Is Working At Google Actually Terrible For Your Career?

Google won't save your life. And, according to some who would know, it can even kill your career.

"Then it is fucking Monday again and you have to do what it is that you do": that's David H. Hansson, the cofounder of the 37Signals and creator of the Ruby on Rails programming language. The author-entrepreneur-programmer told This Week In Startups that he's in the "epicenter of happiness," since he gets to do the work he wants to do with the people he wants to work with. This, he explains, is why he'd never want 37Signals to sell out or get acquired: "Would I give all that up for somebody to give me a lot of money and then like (say) 'Oh. Now you have to work in the bowels of Google or whatever?'"

Thing is, those bowels are pretty dang prestigious: we all study Google and their perks. The search giant gets mentioned in the same breath as Goldman Sachs as a destination for bright young world-conquerers. And we try to train ourselves in such a way that we, yes we, may one day land a gig at the Googleplex.

So when we read this Quora thread about the worst parts of working at Googleplex, it hit us in the solar plexus. Understandably, many of the testimonials are anonymous—so we'll advise taking them with a grain of salt—but the thread is illuminating in the way it re-romanticizes the dream job.

The problems include:

There's way too many insanely qualified people there.

Since every body is hyper-educated, you'll find high-level grads "providing tech support for Google's ads products, or manually taking down flagged content from YouTube, or writing basic code to A|B test the color of a button on a site."

It's tough to get promoted

Since everybody below, beside, and above you has the same ridiculous education and hardcore work ethic. And if the work doesn't let you show yourself to be exceptional, you won't be able to show that you are.

You don't get to do individual, standout work

Google has 30,000 of the world's brightest people, which is amazing in and of itself, but makes it difficult to find the opportunity to do your own work. As one user says:

"I habitually describe my time working as an AdWords monkey as being like a janitor at the UN. You know that theoretically great world changing things are going on in the building, but all you ever really see is shit."

You'll get malaise-y

User Vlad Patryshev, who left Google and uses his name, says that a strange internal-external dynamic begins to take shape: a combination of "constant professional boredom and intellectual malaise" that gets sugar-coated by "constant awe on the part of people you meet outside Google who want to know all about the perks, the culture, and the interview without ever really asking about the work."

And you won't be growing as fast

The Google name is super presitigous and awesome and amazing and everything, but as Stephen Cohen, co-founder of Palantir told a Stanford class on startups, the cushion comes at the expense of your personal development:

We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.

File under: the happiest people have the hardest jobs.

Hat tip: Quora

[Image: Flickr user Bruno Girin]

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  • anon

    This is the best thing I've read about Google. Thank you for writing this. I've dated several Google engineers and I am quite happy that this reality is finally coming to light. In addition, coming from the startup world, I personally don't like the mentality of large corporate employees.

  • Bjorn Commers

    This just simply has not been my experience working at Google and I'm a bit surprised Fast Company would bother reposting a Quora thread with so many anonymous posters on it. For context, I work in sales at Google.

    My responses to each bullet point would be as follows:

    "There's way too many insanely qualified people there"
    There are also too many insanely qualified people at McKinsey. Do you think it's bad for one's career to go work at McKinsey?

    "It's Tough to Get Promoted"
    Sure, Googlers are competing against each other to be promoted, but is it better to be a "sales manager" at Google or a "sales director" at a startup of 5 people? It's debatable, but in and of itself, not a valid reason to not work at Google.

    "You Don't Get to do Individual Stand-Out Work"
    I simply don't agree with this one. My experience has been that if you have a great idea, Google will provide the resources to make it a reality. Yes, the bar is high to have new, great ideas at Google, but I would rather have that be the reality than have mediocre work viewed as exceptional- which seems to be what this point is implying is preferable.

    "You'll Get Malaise-y"

    I'm not entirely sure what this even means. If a Googler is bored in her current job at Google, there are ample opportunities to take on new responsibilities or transfer to a different team that would be more interesting to her.

