Lessons from ex-Google employees about productivity and culture - Business Insider

8 ex-Googlers told us what they learned about productivity and culture from one of the world's biggest tech companies

9/26/2020 12:04:00 PM

8 ex-Googlers told us what they learned about productivity and culture from one of the world's biggest tech companies

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AudioMob/GoodTrustBecome an Insiderand start reading now.Google is one of the biggest companies in the world – and one of the most competitive for jobs, with just 0.2% of around 3 million applicants getting in every year.Business Insider asked 8 ex-Googlers about their experiences at the company, why they left, and what they got up to next. 

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These include former execs like Fred Kofman, Sébastien de la Bastie, and Rikard Steiber. Check out their responses below. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.Around three million people apply for a job at Google every year, with just 0.2% – or 7,000 – proving successful. 

The firm operates in 42 cities across Europe and is apparently the best place to work in the UK, according to employer review site Glassdoor. But what's life like after Google? Business Insider asked eight former employees – ranging from junior strategists to senior execs – about what life was like after working for one of the biggest companies in the world. 

From launching their own startups to heading into space with Richard Branson, these ex-Googlers shared everything from what they learnt to why they left. Ex-Google marketeer Ismail Jeilani founded edtech platform Scoodle.Ismail JeilaniHow long were you at Google, and what did you do while you were there?

I was at Google for about a year as an associate account strategist.In simple English, that meant helping businesses in the UK and Ireland improve their advertising campaigns. By showing the right ads to the right people at the right time, both consumers and businesses are happy.

What did you learn while working there?I obviously learned a lot about digital marketing. By helping so many businesses, I was able to get pretty comfortable setting up and optimizing marketing campaigns for businesses of almost any size.The importance of being around smart people is that – without realising – you raise your standards and you raise your expectations of success. This can be really powerful, regardless of what you do in the future.

I wish I'd learnt the value of maintaining relationships sooner. The people I met four years ago are at the heart of a lot of the things I'm doing now. The most powerful thing you can ever do is just grab a coffee with someone. You'll be surprised where it ends up.

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Why did you leave?Google is a great place, but nothing beats the excitement of creating something from scratch. I'd always recommend Google as a great place to work. But what's really important to me is the sense of your own impact. For me, a startup is where you make the most impact.

Of course, this wouldn't have been possible without the support and talent of my cofounders. I remember we were all pushing each other to leave our jobs. It was a funny time. But without them, I wouldn't be here on this journey.What have you been up to since?

At Scoodle, we're creating a platform for educators to show how great they are! It's simple. Educators create a profile, and share their great content. They share things like videos, answers and flash cards. This creates their brand. Then, if parents and students like what they see, they can go ahead and join their classes.

We've helped over 200,000 students learn which is awesome. But this is just the beginning.What, if anything, did you learn while working at Google, which has carried over into what you're doing now?I make an effort to grab as many coffees as I can!

Our hiring philosophy at Scoodle is pretty focused on getting the smartest people we can. I want to learn from the people in my team, and I want people who can push back if they think I'm wrong. Part of that is the culture we create, and part of it is the people we hire.

When you have a great culture combined with really smart people, you'll end up building something like Google.Ex-VP of leadership Fred Kofman advises tech giants and small startups alike.Fred Kofman revealed why he decided to leave Google after two years

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Linkedin/Fred KofmanWhat did you do at Google? I was, until quite recently, their vice president of leadership development. Why did you leave? I don't think I would have left were it not for the COVID-19 lockdown. I'd become used to being incredibly busy all the time, with meetings, flights ... This is the first time I've gone three months without changing time zones in a long while.

What was the process of leaving like? It was a shared decision ... and more of a conversation than a unilateral thing. I'm still working with Google as an external advisor, but I'm no longer a full-time employee.I can't really express how grateful I am. I want my departure to be an example of gratitude, and honor, and mutual support. It's the best company I've ever worked for and they have really taken care of me.

What are you doing now? As well as my continued work with Google and some other big tech companies, I'm advising some smaller startups on how they can scale up. AudioMob cofounder Wilfred Obeng says he learned the importance of culture at Google.

AudioMob cofounder Wilfrid ObengWhat did you learn while working there?Google taught me invaluable lessons about company culture, engineering practices, and managing client expectations.On the first point, Google taught me the relationship between employee flexibility and increased productivity. In terms of engineering practices, the company taught me the balance between rigor and moving fast. Finally, it taught me how to manage the expectations of some of the world's largest advertising clients.

