What is the worst part about working at Google?

by Keval,

Position: Manager

Group: Advertising (Technical Client-Facing)
I’m going Anonymous on this because some of it sounds like sour grapes (I left Google fairly recently after more than half a decade), and I’d rather not offend co-workers I still care about.
For me, it was two things:
The political nature of Google’s management culture;

The Brand/Display Advertising business (specifically, DoubleClick)

My last position at Google was in management, and while I loved managing the team I was given, I realised 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 realised that these were skills that I didn’t particularly want to develop (and when I had a good startup opportunity).
That said, I think some of this type of culture is unavoidable at any big company, it’s just that over the time I was at Google, it turned from a large startup into a big company, and then I entered a more political arena.
The most obvious areas that this political nature manifests itself is in performance management and recruiting. 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.
Recruiting is even worse. There is intended to be no discussion of potential recruits, only a vote based on scores, and then an independent reading of feedback to make a decision. 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. A secondary consequence of this is that interviewers don’t get to learn from other interviewers, so interview (and feedback) quality is unlikely to improve over time.
The process for getting headcount in order to be able to hire contributes to this cynical approach. Most years, headcount is frozen towards the end of the year, and temporary recruiting staff are let go. At the start of the year, cases are made for additional headcount, approved towards the end of Q1. Then hiring begins, but the recruiting pipeline is empty. It takes a quarter to build a good pipeline, and then by Q3/4, every manager is hiring like crazy to try to fill their headcount before it’s frozen again at the end of the year.
The day I realised 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 realised 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.
When I joined Google, I was sceptical about the value of advertising. I have never owned a TV, was an occasional reader of Adbusters and No Logo, and regarded advertising as a crutch for companies who lack good product. I came to understand that search ads fulfil a need both for Advertisers and users, and the story Google tells about this is very effective (and, I believe, true).
Display advertising, however, is largely brand-based, and is usually used to create demand rather than find it. In my view, it frequently works against the interests of the user. DoubleClick, in fact, was the first domain I ever added to my hosts file in a primitive form of ad-blocking, so when Google bought DoubleClick, and didn’t intend to shut them down, I was somewhat disappointed, but decided to view it with an open mind.
I eventually found myself working for DoubleClick, and once on the inside, I realised that the user-first culture of Google hadn’t rubbed off on DoubleClick. This is because all the customers of the DoubleClick brand are Advertisers and Advertising Agencies, and users have almost no exposure to DoubleClick at all (in contrast to Google itself, where the users’ interaction with the brand and products forms an essential component of the value proposition to Advertisers). Hence, while Google’s natural interests are aligned with users, DoubleClick’s are not. I think the primary reason the DoubleClick brand still exists is not because it is strong with its customers (though that is important), but because it is almost unknown with users, and hence, untainted by their interests.
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.
I found that I was battling a political machine, and if I was successful, I’d make the world a worse place through advertising. I was well-paid, but the combination of these two things frustrated me to the degree that I lost motivation, which in turn would prevent me from being promoted or moving to an area I was happy in. I found no alternative but to leave.
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