    "And you won't be growing as fast"
    This seems to directly contradict the earlier point about it being "tough to be promoted". If one believes that Googlers have cushy, easy jobs, then it should be relatively easy for a hard-working person to take advantage of the inefficiency, prove herself to be more driven than her peers, and move up the ladder, right? From my experience, people do work hard and it is not cushy. If someone stops growing intellectually while working at Google, I would argue that that person would've stopped growing intellectually in any job.

  • axsd

    "I would rather have that be the reality than have mediocre work viewed as exceptional."

    Wow. Arrogant. So unless it's stand-out at Google, it's probably mediocre work? That's not what the article implies in the least, and one can only hope you know that. "To do your own work," it reads.

    If that's incorrect, fine. But that's a different matter from whether only Google has employees bright enough to achieve excellence.

  • Bjorn Commers

    Hey axsd,

    That's actually not at all what I was communicating. The article says that it's difficult to do standout work at Google (implying that the standard of work is relatively high). I was simply saying that I would rather work in that environment anyway since I personally prefer to be held to a high standard.

  • axsd

    The sentence to which you're plainly referring is, "Google has 30,000 of the world's brightest people, which is amazing in and of itself, but makes it difficult to find the opportunity to do your own work."

    Again, the explanatory phrasing is, "makes it difficult to find the opportunity to do your own work." I don't read that as implying anything about standards, or even the general quality of output.

    Both the above and his follow-up quotation (on a janitor at the UN) make it clear he's referring to being assigned to individualized work on exceptional challenges or goals. That is, that there are fewer opportunities to find oneself on such assignments due to the talent-heavy bench.

    The manner in which you read into / misinterpreted it betrays the arrogance to which I refer.

  • Bjorn Commers

    I have little interest in debating with someone who personally insults people on the internet while hiding behind an anonymous username. I am confident that my target audience would understand the logic of my points and thus I feel no need to further clarify what I wrote.

  • axsd

    Ah, the high schooler's, "hey that's ad hominem!" Also known, in such cases as this, as evasion. Also known as you utterly mischaracterized the writer's intent in an unmistakably arrogant fashion.

    You're right, you need not clarify. Your meaning is clear as crystal.

    Buy a mirror.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    As a non-techie end user, I appreciate Google's impact on the internet and hence the world very much. I was alive when TV shifted from black and white to color, and the expansion of web search possibilities seems just as much of a milestone. Sure, I can imagine how it must grate on hundreds of formerly special snowflakes, talented and ambitious, to wind up as line production workers. But having so many in one place surely must be a multiplier of possibilities, moreso than would be possible alone (where is Cuil nowadays?).

  • Wampler Longacre

    Within Apple, I generally found the perception that Google was:

    1. Less interested in serious engineering and design, and more interested in dicking around with whatever seemed cool.
    2. Fraught with political bickering and balkanization, like a gigantic college dorm.
    3. Where all the people who couldn't hack it at Apple went instead.

    I didn't have that perception going in, but I had it going out, and it was further entrenched by my visits to the campus, interviews, and dialogue with friends who worked there as coders or managers.

    At some point, enough people are going to realize that Google is just an ad company wearing cool clothes, with NO profitable products, ... and then the politics in there will get REALLY bad indeed.

    In my opinion.

  • axsd

    I'm not sure how one can say they have no profitable products. Is your implication that only tangible objects are "products"? That code can't be a product?

    I enjoyed how superior Google beta was, right out of the box, to HotBot and AltaVista. Search continues to be a profitable *product* for them. Gmail, Maps, Shop, and other Google products also generate substantial revenue, if in cases indirectly. They're comprised of code, and they're plainly profitable.

    I'm far from a fanboy. In fact, of late I've started wondering whether Google has abandoned any semblance of ethics in its quest for growth. Google and Facebook are the biggest seekers of the de-anonymization of the Internet, a vile, nigh unconscionable pursuit.

    But no profitable products?

  • P Mort

    "At some point, enough people are going to realize that Google is just an ad company wearing cool clothes"

    As an outsider, I've always thought this. Glad someone from inside the beast can confirm.