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Getting to Google
10.20.14

I was pretty unhappy at Amazon. In retrospect, I'm not entirely sure why. They gave me what I wanted out of college (a good title), promoted me in under a year, and basically let me work on whatever I wanted to work on. I think I always had my sights set on the next thing though -- and for some reason, I didn't see it at Amazon. I also had always wanted to work in "business" and Amazon gave me that chance. It was somewhat unrewarding though -- as much as I enjoyed some of the nuts and bolts, I also realized that I was aging. My days would be filled with more of the same -- meetings, plans, bureaucratic convincings and non-convincings -- all for a series of wins that weren't really wins, but just us telling ourselves that we were doing great things. Don't get me wrong -- Amazon has done some great things in the years since I've left (Kindle, Prime, AWS, etc.) and a part of me wishes I helped make them come to fruition. But in retrospect, perhaps that's what I should've been looking for -- work which had meaning for me, not work which was seemingly prestigious.

I had also gotten really sick -- I came down with the flu and was in bed, literally, for 3 weeks. I've never been that sick. There were days I could barely move. I remember one time there was a bottle of tylenol next to my bed and I had so little energy that I could not even roll over to get it. But it was in that time of sickness that I had that revelation -- the revelation to quit. 

People tried to get me to stay and said nice things and offered me jobs in other parts of the company. But I was determined to leave and start my own thing. Only I had no idea how and that effort sputtered after a few months. I was running out of money -- not so quickly that I was in panic mode, but quickly enough that I moved into my friend's basement (a very nice basement mind you) while he and his wife were away on vacation in Europe. They ended up letting me stay for probably 6 months. 

I couldn't get a job and that was sobering. I had graduated from Princeton and worked at Amazon and done well there. I thought it would be a cinch. But all the cover letters I submitted and jobs that I applied to got me nothing. Not even an interview. Often not even a response. Some of the places I applied to included Enron, Home Depot, and Walgreen's. I kid you not. I really had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted. One of my friends had put me in touch with a Wall Street placement firm. They were always polite to me, but always did absolutely nothing. It's tough being in that position. You feel like quite the outsider.

It was a dark time. Money was tight. I was feeling pretty much like a failure and I really had nothing to do. I would watch Pardon the Interruption every day. It comes on at 2:30pm PST. One day I literally slept so late that I missed it. Woke up past 3pm. It probably was a sign of depression.

Then things very slowly started to turn around. I still remember it, I was walking into Sound, Mind, and Body (my gym) and I got a call from my old boss at Amazon, Richard. I had heard Richard had left Amazon and moved to Microsoft. Richard, very kindly, said that he had moved to Microsoft, heard that I might be looking around, and that if I was interested, could come and contract at Microsoft. If I liked it, I could stay but in the interim, I would have a home from which I could search for a new job. I can't even begin to describe what a great gesture this was on his part and how much it helped me out. It's one thing to look for a job when you're out of work, it's another to say that you're working at Microsoft. Branding matters.

Over time, I ended up having a number of interviews and multiple offers -- if I remember correctly, Amazon, Microsoft, NPR.org, a startup, and others. All of them felt like more of the same, more of exactly what I was running from. I just felt very sad. This isn't to besmirch any of those jobs and I feel very sincerely grateful those offers came about. Right before I got the contracting gig at Microsoft, I literally was eating $5 meatball subs at Subway -- they were large enough that I could eat half for lunch and half for dinner, keeping my food costs low. So I was quite appreciative to get any offer at all.

I remember starting to think and juggle and try and figure out where I might want to make a home. Then I had dinner with an old Amazon friend of mine, Doug Heimburger. Doug casually mentioned that he had a friend at Google and if I was interested, he could pass along my resume. He said it in an incredibly unflattering way though -- sort of like, "I'm not sure how good you are or if he'll help you, but I'll send it along." It wasn't those words exactly, but hey -- I was thinking, beggars can't be choosy. Besides, I was so close to accepting one of the other offers that I figured I had nothing to lose.

Google (or at least my first interviewer, a phone interview with Wesley) seemed quite enthusiastic about me. I would later find out Wesley had a somewhat unnatural level of energy and he had sort of decided to make getting me into Google his personal project. I'm not sure exactly why -- but I would later find out that he ran around to all the other interviewers and basically enthusiastically prepped them for me.

