Google is officially celebrating its 20th bithday this Thursday. But though its namesake search engine launched in 1998, the then tiny startup didn’t get around to hiring any interns until 1999. When it did, Jen Fitzpatrick was one of them. Then she became one of the company’s first women engineers. Over the subsequent years, she cofounded Google’s user experience team and worked on search, advertising, Google News, and other products. In 2014, she took on overarching responsibility for Google Maps and Local as Google’s VP for geo.
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I recently visited Fitzpatrick at her Google office to chat about about why she joined the company, why she’s stayed, and the challenges and opportunities of her current job. This interview has been edited for publication.
“My parents thought I was crazy”
Fast Company: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to work at Google?
Jen Fitzpatrick: I was a student in the computer science department at Stanford at the time, and first heard of Google as a product before it had turned into Google, when it was still a research product. And I quite literally just fell in love with the product. I was a student; information was a big deal to me. It very quickly turned into an indispensable tool in my life. And I found myself enthusiastically telling all of my friends and family about this sort of life-altering new tool that I thought they needed to discover and learn about as well.
When it came time a few months later to look for a summer internship, I couldn’t imagine anything other than working on a product that I really cared about. I wasn’t interested in just going and writing code for the sake of writing code. Google was at the very the top of the list from that standpoint. So I applied for, and luckily got, an internship. I was part of the first intern class. There were four of us that year. Very quickly I discovered, in ways that kind of surprised and shocked me, just how much there was to learn. I had thought that life in a university setting was kind of the pinnacle of what learning and being constantly challenged looked like and felt like.
At the end of the internship, I got an offer to stay on, which I happily accepted, and literally have been here ever since.
FC: Did it feel like you were coming aboard a rocket ship that was going places?
JF: There’s absolutely no way I could have predicted back then what Google would become today. It never, never crossed my mind in my wildest imagination. It was clear from the very early days that we were onto something in the sense that the more word of mouth spread, the more people discovered the Google experience. It was growing because it was fundamentally different and better than anything else out there at the time.
You felt momentum based on that. When I started working here, no one had heard of Google. My parents thought I was crazy taking a job at this tiny little startup that no one had ever heard of. And moving from there toward a world where you would tell people where you work and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve used that Google thing. That was really great.” The world was waking up to the existence of Google, and everyone had their own personal story about how it had either changed their life, or been instrumental in one particular moment that they could remember. It felt like everyone, as time went on, had a Google story of their own.
More about Google’s 20th anniversary:
“There was a focus on being as ambitious as possible”
FC: Was the Google culture in place when you arrived, or did you see it evolve in front of your own eyes?
JF: I would say the imprints of the culture were there right from the start. But it’s obviously grown and evolved, as all cultures do with time. I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised at how consistent the culture has remained, now almost 20 years later.
From the earliest days, there was a focus on being as ambitious as possible in whatever we tackled. Not settling for just, “What do we need to do this week, or this month, or this quarter?” But thinking about, how do we work to deliver amazing things that work at scale, that work for the whole planet? That scale of thinking was there very early on.
The other thing that stands out to me from the early days is having a culture of healthy debate, but also deep collaboration. I can’t think of any projects, when I look back, where it was one person sitting alone, toiling and getting something done. There was lots and lots of teamwork, and lots and lots of healthy and sometimes vigorous debate about things, but in ways that wound up getting us to better places. And I think that is still very much a hallmark of the culture here.
FC: One thing that’s striking is that a surprisingly large number of early Google employees are still here, and some of the ones who left went on to do interesting things elsewhere. Is there any easy way to explain why that was true? Was Google just smart about hiring?
JF: It was something that we all were expected to spend a fair amount of time on, partly because the company was growing fast, but also because we put a lot of care, attention, and rigor into finding great people. And finding people who could come in and hit the ground running and make a big impact. So I do think that that focus on hiring paid off. But, I also think that Google, throughout the arc of its existence, has been an incredible learning lab for the employees.
Many of the problems that we’re tackling are not problems that have been solved ever before anywhere else. Many of the types of products that we’re building are pushing the bounds of what it means to solve a particular user problem in a particular way. There’s an element of it that is bringing in great people and setting a really high standard for hiring. But there’s equally an element of creating the environment here, which makes it a place where people can really push to the edge of what they’re capable of and learn on the job in a pretty accelerated way.
