5 February 2016

9 Years at Google: And the Beat Goes On

Wow, another year passed again, with a lot of travel and a number of lessons learned or still in the process of being digested. And yes, some lessons arose from the experience of disappointments as I’ll explain more below. This year, I’ll talk again a little bit about hiring before switching to writing about the the skills I’m looking for in program managers – you’d be surprised: I am convinced most people are theoretically capable of having them but... alas. I’ll also share my thoughts on when and how I think it’s possible to be demanding, up, down and across hierarchical levels.

A rare photo of me with a smile

Surprisingly enough, despite a number of reorganisations at various levels, I managed to keep my teams relatively stable. I still lead our developer relations teams interacting with communities of developers and which are based on the ground across Asia, Africa and the Middle East; I also still lead the truly collaborative “Intelligence” team, which defines processes to automate the collection and the tracking of data and metrics to best analyse and improve the efficiency of our programs. Now that doesn’t mean churn was completely avoided, whether for personal or low performance reasons. In fact, the number one challenge I still have is not related to my work in emerging markets or any of the additional difficulties I’ll share below: it’s all about constantly keeping a strong pipeline of potential candidates just in case – because it’s actually never “just in case” even when all positions appear to be fully staffed. It’s mathematical: the larger my team, the higher the absolute number of people leaving – and yes, I still don’t fire fast enough, even though I’ve possibly become more critical when it comes to hiring, a key skill I had mentioned in last year’s post. By the way, I’m eagerly hoping  to get my well-deserved “250+ interviews given” badge some time over the coming year, after having already received the “best interview feedback” award a few months ago – woohoo.

So in the spirit of feeding my pipeline, if you’re a very good project manager with some developer relations experience and willing to both work with me (have I lost you on that one?!) and be based in Dubai, Istanbul, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangalore, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul or Tokyo, send me an email so I can consider your application, should a position open up (some of those locations already have a position open, check http://google.com/jobs for more details).

You’ll note the emphasis on “very good” project management skills in my previous paragraph. We are several thousand program managers within Google. The least I can say is that I’m not impressed by the skills we have – despite hiring people with elite and diverse backgrounds. It’s a shame because most of those roles don’t require all the codified processes and jargon one would encounter in other companies. Seriously, I don’t care a lot about six sigma, strategic frameworks, agile or scrum techniques and what not if you are not capable of writing proper English and if you are not responsive nor genuinely collaborative. You don’t even need to know how to use any project management software beyond a simple spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets, did I say? Yes, only those – but why are they so ugly when I open the ones created by program managers? It’s so easy and takes no more time to present things nicely (if anything, one would gain time: a clear mind is most certainly more likely to generate a clear output). But let’s talk about the real aspect that bothers me with program managers at Google: why is it so difficult for some to take proper meeting notes, capture action items, methodically follow up on them without missing deadlines or otherwise giving status updates, document things in a clear fashion, and be responsive over email? There’s really not much more to that. And yet I have to raise my hands in despair (imagine the tentacles up in the air of the octopus icon in Google Hangouts). I’m not even asking to go the extra mile (although I always appreciate it when people work with passion and don’t consider they have a 9am to 5pm job), simply basic skills that honestly any white-collar employee should have (we ultimately all manage projects). Perhaps add to those skills the ability to know how to use basic functions in Spreadsheets. Yes, I’m talking about sums, counts, ifs,... push it to index/match and you’ll be considered a half-god… Apps Script coding – even just one line – will grant you god-like status, I wish I were joking but I’m not.

There are some remarkable employees out there, including on my team. Yet I feel a lot of my time goes into reminding people across Google of those basic expectations. As always, I don’t give up easily. Even if I have learned a little bit to choose my battles, I still enjoy coaching people although I need to more quickly give up on those who stubbornly do not take notes, do not act on the feedback at all or merely didn’t request for help in the first place (well, if you report into me, I won’t give you that option – am I bossy? no, not at all, I’m simply the/your boss. C’mon, it’s just a joke and it’s not even mine). Beyond not giving up, and despite being told “it will never work” or that “executives know the problem exists but don’t want to fix it”, I’m still motivated to take my pilgrim’s staff and develop a training program for my fellow colleagues. I also intend to have a number of tools and processes that my team and I set up over the years reused across the company (automated action item trackers, target setting, metrics and dashboards, document templates, you name it).

