Still Learning: 17 Years of Lessons Learned at Google

Originally published on LinkedIn.com

Introducing a Series: #1

“HOW long have you been at Google?”

We all have various moments when we see the passage of time and the reality of how old we’re getting. For me, it’s every time I tell someone I’ve been at Google for 17 years. Staying so long in one place is rare nowadays, at least in Silicon Valley, where opportunity and startups abound. For context, I’m now more tenured than over 99.9% of employees. Internally people will ask me what employee ID I have (we started at 1, so early employees are obvious. I’m 319.) While people’s faces contort, I usually say something like, “yeah, I’m held together by duct tape”. I like to speed people through the thought process and, for the younger ones, hopefully cut off the mental math of how young they were in 2001. I’m proud, but the whole thing is awkward too.

About Staying

This used to be common; people stayed at a company for life. Retired with a gold watch! These days I’m some kind of special exception and worthy of curiosity. Questions abound. Why do I stay? How long will I stay? My responses –

  1. Every year I ask myself: Am I still learning? Do I love who I work with? Do I like what I do? Can I see the next year’s worth of challenges? If not, I find a new role where those answers are yes. And I’ve successfully done that multiple times within Google.
  2. I keep asking myself #1 and go from there. I never knew what I’d be when I grew up, so I’m taking it step by step.

I know this is marvelously unsexy in an industry that seems to love crazy risks and hyper growth. Indeed I’ve had 4 different, career rewarding, often exhausting, and education-rich opportunities across Google. I’ve had my share of chaos. At the same time, I love staying somewhere and learning it inside and out. What makes a place tick? What propels it forward? What holds it back? And how can I help?

But seriously, what’s next?

Coming up on 17 years has turned that reflection inward. What have I learned along the way and what am I still improving? As you may know, we love data at Google. So I decided to go back into my performance reviews and catalog what feedback I’ve received. Is there a journey in here? Can I share some lessons I couldn’t see at the time? Do I agree with the feedback now that I look back? Yes, I’m geeking out here.

For context, Google’s performance review process has changed a bit here or there, but so far the gist has remained the same. At least once per year, we get full 360 degree feedback: we write a self-assessment, our manager writes an assessment, and peers give us feedback on our performance. On top of that, I receive survey feedback about my performance as a manager. If you are a person who likes feedback, it’s heaven.

Sharing is Caring

It was 2001, and I was working at a different start-up. It was February, and I was in Tokyo working for the month and helping us establish that office. I was sleeping odd hours, trying to be awake for interactions with California but also restless. I knew only enough Japanese so that I could eat vegetarian food. It was oddly peaceful not knowing the language because everything was just white noise, but it was also lonely. In the midst of this, I became frustrated with the California team and fired off a nasty email about how they needed to communicate better. I felt empowered; they’d sent me there after all. I was 23, and this is when I learned that your management never likes to wake up to that kind of email.

I got a lecture, and it was a lesson I’d never forget. I’d remember it again and again over the years when I wanted to fire off a passionate email. I now share this story with others after they “step in it”. I hope my experiences make this all believable and relatable to you.

So here’s my plan: I’ll share my feedback journey in a series of articles. I’ll start with the early years and ground each article with the feedback I’ve received. What did I hear about my communication and prioritization, and how did I improve? How did I become a manager, and do I have more advice for others now that I manage people? Did I always accept the feedback? What happened if I did or didn’t? As a non-engineer, I’ll focus on core skills relevant across roles versus specific technical areas. I think this will be fun. Probably humbling, but I’ll brag sometimes too. I mean, I MUST be good at something. 17 years at Google, right?

Note: I won’t be providing names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I’ll also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I will share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples will be carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.

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