At the time, Google's product marketing department was basically being founded and they needed people -- specifically junior people. So they created this program called the Associate Product Marketing Manager program. I would be the first hire. Which was a little difficult for me as my title at Amazon was Senior Product Manager. I should note that Wesley (who was an Associate Product Manager at the time) and I both took title cuts to get to Google. We knew *lots* of people who refused to take title cuts, often even refusing to interview, only to rue that decision many years later when Google went public. Their ego cost them a lot of money.

I distinctly remember one individual -- a former Princeton classmate of mine, Matt Evans -- and how fixated he was on titles. When I moved to Silicon Valley, I saw him at a social event and I was really glad to see him. Not only had I not seen him in a number of years, I always liked Matt -- he was charming, well-liked, and just seemed to be a good guy. He also belonged to an elite Princeton eating club, Cottage -- a club I never even deigned to apply (I think they called it "bicker") for. The reason I remember this conversation so well was because I was thrilled to see him and catch up and he was oddly focused on my new job at Google -- not in a congratulatory way or even a "How do I get a job there?" type of way -- but because he asked, "What's your title?" as maybe the very first question to me. When I brushed it off and tried to subtly change the flow of conversation, he stopped me again to ask, "What's your title?" I told him, "Associate Product Marketing Manager." I have no idea what the backstory behind these questions were -- but it's safe to say that there were folks where the answer to this was very important and frankly, there was a time in my life where either it would've been too big a deal for me (taking a title cut) or would've even kept me from applying in the first place. 

I was a slightly unconventional hire as I didn't have a marketing background. I had a good background, but unlike many of the people who came after me, I neither studied marketing nor worked at marketing related firms. I was sure interested in marketing though -- having read a ton of marketing books and really wanting to broaden my business experience. I suspect part of their enthusiasm though was that they were just drowning in work and I seemed like a nice, competent individual that could make it through Google's rigorous hiring process.

After my phone interview, they flew me down and I had a day of interviews. It was pretty straightforward though two of them stood out to me. One -- with Rich Chen, because he was so gracious about me taking the time out to fly down when I was thinking, "This is the place everyone wants to work at and he's thanking me?" The second was with Jonathan Rosenberg, the VP of Product -- the HR person had warned me that Jonathan was in a rush and would only have a few minutes before he had to drive someone to the airport and to not take it personally. I was so used to interviewers being extremely cordial, frankly. Jonathan was not cordial. He was oddly beligerent perhaps. I'm not sure the exact turn of phrase, but I was definitely taken aback. Regardless, I only remember one question he asked me, which was around the CPC of keywords and whether the CPC of a more detailed keyword would be higher than that of a less detailed keyword. I had prepped questions like this and I answered it using the example of "digital camera" vs. "canon S100". Jonathan seemed pleased enough and ended the interview. To be frank, I'm glad Jonathan had to drive someone to the airport because I wouldn't be surprised if I had a longer interview with him, I would've ultimately failed it. But I think the two product marketing managers (Kim + Celia) were pushing for me pretty hard and Jonathan didn't really want to stand in the way of them.

I should note that I prepared for my Google interviews more than all of my other interviews in my life combined. I knew what was at stake -- it was a recession and Google was one of the very few companies doing well. I had heard whispers that it was not only growing like gangbusters, but that it was also profitable -- quite a feat for a startup / private company. Only later would I find out just how profitable. But I felt like Google was my chance to get out of the corporate rat race. Maybe I could work at Google for a few years and have a nice little nest egg afterwards. If you do the math, if you work at a corporate job, it's extremely difficult to build up money. Extremely. So I worked and studied and worked some more. I thought of every variant I could think of to prepare myself. The funny thing was that once I started working at Google, I still felt completely underwater for months. The entire industry was so foreign to me.

They eventually got me an offer and I was so burnt out from, well, everything -- that I asked to have a slightly later start date. Jeff Ferguson, the HR guy I mentioned, simply said, "You don't want to do that." That simple phrase saved me a ton of money as literally the week after I started, Google split its stock which would've halved my stock option grant. 

Getting to Google changed my life in so many ways. But I'll always remember that time when I couldn't get a job. And I'll always remember how I got one -- not through cover letters or polishing your resume, but through friends and leg work. Having a group of people who knew me and my work and made me offers. And frankly, were kind. My co-workers at Microsoft all told me, UNIVERSALLY, to take the Google offer. Even though our group was competitive with Google (it was MSN which became Bing.) Richard even told me, "If you want to stay, I'll get you an offer. But you should go to Google." I think I ultimately had 5 or 6 offers, but every one of them, every one of them -- was from someone who knew me. The ones who didn't? I couldn't even get an interview.

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