FC: You mentioned that in some ways that Google’s early culture is still recognizable. Other than the company being a lot bigger and doing more things, are there other things that have changed in that time?
JF: Very early on, we could pull the whole company together in a single room and have one conversation, and everyone kind of magically knew what was going on. Google is at a large enough scale today that the sheer questions of, How do you get the word out to people about what’s going on? How do you help people connect the dots between the different parts of what we’re building? takes a lot more work and forethought and deliberation. There’s obvious changes like that, that are just a natural by-product of scale, not to mention the geographic spread that we now have all around the world.
But a lot of the core elements of the culture itself, whether it be that appreciation for healthy, vigorous debate on solutions, whether it be the focus and attention on keeping those debates sort of respectful and professional, whether it be the deep sense of kind of teamwork and collaboration that lead throughout . . . those things to me feel very much consistent over the years.
FC: In your current job, does your longevity here play a major role in kind of shaping who you are as a Google employee and somebody in charge of a large chunk of the company?
JF: In many ways, I’ve quite literally grown up here at Google, at least in a professional sense. And so, yes, almost everything that I do is influenced by the fact that I have been here so long and learned many, many things over the course of that time. I also think, as we continue to grow, it’s given me a certain understanding of how we work, how to get things done, and also given me the ability to try to help teach some of that to new leaders as we’re bringing them into the company.
It’s not always obvious if you come in from the outside exactly sort of how Google works and why. There’s a lot of things that appear on the surface to be kind of crazy or mysterious or maybe just a little bit chaotic. And so that’s a role I’ve also tried to embrace.
“The world just remains very, very large”
FC: Let’s talk about Maps. I was just looking at some screenshots of the earliest version, and it’s totally recognizable as being the same thing as Google Maps today. It’s just that it’s way smarter and has vastly more data. Is that just sort of a fact of life for Maps?
JF: Maps is this fascinating challenge, because on the one hand, we are a service that’s deeply relied on by more than a billion people to help them reliably get from here to there, to understand the route, to be able to plan ahead, to be able to leave home with the confidence that they’re not going to get lost on their way, and all these other things.
And yet, at the same time, we’ve been working really hard over a period of many years in the background to deepen our understanding, broaden our understanding of the real world out there, and find new ways to reflect that understanding back to users. Whether that’s mapping places in the world that haven’t previously ever been mapped, whether that’s going deeper in our understanding of the world . . . not just understanding what are all the local businesses out there, but what are all the details about those businesses that really matter if you’re trying to make a decision about whether to go there? Or even just understanding how the world changes not just once a year or once every few months, but up to the minute, in real time, how are changes in the world going to affect the journey that you’re about to take?
We have this incredible responsibility to keep being that service that our users can rely on and trust with the things that they already know that we can do. But we’re finding new things all the time on the back of that growing understanding of the world, that we can also help users with.
FC: Years ago, I always used to think that when a service like Google Maps could give driving directions that included things like, “Keep an eye out for the gas station on the left,” I would know that it was better than a human. You more or less do that now. Do you have a laundry list of little improvements like that that you tackle?
JF: We look at it from a couple different angles. One is, our users will often tell us what they want in the form of searches that they bring to Google or Maps. And one of the things we found is, for example, more users have shifted to using voice input to ask questions as opposed to typing things into a box. They’ll ask us questions that are longer and more detailed. Instead of just saying, “Restaurants nearby,” they might ask, “Where can I find a restaurant nearby that’s open 24 hours and serves buffalo wings?” And as those questions get harder, that implies new types of information that we need to figure out how to source or create, so that we can do a better job answering those questions.
We also just pay attention to how the world is changing. So for example, more and more users these days are not using Maps just to drive in cars but also to do last-mile walking navigation or to do a chain of different modes of transportation to get from here to there. Those are areas where we need to get better at stitching together the things we do to make those experiences simpler or seamless.
