Sunday, January 31, 2010

Things I've learned at Google so far

Well I've been an employee at Google for about a month. So this seems like as good a place to reflect for a moment.

The first thing that I've learned is that internally Google is incredibly open, but externally there is a lot we can't say. I understand and support a lot of the reasons why it is so, but it can be frustrating. There is a lot of really cool technology at Google that people never hear about. The statistics of what Google deals with are astounding. The technology we use to deal with it is amazing. The way we scale is unbelievable. (I really wish I could go back and have a few discussions on software development methodology raising points about what has proven to scale at Google...) One random fact that I know I can say is that computations happen in our data centers with about half the power drawn for what is industry standard. I'm not allowed to say how we do it, but it is a rather amazing testimony to what smart people can accomplish when we put our minds to it.

Moving on, what about Google's culture? I would describe Google's culture as "creative chaos". There was some confusion about where I was supposed to be when I started. This resulted in the following phone call, "Hello?", "Hello Ben, this is Conner (that's my new manager), where are you?" "Mountain View." "Why are you there?" "Because this is where the recruiter said to go." "Good answer! Nice of them to tell me. Enjoy your week!" This caused me to ask an experienced Googler, "Is it always this chaotic?" The response I got was, "Yes! Isn't it wonderful?" That response sums up a lot about Google's culture. If you're unable to enjoy that kind of environment, then Google isn't the place for you.

Seriously, the corporate culture is based on hiring really smart people, giving them responsibilities, letting them know what problems the company thinks it should focus on, then letting them figure out how to tackle it. What management hierarchy there is is very flat. And people pay little attention to it unless there is a problem. You are expected to be a self-directed person, who solves problems by reaching out to whomever you need to and talking directly. Usually by email. The result is an organization which is in a constant state of flux as things are changing around you, usually for the better. With a permanent level of chaos and very large volumes of email. It is as if an entire company intuitively understood that defect rates are tied to distance on the corporate org-chart, and tried to solve it by eliminating all barriers to people communicating directly with whoever they need to communicate with. (Incidentally the point about defect rates and org charts is actually true, see Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering for a citation.)

Speaking of email, working at Google you learn really fast how gmail is meant to be used. If you want to deal with a lot of email in gmail, here is what you need to do. Go into settings and turn keyboard shortcuts on. The ones you'll use a lot are j/k to move through email threads, n to skip to the next message, and the space bar to page through text. And m to hide any active thread that you're not interested in (direct emails to you will still show up). There are other shortcuts, but this is enough to let you skim through a lot of email fairly quickly without touching the mouse too much. Next go into labels and choose to show all labels. Your labels are basically what you'd call folders in another email client. (Unfortunately they are not hierarchical, but they do work.) Next as you get email, you need to be aggressive about deciding what you need to see, versus what is context specific. Anything that is context specific you should add a filter for, that adds a label, and skips the inbox. Nothing is lost, you can get to the emails through the list of labels on the left-hand side of your screen in gmail. But now various kinds of automated emails, lower priority mailing lists, and so on won't distract you from your main email until you go looking for them.

When you combine all of these options with gmail's auto-threading features, it is amazing how much more efficiently you can handle email. In fact this is exactly the problem that gmail was invented to handle. Because this was the problem that Paul Buchheit was trying to solve for himself when he started gmail. It is worth pointing out that Paul Buchheit was a software engineer at Google. He didn't need permission to write something like gmail. Corporate culture says that if you need something like that, you just go ahead and do it. In fact this is enshrined as an official corporate policy - engineers get 20% of their time to do with pretty much as they please, and are judged in part on how they use that time. I found a speech claiming that over half of Google's applications started as a 20% project. (I'm surprised that the figure is so low.) To get a sense of how much stuff people just do, visit Google Labs. No corporate decision. No central planning. People just do things like start putting up solar panels in the parking lot, and the next thing you know Google has one of the largest solar panel installations in the world and has decided to go carbon neutral. And the attitude that this is how you should operate is enshrined as official corporate policy!