Why did you leave?Google allowed me to sharpen my skills and collaborate with some of the brightest minds around. But I always knew I wanted to start my own company from a young age. This is something I even discussed with managers and directors at Google who were always supportive of my ambition.

What have you been up to since?I'm now the cofounder and CTO of AudioMob, which helps advertisers reach their consumers, and game developers monetize their games without interrupting gameplay using audio ads. We recently closed a £1 million of VC funding, on-boarded a host of mobile gaming companies, and have secured deals with a string of big-name advertisers.

What, if anything, did you learn while working at Google, which has carried over into what you're doing now?The importance of culture. Employees are the most important part of building a successful company and Google identifies cultural fit early in the interview process. Similarly, at AudioMob we measure our candidates against values such as teamwork, openness, flexibility, diversity, inclusion, and growth potential.

Rikard Steiber took the opportunity to move back to Sweden – and just launched a startup that manages your online accounts after you dieEx-Google executive Rikard SteiberHow long were you at Google, and what did you do while you were there?I was at Google for over six years in global marketing roles.

Most recently as global marketing director of mobile and social advertising; global ads product marketing; and prior to this I ran product marketing for all of Google's products in Europe.What did you learn while working there?At Google Marketing you learn how to "know the user, know the magic, and connect the two". You also learn that the best marketing is to have someone else tell your story.

I think I learned a lot about leading an international, multicultural team, and how to successfully roll out new digital products globally.Why did you leave?Partly for the opportunity and partly for my family.I got an opportunity to run all digital businesses for the leading media company Modern Times Group, where I was CEO for MTGx and their Netflix competitor Viaplay.

I also got the opportunity to build a world-leading esports company. This opportunity was located back in my hometown of Stockholm, in Sweden, where there are limited executive roles like this, so my kids could learn their language and be close to their aging grandparents.

What have you been up to since?I signed up with Virgin Galactic to go into space with Richard Branson, started Europe's largest Women In Tech network, an annual 2,000-plus people event. On the business side, I built the world's first global virtual reality app store and subscription service as president at HTC Vive.

I also just launched a digital-legacy management startup called GoodTrust which addresses the question of what happens to all of your digital "stuff" when you die. GoodTrust is dedicated to protecting the memory of loved ones and securing their assets after death — including photos, social media, and financial services.

Former systems architect Paul Taylor is now the CEO of cloud banking firm Thought Machine.Paul Taylor, CEO at Thought MachineThought MachineHow long were you at Google, and in what role(s)?After selling my company Phonetic Arts to Google in 2010, I was invited to join the organization. I spent three years at Google leading the text-to-speech team as technical lead and system architect.

My team was responsible for developing and testing the text-to-speech algorithms before launching this system into the market in 2012. This technology now provides the entire basis for all Google's speech output and the feature enables Android's billions of users to conduct voice searches, listen to driving instructions, and much more.

What did you learn while working there?We can all agree that Google products are developed and delivered incredibly well. I had founded and exited two technology companies prior to joining Google so I was fascinated by understanding how they had managed to build such a productive workforce capable of delivering brilliant products so quickly.

I discovered that there were underlying principles around automation, continuous improvement, and transparency that unlocked real productivity.Why did you leave?After three years at Google, I had an itch to start a third business. I wanted to bring the same modern, cloud-native technologies and culture I was exposed to at Google to solve the biggest problem in banking: reliance on legacy core banking technology.

When banks operated on ancient mainframe technology, most other industries had moved to technology built for the 21st-century customer. Google, Netflix, Spotify had used cloud-native technology to disrupt their respective industries and I wanted to do the same for banking.

What have you been up to since?I left Google to build a cloud-native core banking engine for retail banks. In 2014, I founded Thought Machine. The core banking platform we have spent years building, Vault, is now deployed in top-tier banks around the world.

This year, we closed our Series B round at $125 million, the fourth largest fintech round in the UK this year. This funding happens in the global context of increasing demand for truly resilient, future-proof core banking infrastructure.What, if anything, did you learn while working at Google, and how has it carried over into what you're doing now?

There can be no upper limit to productivity. At Google, there is minimal manual work required to test and release products. Algorithmic tasks for employees were replaced by heuristic ones that required critical and creative thinking.This means engineers spend their time on high value, problem-solving tasks. Machine's do the rest. At Thought Machine we have built a similar workforce culture enabling us to generate output far quicker and to a higher standard than other companies in the financial technology industry.

