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Sad, but I suspect I dodged a bullet
[A bit of introspection, caused by this week's LinkedIn trawl.]

I've largely stopped hiding the fact that I interviewed at Google a couple of times in recent years -- I wasn't unhappy with Memento or anything, but it's hard to avoid being intrigued by Google. The sheer size of the company was daunting to me (mind, I consider a 300-person firm "large"), but I have a lot of friends there, and the general attitude towards development sounded kind of cool. I was always a bit skeptical about the self-image of Google as a large number of startups lashed together in a single company, but projects like Wave demonstrated that they had room for cool skunkworks and fun ideas.

The first interview got scuttled by Jane's cancer (we got the diagnosis the day of my interview). That went quite well, but I had to shut it down -- it made no sense for me to be commuting to Cambridge when her health could get dicey. (And in retrospect, it was absolutely the right decision: besides simply not having to spend as much time away from her due to commuting, Memento was really good to me during her final months, better than most companies would be.)

By the time the second came around, the nymwars had brewed up -- indeed, everything hit the fan between starting the process and me actually coming in for the interview. The result was considerably less successful: while I liked the people I talked to, and think I presented myself decently, I'd bet that my intense distaste for Google's new policies came across as strongly negative, and I wasn't surprised that they opted to not continue from there.

My concern was less about the specific policy, and more about the decision-making process. The realname policy was dumb and naive, and IMO continues to be well short of appropriate -- while it's improved a good deal, they've promulgated a lot of nonsense about how people interact online, ignoring decades of experience and study in this field, and how online identity *works*. Once again, it was clear that Google's upper management had managed to screw up a fundamentally good product with a few bad decisions. (Very much like Wave, which I still think was a *great* product that was torpedoed by a few idiotic mis-steps.)

And the thing is, much of the company clearly *knew* that it was broken. Without going into too much detail, a bunch of people said pretty clearly that they knew the policies made no sense, but felt fairly powerless to do anything about it. Now *that* is what I expect from a 20k person company: bureaucracy, management fiat, and poor mechanisms for bubbling intelligence up the chain. Suffice it to say, over the course of the interview, I developed a pretty strong sense (and did nothing to hide it) that I could only cope with the company by being a fairly loud iconoclastic pain in the butt about these mistakes. So like I said, I wasn't really surprised that they chose not to pursue further interviews.

This all comes to mind because of James Whittaker's blog post this week, on why he decided to leave Google. I confess, the post comes as an odd relief to me. Google is secretive enough that I couldn't be sure that I was reading things right in that second interview, and in reading the other tea leaves around company policy and what was leaking out. But his description matches pretty closely what I was coming to suspect: that the company has crossed the line from being the scrappy world-beating startup to being a much more normal corporate giant. I'd sort of assumed that was happening, since it happens to every big company eventually -- I remember clearly the days when Apple and yes, even Microsoft were the little Davids taking on the evil corporate Goliaths.

It does make me a little sad: I have a suspicion that I would have quite enjoyed the Google of 3-4 years ago. But it sounds like they're gradually becoming a more typical big company, and I just don't enjoy working for those. Probably for the best that I stick to real startups, where the way that I deal with bad company strategy is to walk into the CEO's office and have a chat...
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Whittaker left and went back to Microsoft (that scrappy startup). I'm not convinced that all of what he says in that post is consistent with his behavior.

This is not to say that Google of today would be right (or wrong) for you; I'm enjoying it, but (a) I'm not you and (b) I'm in a part of it that still feels more start-uppy since it was an acquisition.

I'll admit that as a consumer (rather than a developer), I've also become less enchanted with Google over the past few years. The "Don't be evil" motto seems to have undergone some... creative interpretation. I wonder if their own corporate self-image is a number of years behind, and thus are seeing themselves as good by definition: evil is that which we don't do, and therefore what we do can't be evil. I starting to get the same vibe from them that I get from Apple, which makes me distinctly uncomfortable. The "we're big, but we're cool, and we know what you *really* want so we'll take care of it. Here, have some soma."

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I've interviewed at Google twice now, and I have a couple of former students now working there. Which doesn't give me any special insight...</p>

Anyway, I feel much the same way about Google and Apple (and perhaps even the SCA): it used to be about innovation and creativity, but as they got bigger, the lawyers and management types took over, and the innovation and creativity are now driven more by marketing than by "wouldn't it be cool if X existed? Let's build it!"

The translation into the SCA is interesting. It's not the group I got involved with 15 years ago. It is worse? Not necessarily, and I'd say some things are certainly better, but it's not the same now.

I spotted a similar comment on one of CNN or MSNBC's website about this phenomenon. More or less, the issue is that startups are looking for innovation and at least a point of difference from the competition. Once a startup has its IPO, the corporate culture tends to turn from innovation to "shareholder value". A.K.A.: make more money. Attempting to make more money doesn't preclude innovation, but often there is a subtle ossification around what the company is willing to spend money on if the board of directors isn't headed by visionaries.

Yep. It's all completely understandable, even in most ways appropriate and correct. But less interesting to work for...

Alas, not every company can be an invention factory.... :)

Actually, it's not even about being an invention factory pe se. What appeals to me is a combination of being eager to work with cutting-edge technology, build cool stuff fast, and sticking to one's principles about how things *should* work. Good startups can (and often must) do all of those in order to succeed. Larger companies, for a host of reasons, almost inevitably get more conservative because they have more to lose. Once you're the size of a small city, you even wind up needing to think in terms of large-scale impersonal governance, instead of village-style consensus.

None of that is really a plus or a minus in any kind of absolute moral sense. But I do enjoy the riskier and more interesting life, as well as the more personal environment. (Especially once I finally got it through my head that there is no such thing as real job security, so I may as well have fun with my insecurity...)

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