You've got to love corporate policies like that. Speaking of nice corporate policies, Google has quite a few surprising ones. For instance they have benefits like heavily subsidized massage on site (I've still got to take my free hour massage for joining), free gym membership, and the like. Or take their attitude on dogs. Policy says that if your immediate co-workers don't object, you can bring your dog to work. Cats are different, however. Nothing against cats, but Google is a dog place and cats wouldn't be comfortable. (Yes, there are lots of dogs around the offices, and I've even seen people randomly wander over to find out if they can borrow someone else's dog for a while.) Hmmm. Sick day policy. Don't show up when you're sick and tell people why you're not showing up. Note what's missing. There is no limit to how much sick time you get if you need it. Oh, and food. Official Google policy is that at all times there shall be good, free food within 150 feet of every Googler. OK, admittedly the food quality does vary. That in Mountain View is better than anywhere else (the larger clientele base lets them have a much more varied selection). But you quickly learn why it is common for new Googlers to put on 15-20 pounds in their first year. (I'm trying to avoid that. We'll see if I succeed...)

But, you say, isn't this crazy? Doesn't it cost a fortune? The answer is that of course it does. But it provides value. People bond over food. Even if you're not bonding, having food close by makes short meals easier. And the temptation to continue working until dinnertime is very real. (Particularly if, as with me, you'd like to wait until rush hour is over before going home.) Obviously no normal CFO would crunch numbers and see things that way. But Google stands behind that decision, and the people who work there treasure the company for it.

Speaking of the people who work there, Google has amazing people. It is often said that engineers find working at Google a humbling experience. This is absolutely true. It took me less than a day to realize that the guy sitting next to me is clearly much smarter than I am, and he's nowhere near the top of the range of talent at Google. In fact, as best as I can tell, I'm pretty much average, though I'm trying hard to hold out a ray of hope that I'm slightly better than average.

Let me put that in context. The closest thing that I have to an estimate for my IQ is scoring 2340 on the GRE exam in 1991. Based on conversions that I've seen, that puts me at about the top 0.01% in IQ. Now I was really "on" that day, happen to believe that there are problems with the measurement of intelligence by an IQ test (a subject which I may devote a future blog post to), but without false modesty I wouldn't be surprised to find that I'm as high as being in the top 0.1% in general intelligence (however that could be measured). Which in most organizations means that I get thought of as being very smart.

However software development is a profession that selects for intelligence. By and large only good software developers bother applying to Google. And Google rejects the vast majority of their applicants. Granted the filtering process is far from perfect, but by the time you get through that many filters, someone like me is just average.

This leads to another point of interest. How astoundingly complex the company is. I believe that organizations naturally evolve until they are as complex as the people in them can handle. Well Google is tackling really big, complex problems, and is full of people who can handle a lot of complexity. The result? I've been told that I should expect that after 2 months I'll only be marginally useful. My initial learning curve should start to smooth out after about 6 months. And every year I should expect half of what I've learned to become obsolete. (Remember what I said about Google having a certain level of permanent chaos? If you're like me, it is exhilarating. But sometimes the line between exhilarating and terrifying can be hard to find...)

Oh, and what else did I learn? That we're hiring more people this year. :-)


powerje said...

Very informative post! Pretty much dashes my hope of working at Google anytime in the next decade, but one never knows :)

Good luck in your new job!

Pat Hyatt said...

Great writeup on your experiences.

I'm sure that the humbling experience works well to drive to acquire a fraction of the knowledge that is floating around.

Jeff McNeil said...

Sounds interesting. I've always worked in more of a standard corporate IT environment. Would be fun to give the "techie culture" a go at some point.

Anonymous said...

All this is fine but:
- IQ (brain processing speed) is not a panacea. Although we do fetishize it.
- Why then is everything that Google does just kind of "flat?" Aside from Goog, there other stuff is over-engineered and under-appealing.

Goo is also basking in it's billions and silly hubris, a young person's hubris as well.

And "hubris proceeds nemesis."

Nobody, or collection of bodies, is smarter than the markets. Remember the best/brightest/billions on Wall St.

