I found that I was battling a political machine, and if I was successful, I’d make the world a worse place through advertising.
— Quora Commenter
In 2017, Google topped the list of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for, just as it did the previous year and the year before. Like many managers and tech entrepreneurs, I’ve studied Google (among other employers on that list) to see what makes it special. I found great people-management practices and ideas and wrote about them in my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?
Today, I am wondering if we can learn from Google’s mistakes as much as we have from its success. Keep in mind that “mistake” is a relative term. One company’s blunder could be a stroke of genius for another.
Most of Google’s problems are a natural outgrowth of its success. I remember my high-school basketball coach telling me that I made it to “the next level of mistake.” It was a compliment, meaning I no longer played like a rookie, even though there was plenty left for me to learn.
Likewise, most complaints about Google fall under “advanced mistakes.” In a way, Google is lucky to have these problems—and can afford to have them—but many smaller or financially weaker companies can’t. If yours can’t either, you may have a leg up on Google. Let’s talk about how you can keep it that way.
Reason #1: You have enough interesting work to keep your new hires
I, for one, have been mesmerized by Google’s ability to define and attract the employees they want. But when it comes to putting all that brainpower to work, they may have a problem.
“Most outsiders associate Google with really sexy projects like self driving car, balloon, glass, and what not… The truth of the matter is, most people are not working on sexy projects. They are doing a bunch of little incremental optimizations that are not as visible as huge initiatives that you see from say, X. Many of these Googlers that join are highly driven, hungry, highly qualified, but the fact of the matter is there just isn’t enough sexy work to go around. When you put a bunch of success starved people with a small piece of pie, that is pretty much what Google looks like today…” (Quora, 2015)
At the root of this problem is the simple fact that Google can afford to over-qualify and overpay its employees. Wouldn’t most companies do the same, if they could? However, there’s a downside:
“…Then there’s the hiring and HR. It is an absolute train wreck. There are simply too many people and not enough interesting tasks yet they’re still hiring…” (Quora, 2015)
“…it’s not a bad job for folks who have families or mortgages to pay. For younger folks with no strings attached, it’s not somewhere I’d recommend staying for long… I put myself into my future self’s perspective. My deathbed reflections perspective. Did I want to waste ten years or more of my life, working some place that’s too big and bureaucratic, where the work was pretty mundane but the money was easy? Where I never really experienced how much I could challenge myself? I am pretty sure my future self would’ve kicked my butt into getting moving and challenging myself to leave.” (Quora, 2016)
The word is out that not everybody at Google is thrilled to be there. And headhunters are busy scooping up prime talent:
“I’ve hired really, really good people from Google or Amazon after being there less than one year.” (Quora, 2106)
Reason #2: You have fewer hoops to jump through when hiring people
Even though Google gets something like 1,200 resumes for each job opening, getting the right person on your team can be difficult bordering on excruciating, according to this former hiring manager:
“In fact, the eventual decision is made by a roomful of people who never met the candidate. The intention is that they will make a data-driven decision rather than being influenced by the candidate’s persuasive abilities. The result is that a skilled hiring manager will make a decision about whether to hire based less on the candidate themselves, but on whether they can get this candidate through the hoops put in place by the committee. They then engineer the feedback to ensure a good result, and the person is hired…” (Quora, 2013)
Reason #3: You have a fair performance management system
It’s good to have many talented people lined up for promotion. However, according to this former manager, an overcrowded pipeline can become as much of a problem as an empty one:
“…The amount of horse-trading and manipulation that a manager needs to do to be able to manage their team within the system as it was (I understand that it’s recently changed somewhat) is morale-breaking. To promote someone, you need to start making a case about a year in advance, and because of the curve, that means you can’t really give as much credit to other people on your team (otherwise you don’t have enough left to make a case for the promotion candidate). If you’re fortunate enough to have a team full of high performers, unless you play a very good political game, it will be very difficult to not hand one of them a “misses expectations” anyway…” (Quora, 2013)
Reason #4: You reward your people for doing their jobs
While Google HR is busy sorting their flock into ordinary geniuses and true stars, the stars have figured out a few shortcuts…
And, as they say, all is fair in love and war:
“…Political maneuvering – understanding how to make power moves – who are the people to align with and getting wholly onto the networking carousel matters AS MUCH as your quality of work…” (Quora, 2016)
Reason #5: You listen to your employees
Google is famous for its many internal social networks, employee surveys, and discussion forums. So many, in fact, that this former employee felt his voice drowned in a sea of others:
“… What Google does as an entity in the world is great, but too much emphasis is internally placed on an individual’s performance. The open concept falls apart on a large scale. There’s too much noise. In reality, the way that teams survive (and Google’s own People Ops has discovered this through research, see a recent NYT article) is through a system of psychological safety and feeling that lines of communication are open. I didn’t feel that there. I felt condescended and un-listened to…” (Quora, 2016)
Reason #6: You are flat
This is tough for larger employers. Zappos (owned by Amazon) has been beating its head against the wall for years, trying to replace the traditional management hierarchy with a self-management concept. Google claims to be flatter than most companies of similar size. It has eight or nine levels of management—versus thirteen at IBM.
