Learnings from year one at Google
Six lessons I learned as I transitioned from Amazon to Google as a Sr Staff UX Designer
It’s been a year since I started at Google after being at Amazon for eight years. Boy, what a journey this last year has been for me, both professionally and personally. When I was leaving Amazon, several subscribers asked me to share what I was learning at Google. Today, I’d like to reflect over my past year, how I’ve seen Google and Amazon operate differently, and how I’ve grown as a UX leader.
But wait, why haven’t you written this last year?
I want to address the elephant in the room of the awkward silence on this blog. After leaving Amazon, I started this newsletter to continue writing about topics impacting tech employees daily. I decided to focus on myself for a bit because of changes in my personal life and the challenges with learning my new role. I never expected to wait a year to start writing again. (I apologize in advance if I’m a bit rusty. 😝)
With my feet a bit more grounded, I’m ready to share again. Thanks for your patience, and I’m excited to start discussing these topics again with you. Hit reply on the email, or add a comment on the substack page. I look forward to your feedback and to hear topics you would find helpful for me to write about.
Now, onto today’s topic…
Lesson 1: Respect and adapt to a company’s culture
My last year has been filled with ups and downs of “I think I get it” to “Why do we work this way” to “Oh, this is how I can be successful,” to “nope, that doesn’t work at all” to “Hmm, maybe I’m getting it.” Through the rollercoaster of onboarding, I saw many things about Google that felt “wrong” compared to how I learned to operate at Amazon. My initial reaction was to fix problems.
About six months into Google, I realized I had resisted changing my perspective on how a successful company should operate. Operating in an “Amazonian style” had been ingrained in me. I had to learn to first understand why the company operated the way it did and how others found success within that. What worked at Amazon may not work at other companies (example 1, example 2). Over time, I’ve developed a better sense of what aspects of Google I can improve and what parts are inherently Googley. I’ve also learned that specific approaches that worked well at Amazon, such as “avoid social cohesion”, “tops down escalation to make decisions”, and “single-threaded leaders” don’t work within Google and each for good reasons.
When you change companies, brace yourself for change. While there are apparent changes in learning new code names and terminology, expect and embrace the culture shock. Stay curious instead of abrasive about the differences. Ask questions as to how others operate within this culture. I also found help from other ex-Amazonians at Google to learn how they adapted their processes and what was working for them.
Do I need to fully embrace everything about my company’s culture?
When I joined Google, I saw how most communication happens using Google Slides. Whereas most big decisions at Amazon are made using documents, Google has about 10 Slide links to every 1 doc link. I tried to embrace this new “Slides as a communication tool” in my first nine months. It felt awkward compared to what I had learned at Amazon of using writing to help drive product decisions, but I leaned in to learn. A few months ago, I decided to return to writing documents. Not as a tool for driving decisions (i.e., shared with senior leaders), but as a tool to express and iterate through my own thinking. Writing sharpens my perspective and reaches clarity. I can then translate the writing to slides based on how I want to tailor the conversation for my audience. I have experimented with sharing documents instead of slides, which I’ve seen work well for some individuals and have been less effective for others. This is a reminder of the fundamentals of tailoring your “presentation” to your audience (whether it’s slides or a doc).
So here are a few ways I’m adapting to Google culture while preserving my own process:
Stay curious to understand how and why company cultures differs.
Avoid the urge to “fix” areas you see as less efficient immediately before you understand why things are the way they are.
Use whatever process helps yourself reach clarity and a deeper perspective.
Use the communication tool that others are already familiar with.
Lesson 2: Be kind at work while maintaining backbone
While learning to respect Google’s culture, I noticed an immediate difference in how people interact between Amazon and Google: People at Google are kinder to each other. Not everyone is kind all the time, but Googlers are generally kinder to each other. Throughout Amazon, I saw many people have a type A, competitive, direct communication style that can sometimes feel harsh, unempathetic, and even cruel. I think this is why my blog posts on bullying resonated with so many Amazonians. An example is how people treat each other’s input and perspectives. At Amazon, people are encouraged to “Have backbone” and to escalate decisions when disagreement slows teams down. At Google, “respect each other” is a core principle. We’re told that Google only hires smart people and that every person’s opinion matters throughout a product’s development. We have debates and disagree, but I’ve seen a lot more respect and kindness in discussions. My lesson is to treat your coworkers with respect and show them kindness even while having backbone.
(I’ve always believed Amazon would benefit from a leadership principle on kindness and respect. While you could see this within “earn trust” and “world’s best employer”, by not explicitly stating it, it isn’t an explicit criteria to evaluate employees’ performance.)
Lesson 3: Have empathy for new employees
I worked on four teams in my eight years at Amazon. Amazon is such a big company that it can feel like a whole new company you’re joining with every transition. This is because every product could be in a vastly different vertical/domain impacting millions of customers. This illusion of newness happened because of Amazon’s diversity in product areas can feel like you’re joining a new company. However, the peculiar culture of Amazon and the similarity of business processes are followed everywhere, easing the transition.
