I just read something about Google engineering and management culture that simply didn't seem like fair criticism to me. Worse, it felt false in my experience. So I'd like to politely disagree.
I'm talking about Piaw Na's "5 Google Engineering Management Mistakes" presentation.
Background and Disclaimer
I never openly disclosed my relationship with Google. But I never tried to hide it either. It is there for the curious to find out. Just ask Google itself.
The reason for not openly disclosing my position is because titles shouldn't matter. What I write has no bearing on how I got to write it. If something is false, it's false, regardless of who is saying it. That's why I like science so much.
This is not a criticism of Mr. Na. I don't know Mr. Na at all. While he was at Google I never met him. I did not know who he was or what he worked on. I never heard from or of him. So I have zero data to judge anything he did while at Google. I only started hearing about him when he was leaving.
This is a criticism of his presentation, which circulated online recently. The presentation tried to justify opinions with anecdotal facts that are not generalizable and probably not shared by others. My experience is different and in some cases completely opposite to his. Hence, my response to Mr. Na's presentation.
Disclaimer: This is NOT an official Google reply. This is my own, personal opinion and nobody else's.
#1 Training for Tech Leads/Managers
The presentation mentions EDGE as tech lead / manager training. While I agree EDGE isn't a life-changing course, most courses are not. It's the sum of everything that counts.
But what the presentation failed to acknowledge is that there a dozen or so other courses available for training tech leads and managers. I know. I took plenty of them. Seven that I recall now. Plus various sessions 1-on-1 with a higher ranked manager and a monthly 1-on-1 with a mentor at the director level for the past two years.
Most of this training was about leadership, both for techleads and managers, but I took at least two courses specifically for managers.
Most courses were developed in-house, not outsourced. In fact, the worst ones were the outsourced ones. And EDGE wasn't one of them, it was too an in-house course!
The courses weren't without flaws, of course. But they were there. Mr. Na failed to acknowledge this.
#2 Incentives for TLs
It's true that TLs are officially considered individual contributors, unless they have reports. But in promotion committees I've participated to date, leadership and care for the team were properly taken into account. I have not experienced "TLs grabbing all the sexy work for themselves". There probably are some who do this, but I don't see how they could get away for long given that Google has a peer-reviewed promotion process and it allows for unsolicited feedback. Mr Na was probably in a very dysfunctional group, far from the norm.
This peer-reviewed, unsolicited-feedback-allowed system pretty much negates the presentation's claim that the "incentive system actively promotes bad behavior". How could it?
All systems have flaws and may be gamed. But I think gaming this process is not as easy as the presentation claims. My criticism of the Google promo system is very different. And to-date, I haven't figured out a way to fully solve all the problems without causing new ones. I can talk about this topic some other time, since I've been at both hiring committees and promotion committees for a while and this topic is something I have interest in discussing further.
This is where the presentation lost me. It talks about how recognition and incentives weren't properly used. It claims "Peer bonus structure was very well done, but not widely used inside engineering". Well, I just checked my team's status: more than one bonus per year per person, excluding manager-issued spot bonuses. And this distribution is skewed. The person who got the most peer bonuses had eight in a little less than 2 years. The second one had five during the same time. For things like "helping debug a problem" or "coded an SQL query for me and saved me a lot of time". I hear of similar experiences from other managers.
Mr. Na claims that the financial aspect of $175 is insulting. This is totally not my experience. People appreciate that this award comes with a certificate and with a small cash prize. That's exactly what makes it more meaningful, not less. Most companies would just issue a plaque or a certificate. But having some cash value associated with it makes the bonus a little more rewarding and appreciated.
I have a feeling that no amount of money would satisfy the critics of this prize. If the award is $0, the criticism would be that Google is cheap and just like other companies. If it were $500 or $1,000 it would still just be "insulting". And if it were $1M or $100M, then Google would be stupid for squandering shareholder's money. No one can win against this type of generalized criticism and hence why I strongly feel it's unwarranted and unfair.
Here the presentation goes deeper into unfair, unsubstantiated and plain wrong criticism.
It claims that the interview "bump" (an "extra credit" in the internal review process for citizenship work inside the company) was per managerial discretion and that "all managers ignored" it. False. First, any bumps are standardized per entire organizational functions. The criteria is not set on stone, so there is a level of interpretation to what constitutes doing "a lot" of interviews. But it is definitely used. I use it for my team. I've seen it used in other teams. And I've been granted these bumps by my managers too, from time to time, when warranted.
Then Na's presentation says that the bump system was abused to move people to higher rankings, as if there was a pre-set quota to fill. In my experience this never happened. People are compared to peers in their same job level and to an understanding of their job descriptions. No limit exists, in my experience, to how many people can be performing well (or poorly, for that matter).
Mr. Na makes some good points regarding promotions. I will have more to say about this in the future, since this is a subject I know something about and feel strongly too. But for now I want to clarify one point from the presentation: "Repeated denials of promotions for people who were consistently 'exceeds expectations'". In the cases I've seen, there were valid reasons for that. Perhaps the bar was unnecessarily high. But I've never seen an outstanding engineer go unrecognized for very long. I have seen the opposite: an average engineer be rated too high for his or her actual performance. In such cases, not promoting the average engineer is the right thing to do. But sadly, re-calibrating the manager who makes glowing reviews of these average engineers might not have happened as it should.
This reply is not intended to defend Google's engineering culture. There is room for improvement there, for sure.
But the criticism in the presentation as it stands has little merit to me. I did not see it presented live, so I can't comment on how well it was delivered. But my criticism of the presentation as written stands.
Again, this is my own opinion. Nothing else. Feel free to comment or disagree below, especially if you have insights to share.