Alexis said...

no offense, but now you work at Google. I don't think you actually need all these Google adds on your blog... what would it say about the salaries they pay?

Maintenance Man said...

The e-mail thing sounds like how they run the business at Microsoft. And that is probably where the similarities end. Interesting post.

Unknown said...

What a self promotion by yourself...Grow up dude, silicon valley is filled with tonnes of smart people and every good company has got lot of geniuses.

Google has got 20K people and so it is no longer the most sought company.

RNiK said...

Your labels are basically what you'd call folders in another email client. (Unfortunately they are not hierarchical, but they do work.)

Well, that's not completely true: Folders4Gmail.

Anonymous said...

You obviously haven't worked there long enough. 20% was the norm in the good 'ol days when the company was small. How many people actually work on a 20% today? It is true that Search, Gmail, Orkut, and other great projects came from a 20%, but how many projects today are from 20% vs. ones from acquisitions? How about g Earth, g Maps, Writely/Docs, Presently, Spreadsheet, YouTube, AdSense, Voice, Sites, BLOGGER, Picasa, yadda yadda yadda. Guess what, all of these came from acquisitions!

Google is currently suffering from brain drain. The best and brightest engineers no longer want to go there anymore. They want to start their next Google. I hope I'm at one right now. Good luck, dude.


Unknown said...

orkut is an acquisition too.

Ben Tilly said...

@RNiK: Thanks for the pointer. I've recommended it to a co-worker.

@joe: Don't know how it varies through the company, but my immediate co-workers have 20% projects and let people know which days they are less available because they are using 20% time.

@Alexis: The ads were an experiment to see what it is like. I haven't minded having them so I've left it on. However truth be told, I could work for 20 minutes on a contract and make more than I've made, total, from having the ads on.

@various: I'm glad you liked my summary or you're welcome to your opinions as appropriate.

Unknown said...

Wow! You really made me want to work @ Google.

Ruchira Datta said...

I'm curious where these conversions you've seen are? Standardized tests are often not normed for the extremes, especially at the high end, so I find it a bit dubious that they could be rigorously interconverted with IQ. (Even some recent IQ tests aren't either, see That is to say, you could be even smarter than the conversion suggests, because the GRE was not designed to discriminate at the high end.

Ruchira Datta said...
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Ruchira Datta said...
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util said...

@Vitaliy No, Orkut was not an acquisition. It's even named after a Google employee (its creator).

yd said...

Interesting article. Can you mention a bit about their interview process? I hear that they test your problem-solving ability. Was that what happened to you?

Yuhong Bao said...

@joe When did you left Google, BTW?

Shaun said...

great post. thanks for sharing.

Kevin said...

Google is inspiring to professionals working in India. Here most of the organizations are too corporate and rigid. Following processes and rules is the norm of the day.

Unknown said...

Welcome to Google. :)

@sleeprunning "Nobody, or collection of bodies, is smarter than the markets. Remember the best/brightest/billions on Wall St."

You mean, the markets and people that spent billions of dollars on subprime mortgages without ever checking to see if they were legitimate? Intelligence there may be, but I'd far rather see it applied to productive pursuits than greedy self-interest.

@Joe: I had a 20% project since I started. Now it's my 80% project.

Brooklynintexas said...

I happened upon your blog while setting up my google reader account. In an attempt to stay on the up-and-up for my students, I was drawn to your blog. I am inspired. After reading of your experiences thus far, I am reassured that I am on the right teaching path. My students HAVE to be resourceful, self-starters, with a habit of keeping up with their a-ha moments and epiphanies. Thank you for your insight. Very informative and super exhilirating to know that people are actually taken care of elsewhere. I wish I could say that about education (teachers).

xp said...

LOL it's so funny to see a Google engineer in his 40's use a 20yr-old GRE score to benchmark his own intelligence. Although I've heard many stories, this is the first time I truly realize what Google's like now...

Ben Tilly said...

