Douwe Osinga's Blog: Leaving Google

Monday, May 2, 2011

Leaving Google

Part 1: Why not to leave Google

I am leaving Google and thought it would be useful to put the answer to the question I often get as a reaction to this “what’s wrong with you?” in a triplet of blog posts. That and to promote my next endeavour. This is the first part, why not leave Google.

As a hugely successful company in an rapidly changing industry it is no wonder that Google is the continuing target of media attention. In the 7 years that I have been employed there, the way Google has been depicted has rather changed a lot though. In the first years, Google was this company of whiz kids who just tried things because they seemed like a good idea and surprised the world and themselves by creating wonderful products. A couple of years later, business analysts started writing about the Google Way and how by taking the long view and doing the smart thing Google succeeded where short term profit driven approaches failed.

Lately however, the meme of Google being the new Microsoft, being the new evil empire seems to be gaining traction. Of course if “don’t be evil” is your informal motto, you can be expected to be held against that standard, too. But it annoyed me to no end how the press was generally ignoring Heinlein's Razor, assuming malice where at most stupidity could be found.

So before answering the questions why I am leaving Google and what am I going to do next, I wanted to first rectify some common misconceptions about Google, implicitly answering the question why not to leave Google.

Google has gone Evil
Search for [google evil] and mostly you’ll find posts about how Google has gone evil. No doubt Google has become rather big and involved in many products and markets. This does lead to complications and difficult decisions. Either way you go on a decision, somebody will call evil. Google being secretive doesn’t help - the idea here is that information can be freely shared inside of Google as long as nobody brings anything outisde - it means that mistakes easily seem like conspiracies.
Meanwhile, it is still the case that any plan at Google can be tackled by pointing out that it would in fact be evil. Even if said plan would make a lot of money.

All the good engineers are leaving for Facebook
Well, that’s clearly not the case; I am starting my own thing for example. :)
Facebook and Google do employ of course the same sort of people. A drive between their headquarters takes less than 15 minutes. Of course, you’re going to see employees switch companies. And Google employs 25 thousand people, so in absolute numbers, this can be a significant number. But like the man said, leaving Google for Facebook is like divorcing your wife for her sister (Luuk added, younger sister) and I do think more people leave Google for startups than for Facebook. And so it should be.

20% time is a myth
Back when the business analysts were talking about the Google Way of innovation, a lot was written about how Google engineers could spend 20% of their time on whatever they wanted to work. Recently, there are more articles about how this is just a myth. At Google, you’re expected to do work 5 days a week, just like anywhere else. You can’t just learn how to play the harp or whatever.
Well, yes, of course. The myth might have been that you basically get a day off a week to do whatever. It is still work. And you’re still held responsible for what you do. So yeah, you can do whatever you want to, but you have to actually want it and it is still for Google. Which means it isn’t for everybody. Also, it isn’t always the next big product. Hundreds of engineers at Google spend their 20% time on mundane things like promoting test driven coding, cleaning up old code, mentoring new engineers or just helping out on another project that needs helping.

You can’t get anything done at Google anymore
There is some truth to this one. As an individual engineer you are going to have less of an impact on an organization if there’s 25 thousand people working there than on an organization with 25. But there is of course a flip side to that argument. Having a huge impact on a small organization can still leave you pretty much invisible. And as Chrome and Android have shown, if a project at Google does succeed, it can shift the (tech) world.
As an individual engineer you can still get your pet project out of the door on Google Labs. The world or even most of Google might not notice, but that’s the same as in your 25 person company. Anybody check out

And they pay well, let me work where I want and Googlers in general make for excellent co-workers. So why quit? I’ll leave the Google bashing for the next installment in this series.