Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Things Google does poorly

You may have read Steve Yegge's Google-sucks-at-platforms rant. I have no real opinion on it since platforms are not my forte. And I agree with him on a lot of positive things he says about Google in the run-up to the rant bit. It's easy to write about what Google does poorly because of the huge number of things they do well.

This isn't meant to pile on, but I do have criticisms about the way some things work at Google.

  • One product, many leaders: Product teams usually are functionally aligned instead of product aligned. The PMs report to a PM VP and the engineers report to an engineering VP. The eng VP and PM VP have different priorities. And there are other roles: marketing, communications, support, design. There won't be a clear, unified product vision that management and employees are on board for - so teams can't be nimble and push forward. (Google has always had YouTube as a "business unit" where people across roles report up to one VP/GM/Director, and they've expanded it to other products, but it's not universal.)
  • Too many cooks in the kitchen: The New York Times wrote an entire article about this: The Auteur vs. the Committee. Google does a great job of listening internally - every employee is encouraged to give feedback on every product. But at a certain point, a product needs to do some things well and figure out, in the future, what next to add. And that hurts feelings - employees often felt unseen and unheard when a product goes in a direction they don't like. I believe that before a decision is made, employees should work to make sure the best outcome happens and after a decision is made, employees (from CEO to individual contributor) should fall in line behind it.
  • Managing out poor performers: Google is too easy to remain at. If you're a bottom 5 percentile performer, why would you chose to leave? You probably got in through a mistake in hiring, and you're probably not going to get as good a paying or perked job elsewhere. So you're going to milk Google until you can't milk it any more. High performers, who could go anywhere, hate working with low performers. Google knows they do a poor job managing people out, but is timid about getting rid of people. There's a delicate balance - cull the herd too hard and employees start getting stressed.
  • Industry isolation (technology): There's too little knowledge of what else is going on in the industry. This argument and complaint has been made by many Googlers before - most Google internal technologies are a generation behind what the industry has come up with in terms of features. C++, Java, and Python are Google's 3 big languages. But none turn on the 20-something startup-bound engineers. Sure, Google infrastructure can scale, but it can't replicate the speed at which engineers at other companies can add features.
  • Industry isolation (products): It's a company with hundreds of products and 31,353 employees (pre Motorola). It's hard to keep up with what's going on just in the company - and many employees don't have the energy to figure out what the trends are in the rest of the industry.
  • Good but not great products: Google products are guaranteed to have many users. That's keeps new products from having tons of users. The PMs and management are playing it safe - trying not to fail - instead of making pure products that might win and might crash and burn. Instead of building intuitive, simple, useful products that do a few things, they're making products that do many things without engaging the user. Yelp, Foursquare, Strava, Gmail, and Google Search all started by doing one thing extremely well. What did Hotpot or Plus launch doing extremely well? On the other hand, Google is doomed by high expectations and high attention in this space - launch early with few features, and users may be disappointed. Those users won't give the product a second chance.
  • Listen to their own support people: maybe this is because Helen is in consumer operations at Google, but I still think it's true. If Google's billion users all had one customer service request every three years, and each request took 10 minutes, Google would need over 20,000 support employees. But the issues that Helen deals with are the same issues, day in day out. They're fixable if the engineering will were there to fix recurring customer issues. But product people generally don't like blending engineering resources across new features, bug fixes, and customer enhancements. I love working at engineering centric companies, but I love more having happy users and customers.
  • Hiring (employee side): Each interview took about an hour and a half - 15 minutes of set up (read resume, tweak questions), 45 minutes of actual interview, and a half hour of feedback. Doing full interview feedback on someone who bombed the interview was painful and demoralizing - at one point, I was allowed to write two sentences about why the person was a poor fit and moved on. Eventually, I was asked to do full feedback even for the worst candidates - I saw no benefit to it, and boy was that sucky.
  • Hiring (future employee side): Want to pick what you work on? Nope. You'll get slotted. Start at Google, wait 12-18 months, and hope to transfer projects. I hate most ads (Google text ads for products usually excluded). I'm not working to put more ads out there. Ads are distracting and dehumanizing. During the recruiting process, candidates often don't know what's going and probably feel like a number. I recognize hiring at scale is a hard problem, but why isn't there a JobScore equivalent where candidates can log in, see whether they're waiting on recruiter communication, interview scheduling, interview feedback, hiring committee, etc?
I hope Google figures it out and can make better products. Change is painful, but out of the right pain comes something great.

No comments: