Mike Bland

Instigator

Leaving Google

The reasons I decided to leave Google, why I decided to return to music and Berklee, and why I've written so much about Google in this blog

- Brooklyn, Barcelona, and Boston
Tags: Berklee, Fixit Grouplet, Google, grouplets, Jimi, music, personal, Testing Grouplet, websearch
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I left Google on September 16, 2011, because I didn’t feel like putting my wood behind any of Google’s arrows anymore. Now that more than a year has passed, I’d like to explain some of my reasons for leaving, and for going into historian-mode on this blog.

In short: I was unhappy. I felt my performance was no longer up to par, and grew increasingly uncomfortable from my swelling bitterness, despite what seemed like reasonable justifications. I suspected I was making others unhappy, and risked compromising their productivity. So I left, and started writing to remember the happy things about Google. Only months after leaving did I find a new path to future happiness.

Fast Forward
Pride
Immediate Reasons
What Can’t Be Measured
Successful Company
Falling Out of Love
A New, Old Calling
Labor of Love
Footnotes

Fast Forward

For a while now I’ve been writing to come to terms with my decision to leave Google, to tell what I thought was an interesting and important story that hasn’t really been told in any comprehensive fashion. Up until lately, it was fun to recount the tales of the Google-that-was, and exhilirating to see that a handful of folks outside the company found my rambling entertaining or actually useful. Certainly there’s more I could say, particularly about the Revolution Fixit, Fixit Grouplet, and TAP Fixit, but it’s beginning to feel like this process has started adding more baggage than it’s been taking away. Keeping up with this blog has started to become a bit more work than I anticipated, which has been keeping me away from my instrument, from getting on with my new life here in Boston.

You can probably fill in the blanks of what’s left based on all the foreshadowing I’ve already done: The Revolution was tough, but kicked down the biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of automated developer testing, the “I don’t have time to test” excuse; the Fixit Grouplet documented and promoted the Fixit process to ensure it continues as a vital Google Engineering tradition; and the TAP Fixit was the culmination of all the activity that came before, in terms of automated developer testing advocacy, out-of-this-world development tools, and very large-scale Fixits. One doesn’t need a lot more blah blah woof woof to get that point by now, I suppose; and though I really relish telling the human side of the story in particular, these days I’m beginning to feel like I just need to unplug, man. Unless I get an itch at some point in the future, this is my last post on the subject of Google, so feel free to unsubscribe now if you don’t care about electric guitars, effects pedals, amplifiers, Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles.

Pride

One of the primary reasons I’ve felt motivated to recount the Testing Grouplet and Fixit Grouplet‘s efforts in such detail is, in a word, pride. I’m exceptionally proud of what I and my colleagues accomplished at Google, and of the environment Google provided at the time that enabled a bunch of rambunctious upstarts to shift the entire company’s engineering culture, and I want to give people the chance to know about it. (Whether anyone cares or not, I don’t bother worrying about—much.)

As I mentioned in detail in earlier posts—particularly Coding and Testing at Google, 2006 vs. 2011—the existing tools and development model, in which automated developer testing was most often considered a luxury at best and a liability at worst, were hitting the wall, breaking down at the extreme limits of the scale of the number of engineers and the amount of code they could support. Reversing that trend via breakthroughs in tooling, knowledge dissemination, and overall cultural awareness and appreciation was not an easy, obvious, overnight process. We had no idea how we were going to solve the problem, but we tried idea after idea to see what stuck until a coherent long-term strategy practically revealed itself. Teamwork between ad-hoc volunteers and dedicated teams and organizations prevailed, but not without some heated debates, personality clashes, and moments of blackest-night despair along the way. Yet in the end, Google continues to develop and launch new products and integrate between them at an alarming rate and scale. We can’t take full credit for enabling this state of affairs, but I think we deserve a fair amount, especially given the state of Google development as late as mid-2007.