One-time engineering manager Lewis Hemens has cofounded workflow startup DataForm.Ex-Googler and cofounder of DataForm Lewis HemensDataFormHow long were you at Google, and what did you do while you were there? I was at Google for six-and-a-half years, spending the first four or so as a software engineer, before moving up the chain to become a manager. 

What did you learn while you were there? What was quite unusual was that it was my first job out of university, which I think was relatively rare even then so, yes, there was quite a lot of learning to do. Learning to code at uni was one thing, but it was always a bit more academic and theoretical.

Taking that knowledge and applying it to designing code in a corporate environment was ... a big learning curve. The mentorship at Google is incredible, and management was very supportive, but those first few months were mostly spent just getting up to speed. 

Why did you leave? It was about the rate of learning for me, I think. There was a broad career path at Google, in which you would have some kind of promotion or advancement every 18 months or so. Once I'd been there for over six years, I just felt that I wasn't learning new skills at the rate I had been at the start. 

I lost some of the excitement around what I was doing, and I'd always been drawn to the idea of launching my own startup. Did you quit with the idea for DataForm already in your mind? No, I'm actually a firm believer that the "idea" itself isn't actually as important as the execution. I spent the first few months after I left Google figuring out what it is I wanted to do. 

What did you learn at Google that you still carry with you? The thing that always stood out to me was their ops: How do you actually build, test, and then release software? I think we started in a good position just having that knowledge on board. 

Also, the management experience has proven really useful. We're a team of seven, which isn't much different from the size of the team I oversaw back then, and it's been invaluable knowing how to motivate people and just keeping in mind the fact that happy and satisfied employees will ultimately be the most productive. 

Sébastien de la Bastie – once one of Google's top European execs – has pivoted to 3D cameras.Ex-Google executive Sébastien de la BastieOutsightWhat did you do at Google?My role at Google was head of AI and IoT [internet of things] business development EMEA.

In other words, I was picking lead customers across EMEA and developing Google's new AI products with them, which would be proposed to a larger audience in down the line.What did you learn while working at Google?I learned how to turn a great software technology into a consumable for a business. It sounds simple but the underlying implementation really isn't.

Why did you leave?As much as the digital world is fascinating, it is only a very limited representation of reality. I'm more interested in the physical world — where the data Google uses comes from in the first place — and which is where we live, at the end of the day.

Google is a great company, and is still growing because it is playing by rules it defined for itself a few years ago. I wanted to define the rules of my next playground.What have you been up to since you left?I was appointed chief business officer of Outsight, a 3D camera startup based in Paris.

I'm working to establish the company as a unique player for real-time 3D perception. We have already created a "Spatial Intelligence Platform", leveraging the recent breakthroughs in LiDAR technology. What lessons have stuck with you from your time at Google?

The most important thing for an organization, besides its vision of an industry, is the quality of its people.I can testify to the veracity of this statement with Google, where I learned a few tips about how to find great people, bring them on board, and have them work and grow together. At Outsight, we're planning to hire more than 100 people in the next 18 months — so this should be quite applicable!

Ex-Google software engineer Thomas Dullien is now CEO of Optymize Cloud.Thomas Dullien, CEO at OptimyzeOptimyzeHow long were you at Google, and what did you do while you were there?I was at Google for seven years as a staff software engineer, sometimes with and without management responsibilities. 

What did you learn while working there?The value of Google's internal infrastructure. Google is fantastic at building abstractions that act as a force amplifier for individual developers, particularly when it comes to scale. "Making easy things difficult so the impossible becomes doable" may be a good way to put it — the internal infrastructure allows operations on a scale that is unheard of elsewhere.

Why did you leave?Google handled its own growth poorly — there is a lot of empire-building, and various fiefdoms, and a good dose of Parkinson's Law at play. It did not feel "nimble" any more; and some of the idealism and ambition that made earlier Google inspirational was lost.

What have you been up to since?Starting a new business, focused on bringing the sort of efficiency tooling only available to hyperscalers to other startups.What did you learn while working at Google that's carried over into what you're doing now?

The sheer cost of inefficient code in large-scale computation, and how efficiency becomes an important business consideration.Get the latest Google stock pricehere.NewsletterYour morning cheat sheet to get you caught up on what you need to know in tech. Sign up to 10 Things in Tech You Need to Know Today.

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