a pioneer, but the industry kept moving into different models, and some of them were fairer and more de facto people oriented than the Google I experienced.
It was at Google, in 2008, that I learned that I could be tech lead for a project and have a team mate, led by me in such a project, who made 30% more money than I did. Such is life. That got fixed in the subsequent performance review cycle when I got promoted and got a ridiculous raise.
It was also at Google that I learned that as a woman in technology I better learn about the game I was playing because even the best tailored process, created with the best intentions can perpetuate discrimination. Promotion committees, at the time I was at Google, did not serve women and people who were not braggers very well. HR even helped organize workshops for women in Zurich to help them to write self-reviews being more emphatic tone on their own accomplishments because words such as “helped" or verbs in continuous tense didn't help women get recognition in promotion committees: it is about what you did, not about what you're doing. Not only I participated in such workshops, I was teaching them.
Promotion committees were designed to be fairer, by having no context on the people being discussed. They should not have context at least. But then whoever wrote the best tales got the best results, not necessarily the ones who did the best work. Minorities that are known for not claiming credits for things they did had no advocate for them in the decision making room.
Google also taught me the consequences of insisting that great engineers became people managers. I had one good manager and quite a few terrible ones in my tenure there. I became a manager to isolate my colleagues from managerial nonsense so they could do their best work. Not a great motivation, I know. I don't regret the choice and still think many years later my job still has some of that in essence.
At calibrations, there were some arbitrary rules which didn't seem to make sense to me at the time: if an engineer moved teams, they moved one performance assessment down. That was my least favorite.
Many engineers turned into management as a career, pressed by other managers in order for the company to scale. Quite a few of them made pretty terrible managers without a lot of people skills.
I did not like the “Google system” for how to manage people’s careers. I do think managers play a big role contextualizing the work of an engineer when they cannot do that well themselves. I do think that my role as a manager is to ask the manager next to me why the hell he’s grading a female engineer’s performance as “exceeds” for two years and yet not promoting them and hold the manager (and the individual if that was the case) accountable to make that promotion happen.
It took many years to put my finger on it, but the Google I experienced had a engineering arrogance which I did not appreciate at all, and as a consequence, I never felt like I quite fit in there.
My management career at Google was going nowhere. I had great peer mentors, but my management chain was terrible. My direct manager lost all but one woman in his team within 6 months of me leaving, and yet, nobody asked him why. If they did, it didn’t seem important as he got quickly promoted to Director.
One cycle I would get feedback I was focusing too much in management, not enough in technical output, the next cycle I would get the opposite: too much technical, not enough management.
Design Review Meetings were like asking managers and senior engineers for authorization to do your job. Those meetings were extremely aggressive, and I did not feel like I would ever like to present in there. It seemed that if you did not know every single answer to every single random question people posed at you, you’d be back at square one, and your project would not happen. Not yet, not until you get this seal of approval.
All of that piled up frustrating me, and along with the eternal excuses on promoting me was the main reason why I decided to start looking for a new job.
Once I got a job, and decided to quit, I got offered a lot of money to stay. I was pretty sure no money in the world would make me happy continuing in the same situation than I was in there. I got two job offers and I had to decide for one. One was at Canonical and the other at Facebook. I accepted a job at Facebook, and it was by far the best career choice, and life choice, I’ve made.
I feel like all the opportunities at Google were boxed and had names in it, like gifts. But my name was nowhere to be found. If I had to learn things in order to be deserving of the opportunities, my manager was of no help, neither was my director.
Back to the title I picked, when people tell me they want to build Brazil’s Google, I pause. I don’t. I learned things at Google, but from a pure management perspective, I am sure there are many ways things can be a lot better than they were there. I want to create new, better ways to do engineering in high performing environments, and not copy a system that I am well aware of its flaws.