Leaving Google: Five Years On

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About five years ago now, I handed in my Google employee badge and walked out of the Sydney Google office to start a new life of self-employment. I figured I should write up this story because I got a lot out of reading Michael Lynch’s. As you can see, it’s still taken me a couple of years to get around to writing this post, but I finally told myself that if I don’t write it for the fifth anniversary, I never will.

This post is kind of long, but I hope it has something useful for new developers who are interested in working at a big tech company, or for big company employees who are wondering what it’s like to quit. I’ll talk about my story of getting into, working at and quitting Google, and what I’ve done since. Feel free to ask if you want more detail about something, though I already have a lot of blog posts to write, so I can’t promise anything in-depth straight away.

Also, at the risk of labouring the obvious: I haven’t worked at Google for five years, so don’t take this story as a literal description of Google today or what all Google employees experience. However, I think a lot of it’s still relevant to tech careers in general.

The Enterprise Content Management System

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A few years ago I worked on the version 2 of some big enterprise’s internal website. A smaller company had the contract, and I’d been subcontracted to deal with deployment and any serverside/backend changes.

The enterprise side had a committee to figure out lists of requirements. Committees are famously bad at coming up with simple and clear specs, and prone to bikeshedding. Thankfully, the company I was contracting with had a project manager who had the job of engaging with the committee for hours each day so that the rest of us didn’t have to. However, we still got a constant stream of inane change requests. (One particular feature of the site changed name three times in about two months.)

It was pretty obvious early on what was happening, so I integrated the existing website backend with a content management system (CMS) that had an admin panel with a friendly WYSIWYG editor. New features got implemented as plugins to the CMS, and old features got migrated as needed. We couldn’t make everything customisable, but eventually we managed to push back on several change requests by saying, “You can customise that whenever you want through the admin panel.”

So, we got things done to satisfaction and delivered, but there was one complication: using the admin panel and WYSIWYG editor. The committee members wouldn’t use it because they were ideas people and didn’t implement anything. The company had IT staff who managed things like websites, but they were hired as technical staff, not for editing website content. On the other hand, they had staff hired for writing copy, but they weren’t hired as website administrators.

So here’s how they ended up using the CMS: CMS data would get rendered as HTML by the website backend, which would then be exported to PDF documents by IT staff. The PDF documents would be converted to Word documents and sent to the writers via email. The writers would edit the documents and send them back to the IT staff, who would do a side-by-side comparison with the originals and then manually enter the changes through the graphical editor in the admin panel. All of the stakeholders were delighted to have a shiny version 2 of the website that had a bunch of new features, was highly customisable, integrated well with their existing processes and was all within budget.

Nowadays, when I’m designing something and I think it’s obvious how it will be used, I remind myself about that CMS and its user-friendly, graphical editor.

Hello World Marketing (or, How I Find Good, Boring Software)

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Back in 2001 Joel Spolsky wrote his classic essay “Good Software Takes Ten Years. Get Used To it”. Nothing much has changed since then: software is still taking around a decade of development to get good, and the industry is still getting used to that fact. Unfortunately, the industry has investors who want to see hockey stick growth rates on software that’s a year old or less. The result is an antipattern I like to call “Hello World Marketing”. Once you start to notice it, you see it everywhere, and it’s a huge red flag when choosing software tools.

Why it's Easier to Get a Payrise by Switching Jobs

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It’s an empirical fact that it’s easier to get a payrise if you’re negotiating a new job than if you’re negotiating within your current job. When I look back over my own career, every time I’ve worked somewhere longer term (over a year), payrises have been a hard struggle. But eventually I’d leave for a new position, and my new pay made all payrises at the previous job irrelevant. These days I make job switching upfront and official: I run my own business and most of my money comes from short contracts. Getting rewarded for new skills or extra work is nowhere near as difficult as before.

I know I’m not the only one to notice this effect, but I’ve never heard anyone explain why things might be this way.

The Catch-22 of Risk-Averse Organisations

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Markets are supposed to make corporations efficient, so if you do consulting, you have to wonder why so many organisations (both private and government) are so absurdly dysfunctional. The way I see it, there’s no real paradox: organisations are pushed by both forces of efficiency (like market forces) and forces of dysfunction (like political drama). Corporations are only efficient if the forces of efficiency are stronger.

There are many forces of dysfunction that can affect an organisation, but there’s one that’s particularly important for risk-averse organisations (like banks and large government departments). Whenever I see people in an organisation doing something that doesn’t make any sense, I always ask if this catch-22 can explain it:

Every risk-averse organisation needs someone to take the initiative to eliminate risks. But in a risk-averse organisation, that’s exactly what no one does.

Busywork

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My first small business wasn’t actually in the software industry. Back when I was a student, I did contract office jobs in the summer holidays to pay for things while I was studying. I got a feeling that I’d be happier self-employed than someone else’s employee, so after graduation I experimented with registering an Australian Business Number (ABN) and using it to do maths and sciences tuition. I went back to working for other companies eventually, but I learned a lot from the experience, and that know-how was extremely valuable later when I quit my full-time job to start my own little consulting business.

I might write more about that experience some other time, but for now I want to write about what’s been hardest for me to get used to: when you’re self-employed, no one cares how much work you do.