6 February 2015

The People (8 years at Google)

Tick-tock, tick-tock, another year passed today, the eighth one for me at Google. As part of my yearly routine for the past three years, I’ll take a moment to reflect on the past years, on the last one in particular.

Sebastian, in Cambodia, a few weeks prior to this article

Once again, a lot of what I wrote before remains valid. I still love our products (year five), they’re indispensable to me, even if there are so many ways we could make them excellent; I couldn’t resist documenting existing quirks and four big areas where I think we should improve. Year six had been the year when I learned how to take quicker decisions regarding people’s performance and choosing which battles are worth fighting for, a valuable experience that I still use today and coach others on. Speaking of coaching, that was a big theme for year seven which made me question – and still makes me question – what is the best use of my time and energy, especially when it’s still not always easy to say “no”.

What have I learned from the previous year? Well, as can be seen in the underlying trend of my previous yearly posts, “people” are what makes all the difference, not only because I manage increasingly larger teams over multiple regions. Yet again, I won’t be at a loss for words and will speak quite openly about the topic. I had initially titled my post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” but after multiple revisions, I realised I had fallen in love with my title instead of acknowledging that I was exaggerating the negatives.

I’m certainly not claiming that everything is rosy, even at Google – but that’s also for me to not fall for silly tricks, for instance when it comes to internal politics which I think I became more exposed to over the past year than I have been used to. Jokingly, I can’t believe watching House of Cards during my post-surgery recovery didn’t allow me to be better prepared to confront manipulation and childish attitudes, which coincidentally also perturbed my personal life at the same time. Maybe I thought I didn’t want to disappoint or upset, sometimes taking the blame even when there was no blame to be taken; maybe because I thought rationality, straightforwardness and kindness (what’s wrong with kindness, seriously...) are enough to convince the most hardened individuals of the value of playing ball, of accepting that not everything is black and white. But being afraid to disappoint is wrong, I have to accept not everyone is going to like me. At the very least, I try to stick to a principle of not putting my pride in the way – the way of always being available to talk things out in a direct fashion, leaving emotions aside, even if I can’t reach an agreement. That’s for me lesson number one.

The symmetrical aspect of having to deal with manipulative people and "takers" is enjoying working with great people. I gave eighty interviews over the past year, the most I have given in any given year, even though I’ve been out on sick leave for a little while. Interviewing is something I enjoy and which I’m hopefully not too bad at (at least the recruiters love my responsiveness and detailed feedback), even if most interviews result in rejecting the candidate (we do get more than a couple million CVs every year). But I’ve still hired a few excellent people for my team and for other teams. Working with smart and creative people really makes it so much more motivating and pleasant – and thankfully Google still attracts such people.

Interestingly enough, interviewing is “the most important skill any business person can develop” according to Google’s chairman and former CEO, Eric Schmidt​, and according to Google’s former head of product management, Jonathan Rosenberg​ (in How Google Works). That’s for me lesson number two. And yet many people seem to do everything they can to avoid being on an interview panel. It’s crazy considering how repeatedly interviewing candidates is the only way to ensure we get the best ones to join Google’s ranks. To be fair, conducting a good interview requires skills: understanding the role, preparing questions (I tend to reuse some questions to better benchmark responses), looking up details about the candidate, challenging them during the interview (okay, I have to admit that I omit to say I’m French myself when I happen to interview Frenchmen who then think they are “enlightening” me on the French market or their past experience in France!), seeing how they gained insights from their experiences, checking if they can themselves ask thoughtful questions (I’m still surprised how asking whether the candidate has any questions for me sometimes seems to be the most disconcerting question). It doesn’t stop there: delivering quality and prompt feedback in our recruiting tool, with a clear and strong substantiated opinion on whether to hire the candidate or not, is equally as important.

A previous manager of mine who had joined the executive ranks of a major company shocked everyone there when he asked to be on the last stage of the interview panel of every single person to be hired in his organisation. But is that so much of a surprise when hiring great people is essential to a performing work culture, which in turns is essential to retaining people?

Ah retention… I was sad to see a number of inspiring people leave or retire over the course of the past year, including folks who partly made me the way I am today, allowing me to better learn the ropes of managing people – and retaining them, by acting swiftly to remove the bad apples and showing my appreciation of the good ones.

On a personal level, it’s the same question every year of whether to stay at Google or not, especially when I can’t help but constantly think about new work-related and personal projects and businesses, partly inspired by my work and my travels (tuk-tuk-pooling anyone?). If only I could find the “off” switch in my brain to at least find some sleep at night… or be able to take a step back and feel satisfied enough with what I’m currently achieving. I guess that should be lesson number three: take the time to reflect, perhaps more than once a year, on what really makes one’s life feel fulfilled; and be a little more happy with the good stuff already accomplished.

Considering the title of this post, let’s finish it in music, with The People, a song by a British alternative rock band called The Music (how original!). The song is not particularly impressive for its lyrics but it has a lively beat which makes my (booty) head shake. Okay, I’m strange but sometimes “people are strange” too!