@Ruchira Datta: You can find some comparison information here or a calculator there. You are right that these things are not well-normalized at the high end so I theoretically could be higher still. However the tests are not perfectly testing IQ either, so the odds are strong that a score like mine reflects a combination of luck, good test-taking skills that are non intelligence related, and intelligence. Therefore the intelligence only component (to the extent that such a thing makes sense) is probably much lower than the test says.

But that is a complex topic that I'll discuss in a future blog.

@yd: I can't discuss the interview process other than to say that it is difficult, and I was glad I have a very good grasp on algorithmic complexity.

@xp: The significant detail to consider is that I referred to said GRE score, but I don't believe that it is an accurate measure. As I said to Ruchira, that will be the topic of a future blog post, whenever that happens.

Unknown said...

Given the environment that you have described it makes sense why Google decided to implement Google Wave. However, that sort of environment isn't really present in most of the work world (from what I have seen). Still a great post into the world that is Google.

Unknown said...

I don't know whether I should say it's another propaganda-type of blog or a naive person's view of the company. The benefit is not as good as you think. Google is smart in enhancing those marketable benefit. Even the heavily advertised 20% work is just a fantasy for most of the employees. Having been there for two and half years and I finally gave up last year. It may be a heaven for the newly gradaduated, but most likely a graveyard for those experienced folks.

Ruchira Datta said...

Thanks for the links, Ben. As expected, the numbers I know for myself don't jive with each other on either page. In any case the tests clearly cannot correspond perfectly, as some of those tests have a built-in upper bound and others don't.

A psychologist specializing in intelligence assessment once explained to me (pretty convincingly at the time) that the extraneous factors influencing test performance, such as luck, test-taking ability, cultural bias, state of health, etc. would result in many false *negatives*, but few false *positives*. The same was supposed to be true of the Google interview process. I'd be interested in your thoughts on this in your future blogpost.

Aileen Apolo-de Jesus said...

I'm pretty sure you'll gain the Google10 in just a few months. I did, took me a long time to lose it :)

Ben Tilly said...

@Ruchira Datta: My next blog is up exploring the nature of intelligence and IQ tests in more depth. Hopefully you find it interesting. I think you'll find some support for what your psychologist said about many false negatives and few false positives, but you'll also find reason to believe that people probably aren't as smart as the impressive IQ test says they are.

@Aileen Apolo: I hope not. I'm tracking my weight pretty closely right now, and if I do gain I intend to take action before I put on more than a pound or two.

@Goang-Tay: I'm sorry your experience wasn't good. I asked people around me what their experience of the 20% rule is, and the answer I got boiled down to, "The 20% time is yours if you take it. But nobody is going to give it to you." That said most of the people in my immediate environment are actually taking and using their 20% time. I'm sure some teams are different, but I think I've accurately described the experience in my corner of the company.

Oh, and as to the question of whether this blog should be seen as corporate propaganda. Read my previous post. Some of it is definitely NSFW. Hopefully NSFW in a very funny way, but I assure you that the resulting images are not something that Google would wish to see strongly associated with their corporate culture.

Unknown said...

That in Mountain View is better than anywhere else (the larger clientele base lets them have a much more varied selection).

I should point out that "the food is better here than in any other Google office" is also something we tell ourselves here in NYC. Yes, Mtn View has more different cafeterias and so if your main measure is "I want this kind of food today", and be guaranteed to find it, I could see that. And certainly Mtn View breakfast has us beat.

However, for lunch, and judged on food quality not merely the appearance of variety? Not so much. NYC gets to hire from the gigantic amount of restaurant talent that's already there in Manhattan, and we'll occasionally have celebrity guest chefs who can do the morning shows promoting their new cookbook elsewhere in Manhattan, and then come and make their specialty for lunch at Google. If you're a serious foodie, NYC is the Google office to work at.

Another thing we tell ourselves in NYC is that the Noogler 15 is closer to the Noogler 5 or 10 in New York simply because New Yorkers walk so much more than most of the rest of the country.

I must admit that I don't know if either of these things are actually objectively true, but they're things we tell ourselves.