Lessons I Learned at Google
By Dave Rensin (@drensin)
It’s pretty common for departing Googlers to write a retrospective of one kind or another. This is a slightly redacted version of the note I left for my Google colleagues this week.
Thinking about the last 6+ years it occurred to me that my time at Google has taught me some important lessons. So that’s what this doc is — my Google journey through the lens of the lessons I have learned.
Lesson #1: Take Every Call and Listen
I was working with a friend on a rapidly imploding startup (and starting to interview) when I got the phone call from Sid Prashar.
Sid: “Your former colleague Henry Robertson has recommended you for Google and we’d like to talk to you. Interested?”
Me: “Sure! What’s the role?”
Sid: “Just meet with the hiring manager — Jocelyn. It’s a video chat. What have you got to lose?”
So I had a very nice video chat with Jocelyn. She explained that Google Cloud was small (but growing fast) and needed to build/scale a global support org. I had (almost) no big company experience and had never built a global support org but they didn’t seem super concerned. Apparently they didn’t want the status quo and were looking for “non-traditional candidates.”
It was a lovely chat and she said I’d hear something in a couple of weeks.
Sid called the next day and asked if I’d be willing to fly to CA (I was living near Washington, DC) for an on-site loop.
Lesson: Take every phone call and listen.
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Lesson #2: Sometimes Being Stubborn is the Right Thing
The day before I was supposed to fly to Google my tooth fell out. I had recently spent a year at Amazon working on a super-duper-stressful secret project and apparently I had clenched my teeth so hard for so long that I had cracked the roots in one of them. It decided to fall out of my head 12 hours before my flight.
I went to the dentist the morning of my flight so she could clean things up a bit.
Dentist: “I need to put in a temporary. Until then please be careful how you chew and don’t do anything silly like get on an airplane.”
Me: “Um… Hypothetically, what if I’m getting on an airplane in 3 hours?”
Dentist: “Reschedule. The hole in your head will not do well with the pressure changes.”
Me: “I can’t. What else?”
Dentist: (－‸ლ) “Drink, I guess…”
I’m sure if I had called Sid to tell him what happened he would have happily rescheduled, but I decided to be stubborn and push through. (They might have found someone else!)
Lesson: Sometimes stubborn is the right thing.
Lesson #3: Always Ask the Hard Question
The next day I went to Google for my loop. My first interview was with Ben Treynor Sloss. I don’t remember much about the details of the early part of the conversation except that his very awesome dog was there. When we got to the end, though, things got interesting:
Ben: “So, what questions do you have for me?”
Me: “Why me? I have no experience building a support org.”
Ben: “Why not you? It doesn’t seem like you’re afraid of new things. You’ve done a bunch of startups.”
Me: “Sorry. Let me be more pointed. If you offer me this job then I will have to move my wife and kids 3,000 miles for something I’ve never done before. If I suck at it, then that’s really bad. So, why do you think I won’t suck?”
Ben: “Ah.. That’s something you need to know about Google. If you’re a good person, but just in the wrong role, then we’ll just find you something better suited. We’re not 100% sure of what we want from the support org, but we do know we don’t want it to be like every other support org.”
Me: “Good. Because ‘support’ is a terrible experience. We need to offer something much better.”
Ben: “Oh? Say more.”
Me: “Nobody wakes up in the morning saying ‘I can’t wait to talk to support today!’ When a customer calls us we’re already starting on the back foot. Every interaction is a bug. So, how do we turn that into something that makes them love us more? Also, how do we make things much more self service — since that’s what engineers want, anyway… I don’t know all the answers, but I’m pretty sure I’ll want to build something very different.”
Ben: “That’s why I don’t think you’ll suck. That’s the right attitude.”
Me: “Just to be clear, if you hire me for this role I’m going to change everything.”
Ben: “Right. That’s the idea.”
Me: “Respectfully, I don’t think you understand. I’m going to blow everything up.”
Ben: “No, I don’t think you understand. How much dynamite would you like!”
That exchange was the moment I decided that if Google offered me the job I was going to take it. I wanted to work with people who wouldn’t get annoyed when I asked a question like that and who weren’t afraid to try new things. I also think that was the moment Ben decided he wanted me for the role.
If I hadn’t asked a hard question I don’t know if I would have been offered the job. Without that answer, though, I definitely wouldn’t have accepted.
Lesson: Always find a way to ask the hard question. That’s when you learn the most important stuff.
Lesson #4: Assume Everyone is Smarter Than You
My first few months at Google I commuted weekly from DC because I wanted my kids to finish their school year. As a result, I had nothing to do in the evenings and hung around the office to eat dinner in one of the cafes. Oftentimes Luke Stone would hang out and eat dinner with me while we watched Jeopardy on the cafe TV.
If you ever get a chance to meet Luke, you should go out of your way to do that. He’s a Googler of the original variety (circa 2002) and as laid back, wise, and generally awesome a human as you will ever meet.
Because he looks a little like The Dude from The Big Lebowski and because he has a super chill demeanor, he’s easy to underestimate. That’s a terrible idea; don’t do that.
