What Working at Google Taught Me About Beating Goliath

Yeah. I worked at Google. I know, I know. How cool is that? Were they the best company I ever worked for? By far! Did I want to stay forever? You bet I did. Am I glad I left when I did? You know it!

In 2008 Google Jumped the Shark

I started working at Google the year they turned 10. I was so excited I was practically peeing my pants every day I came to work. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d sit in the cafe in our building, eating my free yogurt with fresh raspberries and look out at the brook running through the carefully manicured park our building sat around, and wonder how I managed to win a spot in the best company in the world.

Luck? Hell no! I was at the top of my game. I was in exactly the right company, right? Well, maybe, or maybe not. There’s a lot of talk about how hard it is to get hired by Google. Even when I was there, Googlers liked to talk about it. It made us feel so superior to everyone else. We’d made it into Valhalla. We’d reached the top, no where better to go.

The fact is, I took a step down to get the job – going from Creative Director to Lead Designer. But I figured, it was worth it to have Google on my resume. Turns out, it’s kinda a double-edged sword. Because it’s the name that focuses everyone’s attention, it’s all they seem to see. Not my years as creative director in NYC before it, or my years as chief product officer after it. So maybe it wasn’t that great for my career-arc. But it was a wonderful experience… at least initially.

The Honeymoon Period is Over

On my first day I wrote an email to my Dad which pretty much summed up my expectations when I arrived:

” I’m at the best engineering company in the world, designing software that the best engineers in the world will then build. How could my life be any better?”

Too bad that’s not what it was really like. Oh yeah, there was a lot of nerf-ball throwing. And engineers and product managers loved it when I brought my dog to work. My dog loved it at Google too. And we all loved the free lunches, massages every day, and snacks within 50 feet of any office. But when at meeting after meeting I would show the team how to improve the useability of their software, how to fix features people couldn’t figure out how to use, and how to add features that would make software really cool, only to be told that would take too much effort – I began to understand.

When You’re at the Top of the Mountain, You Stop Climbing

Because Google is considered (or was when I worked there) the top of the ladder, once an engineer gets a job at Google he stops working. Yes, that’s right. Why work, when you’ve already achieved everything you can achieve? Or at least, that was the attitude of the engineers in my group.

Even though we had only a 2% adoption rate on our primary enterprise software – that’s adoption by Google employees, who were pretty much mandated to use the stuff – even though I’d been hired as the lead UX engineer to fix this problem. Even though I spent day after day, week after week, coming up with solutions that would make the software easy, intuitive and elegant, I couldn’t get the engineers to implement most of it. They just didn’t care about the users. Why should they?

Because, the other problem with being the gorilla in the house is that nobody will dare tell you you’re wrong. You have enough hubris to think of your users as “dumb” for not figuring out how your CRM application works, rather than believe that you’re not doing a good job designing the software. Or you call users whiny for wanting a nice visual design, “girly” for wanting any color but blue, simple-minded for not understanding complex and illogical user-flows.

The most our team would give to the front end development was custom skins for gMail. This is hard for UX Engineers to accept.

Which Is How I Know How To Beat Google

I eventually left, because for a UX designer, Google is a dead end. Now when I show people the software I worked on, they’re always a little bit disappointed in the design. Which is funny, since everyone is familiar with the Google Look & Feel. Why did they expect something different? I guess they think I’ll show them super-secret Google software that doesn’t look anything like Google software. I did design some of that, but I’m not allowed to show it and Google wouldn’t build it.

However, since then hundreds of new startups have popped up (many formed by ex-Googlers) that beat Google at the SaaS game. They do it by making software that isn’t just functional on the back-end, but also on the front end. They use clear fonts, elegant layouts and care about user flow. They use white space. They make it simple for the user – and don’t ever think of their customers as “stupid.”

And that’s how you beat any Goliath: at their own game. Because when you’re big, you are also slow. When you’re arrogant (in the nicest way possible) you are stuck in a rut. And when you’re at the top of the mountain, you don’t work hard.

The little guys can move faster, work harder, and produce better services and products. This is true for any company, so never ever worry that some big player is going to close you out of the game. They don’t have it in them.

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