Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
Google alumni are spreading across the tech industry and beyond, bringing along with them the lessons they’ve learned inside the search giant.We decided to reach out to a few ex-Googlers to find out what they learned while working for tech’s most powerful company.
The hope is that other people will be able to pick up a few tips on how to run their business.
Google, for it’s reputation as a carefree, “Googly” place, is still a big business and operates as such.
What follows are the lessons employees learned at Google which balance the fun of Google with the serious business of creating one of the biggest companies in the world.
This comes from a former Google manager: 'Don't be afraid to be an arsehole about hiring only really smart people who have achieved something extraordinary in their careers. Put another way, don't fall prey to hiring people just because you have an opening and no one can come up with anything negative to say about the person.
Larry Page was the banner-carrier for this principle at Google. In general, he's not afraid to be an arsehole! He's willing to state uncomfortable truths in public, even if there are people whose feelings get hurt.'
'Google's always been focused on the long term and looking out beyond the horizon that many companies focus on. The way they position themselves for the future from investing in people to bleeding edge infrastructure to software infrastructure like Big Table, to investing in their brand by focusing on the user. Certainly a company that focuses on the long term, and for that reason I still really believe in the company,' says Gil Elbaz, who spent 3.5 years at Google working on Adsense, and is now running data startup Factual.
Elbaz also said, 'A deep culture of trust and respect, specifically for engineers. It's well known that a great deal of innovation is coming from the fringes of the organisation, primarily these engineers that often have a very sharp sense of what users need, and are also the ones that need to be inspired to develop world class new apps. So much of it is about creativity, whether it's user experience or about the infrastructure need. It really has to be about inspiration, not some stick.'
Elbaz again, 'When someone comes up with an idea, it's really the data you need to visualise and understand in order to make a good decision. It's all too easy to just do everything based on instinct. Sometimes you're have to use a little bit instinct to decide what you're going to test. But in the end, testing and analysis teaches you if you're going in the right direction.'
'My biggest lesson from Google was consensus building. It's very much a democracy at Google, and it's vital to have the buy in of stakeholders across the company to accomplish business or product changes. So the skills of developing and presenting a well reasoned argument and reaching out to people to get their feedback and buy-in is essential,' says Jon Steinberg, who was Strategic Partner Development Manager on Google's SMB (Small Medium Business) Partnerships team, and is now President of Buzzfeed.
Steinberg again, 'From company culture perspective, I learned the importance of creating on-going opportunities for both perks/fun and growth opportunities. Asking people what they want to do and where they want to go with there careers, and creating learning opportunities.'
One more from Steinberg: 'We also have a culture of transparency at BuzzFeed, which was always a big part of Google. We present what's going on at the company at a bi-weekly 'BuzzFeed Brews,' where anyone can ask questions. We even use Google Moderator for this, so people can submit anonymously, which was used at Google for Friday TGIF all-hands.'
'Starting with hiring, where there's always been criticism of the legendary Google interview process. Like it or hate it, there is a process, and it is documented, measured, and evaluated for success. Interviewing candidates is an explicit goal of all employees and they are evaluated on the number and quality of their interviews. The interview questions and methodology is trained into all new employees. Results of interviews are documented in notes that are actually read by hiring managers and HR -- I was scolded on a number of occasions for insufficient detail in my notes. Candidate 'packets' of all the interview notes are reviewed at the highest levels of the company and rigorous standards are applied before offers are made.
Evaluation is similarly disciplined. For employee reviews somewhere between 5 and 10 peers are asked to provide detailed feedback in writing and that feedback is reviewed by the manager and the promotions committee for evaluating salary, bonus, etc. Overall employee ratings are proposed by managers but then are 'calibrated' against all similarly-leveled employees and forced into an approximately bell-curve distribution, thus reducing manager bias (ie. easy grading) and making the very best performing and worst performing employees obvious in the rankings.
Google HR keeps track of employee sentiment through surveys and closely-tracked retention rates and, unlike other big companies that do similar things, distributes this information widely to managers so they can understand how their departments fare relative to the other groups or the company as a whole.
And, of course, all of these HR activities are automated through home-grown web portals and tools so the hassle on managers is lessened.'
This advice comes from Ari Paparo, who was a part of Google's DoubleClick team. He's now at AppNexus.
Gil Elbaz added to Paparo's comments, saying, 'The very high hiring bar is something I came to appreciate the importance. It's about long term thinking, it's about sometimes suffering the pain of not having the people in the group that you need desperately, because product management is demanding new features, but you're really positioning yourself for the long term if you keep the quality bar up, since ultimately the company is the employee base.'
'Doing due diligence doesn't mean finding the vendor most people use and then negotiating a lower price.
When we looked to replace a broken CRM system we had bought on the cheap, I researched all the vendors in the market and found the one that best fit our needs. Larry told me to forget them and go with a couple of friends of his who were building a CRM product themselves. It wasn't even in beta yet. I thought he was crazy. He insisted and we brought his friends in to work with us. They spent the next couple of months living in our office, writing code, fixing bugs, and adding features to our specifications.
The end result was a custom system that worked better than anything else in the market. After that, I only looked to large corporate suppliers if I couldn't find a couple of guys in a garage somewhere who were really smart and really hungry.'
This comes from Doug Edwards, author of 'I'm Feeling Lucky: Confessions of Google Employee Number 59,' to be released in July.
Gil Elbaz says, 'In the end, the number one thing you can do to keep the bar high is to have an exciting future. Easier said than done to make sure that your future is exciting, especially when you're competing with companies like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, that also have very exciting futures. That's why Larry wants to reinvigorate the company in other ways to strive for excellence across many categories.'
Any Googlers out there that want to contribute? Email us at [email protected] or drop a note in the comments.