Appetizer: An ex-Googler went on an epic 5-day tweetstorm that gives a brutal inside look at the backstabbing and politics at the company If you’re interested in technology, then one of the most fascinating longer reads available about Silicon Valley culture is the Twitter serial posted last week by Morgan Knutson, a former Google web designer. Knutson wrote 149 tweets over a period of five days about his brief tenure at Google, the long-troubled, now-defunct social network.
Knutson began writing a day after The Wall Street Journal revealed that Google had waited seven months before disclosing that a security lapse had enabled third-party developers to see private information belonging to as many as 500,000 Google users. A few hours after the story was published, Google announced it had shuttered Google, which was created to challenge Facebook but never came close. Apparently, the situation prompted Knutson to reveal information he had bottled up for six years.
With all of Google’s success and money as well as its sheer size (more than 80,000 employees now), it’s easy to think of the company as something otherworldly. What Knutson does – with his descriptions of bruised egos, turf wars, and politically minded bosses – is remind us that Google isn’t all that different from anywhere else humans are employed.
MAIN COURSE: Morgan Knutson on Twitter unloads on his less than wonderful time at Google: ”Now that GooglePlus has been shuttered, I should air my dirty laundry on how awful the project and exec team of GooglePlus was. I’m still pissed about the bait and switch they pulled by telling me I’d be working on Chrome, then putting me on that godforsaken piece of GooglePlus shit on day one.”
On my first day I was given a badge and shown around the building I’d be working in. This was the first indication for me that something was awry. (Aside: The building design could only be described as kitsch. Goofy colored furniture. A slide. Crap… everywhere.) My division, Google Plus aka Google+, was situated in THE main building. 1900. A floor away from Larry Page’s office (CEO of Google/Alphabet). If you were one of the 12,000 people at Google in Mountain View who didn’t work on GooglePlus, then you didn’t have access to these floors.
The Google CEO didn’t just have an office. The entire floor was his. We all had access to it and were encouraged to use it sparingly. A ‘war room’ here and there. We had access to ‘his’ cafe too. A super fancy vegan cafe called ‘cloud’ that wouldn’t be sustainable in the real world.
Why this exclusivity? What made Google+ project so special? Why was it held so close to Google’s chest? I’d find out later that the SeniorVicePresident of Plus used his clout to swing all of this. His name was Vic Gundotra. He was relatively charismatic. I remember him frequently flirting with the women on the team. Gave me a compounded horrible impression of him.
My desk was directly next to Vic’s glass-walled office. He would walk by my desk dozens of times during the day. He could see my screen from his desk. During the 8 months I was there, culminating in me leading the redesign of his product, Vic didn’t say one word to me. No hello. No goodbye, or thanks for staying late. No handshake. No eye contact.
Vic’s product vision was fear-based. “Google built the knowledge graph, and Facebook swooped in and built the social graph. If we don’t own the social graph then we can’t claim to have indexed ALL the world’s data.” It made sense at the time. That was a valuable dataset that Google would never be able to leverage. Vic was powerful at Google. He had buy-in from the top and he wielded that stick aggressively.
Gondotra made Plus as pervasive as he could. Each product org had a mandate to integrate its social features. If your team, say on Gmail or Android, was to integrate Google+’s features then your team would be awarded a 1.5-3x multiplier on top of your yearly bonus. Your bonus was already something like 15% of your salary. You read that correctly. A fuck ton of money to ruin the product you were building with bloated garbage that no one wanted.
No one really liked this. People drank the kool-aid though, but mostly because it was green and made of paper. This made Plus the center of the Google universe and made Vic feel invincible, I presume. Once, I had to hold back laughter after he announced his “brilliant” idea to redesign the product from the ground up…every 6 months. Vic left the company in 2014. Maybe because of this type of thing? Hard to say.
Google, like many companies, has different tracks and levels for different disciplines. They, of course, asked me how much I made in my previous role. I made substantially below market rate, but *amazing* for non-profits. They low-balled me. My offer was $115k a year with $100k in stock vesting over 4 years. It was way more than I’d ever made, but still below market rate. I accepted with no negotiating. My title was UI Designer Level II. Also low.
On my second day, I found out that I was sitting next to another designer and I was so stoked! I had been solo & remote for 3+ years with the non-profits since I had left my second job, a little agency in LA. I introduced myself. This was their first job out of an Ivy League. They were one level below me. They were working on a tiny sliver of a sidebar tucked away on an internal page of GooglePlus. Games, or something. “Inconsequential” is a good description. My first thought was “WTF? how is this a job? they pay you for this?”
I was kind, of course, and let them know if they needed any help to just let me know. This was my second indication that Google wasn’t what I expected. Thought this was the pros. Never would’ve imagined that I was joining a team of 50+ designers where a bunch of them had never designed before.
