I was still using altavista.com for Internet search. I got a call from a recruiter from Google, which was starting to capture some market share in the search engine space. They wanted to talk to me about a Software Engineering Manager position:
Thanks for taking a minute to talk to me earlier regarding our opportunities
here at Google. Are you ready for another start-up adventure? We want to
talk to you about being a Software Engineering Manager to provide hands-on
technical leadership to a team of Software Engineers. Don’t have a job
description specific to this role but I’ve attached one for the people you’d
be managing and would recommend you check out the www.google.com site for
more details on the company. Please email me or call me back with a couple
of days\times that I can arrange for you to talk to one of our senior
OK. Sounds good. I agreed to meet with them.
I went onsite. They had one building, the same building that is the main building of their Mountain View campus, which had been a Silicon Graphics building last time I had gone to the Shoreline Amphitheater for a concert (I think it was Moody Blues). The lobby was dark. All of the windows had the shades drawn, and they were projecting realtime searches that people were performing (“Charlotte dry cleaners”, “randall cunningham”, “jenna jameson anal”…) scrolling by on the wall.
I talked with two project managers in the first interview and they discussed what they were talking about. They were trying to scale up as fast as possible, and they needed engineers, but they also needed more project managers. They also mentioned how hard everybody was working.
Remembering the hell that was StyleWare, and the minimal payout we got when it was purchased, I was wary. I asked them if the engineers had to put in long hours all of the time. They said, well, there are crunch times that it’s All-Hands-On-Deck, but most of the time, people had good work-life balance.
I then talked to five engineers. I asked each of them if they felt that they had to work long hours to succeed at Google. Every one of them answered yes. They felt pressure to work all waking hours, and not to take time off, and work weekends. I asked what the reward for this would be. They all said, “We’re going to be rich!”
I had been through this dance before. When I got back to the project managers, I grilled them as to what the roles of the job would be. They included scoping features, planning engineers time to work on them, keeping schedules up to date, making presentations to executives, coordinating releases, etc. All of this sounded good, but I asked:
“What about the rest of it?”
“The rest of what?”
“The rest of what an engineering manager is supposed to do? Participating in software design, coaching engineers, ensuring engineers are training, participating in the hiring process?”
“Oh, well, we’re not worrying about most of that right now. That can wait until we go public.”
I switched tactics. “How many engineers are working here?”
“And who do they report to?”
“The VP of Engineering.”
“Is he or she here right now?”
“No, he is at a conference overseas.”
“How much time is he in the office?”
“Well, he travels a lot…”
“So who oversees the engineers?”
“Well, we schedule their work at track it.”
“What if there are problem engineers?”
“We don’t have those. They quit. All of our engineers are top-notch stars.”
“I don’t think you know that, actually. Somebody needs to oversee them and guide their work and careers.”
“No, they are all great! We wouldn’t hire them otherwise.”
I gave up. People asked me some questions, but basically, I spent all day asking them questions.
I talked to the recruiter the next day. She told me that they just did not think that the position I was advocating for was necessary at Google. They were trying to run a lean-and-mean engineering organization, and the engineers were expected to take care of themselves. They did not have real schedules, they had free food, they had on-campus services, and they were free to work on what they wanted. Would I consider being a project manager?
I told them I thought that they were wrong. At some point, there needs to be guidance for engineers that project managers in general don’t have the expertise or experience to give them.
She said, well, we are not looking for that, so I guess we have nothing to take about.
Those engineers were right. They got rich.
I was right as well, as is documented extensively (here is one example). Google finally started having managers a couple of years later.
Still, I could have swallowed my pride and been a project manager. I would be rich now as well, if I had survived. But I had been through an idealist, world-changing-in-our-minds startup before. I gained 50 pounds, and got high blood pressure. And I also had a lot of anger issues lingering after that experience. This looked like the same thing all over again. I am sure it was, but a few million dollars might have made the experience worth it.