I could find excuses but I’d rather admit that I haven’t systematically coped well with the frustration of being slowed down – or seeing others slowed down – because some others are incompetent or simply don’t pay attention. In a fairly unusual way to my habits, I used my long-earned credibility to bang my fist on the table. I didn’t do it literally but the F word did come out of my mouth a few times (a trusted colleague is thankfully keeping count of that number). I’m not a fan of swearing at all, although it can get a point across if used (very) rarely and appropriately (I have sometimes failed in choosing those moments) – that’s probably controversial, especially in an American company, although I’m not suggesting to be insulting but to allow frustration to be expressed when people are being stubbornly uncollaborative. I sometimes make use of that technique in my personal life: since most people view me as serious (you can replace that by weird, awkward, not fun, whatever you like), the minute I do or say something seemingly crazy, the surprise effect is all the more important and guaranteed. Just like if I suddenly start mentioning I’m considering to run for France’s presidential elections: am I joking or am I not? You have to know me a little bit to know the answer – but by default, I’d suggest you take me seriously.

Coming back to my initial topic: I had initially written that I thought I had not experienced as much politics as the last year in my time at Google – but reading the post of last year seems to indicate it remained constant. No, I don’t think the culture has evolved in a negative way over the years, I believe it’s mostly due to specific team dynamics which I’ve observed in my organisation and in other departments in which I’ve been coincidentally involved. It sometimes sadly feels as if we play a game of musical chairs, moving people around instead of out. Bad behaviour needs to be called out – but it’s so difficult for some to do that when some managers turn a blind or naive eye to those issues, or worse, retaliate against the whistleblowers, further entrapping them in the role of scapegoats. For the record, I’ve interacted with about 300 people at various levels in different departments over the past year so I’m not necessarily referring to my current manager (hello, David). My best advice in those situations is to do whatever it takes (ethically, duh) to build a strong relationship with one’s manager to then be able to have enough credibility to highlight problems – that has always worked for me, whether I personally liked or disliked the manager I had.

Now it’s true that I’m (very) demanding – I have high standards. To make them clear, I had written a document which explained what my expectations were (they weren’t anything scary and team members generally appreciated the transparency). But at the same time, I’m caring. I’m available to indirect reports and temporary employees who regularly talk to me in one-on-ones. I care enough to follow up and find solutions to most issues that come up – not always, but most often, I should think without false humility. I think it’s because I’m caring that my team allows me to be demanding because they know that I help them shine as individuals and as a team. As an ex-director at Google wrote, “caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off”. I fight for my team without hopefully making the classic mistake of designating other teams as enemies: I’d rather focus on the positives, on the great work to be highlighted, on the opportunities to be seized, on the workarounds to be creatively found, than on pointing fingers at others or ranting about issues without offering solutions (please: if you come to me with a problem, also come up with one possible solution). It’s a tricky balance for sure, sometimes it is even inevitable to mention the names of those who are acting in toxic ways.

It can get tiring to manage people, to listen to their problems (including their personal issues), or to find the best people who can make my work life easier. I can’t say I dislike it but I do need to sleep more – it was only in the course of last year that a close friend observed that my birthday happens on 24/7… and I’m pretty much active and working 24/7 indeed… The double irony is that I’m typing a first draft of this post on a red-eye flight from the US to Europe when I should be precisely getting some sleep. Every day I am telling myself “I am someone who goes to bed at midnight” – and every day I clock off at two or three in the morning. Why, but why?! I’m so disciplined at work with self-imposed structure… but there are so many more things to learn and discover outside of work too!

On a more positive note, I’ve met new, interesting, passionate and kind people (I can’t stress enough the importance of kindness; I was pleasantly surprised how some had even softened and grown more amiable over time). That’s one welcome aspect of my work: always meeting new people, internally and externally. I’ve forged some strong work relationships with a few people which add to the necessary renewal of my motivation every day – even if my total compensation is going down for the past two years despite obtaining constantly better performance ratings (wink at my manager for fixing that)! External opportunities keep abounding too: it’s always very tempting to get out there and start something new, big and exciting – speaking of which… Let’s see if I’ll make it to ten years at Google though, I’m still our number one fan of our products and I have some(!) remaining work to do here. Oh and thank you for reading but you should now seriously get back to work, the break’s over!

PS: if you want to read more about what I learned in my previous years at Google, head over to the following posts

  • 5 years: on passion and opportunities
  • 6 years: on learning which battles to fight
  • 7 years: on coaching employees
  • 8 years: on people – the manipulative ones, the takers and (hiring) the great ones

PS2: thanks to Melina, Marcus, Dushyant, Marie, Jessica, Dirk, Laura, Sami, Aída, Antoine and Roy for reading drafts of this post – and engaging in an interesting centithread discussion. Unsurprisingly a common feedback was for me to get some rest. I’ll think about it next time I sleep – next session planned on 1st April from seven forty-five PM to 1st April at a quarter to eight in the evening.