We changed the culture from the ground up long after the prevailing, largely anti-developer testing culture was well-established and experiencing phenomenal success. Thanks to thankless effort spanning about five years, we—starting as a bunch of passionate 20% Grouplet volunteers, eventually enlisting the full-time Test Mercenaries, and in collaboration with Testing Technology, Build Tools, Test Engineering, and, in the end, the broader Engineering Productivity department—put the necessary knowledge and tools in the hands of Google engineers so that they knew the right thing to do, how to do it, and actually had the physical power—i.e. tools and time—to do it. We made this happen with precious little direct executive support—though one may argue their laissez-faire policy at the time supplied implicit support—and enjoying only infrequent and somewhat limited executive endorsements.

We changed the company that changed the world—and continues to do so.

Unwittingly, and unbeknownst to us for at least a year or two afterwards, we reached a tipping point just in time for the 2008 phynancial crisis, when manual testers were shed from the company and individual engineers throughout the organization had to fend for themselves in terms of ensuring product quality—something which nobody inside Google, to say nothing of most economists or phynancial professionals worldwide, saw coming. We didn’t single-handedly buffer Google against the shock of the crisis—much credit goes to then-CEO Eric Schmidt and his executive team for making tough, shrewd decisions that kept the company afloat—but neither our development operations nor our rate of innovation and integration visibly suffered from the sudden widespread loss of traditional quality assurance personnel across many, many Google products. I’m confident our work had played a significant role in keeping our engineering department, the bedrock upon which the money-making sales edifice rests, operating solidly and smoothly as ever, despite the frighteningly uncertain economic situation that generated even more pressure to perform highly than the company had ever experienced, with resources evaporating for the first time in the company’s history.

We had, in the characteristically elegant words of my colleague and fellow Groupleteer David Agraz, “turned the Titanic”. Or, at least, we threw a lot of weight onto the captain’s wheel.

Immediate Reasons

As for why I left, the biggest reason was that my last manager and I did not really work well together. He’d assumed managerial duties of my last team after our previous manager relocated, his first time assuming a managerial role. I don’t think he’s evil or a bad person, but he had his ways, I had mine, and he was the boss. I gave it a good year, and decided myself that it was best for both of us, and the team, if I left.

I could’ve theoretically just switched teams, but I wasn’t too keen on that for one big reason: the new emphasis on Google+. While Google+ is a very powerful and useful tool for the right jobs—after all, I am hip to Google Authorship, and use Google+ as a medium for announcing and discussing blog posts—I saw the preoccupation with social networking as a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived threat to the revenue stream posed by Twitbook. I do not hold social networking technology as unquestionably, universally useful to users or beneficial to society as a whole in every possible application—in fact, I think it has, for the most part, just taken all this attention-seeking, monetization-obsessed, measurement-worshipping, ego-amplifing, hipster-zombifying, Pavlovian-anxiety-producing, Web 2.0 “infoculture” bullshit to an insane level of narcissistic high school drama. I think it’s a gold rush, and the fallout over Facebook’s overvalued IPO is at least one data point supporting my hypothesis. But even putting my luddite tendencies aside, and recognizing the potential business value of enabling network effects across a broad range of scenarios beyond mere socializing, I honestly knew that I couldn’t bring my full focus and passion to contributing to Google’s new direction.

What Can’t Be Measured

Google’s heavy reliance on metrics has been critical to its success—and I consider that a wonderful aspect of Google culture in most respects—but there exists scant recognition of those things that can’t be measured which have also proven critical from an experiential point of view, namely automated developer testing, Fixits, and Grouplet activity.1 Some folks did fare well promotions-wise as a result of their specific contribution to the overall effort, particularly those who worked on tools teams—who shipped an actual, tangible product of some sort. I was even promoted in the run-up to the Revolution. But there was never any clear appreciation of the overall impact that the broader Grouplet efforts had had on company culture and operations.

Now, when I and my colleagues embarked on the testing/Grouplet/Fixit mission, we weren’t sitting around dreaming about how well-rewarded we’d be for our heroic efforts by the top brass. It was only years after-the-fact, feeling overworked, stifled, and generally frustrated under my last manager, and frustrated by the turn towards social networking that the entire company was taking, that I began to feel the sting of the lack of appreciation for our efforts. I began to choke on the bitter taste of sour grapes.