Every night for seven months straight he and I would sit in the cafe and he would crush me in Jeopardy. Even in categories I knew well, he’d run the board.
Those nights in the cafe getting politely destroyed by Luke — whom I should mention worked for me at the time — taught me that my best survival strategy was to assume that everyone I met was way smarter than me — a strategy that has saved my butt many many times over the years at Google…
Lesson: The best insurance against looking like an idiot is to assume that the person you’re talking to knows more than you do and is smarter than you. Then your goal is to understand why you disagree rather than trying to win the argument.
Lesson #5: Be Transparent — Especially When it Hurts
Google strives to hire the smartest people on Earth. In my experience most Googlers have excellent bullshit detectors. So it seems to me that the only winning long-term strategy (especially as a manager) is to be completely transparent with people.
It’s really not as hard as you think.
Every question can be answered with:
- The answer
- “I don’t know”
- “I know the answer but won’t/can’t share it with you because…”
The goal is that the people you work with feel safe enough that they can ask you really hard questions without self-editing. If all the hard questions in your next team Q&A are anonymous then something is broken.
I like to play a game with my teams called Beat Dave Up!.
The point of the game is to make it fun for your teams to ask you hard questions. That’s the best way to build the trust you will need when things get tough.
After thousands of interactions with customers and Googlers I can promise you that the only way to build and keep trust is with uncomfortably complete transparency.
Lesson: People generally have excellent bullshit detectors. Being transparent — especially when it’s hard — will save you lots of pain later.
Lesson #6: Also, Sometimes Being Stubborn is Stupid
Between my weekly cross-country commute and going to see customers I flew 200,000+ air miles my first year at Google. I didn’t really need to travel that much but I got it in my head that it’s what I had to do to “not suck” at my job.
One day I was sitting on a plane to Tokyo that was getting ready to close its doors when my brain snapped. I got up, got my bags, walked off the plane, and couldn’t get back on another one for more than a year.
I had first sensed a problem on a flight back from Sydney, but I ignored it — until my brain made it impossible to ignore. I thought I could push through it. I was an idiot and as a result I couldn’t visit my teams or my customers for more than a year.
My teams were awesome about it and stepped up to cover for me, but I shouldn’t have put them in that position in the first place.
Lesson: Know the difference between “gritty determination” and outright stupidity.
Lesson #7: If You Raise a Problem Be Prepared to Own the Solution
By 2016 Cloud was in full-on hyper growth mode and Support was a 24/7 global machine. Even though the business was starting to really take off I was feeling uncomfortable about some of the trends I was seeing with customers.
In particular, I was noticing that our customers were really good at building Cloud-based solutions, but were expecting that they could operate those systems the same way they did on-prem. That was not working and was starting to create a lot of customer frustration.
Since I was feeling more comfortable as a Googler I did what every good Googler does and wrote a manifesto one day about how we should fix the problem.
Side note: Writing your first Google manifesto is an important rite of passage — a signal that you are finally a Google adult. Sort of a non-denominational tech bar mitzvah. :-)
In a fit of ridiculous overconfidence I published it widely internally. Shortly thereafter I got a phone call from Ben Sloss as he was driving home:
Ben: I read your manifesto. When do you start?
Ben: CRE. When do you hand off Support and start CRE?
Me: Umm… I can’t hand off support.
Ben: Yes. You can. Time for you to learn an important Google lesson. You have identified a real problem and have proposed a credible — albeit mildly insane — solution. Congratulations, it’s now your new job. When do you start?
I started my transition the next week and we publicly announced CRE shortly thereafter. The next two years were crazy, but awesome.
Lesson: Don’t write that manifesto unless you’re ready for people to agree with you…
Lesson #8: Even Disappointments Are Opportunities
In 2018 I was nominated for promotion. I thought I had written an awesome packet and everyone said I had an airtight case.
The promotions committee respectfully disagreed.
I did not take this well and was extra-super-duper grumpy. By this time I had moved orgs and Ben was my direct manager:
Me: “I don’t understand this and the written feedback from the committee is Less Than Illuminating(™). Please help me understand.”
Ben: “It reads to me like the promo committee really likes your CRE work but is worried it can’t sub-linearly scale. You need to show them that you don’t need ~infinite humans to do it.”
Me: “I don’t have to do anything new for that to happen. We have awesome managers, good tooling, and a good scaling plan. I literally just have to sit back and wait a few quarters. Waiting and doing nothing are… not my strengths…”
Ben: “I could give you more work?”
Me: “Yes, please.”
Ben: “Umm.. OK.. What do you want to add?”
Me: “What do you have that’s least like anything I’m doing now? Add that.”
Ben: “That’s weird, but OK… What do you know about network capacity planning?”
Me: “Nothing. Sounds perfect.”
And that’s how I came to manage Google’s Network Capacity team and learn all about the unbelievably incredible network that Google has built. That job re-acquainted me with all the operations and forecasting statistics that I had learned (and forgotten) in school. It also taught me about how hard it is to coordinate global machine, storage, and network planning and construction.
As a software engineer I had only really known networking as a consumer. (ie. open socket, connect, write some data, close.)
