Why I left Google

by phil on Tuesday Jun 7, 2005 5:56 AM

In the middle of March, I began a nine-week career in customer service at Google. I chose customer service because I wanted to try something other than web design. Customer service also deals with communication and people skills -- two of my strong interests. I chose Google in particular because of its great perks and great people.

The perks were phenomenal: free lunches by a world-class chef, five-dollar chair massages, super-stocked snack rooms, on-campus haircuts, on-campus car washes, and a free gym membership. And the people were great too, especially in my department. The female-to-male ratio was roughly 60:40. People were mostly young, smart, and cultured. One of my co-workers double-majored at Stanford in physics and philosophy, and has a taste for jazz and Russian novels. My other co-worker is into all sorts of good music, like the stuff they play at Coachella.

I also developed plenty of respect for the work-related skills of my co-workers. You wouldn't normally think that customer service requires much skill, but Google has high standards for personalized and comprehensive email support. When you rifle through hundreds of emails a day, you learn to quickly intuit user problems and then respond in a way that minimizes follow-up.

As a new hire, most of my time was spent reviewing websites for inclusion into our ad network. Even though the process is fairly mechanical, I didn't get bored. On a daily-basis, I'd discover tricks to improve the efficiency of the process, ultimately giving me a sort of assemblyline high (1). Plus, I felt so integrated with my team that work took a backseat to having fun with co-workers. In summary, the workplace gave me a decent buzz.

But, every four days or so, I'd come home depressed. Google was a major time sink, and my efforts went nowhere meaningful. After putting in eight hard hours, what had I done? Helped move Google's stock a few micro-points? Helped place annoying ads on websites to give webmasters a few more pennies? There are plenty of other ad networks, and Google is a huge, public company -- worth more than $82 billion. Even though I got an assemblyline high, I also felt like a tool.

Working at Google is a commitment of one's life. The little free time you have left barely covers much-needed leisure, relaxation, and socialization. Even though the employees are young and single, they seemed married to work. Where could I find time to soak in new philosophies, develop myself creatively, and engage in new and interesting projects? And only two weeks of vacation per year? Sorry. And Google is not the kind of place you can compartmentalize easily; you can't just punch in your time and expect it to fade away when you get home. Giving 110% is the only sustainable work ethic at Google.

So in the end, I learned that while a great social scene can make drudgery seem bearable, it can't make up for its meaninglessness. And that a full-time corporate job involves incredible personal trade-offs and commitment.

I'm not sure what my next steps will be. For now, I've bought myself some time thanks to freelance web design and my stint at Google. I'm also involved loosely with creative web design for Stanford's MetaMedia Lab. I might do some travelling, but otherwise, everything's up in the air.

[1]: There is a story in the book Flow about a factory-worker who loves his job. He treats himself like an athlete, bringing a stopwatch to work, and tries to optimize the assembly of widgets. His work then becomes more enjoyable as a sport or game


Brandon Franklin said on June 7, 2005 5:28 PM:

I totally understand this. It happens in many jobs, actually. Yours was more obviously "assembly line"-like, which probably made you burn out faster, but it can happen in careers you wouldn't expect, too.

For example, I used to work in the computer game industry. It was lots of fun. We played games, talked games, went out to fun lunches, etc. There was lots to love, lots of "fun time" overall.

But for me, that couldn't make up for the simple fact that I wasn't doing anything that felt important to me. I mean, I was making GAMES. COMPUTER GAMES. Shit to waste time with, basically. I tried to convince myself that it was important to have entertainment, leisure, etc. and therefore I was contributing to a modern society's well-being...but that just wouldn't stick. I needed to be doing something more meaningful.

So, when my company was eventually bought out and we were all laid off, I decided not to pursue any of my various connections to get another gaming job. I hadn't fully "burned out", but I was headed that way, so I went ahead and made the jump.

Philip Dhingra said on June 7, 2005 6:43 PM:

That's good you've made the jump. Where are things headed for you now?

Bob said on June 8, 2005 8:37 PM:

I've found a good way to end the workday--when my wrists stop working, I go home! Plus that way as I develop carpal tunnel syndrome, each day is shorter than the last...

Brandon Franklin said on June 8, 2005 10:31 PM:

Well lots of things have happened in my life since that jump was taken, but at the present moment I'm preparing to start a Java contracting business with my brother, and we're both moving to Seattle (I from Australia, he from the DC area) to work together and make it happen.

Our intent is to do open-source based "business modernization" for clients. In other words, businesses with crappy workflows and processes, we will write custom applications for to make their work go more smoothly. Then as we write open-source solutions for clients we'll be building up a "toolkit" of code we can reuse with future clients.

Philip Dhingra said on June 8, 2005 10:32 PM:

lol Bob

Philip Dhingra said on June 8, 2005 10:35 PM:

Brandon, that's a pretty good idea with the reusability thing. time and costs shrink, quality increases, profit!

Ramit said on June 13, 2005 11:09 PM:

I really respect that you're doing what feels right. It's so easy to get used to the comfort and stability of a good job, but it's harder (and, I think, ultimately more rewarding) to choose your own path. Easier said than done, though--which is why your choice is so refreshing. Thanks for writing this up, Phil.

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