5 February 2014

The seven-year (Google) itch

This is becoming my yearly exercise. It’s scary to think another year has already passed. Today is my seventh-year anniversary working at Google. As I read again my 5-year-mark and 6-year-mark posts, I also realised that most of everything I wrote, if not everything, still remains valid – and that I still need to do better at a number of things I had mentioned before.

Seven years. It’s usually considered to be the duration after which relationships make it or break (it’s actually also verified by data). Maybe I should have been more careful about that milestone in my personal relationships, but that’s a (sad) digression from the topic at hand.

Sebastian, pensive

So: seven years working at Google, a company that has seen its number of employees multiply five fold during that period of time – and revenue likewise. I could be tempted (I am) to look elsewhere – or finally spend more time on my personal projects (which are not necessarily business related), especially after some unexpected changes at work which I irrationally feared would put a stop to what I had been patiently but energetically building with my team in emerging markets. But I know I’ll go on. The intense and exhausting negotiations I and others led over the past two months are about to result in a meaningful adaptation, continuation of this mission.

I’ve been more or less in the same role for almost four years now, a function that is carrying various names, from “outreach” to “developer relations”. It’s all about sharing the passion for Google technology among developers and business professionals in the “emerging” world for lack of a better word to describe Africa, the Middle East, India, southeast Asia and Latin America – and finding, nurturing the most passionate among them so they use (more of) Google technologies (that’s another reason why my job is so cool: I sell mostly free stuff) in their innovative ideas or business projects, thus possibly inspiring others. I’m sticking to doing this: it’s my fix. These regions are also the ones where I feel our teams and like-minded people outside of Google can have the most significant, visible impact, channeling the energy of mostly young populations to use technology (standard Google services but also open source software) for their own benefit – beyond the fact that any global company, especially the ones still being high-growth ones, will at some point need to find new growth areas, innovation being one arm and high-growth markets being another.

I end this seventh year on a slightly bittersweet note as I look back on some things. While it’s never pleasing to be backstabbed (that doesn’t happen too often luckily and certainly not more than anywhere else in my opinion) and while I take it a bit as a personal failure that some people I mentor in other departments end up quitting, I really can’t complain – especially when I am lucky enough to be consistently recognised by my hierarchy and my peers, and have the opportunity to manage increasingly-larger teams. Still, it sometimes feels as if some of the inevitable tasks of a manager (interviewing candidates, reviewing documents, being highly responsive, or coaching) can be a little ungratifying considering the required time involvement versus the more shiny aspects of working on interesting projects. It’s paradoxical because I also like doing those things, often going the extra mile, paying constant attention to detail or building carefully-crafted internal presentations to show, for instance, why more Googlers should post publicly on Google+ or to come up with dozens of insights on how to make our products top-notch and easier to use by everybody.

Thinking back, that seventh year was really the year of “coaching”, a catch-all word encompassing technical or psychological support, help, mentoring and providing guidance (the list in this post gives some sense of what I usually help on) – in all walks of life, at various regular or irregular frequencies, towards direct reports and peers and other colleagues at work, but also towards personal connections and acquaintances. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s the perception among them that I actually coach only about five people or so in total. Here’s the thing: I haven’t kept count but all in all, the order of magnitude is more than sixty when I do a quick lineup in my head of the people I have actively supported over the past year.

So what are the key learnings from that intense coaching experience? I list three main ones:

1. The value of thank-yous. I’m not just talking about the thank-you that usually comes because I’ve paid attention to someone. I would in fact usually then respond: “thank me when I actually do something, not just because I replied that I would look into your issue”. What really matters to me is to know whether anything I’ve suggested or shared proved eventually useful, even if it’s a year down the road, even if those suggestions triggered indirectly new thoughts – it is frustrating to discover this by chance. Maybe it’s because what I say is not useful at all in the other cases… As I wrote, while I would hope that the people I coach could testify I give them my undivided attention when it comes to listening to them or going a bit beyond, I do strive to obtain a meaningful result for them.

2. Detect and better respond to takers. It’s easy to be abused when one is an "otherish-giver". I’m still learning how to approach “takers”, those who take without giving back or only very little, not necessarily to me but to anyone. To that effect, Adam Grant’s Give and Take, although not groundbreaking, provided some useful insights that I'll read again as I usually collect quotes and excerpts from books I read, but seldom go back to them afterwards… maybe I do need to retire, after all!

3. Coaching at scale. This is a bigger challenge to me. The number of people I personally coach is becoming unsustainable. I tried to initiate a mentorship network (for the sake of the anecdote, the title of that post, “how can I help?”, is what I always reply with every single time someone sends me an instant message at work, which on their end usually starts with “you there?”) but that didn’t work too well, not enough well in my opinion, despite some generous offers from volunteer mentors. So I need to be better at this: connecting people together and form more of a decentralised network with multiple cross-ties, activating or reactivating dormant or weak links.

Coaching is not that difficult. It takes time to pay attention and some creativity to imagine solutions to problems. But even though I don’t know anyone who doesn’t crave for some attention, how many take the time to give it? Or maybe they’re good at being selective – and I’m not. So there’s still a lot for me to learn, I guess.

But I’ll go on, just as demanding, with myself and with others while always being more forgiving with others than with myself, just as passionate. There’s so much to do. Is it surprising I can’t change my Google+ profile tagline? “Demanding. Passionate”. This still rings very true to me.