“My last position at Google was in management, and while I loved managing the team I was given, I realized after about six months that this wasn’t valued by anyone apart from the team themselves and my direct manager. If I was to get any credit as a manager, it wouldn’t be for managing downwards. The next five or six layers of managers (well, the two or three that I had interactions with) were largely interested in my political skills. I learnt a lot about influencing at a distance, and became a proficient PowerPoint user. The people who get ahead at Google these days, at least outside of core Engineering, are those who are the best politicians and salespeople. I left when I realized that these were skills that I didn’t particularly want to develop (and when I had a good startup opportunity)…” (Quora, 2013)
Reason #7: You do not morally object to your company’s product
“… The day I realized I needed to change businesses was the day I saw an internal video promoting the newest update of DoubleClick’s Digital Media Management Suite. I can remember the sinking feeling when I realized that success for DoubleClick meant more annoying advertising (both more advertising which is annoying, and advertising which is more annoying – a successful campaign is by definition one which distracts the user from what they are doing), and ran counter to my interests as a user and as a consumer…” (Quora, 2013)
Reason #8: You do not break people’s hearts by routinely canceling projects
Google is incredibly fortunate to be able to throw hundreds of millions into a project without knowing whether it would amount to anything. It’s part of its “big startup” mentality, and I imagine it keeps the founders happy. However, from the employee’s perspective, few things are more frustrating than having a rug pulled from under your life’s work:
“… And it is not surprising to me to see countless projects that were overhyped, over engineered, only to see them fail. Lively. Dodgeball. Jaiku. Buzz. Wave. G+ didn’t exactly dethrone FB. The list goes on and on. Just ask any Xoogler (ex-Googler—T.E.), like Crowley (founder of Dodgeball—T.E.), who left out of frustrations and disgust…” (Quora, 2015)
“… Some people at Google are fortunate enough to not be frustrated by politics, or to be particularly good at it, or able to isolate themselves from it. Some don’t mind advertising, or are fortunate to be part of a product that they believe in (I was part of a few such products, but they suffered from a lack of business model, which was almost as disheartening). Some people are happy as long as they are well-paid and get free gourmet food.” (Quora, 2013)
Reason #9: You don’t have to live up to so much hype
According to some, even Google’s much-publicized cafeterias don’t live up to their promise, let alone career dreams….
“… Then there’s the “free” food that everyone talks about. At the risk of sounding like a typical self-entitled Googler, food has been getting worse and worse by the day. 10 years ago we used to get prime ribs, sushi, freshly made rolls, fresh coconuts, even at the so-so Charlie’s. Today’s food is totally meh by comparison. One can argue that you can get fine dining such as Baadal Cafe but it is very much out of the way for most Googlers. I know, I know, many companies today don’t even offer food, but try to look at it from the Googlers’ perspectives. The company took us in for an amazing deal and then the deal just went down the hill. On the plus side, the stock price is going up so I really shouldn’t complain…” (Quora, 2015)
Reason #10: You are not a Silicon Valley company
Silicon Valley, arguably, has the most money and talent in the world. Too much according to these Nooglers (new Googlers), soon to be Xooglers:
“…First of all, the commute into Mountain View is horrible. After spending hours and hours on 85 and 101, you’d wished that you paid $3500/1bdrm at Mountain View. Obviously one can always opt to work at remote offices, but that is a career suicide longterm-wise. …” (Quora, 2015)
“…On top of this, at least in the bay area the cost of living is insane, and if you work off of the MTV campus there isn’t even that much to do other than working or hanging out with your coworkers. Lame. …” (Quora, 2016)
If you want to be better than Google, you might like my book, because it helps you learn from Google’s strengths and avoid its mistakes.