In this blog, I wish to recognize The Testing Grouplet—which I emphasize, was not a part of Test Engineering or Engineering Productivity, but was a completely independent group of 20% volunteers that predated Test Eng and Eng Prod—and its spin-offs and allies, such as Test Certified, the Test Mercenaries, the Fixit Grouplet, Testing Technology, Build Tools, and eventually Test Engineering and the rest of Engineering Productivity. Test Engineering and Engineering Productivity built on Testing Grouplet initiatives, specifically Test Certified, but did not launch them. The Revolution Fixit helped forge (pun intended) the new tools strategy that enabled all of engineering to write and run tests faster and more frequently; Eng Prod supported it from the beginning, but the idea and its implementation didn’t start at the top. The culture changed, but thanks to hundreds of engineers who wouldn’t let up their efforts despite years of friction, inertia, and stiff resistance, not some hero who snapped his/her fingers and altered reality in a flash.

There were no supermen. There were no miracle workers. There were only hard-working engineers and managers who cared about the company, doing what they believed to be best, despite the difficulty and unsexiness of the task, with precious little direct executive support or recognition, and absent any desire for reward other than the gratification of accepting the challenge and, over the course of several years, living up to it. That used to be one of the most beautiful things about working for Google, and I believe it’s important that people know this.

Successful Company

As I wrote at the end of my first post about Grouplets, Jamie Zawinski noted that as companies get bigger, there are fewer people who want to work to make a company successful, and more who want to work for a successful company.2 During my exit interview, the HR person commented that she’d read some of my exit questionnaire feedback and sympathized that: “Some of us have a hard time accepting that Google has grown,” or something very similar. Well, aside from feeling insulted by the implication that I was acting like a petulant child, or was out of my league, I was saddened by the cynicism of such a perspective. None of the problems I had with Google were necessary consequences of growth: new managers can be trained; executives can make different decisions regarding product strategy and incentive structures; organizations can celebrate the contributions of activities that aren’t easily measurable, but have made a clear difference in culture, operations, and productivity. But I guess that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Or maybe she was right; that only validates my decision to leave, before succumbing to the same cynicism myself. Guess I’m not a “successful company” kind of guy.

Falling Out of Love

Honestly, I never noticed or cared much about the lack of recognition or big company cynicism until the discontent with my manager and the social networking gold rush started peaking around early 2011. But once that happened, those other problems came into focus, and only made my decision to leave that much more certain (not that it was actually easy at all). Had I ended up on a different team with a different manager, with a dynamic and culture better suited to my particular values and instincts, I might still be at Google today, and pretty happy about it; the most I’d’ve had to suck up would’ve been my distaste for social networking.

Again, why not join another Google team, possibly in websearch? I’d already sabotaged myself; bitterness had taken hold. I’ve never been happy doing anything half-assed, and given my frustrated state and the push behind Google+, I knew half-assed would be the best I could do at Google anymore, regardless of which team I might choose. I felt it was better to quit than to lose my soul during the long, downward spiral into mediocrity that I already felt myself slipping into, and risk bringing down the morale and productivity of others in the process. So I fired myself before my manager or anyone else could get the chance.

Beyond Google, I realized I’d developed a distaste for the tech industry in general, thanks to its high-level obsessions with social networking and hyper-monetization, its uncritical and unrelenting technological utopianism combined with the attendant hype and cults of personality surrounding futurist “leaders”, the thermonuclear patent warfare antics of Apple and Oracle and others, and even the culture of individual companies and teams full of geekier-than-thou programmers. I was no longer of the tribe; I didn’t love technology and programming enough to fit in anymore, let alone make it past coding interviews. It was time to be realistic about my lack of motivation and the atrophy of my skills, and make my exit from the scene.

