Ioana Neagu of Google and Josh Ellis of Google Cloud Platform discuss innovation culture at Google: strategies as a company, opportunities and challenges for Google Japan, and advice for people who want to work at Google.
I work in our people operations organization, specifically in our staffing recruiting department. My team looks after hiring multiple groups within our cloud organization. I’ve done that for about five years, and two of those years were actually with Google Japan.
My role at Google is a customer engineering manager for Google Cloud Platform. So I manage a team of pre-sales engineers that go out and essentially qualify business opportunities with our customers and then help them adopt Cloud Platform at Google.
How do you maintain your innovation culture at Google?
First of all, I think it’s pretty commonly known that Google has a 20% project culture, which basically means that everybody who works at Google has the opportunity to work on a side project that’s not related to their day-to-day job, but very much related to what they’re passionate about. So that’s something that’s ingrained in our culture.
Often some of the best ideas come from folks outside of your immediate team. Just to give you an example, you know, whether it’s 20% projects—I mean, Gmail was a 20% project at one point and it’s one of the most successful products at Google. But it takes that kind of collaboration to generate the ideas and then the successful ongoing solutions.
I think also the way we set up things for every [kind of] work you do, for every project you do, you’re going to work in a cross-functional setup. So that automatically puts you in a setup where you hear ideas from multiple angles, and you automatically come up with solutions and products and whatever it is that’s going to make sense for multiple groups.
And if I take that one level more granularly, we’re a very data-driven company. We make all our decisions based on data, which means that absolutely everything we do will have a post-mortem.
How do you decide the pace of your innovation?
Every year, Google runs a survey across the entire company it’s called Googlegeist. Basically every single full-time employee gets questioned around how we’re doing as a company from very, very top level—our leadership, the Larry Page, the Sundar-level leadership—all the way down to your day-to-day life.
We basically choose typically three priorities that we’re going to focus on, and we set for that year a goal to make improvements. And that’s kind of like how it works with everything. So that’s like a company-wide initiative, but with every team. If you do a brainstorming, and you start dumping all the things you could be doing better, most likely we’re going to choose a few to focus on and run with those.
What type of innovation do you do in your job specifically?
I particularly look after our hiring for Cloud. Cloud is a very big investment for Google today. We’re hiring very aggressively. We’re an underdog in the cloud business, meaning there’s companies like AWS and Microsoft that have been at the cloud game for a much longer time. They’re way ahead of Google, so automatically we are in a position of underdog. So the way we approach the talent market has to come from a much more humble spot from a much more underdog perspective. And the way we design our hiring processes also needs to follow suit.
What are some of the unique challenges for Google Japan?
I think Japan with the Google lens is in a bit of a tough spot because we want to make sure we preserve the Japanese culture in the Japan office. But at the same time, it’s an extremely global company. So I think it’s a little bit tough to come up with innovations that make sense at a global level when the Japanese context is so different.
In the US, when we talk about “cloud,” we focus a lot on machine learning and artificial intelligence. It’s one of our core skills that we’re looking for when hiring people. In Japan, it’s more about platforms. So the priority for hiring falls on platform types of talent.
What is the most important quality to succeed at Google?
Whatever-it-takes attitude, number one. Expertise in any one area of domain expertise—be able to join Google and immediately start contributing. And just a voracious appetite to learn. I think the most successful Googlers are the ones that continuously [learn]—whether it’s week one as a Noogler, or it’s year four or five or six, they’re still asking questions every day. They’re treating every day, every week of their employment at Google as just this continuous learning opportunity.
What’s your advice for people who want to work at Google?
My first piece of advice is “participate and try.” I think many people think about Google and many people tend to think, “It would be too difficult,” or “I don’t have a chance,” or “the bar is too high,” and that’s simply not true. It’s a large organization. The bar is high, but it’s not unattainable. And that’s the first thing that I would say.
People looking at places like Google need to put in the effort to do their research and study. But also reach out and do your homework before starting your interview process. You know, meet a few Googlers, ask questions, that’s a great place to start. And it typically disarms folks from the nervousness and attention of interviewing with Google and just getting started taking that first step. That’s typically the hardest part.
It’s not an absolute Nirvana. It’s not as difficult as it’s commonly “known.” Do your best, take the chance. And then, if it doesn’t work out, come back and try again.