As some of you may know, I have decided to leave Google and go back into the startup world. Friday was my last day at Google, and even though I normally don’t blog much about my job, I figured I was due for an update.
First off, Google is an amazing company. Especially for a company of this size (and impact), it is highly impressive that they have managed to maintain this kind of work environment, company culture, and integrity. On the most basic level, there are all the perks, from great health benefits to free food (there are about 15 cafeterias on the Mountain View campus alone, many of which offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner), micro-kitchens with free snacks (including fresh fruit or fresh cut carrots and celery), on-campus gyms and a beach volleyball field, and more. Another great thing are the many tech talks (usually there are at least a couple every day), which feature both internal and external speakers. There are also many opportunities for training. In the one year that I have worked at Google, I had the opportunity to take a one-day class on Agile Estimating and Planning, as well as an excellent four-day workshop on Design Patterns and Refactoring, and numerous Google and product specific classes. Then there are the various off-sites and team building events, which probably take up another good week each year. Not many companies send their employees to Disneyland for three days… And of course there’s Google itself, with its various products that have become so ubiquitous and synonymous with the web that life would be difficult to imagine without them. Anybody remember the web before Google Search came along? Let me give you a hint: it sucked! But even newer products like Gmail, Google Reader, or Calendar have caught on quickly and become established as best-of-breed applications, and I definitely felt proud to work at the company that has built all of these applications. And speaking of work, the actual work environment is also nice in many ways: Every engineer gets either two 24" or one 30" monitor, as well as a company laptop (either MacBook Pro or Thinkpad). Depending on which project you work on, you might get to work with innovative internal tools and frameworks (such as BigTable), and I have definitely developed an entirely different perspective on scale, which humbles any project I’ve worked on before. Then there’s the community. In general, Googlers are a great bunch, and very smart. There are internal mailing lists on pretty much any subject, and you can pretty much guarantee that you will be able to get a solid answer to whatever question you might have (work or non-work related). In fact, this reminded me quite a bit of Usenet, back when it was still popular and usable, and not totally overrun with idiots. Of course, keeping up with all of this can become quite a time sink as well… Google is highly engineering-driven, and engineers enjoy a lot of trust and power, which is a very different and refreshing experience from working at a more product-driven company.
So if everything is so great at Google, why am I stupid enough to leave? And part of me does indeed feel a bit guilty about not being able to fully appreciate and enjoy working at Google – after all, there are many people out there in the world that have dreary and monotonous minimum-wage jobs, without any benefits or perks to speak of. But in the end, I have realized that I am just much more of a startup person than a big-company person. Perks and everything are great, but this is ultimately not what motivates me. At an early stage startup, every single individual has a tremendous impact on the company (good or bad…), along with a much broader set of responsibilities (everybody has to wear many hats). Then, there’s the pioneering spirit, which is extremely energizing and contagious. These days, it seems like a lot of the true innovations are made at small startups, which have the benefit of being orders of magnitude times more agile and efficient than a large company will ever be. Sure, many ideas don’t go anywhere, but every once in a while, something new comes along that leaves a big footprint (and let’s not forget that even Google started out like this). Last not least, there is of course a significantly bigger upside to working at a startup. Of course the harsh truth is that most startups fail, but at least there is that 1 in a 10 chance of being tremendously successful (and the sense of actually being able to contribute to this chance). As a recent Google employee, I would have never gotten rich there, even if the stock had doubled or tripled in price.
There are a few other Google-specific problems I should mention as well. For one thing, it is unlikely to initially be able to work in an area that one is passionate about. Many of the Google products are exciting, but unfortunately I was unable to be passionate about my particular product area. That is not to say that there weren’t any interesting aspects about it, and I do have a lot of respect for the team I worked with. Overall this is less of a problem later, as it is generally encouraged to switch projects every 1-2 years, but this first year makes a big difference, particularly for experienced engineers that have a good understanding of what kind of things they enjoy working on (or perhaps more importantly, don’t enjoy working on) or what kind of environments are a good match. I feel that the hiring process should be improved to better take this into consideration, although this is admittedly a difficult logistical problem at Google’s scale. Another scale-related problem: Due to the sheer size of the code base and the vast number of Google-specific tools and frameworks, it also takes a very long time to learn how to actually become productive at Google, which can be frustrating at times.
But overall, I feel privileged that I had the chance to work at Google. I’m sure they will still be around for a long time, and 20 years from now I will be able to tell my grandchildren “Oh, Google, yes, I worked there once…”. I will certainly miss the Google campus, which had the vibrant feel of a University campus. I will also miss many things about the Google culture, and hopefully be able to take many of these inspirations with me into my future career.
Which brings me to my new job, which I am enormously excited about starting this Monday. I can’t say too much, as the company is just getting founded and still in stealth mode, but I am going to be a co-founder of a brand-new startup in the Social Networking / Mobile space, two areas I am very interested in. I have worked at small startups, but so far I’ve never had the opportunity to come in on the ground floor like this, so this should be a great adventure. My role is going to be that of Director of Engineering, but I expect to be wearing a lot of hats, ranging from architecture and implementation to being involved in the product direction, taking care of hosting and other IT stuff, and ultimately building a great team and helping define the company culture (although we will initially be a small core team). We will be working with some exciting technologies, including Ruby and a sprinkling of Ruby on Rails, which I am strongly looking forward to as well. Besides using a bit of Ruby at my previous job, I have mostly played with Ruby in my spare time, and I am glad about being able to finally use it again at my day job as well (though we will be pragmatic and use whatever tool makes most sense for the job at hand). I think I am officially done with Java at this point (but never say never… I am pretty sure I will at least use it again as a platform at some point in the future).
Well, this blog post turned out a bit longer than expected. But don’t worry, I am sure I will be busy enough at my startup that I won’t have a chance to bug you with any additional long posts for a while. ;)