Good Reads, Technology

Jilted by Google

Back in late 2001, after I lost my job with Tellme, I looked for work at, among other places, Google. I had long been impressed with Google, which by all accounts offers a great working environment. And like me, they were also in Mountain View. I submitted my resumé and a recruiter contacted me and said they had a Junior position available, and the salary would be about 2/3 what I had been making at Tellme, where I had worked as an underpaid technical lead. I explained that I was more interested in and better qualified for some of the more senior job postings they had open on their web site. “Well, this is the position we have available,” was the ultimatum offered by the recruiter. I politely declined.

Two months later and it was very clear to me that the job market was terrible, and that if Google was willing to talk to me about a junior position, that was far better than the stresses of being broke and idle. I contacted the recruiter and she set up a phone screen, which was followed by an on-site interview.

What ensued is one of the great failed opportunities of my life. I had recently wrecked my car, so I biked up to Google. So, of course, I didn’t dress up nicely, (which doesn’t matter much.) And while I liked Google, I wasn’t super excited at how they could only consider me for a junior position, and the pay that had been mentioned, well, that had been way too low. Worse yet, I had become depressed by my recent poor fortunes and I had not yet caught on to this fact. It was actually ten days after September 11, and while I confidently aced all of the technical questions, the second interview, with my would-be manager, where I was asked the vexing questions of motivation, etcetera, well, I flubbed those, bad. I must have answered that I wasn’t sure that I wanted the work, especially if all they had was just the one low-paying junior position. I had a serious bummer going on and it came through in the interview, and the following week, the recruiter informed me that they could not hire me because I would not be satisfied with their position.

The phrase that I hung on was “well, we’re concerned that you would take this job for now, and then leave when the economy improves.” Even in 2001, it didn’t take an advanced degree from Stanford to figure out that a position at Google was something one would not take casually, and that there should be opportunities for job growth. I had never taken a professional job just to bide my time. I was used to being underpaid, and loyal. I crafted an e-mail to the recruiter, collaborating with my friends, detailing with great honesty my recent job history, and how it had meshed with my character, begging them to reconsider — after all, if I really did not want the job, I would not have asked for an interview!

I have since had the occasional phone screen a few times with Google. They really seem to enjoy asking me how traceroute works. At one point they nearly flew me in from Illinois for an on-site interview, but when it came time to line up my trip, they went silent for a week and then got back to me that they had found a local candidate, but that if I’m ever in town they could speak with me informally. Google has long been a tease of a company that plays with my emotions. In the past year or two, Google has hired a handful of people I know, including a woman I used to have a crush on. It recently flew two of my friends to India for one month each, making me jealous! They get to work at Google and Google sends them to an exotic developing country! But that is Google, always taunting me from just beyond my reach. Like an old crush, Google is the hottie that will occasionally talk to me, but nothing will ever come of it, in part because I manage to find contentment and serious commitment elsewhere.

All the same, who can resist gossip? I recently learned of Mark Jen, who left Microsoft for Google in January. He immediately immersed himself in one of Google’s features, Blogger, to blog about his exciting new employment experience. He made a mistake that is common among honest people who start blogs, which is that they express too freely and honestly their opinions of those close to them. In this case, he spoke too easily of Google, which Google found disturbing. Like a paranoid girlfriend who thinks she hooked a freak, Google soon terminated him, without so much as explaining why.

“At first, they beat around the bush,�? Jen said. “But then they told me my blog had upset people and that I wasn’t a good fit. I asked them if there was anything I could do to change their minds, but it was a one-sided conversation.”

Now, this is totally not my business, but we are all interested in the secretive goings-on at the all mighty Google, and as I have explained, Google’s hiring practices have long been of interest to me. This Mark Jen guy is probably pretty smart. Getting hired at Google is no mean feat, nor is getting hired at Microsoft. Apart from only using lowercase letters in his blog, Mark doesn’t strike me as a culturally dysfunctional person. He did post some material to his blog saying that Google’s numbers looked really good, which he had to remove, out of concerns with SEC regulations. And yes, it would have served him well if he had been a little less ethusiatic about starting a blog and talking about his new employer given that blogs are all the rage these days, and his new employer is especially coy.

On the other hand, they had the guy relocate to San Francisco, and then dropped him a few weeks later. It reminds me of the time they were prepared to fly me out, but wanted to know if I would be content to work as a contractor – I assume, so they could dispose of me more easily. (California law says you can fire somebody at any time for any reason, but you’ll end up paying more in unemployment insurance, and you may be liable for 60 days severence pay. To my knowledge, contractors do not incur these liabilities.) I have recently completed my second relocation to the Bay Area, and even with assistance, it does take a serious toll on your bank account, nevermind the logistics and the need to make new friends. I certainly hope Mark got his two months severence, because even with California’s generous Unemployment Insurance benefits, rent around here is not cheap.

But, the Google enigma still traps my thoughts. Early on, Mark contrasted Microsoft’s unwillingness to change its historical ways of doing things, compared to Google’s culture of merciless innovation:

I remember when I was at Microsoft, I’d propose trying new engineering practices . . . these ideas were shot down quickly and the response was always “we’ve been developing software like this for 20 years and look at where we are: $50 billion in the bank, dominance in multiple markets… we’re one of the most successful businesses in all of history. Why would we change the way we make our bread and butter?”

Contrast that to Google, where reinvention is almost in its blood. there’s no remorse about throwing away dead code; people work however they feel makes them most productive.

And while I can accept that Google employees should be, and in my experience are, circumspect in talking about what enchanting things they are toiling to unleash upon the world, it seems a little weird that their corporate culture would have such a violent reaction to some naive newcomer who takes too easily to blogging about life at Google.

Gelf Magazine reported that “Mark Jen started asking around about Google’s policy on blogging (it turns out there was none) and reread the non-disclosure agreement he had signed on the first day.” Gelf goes on to explain that other large technology companies have employees who blog about their work. (Microsoft even seems to encourage it.) “But Google is different. Even their PR people—who are trained to get publicity for the company—are secretive about the goings-on inside the Googleplex. Google representatives declined to comment for this article, beyond stating that Jen is no longer a Google employee.”

It begs the question . . . if Google is all about reinvention, why does it have such a hard time talking about itself? Or, more to the point, why does it have a hard time with its employees talking about their work environment? I learned from Mark Jen that the culture of innovation does seem to be alive and thriving at Google. I learned, as is common knowledge, that the pay isn’t so great, and the stock is less of a perk now that it is so expensive. I heard, as I have heard before, that Google throws great parties for it employees. Yes, anyone who has had an employer provide meals and other on-site services understands that the “free lunch” is there to boost productivity. I thought it was pretty neat that Google provides a bunch of shuttle buses from San Francisco that have wireless Internet. I have a hard time seeing why they shouldn’t notice an “innovation” on the part of a new employee, and work with him to channel it advantageously. Public Relations and Recruiting are important channels for Google to innovate and excel at, as much as Engineering and Operations. Mark wasn’t some loose cannon whoring out the embarassing details of Google’s cloistered culture . . . he was an eager, fresh young face who just moved to town and thought he’d try blogging . . . about something interesting.

At any rate, Google will do what Google will do. For now, they don’t want us to know much. And that is fine with me, for I don’t work for Google, and my own employeer has plenty of work for me. Pretty soon, Mark’s new patron will have new things to occupy his thoughts. Life goes on, but every now and then, some strange tales of Google will escape from Mountain View, and those of us who have ever taken a special interest in the matter will pause to observe and say “dude . . . WTF?”

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Categories: Good Reads, Technology

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