Because it had been eight years since I was genuinely new, I had forgotten how much of a struggle it was to be a new employee. Not only was I learning a new domain (Google Search) and re-learning GUI design after several years of mainly focusing on VUI and design strategy, but I also had to learn “Google.” I was overwhelmed for my first six months (I changed focus areas after three months, which restarted my learning curve). I’m grateful that Google offers new employees a month-long hands-on training before being expected to ramp up in their product space. Experiencing being a “Noogler” reminded me the importance to be patient, kind, and overly helpful to new employees. This includes being kind to yourself when you’re new, being generous with your time when someone else is new, proactively reach out to ask them how they are doing, or volunteering your time to improve your team’s onboarding documentation.
Lesson 4: Quality work takes significant effort
Google doesn’t accept anything but perfection in what we launch. Google has a tremendously high bar. The tradeoff is that quality takes time to deliver. Conversely, a top complaint I frequently heard from Amazon designers is when the product team launches something with design flaws. It’s considered “good enough” and the upside is getting something to customers faster and getting input to iterate from. This generally works well for Amazon’s bias for action culture but sometimes leads to rather unfortunate launches.
I’ve come to appreciate how much effort quality work takes. Every change on Google Search is meticulously explored and discussed. My lesson here is that the quality and tradeoffs of launching fast must be ingrained in an organization’s culture. If you’re frustrated with your team’s quality, seek to understand how the team views this tradeoff of launching early versus launching “perfect”.
Lesson 5: Social capital is crucial to success
When I left Amazon, I knew I was leaving behind a vast community and going to start over. While I knew a few people at Google, I started as a “nobody” for those I worked with. Trust had to be re-earned. And figuring out who’s who takes time. At Amazon, I was a connector – I knew people in nearly every corner. But at Google, I felt like I had lost a piece of myself without knowing the design and tech community well. The value of social capital can’t be understated. It’s a crucial aspect of how you get things done within your organization and how you can have a more significant impact. For example, when I want to take a strong stance on a contentious topic, I must have the social capital to persuade others to hear my argument. Here are a few ways I’m still building and earning my social capital at Google:
Take the extra time for 1:1s to establish rapport and trust.
Double down on the excellence in my craft to demonstrate the quality of work I can deliver.
Limit how many extra areas I get involved in to ensure I can deliver my best work.
Find small but meaningful ways I can go above-and-beyond to add value within my organization and product teams.
Lesson 6: Dead-ends can also have a positive impact
My first three months at Google were focused on a net new product concept for Google Search. There were some initial concept designs when I joined, but my task was to identify a path forward without an engineering team. This meant I needed to either make a case for headcount investment or find other teams with whom we could leverage their work to bring the idea to life. This was very challenging as someone who was still learning how to influence and drive decisions at Google.
By the end of the three months, I had determined we couldn’t leverage similar work other teams had done. I had started working with one engineer and PM and we had aligned on an initial starting point we could build and incrementally test. But let’s be honest, with only one (very talented) engineer, the scoped-down concept wasn’t compelling. Right about this time, a new, cross-org effort was prioritized and reshaped our priorities, including my focus.
Many projects and concepts never see the light of day. And that is okay. Success isn’t just launching ideas but also determining we shouldn’t invest further. While I’ve hit dead-ends many times in work before, this area I had gone super deep and was very hopeful that we’d find a valuable path forward. While I’m disappointed this idea won’t be moving forward anytime soon, I’m also still happy by the value that this provided for the team who was excited for this new area. The investigation was time well spent as it saved us from investing another year or more in the wrong direction. That was enough of a win for me in my first few months at Google.
Even after my first year as a Googler, I’m still clinging to my “Noogler” title. Every day I’m still learning how to be a leader at Google, developing expertise in my domains of advertising and Search experiences, and learning how to navigate organizational complexity. I’m glad I took the risk of moving companies and taking on new challenges. I’ve grown more as a leader and designer than I believe I would have if I had stayed at Amazon. At the same time, I miss my friends at Amazon and the incredible teams there.
I’m tremendously grateful for my Google colleagues, who have helped me understand the company culture, provided valuable perspectives that have shaped my work, and have shown me how to operate as a leader. I work with some incredible people on particularly challenging projects. Going forward, I’m excited to start publishing again. I’m gaining a broader perspective on how great teams operate and how to be a leader, which I’ll continue sharing through this newsletter.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What lessons have you learned by moving companies? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If you found this email helpful, I’m deeply grateful if you share this post with others. If there’s a topics you’d like to read, drop me an email.
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Yay! Tim is back! 🎉🚀
Tim - I've always learned so much from you, and your newsletter proves that there's more than one way to transfer knowledge. Thank you for sharing your experience -- and for all the years you shared your wisdom with our students at SVC.