La Douleur Exquise

So the announcement that Marissa Mayer would be leaving Google to join Yahoo as CEO was certainly shocking. It’s not at all something that I expected but now that there have been a number of articles published explaining her circumstances, the opportunity, etc– the move makes sense and I generally think that this is a good choice for Mayer as well as Yahoo.

Without her saying it, it’s all speculation of course. But various articles have commented that while she was a product wunderkind at Google and employee #20, that she was recently passed over for a plum role and had taken a noticeably lessened role at Google in the recent past. Having spent 13 years at Google, perhaps she was feeling antsy, maybe she wanted a bigger title (and wasn’t going to get it at Google), and maybe she wanted to tackle the challenge of turning around a company that was unfocused and lurching towards obsolescence. When you’re smart and capable, a meaty challenge is hard to resist.

Now, I have no insight as to the motivations, desires and the real day-to-day life of people in Mayer’s position– people in really high and important positions. I mean, Mayer apparently has numerous homes and $300 million in the bank, so regardless of what she does, she will always be financially ok. So the risk for Mayer is high (in terms of meeting company and public expectations) but not a real problem if she fails (she can still take her riches and live a very lovely life).

But I do think that people that leave Google, perhaps people at the lower levels like I was, are really brave to leave Google. (And I’m not saying that just because I left Google.) Brave because Google really is a safe and happy place and it’s really easy to succumb to the golden handcuffs of working at the company. And I say that without judgment– some people want consistency and sameness in their lives and for them, Google is a really good place to be (and with an amazing health insurance package to boot).

I think it takes a brave person to walk away from the golden aura that accompanies being a Google employee to try something else. Something else where failure is a possibility. (Failure is a possibility at Google too but it seems very buffered by the largeness of the company and the positive sentiment that is assigned to all things Google, generally speaking.) Something else that might be messy and ugly and in need of an intervention. It takes a brave person to walk away from something that they know with some certainty that they are good at and try to take on something where their competence is TBD.

One of the things that I found most… surprising? noticeable? when I returned to the Bay area after finishing business school was learning who was still at Google (of the group that I was in) and what they were doing. For a number of people, they were doing exactly the same things as two years ago. Or something nearly the same as two years ago. And in talking to people (both at the company as well as those that have left), I get the sense that you shouldn’t expect to move up in your career at the company. Most moves are lateral– so you may get an opportunity to tackle new challenges, but you won’t get more pay or a promotion, despite proving yourself or being super talented. (And I will say that I do think a lot of the employees are really smart and talented– in a way that I don’t think exists at other companies. It’s just sad that there aren’t greater opportunities there for this pool of talent.) And I think some people are just comfortable coasting (not my word– a word that I keep hearing others use) or can’t afford the risk of leaving the company.

A month or so ago, I saw an ex-coworker who had recently left Google as well. He was one of the people that said the things that I describe above and we agreed that unless you joined in 2002-2005 or you are some kind of hotshot executive that Google wooed into a plum position, Google is kind of a deadzone when it comes to career advancement. If you joined in the heyday, you had the opportunity to wind your way into a position that current newcomers could never/ will never have the chance to get to. Anybody joining today, especially with just a bachelor’s degree, honestly: you missed the boat and you will probably be able to accomplish more at any other company. You might even want to look at joining Yahoo. Unless Google has some killer app that I don’t know about (which might be the case), it doesn’t seem to really be innovating and a lot of the newer products are kind of duds (e.g. Google Wave, Google+, Google Wallet). The product marketing manager that got to launch Gmail: good job. The product marketing manager stuck with increasing customer interest in Google+: good luck.

I’m not trying to bash Google. I just think: it’s a staid place compared to what it was before. And the benefits of being with the company now are different than before. And for some people, the possibility of some wild new adventure seems…. pretty great. I’m going to guess this was a big reason for Mayer’s decision. I wish her lots of luck.

In the end, I guess making the decision to leave Google is, to me, like the decision to leave a really good looking, but non-committal boyfriend. All your friends tell you you’re so lucky to have a guy like Google. You feel better, smarter, prettier, just from being affiliated with Google. And when you walk away, people stand there, dumbfounded, like whyyyyy? Why would you walk away? How could you walk away? And then you have to admit: despite the happy feelings of being showered with awe from the mere state of being Google’s mate, you knew in your heart that Google would never take things to the next level. You would be stuck in this moment that absolutely encapsulates the phrase “la douleur exquise” (translation: “the exquisite pain” of  wanting something that you know you can never have) and in the off chance that there might be something better from taking the leap, you close your eyes, and you give it a go.

— DOA

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