Plus, my last serious job prospect wanted me more for establishing a test-friendly culture than actually working on the core product. Sorry, been there, done that—Do not want!

So my tech career is on hold for now, if not finished—what am I to do with myself?

A New, Old Calling

Every job, every company comes with its fair share of bullshit. What good does dwelling on and complaining about it do? Even if you love what you do, there’s still piles and piles of crap to deal with. Shut up. Get over it. But for me, in this situation, I think it helped me realize that there was another path awaiting, and all the red lights I kept hitting were signals indicating that the green lights were now shining elsewhere.

I’ve always harbored a deep love of music, and have played the electric guitar since adolescence. I flirted with a music career in the past, but lacked the necessary perspective and discipline to really do anything with it. When I hit rock bottom, I decided to bounce back by going back to school for computer science—and that kinda worked out well for a while.

When the pressure and frustration started taking over during the last couple of years at Google, I became even more immersed in my love for The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, and music in general—one may say I stopped just listening to Jimi, and began to hear Jimi. I bought my first-ever genuine American Standard Stratocaster and started playing more often. During my sabbatical, I started taking jazz guitar lessons. And, as I mentioned in my earlier post about unfinished business, when I had the Berklee admissions packet in my hands, I had clarity for the first time since I’d quit Google about what new direction to take.

Now, I still don’t have that much discipline, but I’ve got a much healthier perspective—not looking for music to bring fortune and fame to validate my existence anymore. I just love music, and the guitar, and I see in Berklee a chance to be immersed in a community that will challenge and inspire me to rise above my fears and obstacles and actually do the work needed to create music. I don’t know if I’ll try to have an actual music career, or will return to programming, or what; all I know is that I need to do this, for myself, right now. And to some extent, in light of that bit of self-awareness, Google and I really didn’t stand a chance together any longer.

All of these other reasons I’ve enumerated to explain what turned me off about Google and the current state of the tech industry at large, to some extent, are irrelevant to the larger issue: I was so hung up on fulfilling the standard cultural narrative of hanging on to the “golden goose”—my Mom’s exact words, not mine—that I was acting against my own nature. It was time to stop bitching and get on with my life, rather than chafing under the yolk of other people’s conventional expectations. Though society strongly encourages all of us to take on the traditional role it’s defined for us and stick with it for life, it’s ultimately still our individual choice whether or not to accept it, and our individual responsibility to live with its consequences.

Am I worth nothing if I don’t work at Google any longer? Am I certifiably insane—or at least hopelessly spoiled—to find problems with Google and to walk away from it, from all the money and food and holiday parties and ski parties and microkitchens and celebrity visits and all the other trappings of American corporate megasuccess? To think I used to seriously worry about that…

Labor of Love

Why spend all this time writing so much about Google since I quit, given my disillusionment with the company and the industry as a whole, and my new, old calling in my love of music? And if I’ve got so much to write about, why not try to monetize it, either via ads + search engine optimization, or maybe even writing a proper book?

I’ve never been the type of guy to put his mouth where the money is. I like having money; I just don’t like the taste.

My reasons are thus, in order of significance:

  • I write for myself first, to remember the really awesome things that my partners-in-crime and I did at Google, to Google, for Google, and to work through the grief of leaving a company, a culture—a development environment, my god—that I loved so much, full of insanely good people and fantastic friends (and development tools!), a company that does such amazing things in the world.
  • I write to bestow recognition upon my own contributions, and the contributions of dozens of my unsung partners-in-crime.
  • I write to honor the experience of the Google that I was a part of and loved so completely, to add my own (admittedly limited) perspective to the Google story.
  • I write so that the history of what we did is not lost, and so that others, either within or outside Google, may benefit from whatever lessons may emerge from the tale.
  • I write so that whoever might be entertained, or possibly comforted, shall be.

Some may call bullshit and accuse me of narcissism. I can’t say they’re completely wrong, but they’re far from completely right. These articles aren’t just for me, they’re for everybody who made the big changes happen within Google culture—which is why I choose to call out everybody by name to the extent I can reliably recall—and for everybody who might be inspired by our story to knock their own dent in the universe via similar means.

