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.

#3 Recognition

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.

#4 Hiring

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).

#5 Promotions

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.

Conclusions

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.

 

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No, it's not what you're thinking. It's not that closet. I'm finally coming out of the entrepreneurial closet.

For years I've been a closet entrepreneur. I've had this itch of doing something I was passionate about in a commercially viable way. So, today, I'm proud to announce that I've created Entropy Energy Replenishment Drink. Entropy is the product of many years of studying and self-experimentation with supplements, vitamins and herbs. Over these years, I read a lot of scientific papers on hundreds of these natural elements. I know about the fads as well as the time-tested, useful and proven supplements.

I tested these supplements on myself. At some point in my life I was taking 10-15 capsules per day. These included the usual multi-vitamin mix and fish oil all the way to morning doses of herbs and amino-acids that stimulate the brain and mood to others at night that induce calmness and relaxation. And throughout the day I'd take those pills that support fat-burning, metabolism, and endurance just prior or post my workouts at the gym. Of course, I only used the safe ones and all in safe doses.

From time-to-time people would ask me about supplements and in many instances I made recommendations that people thanked me for. There was a case where a friend was having headaches after playing soccer. Another one whose cholesterol was high and I recommended three pills and just a few weeks later his doctor also recommended two of the three (and the third one the doctor probably was not aware of its cholesterol-lowering properties).

How Entropy Was Born

With all of this reading and studying and self-experimentation to confirm what worked and what didn't work, I was sure I could come up with a better "multi-vitamin" mix than any of those sold in stores. But just making a new pill wasn't as satisfying as making something one could eat or drink. So off I went looking for ways to put this stuff into power bars, effervescent tablets, milk shake mixes, ready-to-drink pouches, or functional drinks. The search was on. What's the best vehicle for this? Well, I had to come up with a good flavor or no one would consume it.

One day, while on vacation in Brazil, I bought some of the ingredients in powder form -- those that tend to dominate the flavor such as guarana and green tea -- and mixed them with vitamins and water. The taste was obviously awful. So I added different flavors of kool aid to mask the raw taste from these ingredients. It wasn't perfect, but eventually it was drinkable. That's when I decided a ready-to-drink functional beverage would work. All I needed next would be an original flavor.

So I contacted companies that could flavor my mix professionally in a safe and repeatable manner. But that's another story.

Why Now?

Why start a business now? The real answer is "why not?". But to elaborate a little more: as I said, I've been carrying this desire to start up my own business for years. So long, I don't even remember when I first had this desire. Back in college, when people asked me where I'd work after I graduated I would often reply "McDonald's". When they looked funny at me, I would clarify that I wanted to open a McDonald's franchise. Of course, since then, I've became a little more concerned about health and nutrition, so I scraped that idea shortly before graduating.

But this desire did not start in college. It goes further back. The earliest I can remember is when I was 7 or 8 years old and I created a board game with a good friend of mine. The game was interesting. It was complex, had many rules and nuances. It included a market for oil, gas, gold, and sugar cane (to make combustible alcohol). The goal was to dominate all the territories. In order to do so, one would have to produce these raw products, only available in some territories, build factories to refine them if applicable and sell the final product in the open market, which was bound by rules of supply and demand. Then one would use the money to buy troops, arms, vehicles, etc. We kept on adding new layers of complexity to the game until we ran out of ideas.

When we were done designing the game, we tried to patent it. It was going to be our little venture that we would sell to big toy companies and make a killing. Sadly for us, even with help of parents and lawyers, patenting was too expensive. Also, the big toy companies turned us down anyway (I claim they didn't understand the beauty of our game). Finally we dropped the idea after a single tournament with three players took over nine hours and was it just getting started.

But the desire never went away. The entrepreneurial itch stayed all these years.

And this story would repeat itself many times: "here's an idea, let's do it". Oh, it can't be done now because of money/time/support/interest from person X or company Y, etc. And the itch only got more and more intense. And the frustration with all the non-entrepreneurial people around me didn't weaken my desire, it only made it clear that I would have to do it on my own (or find new friends).

So, why now? Well, how long can you live with an itch without scratching it?

Why You Should Buy Entropy Now

Entropy is the only anti-aging drink that turns fat into mental focus*. It's a well-balanced healthy drink that is good for you. With 5 calories, zero sugars, no preservatives and a ton of good stuff like acai, resveratrol, green tea, guarana, l-carnitine, you can't afford not to drink it. And it tastes great. Not too sweet and nothing like Rockstar or Red Bull.

Moreover, the first 100 readers of this blog will get a 10% discount by using coupon code: BLOG100EP. Hurry, you may still qualify for our free shipping offer on the first case ordered.

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Stay smart. Stay healthy. Drink What Matters.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Entropy is not intended to treat, cure, prevent or diagnose any disease.

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Work fewer projects and limited hours. Read email four times a day.  Go to fewer meetings.

A Creative Writing professor of mine used to say that the mind works better when constrained. He cited examples of American poets who would only write in French because their limited vocabulary would force them to come up with more powerful words and concise sentences. He once gave us an assignment to write a play using only five characters. My plot needed six, so I had one of them have split personality. (Other options would have been a play within a play, a dream, or a wig and glasses for the actor.)

At work, it should be the same thing.

Limit your working hours.

Go to fewer meetings or limit the number of people you invite to them.

Restrict the scope of your projects. Or drop some.

Unsubscribe from mailing lists that do not matter.

Close some tabs on your browser.

If you have more than 7 tabs open on your browser, consider shedding some. I once caught myself with three half-answered emails while I was searching for the tab that had the answer to one of them, among probably 15 or 20 tabs. Not even superman can handle that.

If you are chatting with more than one person online, it's one too many. Change your IM status or logoff altogether. If you answer the phone while you're chatting, you're not only fooling two people, you're fooling yourself. By the way, do you always answer your phone, regardless of who it is and what else you're doing at the time? Consider enforcing some rules around when and for whom you answer the phone.

Scarcity does indeed breed creativity. Use it in your favor.

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Just finished reading Delivering Happiness, by Tony  Hsieh. Tony is the CEO of Zappos.

The book is pretty good. As usual, what I like the most about entrepreneur's stories is always how they survived their first lean years. The more I read about these brilliant entrepreneurs, the more their stories sound familiar. It starts with a passion and strong sense of belief in what they're doing. Then come all the difficulties and roadblocks, which are most times so close to being fatal. It's unbelievable how they managed to draw on their energy and creativity to survive.

Like Ray Kroc, Sam Walton, and Howard Schultz, Tony Hsieh and his team at Zappos have plenty to share about their first difficult years. They came really close to being left with nothing: no company, no assets, no money, no personal property. And yet, they've made it. For each such story, there are probably thousands of others that went the other way. But the common trait among those who survived is one basic characteristic: perseverance fueled by passion.

The second part of the book is mostly about their corporate culture, which is interesting too, albeit not as dramatic nor unique.

Overall, I highly recommend it.

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