The year of living Googley

Today is the first anniversary of my coming to work at Google.

It’s been a good year. Google is a great place to work, as you may have heard, but the perks are just a small part of it. Mainly it’s the energizing work culture and being surrounded by lots of really bright folks in a company that (forgive me for having drunk the Kool-Aid) cares — really — about improving the world in its pursuit of profits.

But Google can also be a frustrating place to work, and it’s not for everyone. The culture requires employees to be a lot more self-directed than elsewhere, and those who rely on a more traditional manager-employee structure can find themselves at sea. While still at Danger I knew a few people who burned out quickly at Google for this very reason and so I almost didn’t accept Google’s job offer.

I don’t want to sound too self-congratulatory, especially in the current poor job market, but at that time I was lucky enough to be entertaining a few different job offers. They ultimately came down to Google and Apple, and for a while, Apple was looking like a lock.

It would have been quite a haul for me — it’s a 75-minute drive to Cupertino, or more than two hours on bad traffic days. But Apple had the edge in most other ways. For one thing, I’d be working with the prestigious iPhone team, where I’d be an instant expert, since I’d just spent five and a half years working on one of the iPhone’s direct predecessors. Google, by contrast, wouldn’t even tell me in advance what I’d be working on; just that if I accepted their offer, they’d put me where they thought I was most needed and would do the best. Apple’s tenacious recruiter kept sweetening the deal every time I wavered (out of genuine indecision, not some sort of cutthroat negotiating skill). The folks I interviewed with at Apple talked about how involved “Steve” was with the iPhone team, making sure I was good and starstruck. There was the personal satisfaction of being sought-after by a company that had turned me away many years earlier. And as for the long commute — well, if Google stationed me at their Mountain View headquarters, that was almost as far; and both Google and Apple had employee shuttle buses that I could ride from San Francisco.

I mulled my options during a visit to New York last April. And that’s when it dawned on me:

  • To keep in contact with the two companies during my trip, I switched from my home e-mail account (which it’s hard to access remotely) to Google’s Gmail;
  • To find my way to my various interviews, I used Google Maps;
  • To compare the values of my respective job offers, I used a Google Spreadsheet;
  • To learn more about the senior Apple executives I’d met and would be working with, I Googled them.

I never even touched an Apple product, not once. The choice was clear: if I wanted to have the biggest possible impact (and I did), I had to join Google.

Google placed me at YouTube. On the one hand, that was good: YouTube’s offices in San Bruno were much less distant than the main “Googleplex” in Mountain View. On the other hand, I was disappointed: to me YouTube was an online toy of little consequence, and my initial project was to make not-very-consequential tweaks to an already-mostly-finished part of it. I read the internal mailing lists with envy about the cooler projects underway in Mountain View and Google’s many other offices.

But I needn’t have worried. Almost immediately, the prestige of working at YouTube went up (in my mind, at least) as YouTube transformed unexpectedly from the place for funny cat videos to a tool for social change. That very summer, the presidential election became known as “the YouTube election”! And I moved to a project at the interface of technology and public policy, where a lot of new engineering awaited my talents, and I became very engaged.

At the same time, Google itself (partly in the form of some of my old Danger colleagues) produced a mobile-phone platform that’s cooler than the iPhone, while “Steve” disappeared from Apple for mysterious health reasons. The entire media landscape is now tipping in the direction of online video and I once again find myself accidentally near the center of the zeitgeist.

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