And then also thinking about, How do we take this understanding of these experiences and take them to as many places as we possibly can? I think sometimes we sit here in the Bay Area or in the U.S. or some parts of the world and think that mapping is becoming a solved problem. Well, first of all, it’s not. I can tell you lots of ways in which it’s not even here, but you look at other parts of the world and we’re many, many years behind what I would consider the state of the art in terms of just having the basics of having the road networks mapped, having the local businesses on the maps. And that’s something that we’re also deeply committed to, making sure that we really do build maps for the entire world. There’s a lot of territory still to cover there.
FC: And is that not complete just because it takes a lot of time to get to every place, or are there places where it’s inherently more of a challenge?
JF: One of the really exciting things we’ve seen happen over the last couple of years is some breakthroughs and changes in how we actually build the maps themselves. And so what used to be much more of a manual, brute-force approach of map making is rapidly evolving towards an approach that’s much more based on a combination of automated signals, user-generated content, machine-learning models, and automation. What that’s allowing us to do is pick up the pace with which we can expand all the places that we map. It’s something where I would say I see us continuing to accelerate. The world just remains very, very large.
“I don’t consider mapping a solved problem anywhere”
FC: In somewhere like the Bay Area, where you even have the pathways within a park mapped now, there’s potential to do things beyond what you’ve done so far?
JF: I don’t consider mapping a solved problem anywhere in the world. To use your example, we might now have sidewalks or pathways through a park, but we still, by and large, don’t necessarily know which parks have playgrounds or which parks have barbecue pits. If you’re trying to plan an outing with your child or an event with your family, those are pretty important things that are going to deeply influence your decision about whether that’s a good park for you to choose for your next outing.
That’s just one example. It’s increasingly not enough for us to know just that there is a coffee shop on the corner over there. If you’re trying to decide whether to spend your Friday night studying at that café, it’s going to be really important to know if there’s a rock band playing there, or if it’s going to be a quiet, cozy setting.
I can give you a million examples like that. As you shift from thinking about whether it’s enough to know about all the places in the world to, “What do I need to know to make a really high-quality decision about my needs with respect to that place on the world?” you quickly uncover a whole lot of information that frankly isn’t on the map today. In many cases, isn’t necessarily available in digital format today. All of that is still to come.
“It’s . . . a very, very hard technical problem”
FC: The demo you did at Google I/O of Google Lens functionality within Maps looked like it might be transformative. Do you expect things like augmented reality will fundamentally change how we interact with Maps in a way that is different from this experience we’ve known all along?
JF: We’re really excited about the walking navigation AR experience that we showed at I/O. In particular because it does start to blur the lines between the physical and the digital world in some pretty interesting ways. It’s a fundamentally different mode of understanding what’s around you than we’ve ever had before.
Take walking as an example. It’s a task that is currently, frankly, kind of awkward. I’m having to look up and down at my phone, I’m having to do this complicated mental process of translating what I see on this 2-D map on the screen in front of me to the 3-D physical world out there, including which direction my phone is pointing versus which direction my is head pointing. Do I understand which direction the phone thinks its compass is pointing? When you put a camera in front of it, that whole mental gymnastics of translation goes away. So I do think there’s an opportunity to take some of these experiences that work, but awkwardly so, and rethink them in new ways.
Having said that, it’s also a very, very hard technical problem. So one that we’re paying particular attention to make sure that when we do that one-to-one mapping between the physical world and our digital understanding of it, that we get it right.
FC: Any final thoughts?
JF: We’ve been really centered, for much of Maps’ history to date, on this question of how we help you get from here to there. We’ll continue to strive to be even better at that in more ways and more places. But we’re increasingly broadening that to also get better at helping you explore and understand the world around you. We talk about this as helping you discover the world around you in new ways, helping you explore what’s nearby you right now, helping you find and discover things that you might otherwise not have known about.
We’re also thinking about how to increasingly put a proactive spin on that. How do we not just wait for you to come and ask us the question that you might have, but how do we find the right sort of subtle, respectful ways to also tell you that there might be information about the world that’s important to you that maybe you want to know about. For example, if there’s a new restaurant opening in your neighborhood, that might be something that you might not know to ask about, but that might be super helpful, if there’s a way for you to know that that’s coming. That’s a very simple example, but you can imagine lots of others.