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Monday, May 03, 2010

Leadership Training

After I was done with the Edge workshop, one of the organizers asked me if I would be interested in follow-on workshops. Hoping that it would be more practical than the usual executive team building type off-site, I agreed and decided to go.

Well, it turned out to be less of the typical executive team building offsite. For one thing, it was entirely indoors, and for another, it was focused on achieving your goals. Now, I'm the kind of person for whom achieving my goals is actually easier than defining them, but I was curious as to what value the person had to add.

It turned out to be a peer-based setup. And the group was filled with Google old-timers, each of whom would stand up and talk about their goals, many of whom weren't at all related to business objectives. For instance, Patri Friedman talked about Sea Steading.

The saddest thing I ever heard at Google, however, came out of this workshop. One of the participants stepped forward and said, "I've now been at Google for 7 years now, and I have all the money I ever need to never work a day job again for the rest of my life. I would like to quit and work on *charity redacted* full time, but I'm too afraid to to do this. You see, I've leaned on having engineers around to help with my projects my entire career at Google, which was my first job out of school, and I don't know how to get things done without them."

I was first stunned by the honesty and humility behind this statement. Most businessmen, sales people, and non-engineers cannot admit that without the ability of engineers to create products and maintain them, any business simply will not exist. In the console universe, you ship products built to a fixed platform (though on PS3 games, you frequently get loads of patches as well), you might be able to dismantle the engineering team behind the product after shipping. But in the new Software As A Service model? No freaking way. No engineer, no product.

The saddest thing about this is that this person could not conceive that with all the resources at his/her disposal, (s)he might be able to just learn how to think like an engineer and apply that to the problem that (s)he would like to solve. The thought just filled me with sadness.

I recently read John T Reed's Self Publishing, and he pointed out that most of his books were just about applying the engineering mind-set to the subjects at hand:
It's like the astronomer who wows aborigines by accurately predicting an eclipse. It's easy to do if you have an almanac. But the aborigines not only have no almanac, they did not know there was such a thing as an almanac... By taking my engineering training to various lands of the blind, like real estate, I become king--or at least a successful how-to writer.

I think very few engineers realize how rare this mentality and capability is, and how valuable it is (by the way, Google does realize how rare it is, and does hand out million dollar bonuses for that rare ability). And I guess that's a good thing. Otherwise, corporations would have to pay real engineers as though they were worth as much as the "financial engineers" on wall street. After all, a war for talent should be prevented.


KevinKevin said...

Please post your opinion on the Founders Award. Should one work hard to get Founders Award, or go to a startup and get startup reward? Let us know something about probability, strategies in a big company (e.g. work on 10 different projects each with 1/10 the effort), etc etc

Piaw Na said...

OK, historically, as companies get bigger, there is more pressure to specialize. That means that promotions tend to go to people who stick on one project for a long time, rather than working on 10 different projects. (If you look at the top engineers at Google, that's historically what's happened, no matter what management's platitudes about spreading the knowledge was)

As far as probability of winning a founder's award is, I think it all depends. I think everyone could see that Chrome and Android were going to get Founder's awards, and the same went for SmartAss. It was also obvious that the team fighting the China Security fire would have gotten something for their trouble. (They were asking folks to cancel vacations)

Now, the un-obvious ones are things like Buzz, Orkut, and Wave. I have no clue how to assign probabilities to those things.

My take on startups versus big companies: if you were on the fast track (e.g., a promotion every year), there's no reason to work at a startup. At that rate, you'd be a Google Fellow within 6 years, and drawing down $500k/year, not including any million dollar bonuses you might have picked up along the way.

If you're working on an obvious star project that hasn't gotten a founder's award yet (Android, high revenue generation ads, or Chrome), then it's also a no brainer to stick around.

For everyone else, I'd say that if you're not getting a promotion at least every 3 years, go join a startup. At the very least least you can be not promoted and get significant stock.

KevinKevin said...

Thanks for the response. Note that I never asked about promotion. Award != reward != promotion. These things are very different and all deserve very different responses.

If one craves for status symbols such as promotion and big titles, then it is obvious to me that that one's life is likely more meaningful as a corporate drone. More likely that one's spirit is far from the very core of doing something for the sake of changing the world.

Piaw Na said...

One of the best ways to change the world is to get Larry & Sergey to approve a project using Google's resources. I don't think you can argue that getting promoted isn't a valid strategy for doing that. If you're a fast-tracker at Google/Microsoft/Apple, you will get your chance to change the world, make no mistake about that.

The founder's award is only about money, and sure, Google could give you a life-changing amount of money, but even $1-2M wouldn't be enough resources for you to go out and really effect the world directly, compared to Google spending several hundred million on a project.