I’ve been at Google for almost a year-and-a-half and the experience has been amazing. People are incredibly supportive and I feel extremely fortunate to be on such a great team, even more so with the pandemic making life hard for so many people. Every time someone shows appreciation for my expertise or someone gives me a peer bonus for going beyond expectations, I feel good. It’s still sometimes an odd feeling and it’s been making me think back to how I got to the point where feeling appreciated could be so foreign.
Over the course of a career, you work at a variety of places with a myriad of people but most of it becomes a blur. You remember a little more detail around key events like a launch that went well (or didn’t) and a lot of sentiment around what you enjoyed or disliked, but most of the specifics fade; however, every once in a while, there’s a moment that significantly impacts you and crystalizes in your mind. For me, it was a particular one-on-one meeting I had with someone in a leadership position at a previous company I had worked at for years.
We discussed several things in the meeting but at one point this leader said something along the lines of how I didn’t work well with others. There were certainly some people who were challenging to work with, but I was curious whom this person could be talking about. Protip, if you don’t know something, ask. So I asked for an example and the response wasn’t of any specific incident but was the name of another employee. This other employee was literally personally responsible for driving away one of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with, so my mind raced with several thoughts.
Did leadership realize how problematic this other person was? What should I have done differently working with this other person? Was it leadership’s impression that I was the problem? Did this explain why I felt like there was never a path to promotion nor actionable feedback toward it? And on and on.
But one thought pushed away all the others: If I really had been that toxic, leadership’s response was to completely ignore it. Obviously, I didn’t think I was the issue, but let’s say I was. Leadership’s position was that it was better to let this problem fester than to take any meaningful steps to address it. At that moment, I felt like I suddenly understood all the problems that I had at that company.
Client teams doing zero work to track or fix crashes? Ignore it. Backend teams making arbitrary data model changes taking down production? Ignore it. Product managers pushing changes that go against explicit user experience research? Ignore it. Manager forcing developers to track hour by hour how much they code per day? Ignore it.
There had been a lot of frustrations that I had dealt with at that job from having a manager that literally yelled “YOU NEED TO DO BETTER” at several of us to having other teams object to every single attempt to promote someone not on their teams. I dealt with it because there were some amazing people that I worked with. We made our app and processes better than they had ever been by any measure and we tackled some complex technical challenges along the way. I was proud of what we had accomplished despite not being set up to succeed.
But you can’t fix everything from the bottom. Worse, the toxicity of a bad culture can seep into you and affect you. That bad culture and poor leadership cause tribalism, and it’s hard not to be aggressively defensive of your team in that environment. I was spending all of my time fighting bad decisions. I realize that my position on these decisions isn’t any different now (I still think it’s a terrible idea to have developers track exactly how many hours they spend writing code per day, to have client developers paged every time a backend goes down, to switch to inferior/problematic monitoring tools because others are using them, etc.), but I got to the point where I wasn’t willing to really explain why.
I was incredibly frustrated at that point in my career. I felt unappreciated and, worse, I felt my team was unappreciated. Our victories weren’t celebrated outside of our team and our feedback wasn’t respected. There were regularly technical decisions made or being pushed from other teams that were really bad for our team and it was exhausting.
Even after all this time away from that company, I’m still relearning how to be appreciated. Looking back, I can certainly see where I could have done better, but I think the biggest lesson for myself is to understand how much impact I could actually have. Fixing a codebase is a lot easier than fixing a culture, but it’s not worth sacrificing who you are to fix either. I think of myself at that time as an umbrella and the rain was the toxicity. I let myself become soaked with it to spare a small patch, but an umbrella cannot stop the rain.
The supportive environment at Google is incredible. People constantly go out of their way to show appreciation for things big and small. I literally had multiple people reach out to me because they enjoyed my goofy out of office message when I took a week off and just wanted me to know. It’s going to take a long time to fully rebuild myself but I am so grateful that I can start being myself again and can reflect the good around me.