I did not write this particular article to burn bridges at Google, though I feel the need to be honest about the things which compelled me to leave before I realized my own personal calling. I really loved Google in a very deep, devoted way, which made the decision to leave so excruciating, and which is why I’ve given myself over a year to process my feelings of grief, frustration, anger, and loss before expressing them here in what I hope is a more constructive form than what I would’ve written right after leaving.

I do not write to make money, gain followers, or otherwise have people “like” me. I’m not trying to sell you something; I’m trying to give it away, give it away, give it away now. Google left me in a comfortable phynancial situation—for which I am especially grateful, and which does represent some degree of just compensation and recognition for my role in the company’s continued success—and I’ve gotten a lot of gratification out of being able to just write about this stuff and to share it with whoever is naturally drawn to it without worrying about paychecks or deadlines or advertising or publicity or sales or otherwise missing out on other opportunities in life. Life is too interesting, mysterious, and wonderful to fritter away by obsessing too much over the illusions/delusions that money or other measurable forms of power and influence tend to promote.3

When interviewing at Google, my last interviewer, Simon Quellen Field, asked me what I wanted to do at Google. I basically said I had no idea; I just wanted to make a big contribution to the world somehow, and figured Google was the best place to do that as a programmer. I didn’t have my own special product ideas, nor did I particularly care what I worked on, since I knew Google made such a big, positive impact on millions, if not billions of lives every day. I loved programming, and I wanted to share that love in the place I imagined it would grow and spread more than anywhere else in the world.

In the end, I’m not permanently bitter over the fact that neither I nor my colleagues were ever officially recognized by Google for our Testing Grouplet, Test Certified, Test Mercenaries, Fixit, and Fixit Grouplet work. I’m forever grateful that Google gave me the opportunity and the support to do these crazy, amazing things, adding such an interesting chapter to both of our stories. I’m happy I found the time and energy to document what I could about all of these things, freely and openly on this site, absent any profit motive. Given Google’s now-pervasive testing culture, I take great pride that that my job—our job—was well-done. We did do some folks some good, and maybe through this blog, the testament to our achievements might continue to do even more good; that’s worth more to me than playing some silly game to gain excessive recognition or phynancial reward.

I helped to get Google to a better place, and Google helped to get me to a better place, but now we’re both heading to two different places.

And with that, I accept. Thank you, Google. Now I’m free.

And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make
—The Beatles, The End

The story
Of life is quicker
Than the wink of an eye
The story of love
Is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again
—Jimi Hendrix, The Story of Life

LOLTESTMERCS: IM IN UR CLs WANTIN MOAR TESTZ - http://go/testmercenaries flyer
Click for a larger image.
Found this taped outside my office door one morning during my first Test Mercenaries engagement in 2007. Still have no idea who put it there.

Footnotes

1Notice the presence of “Running a company on visible figures alone” among W. Edwards Deming’s Seven Deadly Diseases, as well as the discussion of the frequent misquote You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

2The relevant quote from jwz’s resignation from Netscape: “And there’s another factor involved, which is that you can divide our industry into two kinds of people: those who want to go work for a company to make it successful, and those who want to go work for a successful company. Netscape’s early success and rapid growth caused us to stop getting the former and start getting the latter.” Another relevant quote from the same: “The company got big, and big companies just aren’t creative. There exist counterexamples to this, but in general, great things are accomplished by small groups of people who are driven, who have unity of purpose. The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is.”

3 In theory, money is an abstract indicator of the value one brings to the world—but then how does one rationalize the phenomena of Wall Street salaries and starving artists? I find the concept of “phynancial engineering” is at least as dangerous as it is absurd. If the term may be compared to “software engineering”, it may be fair to say those who adopt the title of “phynanical engineer” most often believe themselves to possess a license to compound complexity for profit, rather than to manage complexity for the benefit of society. Recent economic events appear to support such a viewpoint. I believe in capitalism, but not in capitalists.