As an eager, fresh-faced 19-year-old, I turned up at Google–at the time, a 3,000-person tech company–ready to dive headfirst into anything. Over the next six years, I discovered that the Google lifestyle meant more than just an on-site laundry service and free gourmet meals. I was one of the youngest employees on staff, but nobody held my hand. Within weeks, deadlines, duties, and complex projects began to pile up. I hadn’t even taken a finance class, yet I had two weeks to put together a strategy for entering Africa and Eastern Europe. I had to be resourceful.
As a tech entrepreneur today, that sink-or-swim experience influences nearly every move I make. Here are five of my top takeaways from my time at Google early in my career.
Soon after joining Google, I learned it was up to me to steer my own ship. At first, I was naive. I assumed the promotion process would be a natural one–with the best talent gradually rising to the top. But I failed to consider the politics involved. Google may have been a fraction of its size today, but it was no six-person startup. If I wanted to get ahead, I had to stand out within the structure of the organization, and I had to figure out how to do that on my own.
From then on, I grabbed the Google bull by the horns. I capitalized on internal resources and worked to understand different facets of the company, from the treasury department to the philanthropy team. By carving out a few hours here and there to meet with people on interesting teams, I plotted my trajectory and wasted no time going after it.
Google has become successful because it operates at a velocity few other companies can. Employees there think quickly and execute even faster–always looking two moves ahead.
Being a young gun at Google taught me never to be complacent. Right from the hiring process, Google pushes its employees out of their comfort zones. If I wanted to be successful, I had to keep growing and evolving and think like an entrepreneur.
Uber has adopted a similar mentality. When you walk into the Uber headquarters, it’s obvious that team Uber is at war–the company has a literal war room. This fighting spirit only works because it’s embodied at every level of the company. When Uber faces major challenges–be it competition from Lyft or resistance from local governments–the team doubles down, invests aggressively, and fights harder.
It goes without saying that tech leaders need to create an environment that lets innovation flourish. Google takes a calculated approach to innovation at nearly every point. It even designed its break rooms, cafés, and common areas to promote serendipitous run-ins and conversations, letting people who might not work together interact and spark each other’s thinking.
Google’s TGIF meetings are another prime example of that ethos, which I’ve tried to apply to my own company. Each week, the team comes together to have a wide-ranging conversation about the company, almost like a creative launch. There’s total transparency and trust to bounce ideas around.
Google also introduced its “20% project” to promote invention, in which all employees could “spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.”
Unfortunately, as a company grows, it becomes more difficult to keep this kind of culture going. Google has scaled back the 20% project in practice, but the idea lives on and still defines Google’s approach as an open-minded, ideas-based business.
Google has never been short on data. But the way it uses that data to guide its strategy truly sets Google apart. The company knows the best ideas are developed in tandem with user trends and behaviors. That’s why it tests and validates every assumption, pilots new features, and adapts its processes based on real-time information on users.
Even while your customer base is exploding, you can’t overlook the details. Google’s data method works because the company closely monitors data trends with an eye on what’s next–in other words, in order to anticipate future needs, not just to understand what’s happening right now. The question then becomes: What can we do now to head them off beforehand?
Google has built such a strong and united team because it hires for excellence and connects its employees with great mentoring opportunities. I won’t hire anybody who doesn’t demonstrate excellence, but I also don’t downplay my end of the bargain. I make sure to pair employees with mentors who can show them the ropes and challenge them to push boundaries. Most important of all, I tie a clear purpose to every task and job description so employees know exactly how their contributions fuel growth for the company. I try to make sure everything is transparently purposeful.
I’ve even adopted some of Google’s role definitions to help accomplish this. For example, Google describes a product manager as someone with a computer science degree who acts as “mini CEO” over a product. The idea is to give more trust and responsibility to project managers. If you give your team members the space to lead, and they’ll rise to the challenge.
More than anything else though, working at Google gave me a set of values that have grounded my work ever since. What’s so remarkable about the company–and what I’ve tried to replicate ever since–is that team members at every tier have the power to affect company-wide change. That’s a benchmark every leader should strive for.
Falon Fatemi is founder and CEO of Node, a stealth startup of ex-Googlers. She has spent the past five years as a business development executive doing strategy consulting for startups and VCs and advising a variety of companies on everything from infrastructure to drones.