What I learned as a Product Manager at Google
tl;dr — While no longer as nimble as a startup, Google’s scale, strong culture and awesome people make it the ideal place to learn the nuts and bolts of product management and offers incredible opportunities to create products for millions/billions of users across the globe.
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I was a Product Manager(PM) at Google Health for the last ~2 years, launching health features on Search and Maps (like these features that help users find telehealth options on Search). I’m leaving Google to pursue an opportunity at a startup (more to come here). It’s a bittersweet moment since I loved my time at Google, so I decided to reflect on what I’ve learned as a Googler.
1) The “Googley” ethos is real and awesome
Everyone that interviews at Google is assessed for “Googleyness”. This includes being ambitious, humble, and doing the right thing. In addition to being whip smart, the large majority of Googlers I’ve met are so incredibly nice and helpful (every employee having the ability to give cash “peer bonuses” multiple times per quarter also helps :P). It makes working here a joy. Google corporate does everything it can to make our work environment as safe and comfortable as possible (e.g., the food, money to buy wfh accessories, lots of working hour flexibility, “face time” isn’t really a thing). An especially great part of the culture, is the “zero-blame” aspect. This transforms the company as it allows people to feel safe taking risks and when something does go wrong, teams can have transparent retrospectives and implement useful processes to prevent the mistake from happening in the future. Side note: imposter syndrome is real here — I constantly felt very lucky but also hopelessly unqualified to be surrounded by smarter/better people that I could learn tons from. Example, my manager was CEO of a Series B startup before coming to Google — so many ex-CXO examples like this!
2) Google is a large bureaucracy, launching something takes a village
Google is a $180B+ revenue company. The downside of doing something that harms its golden goose (ads, search, maps, etc.) is extremely high. Thus, there are very extensive processes in place to rigorously check/limit any potential user harm, production defects, PR risks. PMs need to be patient as this process can take months. As a result, things take a long time at Google. This is not unlike other large companies and I’d imagine Google is likely more agile than other companies of its size. These processes are important for the user experience, whether it’s making sure the search experience stays whip-fast or that user privacy is meticulously preserved according to various state and country-level regulations.
3) Core PM skills
- How to own and launch products made for millions: PMs at Google (for better or worse) serve as the nexus of dozens of functions (eng, ux, bd, legal, etc.) and own product roadmaps. I learned aspects of everything including running a cross-functional process to define a product vision/roadmap, conducting user research studies, designing using a scalable/thoughtful UI, engineering production to support billions of pings, pitching and signing partners, and crafting a nationwide marketing campaign. Especially fulfilling was a project during early COVID when my team launched features to help users find telehealth options — this was a huge learning opportunity. At Google, everything is Google scale, and that’s pretty cool.
- How to set a higher standard or pivot the team to something new: My team was amazing at Google. At times, I felt bad/unqualified asking for an extra analysis from data science or another rev at the UI. However, working with great people means this type of dialogue results in a thoughtful discussion on merits/tradeoffs of product expansion/excellence and often a better product. My product director halted a launch because she felt the feature should have more options for vulnerable users on Medicare and Medicaid. As a result, our team came up with a solution in 24 hours and the extra bit of thoughtfulness made the product much better in the long term. In addition, I have witnessed PMs pivot ruthlessly and drop what they were doing if they sensed something was not working — this is contrary to what I’ve seen in other companies where some shaky initiatives become “too big to fail”.
- How to relentlessly hunt down and flesh out new roadmap opportunities: PMs at any moment are grappling with a thousand directions that their product roadmap can go. It can feel overwhelming and it is the PM’s job to rigorously assess each of these options and prioritize them. PMs should go above and beyond to propose new ideas for their long term roadmap, gather resources x-functionally to meaningfully assess the user value and feasibility of ideas, and start Product Requirements Docs to get the ball rolling — all while fulfilling the day-to-day product responsibilities :). Some of my most inspirational colleagues would constantly work across organizations at Google, read the latest peer-reviewed literature, and consult experts to understand new ways our product could expand.
- How to focus on metrics, metrics, metrics: If you can’t measure it, don’t build it. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit. Go the extra mile at the beginning of a project to define metrics and gain alignment from the team/leadership. If a metric is difficult to measure, push your team to build extra capabilities to measure it if you have the luxury. Don’t just measure pure volume, but also “good” volume. I had a engineering director halt a launch because our existing metrics infrastructure was not detailed enough to effectively measure the impact of our product and was selling it short. As a result, I partnered with our data science and clinical team to design a new set of impact metrics.
- How to motivate a team: Google is a distracting place. There are a lot of interesting teams doing amazing things. In order to keep the team and leadership focused and engaged, you need to balance putting forth a vision that is futuristic yet achievable. Don’t forget to talk about the 5 year “if-everything-goes-according-to-plan-big-vision” end state and also the quarterly milestones for the next year. Continue to communicate this vision at every opportunity to team members and more formally at least once a quarter. You can never communicate your vision enough.
- How to scale a product organization: I got to see how the behemoth PM orgs of Search and Maps work. I also got to see the birth of several new Health-specific team within Google, starting with just a handful of PMs and growing to dozens. At each stage of growth, I saw fantastic examples of how leadership can provide guidance, bring in more support/managers, and implement new processes to make the org run smoothly.