Business Today

Pilot, Fail or Conquer

The freedom to pursue your dream to make a difference to humanity keeps Google a vibrant organisation.
By Rajeev Dubey   Delhi     Print Edition: March 13, 2016
Pilot, Fail or Conquer
Photo: Vivan Mehra

If you've interviewed for a job with Google, depending on the role, you've probably faced five to seven people one-on-one: a reportee, an immediate superior, a vertical specialist, a specialist from another vertical, an HR person and a director. But if you did not get hired, it is likely that one of them vetoed you. Each one of them is empowered to reject the potential Googler on parameters such as cognitive ability, leadership, collaboration, role-related knowledge and Googliness - fun-loving and chilled out.

Hiring by committee - where the potential manager has little role in the hiring - is just one of the ways in which Google ensures transparency in hiring and consistency of talent across geographies. "Companies look for role-related knowledge. For us, it's not the most important. I didn't have experience of Internet," says Rajan Anandan, Managing Director, Google S-East Asia and India, who worked with McKinsey, Dell and Microsoft.

No. Don't get fooled by the simplicity. Google's processes require each interviewer to write lengthy notes to explain the decision - either way. It is then examined by a regional committee. The company believes the process makes employees mobile across geographies and businesses. "We follow the same standard, whether we hire in India or in the US. He or she can pretty much do the job in any part of the world," says Kodukulla Suryanarayana, Director, People Operations, Google India, who himself moved from SMB sales to HR.

That's just the first taste of a culture that makes Google one of the world's most evolved employers of the 21st century. Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google in 1998 with a simple mission statement: "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." As uncomplicated as it is, the mission is equally implausible as Google's head of people operations, Laszlo Bock, writes in 'Work Rules!': "?there will always be more information to organise and more ways to make it useful".

But the idea was to focus the entire organisation's energies on what the founders call 'moonshot' thinking, which delivers at least 10x results - as opposed to incremental results. "I never heard in my previous companies that this idea caters to 15,000-20,000 people. Come up with an idea that addresses 10 million. I have heard this five to 10 times over eight years at Google," says Anand Rangarajan, Engineering Director, Tech Site Lead - Bangalore, Google India. "Moonshot thinking is very real. Most of the world is enamoured with 20 pc. We have no interest, appetite, excitement of growing 10 or 20 pc," says Anandan.

Google's distractions, such as the driverless car, the delivery drones, the Internet beaming 'Loon' project and drones, the 'Nest' smarthome technology or a host of other 'moonshot' projects, they have been spun off into Google's parent 'Alphabet'.

Kodukulla Suryanarayana, Director, People Operations (Sales) - Google India (Photo: A. Prabhakar Rao)
One of the ways in which Google creates a culture of innovation to bring such ideas to fruition is by a collaborative environment and transparency across the organisation. The founders go to great lengths to keep Google transparent. If an employee wants to look at presentations from the Cloud team, the search team, the apps team, the YouTube team, he has access to all of them. "We encourage people to share documentation, code, presentations, videos with the whole company. It encourages people to solve problems,"says Suryanarayana. Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, for instance, shares notes of board of directors meetings with all Googlers.

"Innovation happens when there is meeting of minds, informal discussion and catching up on problems. These are best achieved either through breakout areas or informal workspaces"

But the toughest thing in such an environment is treading the fine line between transparency and information deluge. A common challenge engineers face is how to absorb all of that and yet be productive.

Till date, the founders, and now CEO Sundar Pichai, address Googlers every week in a webinar called TGIF (Thank God It's Friday) held every Thursday where they field questions. "Googlers question the founders why are you thinking this way. It happens all the time," says Anandan, "It's encouraged."

"People take a lot of passion in questioning. Not just authority, peers, but status quo," says Rangarajan. "An employee fresh out of college questions HR director about a policy and HR says that's how it's always been. And he gets back saying that but that's 'Stupid', and this is how it should be. I've generally not seen this," he adds. By the way, 'Stupid' is accepted as Parliamentary, though name-calling is discouraged by HR reminding ever so often about the supreme principle of respect for co-workers.

In general, Googlers are trained to reject bureaucracy. "In 'bureaucracy busters'. we invite Googlers to say whether the process helps or it's there for the sake of it ," says Jayashri Ramamurti, Head of People Operations, Engineering and Products, Google India. Leaves are 'deemed' approved, even as an employee logs it in the system. The Boss's approval is not required, except when it's a sabbatical. For that matter, Google does not lay down rules, except on the code of conduct. "We provide guidelines, not rules. Rules can become constraints in how managers think," says Kodukulla.

The guideline that employees value the most is empowerment backing the '20 pc rule'. As long as the Googler is meeting her OKRs (objectives and key results), for 20pc of time she is free to pursue any project she believes can make a difference to millions of humans. Google excels in spotting and empowering such ideas through pilots. The company thrives on amplifying such ideas into global offerings. "We are a porous and collaborative organisation. Good ideas spread fast. We bring in empowerment and speed," says Anandan. The most noteworthy '20 pc' project being Gmail, which was an internal productivity tool but was launched globally in 2004.

Google India's 1,700-odd employees have made notable contributions such as YouTube offline to address the challenge of low bandwidth. It has not just rolled out to several low bandwidth geographies but the technology has also morphed into maps offline, search lite, Google docs and Google Drive offline. Even Google Chrome has a browser compression technology developed at its India centres. "How do you build user experiences in a way the app is meaningful? Locally inspired, globally useful and locally inspired, locally useful," says Jay Kota, Engineering Director, Tech Site Lead - Hyderabad.

Two and a half years ago, an Initiative called 'Helping Women Get Online' was a "20 pc" project of an executive from Google India's marketing team. She noted that Saudi Arabia had more women online than India. "She came back with the initiative and in a month we launched it. Now, it's in its new avatar with Tata Trusts. We are taking 'Internet Sathi' to villages on bicycles for ground-level activities. That initiative has rolled out across Asia and many other parts of the world," says Anandan.

Yet, thousands of such ideas die prematurely. That's to prevent anarchy', as one of the tenets at Google is: 'Fail Fast'. "The ideas that make it are the ones where someone has the passion and the motivation to see how far it goes," says Rangarajan.

The biggest challenge of dealing with people with smarts is managing their career growth and aspirations. "When you bring these super talented people in, it's challenging to keep them happy," Rangarajan says. In management there's probably 15-20 pc of innovation and challenging work and then there is 80 pc of drudgery. Work that needs to happen, even for this 15-20 pc to reach the masses," says Anand.

In many ways, Google is an antithesis of a new trend of organisations-without-offices. Google prefers employees work out of offices. Work from home is an exception, rather than a rule. "Innovation happens when there is meeting of minds, when there is informal discussion, there are catching up on problems. These are best achieved either through breakout areas or informal workspaces we have, besides meeting rooms and these are best achieved when you have the person around and therefore having a person in office usually helps," says Kodukulla.

About two years ago, as part of constant re-evaluation of its policies from data emerging from Googlegeist (an internal annual survey to measure Googlers' happiness quotient), Google India began studying team behaviour to ask a fundamental question: are managers relevant at all? People analytics team studied a number of different teams over time with the question: are managers relevant? What's the role of managers? Why do you need managers? Do they add value?

To the survey, Google concluded that managers are relevant. But analytics also threw up reasons why certain teams did better than the others, and that led to a company-wide programme to coach managers, who, in turn, coach their teams. It also spawned a platform called 'Guru', where Googlers are encouraged to explore who to go to for help as a mentor or a coach. And Google's quest for 'data'-based decisions goes on?

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