My time in NetCap introduced me to traffic control and routing, WAN design, bandwidth enforcement, quota allocations, and (approximately) a bazillion other things I had never heard of.
My head hurt sooo much every day; it was wonderful. It also inadvertently opened the door to my last role — Google Finance.
Side Note: In case you are wondering, my promo succeeded 12 months later. Re-reading that second packet, however, I’m a little surprised. I was pretty snarky in places and didn’t do much to hide my opinion of the committee’s earlier decision. I think my case was successful in spite of my second packet, rather than because of it. I do not recommend you follow that strategy.
Lesson: There’s a reason that folksy sayings like “turning lemons into lemonade” (or “chicken shit into chicken salad” if you’re from my part of the US) exist. Failure hurts, but usually isn’t fatal. Somewhere in the disappointment lurks an opportunity.
Lesson #9: Everything Has Been to Get You Here
In early 2019 Ben Lutch pinged me. He and Ruth Porat had been discussing the idea of him coming to work for her to help Finance apply technical judgement to the budget requests from the various Alphabet businesses. Many of the requests were $1B+ and she wanted to make sure that the teams were being good stewards of Google’s resources.
On the one hand he would have to give up running SRE — a very large team he’d helped build over many years. On the other hand he’d get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to directly influence multi-billion dollar decisions and Google’s long-term technical roadmap.
When we caught up in person a few days later I told him I thought he’d regret not taking the opportunity. The decision seemed easy to me.
Me: When will you get another chance to do something like this? You’ll get to learn All The Things(™) about how Google works and influence the company for the next 10 years. Why wouldn’t you do that?
Ben: You’re right. I’d be a fool to turn this down. Oh by the way, she says I can bring a small team and I want you to come help. Obviously you’ll be joining since only a fool would say ‘no’ and you’re not a fool, right?
Me: No fair using my own logic against me.
He had decided to recruit two other senior engineering leads for their compute and storage expertise, but also wanted someone with some networking domain knowledge. Additionally — since Cloud was clearly one of Google’s big bets for the future — it seemed a good idea to have someone on the team that knew the business well.
And that’s how I got the opportunity to work in Google Finance.
Everything I had done up to that point at Google turned out to be a prerequisite for this role. Without any one of those things I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.
Lesson: Everything prepares you for what’s next.
Lesson #10: Treat Every Interaction as an Audition for Your Future
My first week at Google I got a phone call from an unhappy customer. His name was Erik Troan and he was (still is) the CTO and co-founder of a (then) small startup named Pendo.io. They were heavy users of App Engine and it was misbehaving. Because there hadn’t been a leader for our nascent Cloud Support he had been calling Ben Sloss (and others) directly. Now that I was on board it fell to me.
I don’t remember the particulars except that it was our fault and Erik’s grumpiness was justified. Over the course of a couple of years Erik did not hesitate to escalate his support case to me if he thought it wasn’t making enough progress. Those were never easy phone calls, but they were always productive and over several years we became friends.
Fast forward 6+ years to today and Pendo is a several hundred person company with big plans and a bright future. In January Erik asked if I would be interested in joining as SVP of Engineering to help them get to their next stage.
I’ve known for a while that I wanted to do one last entrepreneurial thing while I still had time in my career so I made the decision to leave a job (and team) that I loved to go take one more ride on a rocket.
And it all started with an App Engine support ticket…
Lesson: Treat every interaction — whether it be with a customer, a colleague, or a random passerby — as an audition for something bigger in your future. It just might be.
A Few Last Bits…
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the momentary frustrations of working in a large company — especially one as high-profile as Google. In those moments, however, it’s especially important to take a beat (and a breath) and try to have a little perspective.
First, there is (almost) 0% chance that whatever you are working on is actually a matter of life or death — so maybe don’t treat every disagreement as if people will die if you don’t get your way. You should — of course — be passionate. That’s one of the reasons you were hired at Google, but do try to keep a little perspective.
Remember: Your coworkers are not stupid, lazy, or evil. If they disagree with you it’s definitely worth your time to understand why. Argue to learn, not to win.
Next, if you don’t understand why your manager (or SVP or whatever) has made a decision you don’t like, ask. If it seems illogical/stupid to you then that almost always means you are lacking context. You still might not agree, but once you have context you are far less likely to think badly of the decider.
While we’re on the subject of perspective… Try not to take yourself too seriously. Take the business seriously. Take the user seriously. But maybe don’t take yourself too seriously. :-) Poke fun at yourself from time-to-time. Let others see that you have a little perspective and can laugh at your own humanity. (Start here for inspiration.)
Finally, nothing you do here will be the thing they carve on your headstone after you die. Walk through a cemetery sometime and read the inscriptions. I promise none of them say “was rated Exceeds Expectations 7 consecutive Perf cycles.”
Ask yourself what you want your headstone to say and take that most seriously. That’s your life’s work. Everything else is just a way to enjoy the trips around the sun.
I have loved my time at Google and will cherish it always. When people ask, I will speak of it fondly.
To all of you with whom I have worked these last years: thank you for making this place feel so much like home.
-with love and googleyness,
(Googler — 24-Nov, 2014–5-March, 2021)