I was first placed on the Google Photos team which had been swallowed up by Plus. It had some seriously good front-end devs (and good people). It was a small team within a very large team. My first project was to redesign the photos lightbox. I introduced some new and basic patterns and drew all the iconography in the given aesthetic. Made some prototypes. Eng started building. Non-controversial. This was a matter of weeks. But…now what? I didn’t have anything else lined up in the sprint. My deskmate was still cranking away on their little area.
Well, I didn’t know the rest of the team at all, so I figured I’d go around meeting folks and offer to help with anything they needed. I’d grab a seat and draw some UI, or an icon, or rattle off thoughts. Whatever they needed. I got to know a few people, but most importantly I got to know what they were working on, and it wasn’t pretty.
Everything being produced felt disjointed or siloed. Not part of the whole. The M.O. was build and copy as much shit as possible. “Win the race.”
There was a distinct lack of a grand vision. None of it had been made with the consideration of all the products in the Google ecosystem. Just a bunch of “UX designers” not caring about the actual customer experience. Just focusing on their silos because that’s how you complete tasks and play the game.
It’s now November and I’m tasked with designing the opt-in UI, and parts of the functional UI for facial recognition in photos. That was about a week worth of work. FB copied some of my visuals on this, but our whole platform was a ripoff of theirs.
I went back to knocking things out for other people. Designed some community branding, did a sweater design for SWSX, drew some visuals for people. The entire time I was also noodling about the disparate stuff I was seeing.
I think it was around this time that Chuck, my manager who wouldn’t micro-manage but pumped you up and encouraged you to shoot for the moon (I truly liked him), got replaced by a guy that he was managing. An awfully bad designer with a love for bureaucracy. Let’s call him Greg because his real name is just as vanilla.
Greg was a smarmy, politically motivated little fella who had no intentions of ever leaving Google. He told me that. I didn’t like him from the moment I met him and the feeling was mutual. He was now my manager. I knew it wouldn’t go well.
The common thread between 99.8% of the people that I interacted with at Google is that they were ethical, highly intelligent, and hard working. I had a lot of admiration and respect for many of them and wish some of them had stayed in touch.
The design organization was massive, spanning almost every product, of course. (Some products didn’t have designers) It felt like design had many rival factions split by not just certain product orgs, but between skill and schools of thought.
There was the “creative team” which was a service team that would create icons or other assets based on the outdated style guides. You’d have to submit a form and wait for them. They were a bit surly.
Then there was a team that was iterating on Kennedy, the name for the new Google UI style. It was if they were on a mountain, secluded. This is the style that Gmail and Calendar have had for years, now replaced with some Frankenstein version of Material. The craziest thing about this team is that one of the most pivotal players was a… contractor. I was blown away when I found this out.
Anyhow, it wasn’t super clear what other teams were doing. It wasn’t clear who I should have been collaborating with to achieve my loftier goals of affecting all of the UI patterns at Google. Nothing was ever clear. Which is weird because Google seemed to be very transparent. I mean, you could pop open a web page and see every detail about every employee, from their level to their desk location.
Back at home, during my break, I was cranking away. Playing with my baby girl in between trying to rationalize everything going on in the project. Real-Time Communications (RTC) was hugely important to the team. Hangouts came from Plus.
Greg was managing that team originally. Part of why he was respected. Hangouts were the only good thing about this shitty product. It was sort of at odds with the current RTC paradigms. Chat Moles.
Moles were the name for the little chat boxes that pop up from the bottom of Gmail, enabling you to chat with someone. They’re an effective UI paradigm. None of this stuff was tightly integrated. of a layer on top of everything. I wanted to change that. This was Plus when I joined. Lots of sections. Lots of junk. Bad navigation. Left-aligned content.
I wanted to make RTC a first-class citizen. I designed a responsive layout that would give you list of friends on the right, and if your screen was large enough, you’d also get all of your message threads. Almost identical UI to messages on OSX (slightly before it existed). That top gray bar was called the Sandbar. Just kind of slotted in there. I integrated it with a new navigation on the left side with a rounded edge. Drew a new set of icons that fit with an overall polished aesthetic. I put a lot of attention into crafting their various states.
The whole vision was to integrate Google’s other apps into this sidebar navigation. Obviously, it’s a bit of a technical challenge, but this would have been a viable UI framework to work towards. No separate websites for each product e.g. Gmail, calendar, plus, just one place to go with everything seamlessly integrated. I also put a new coat of paint on literally everything. Polished it up nicely.
It’s now January of 2012.
I’m back in the office. I have a little something up my sleeve. I show it around to various folks and people seem to like it. Awesome. Even Greg reluctantly liked it. Someone (maybe him) told me I needed to talk to another guy to get buy-in on my chat plans. He was the exec that was responsible for it.
I found him and was able to give him a quick elevator pitch on what I was going for with RTC. He said “Haha, there’s no way we’re doing that. I/O is coming up and we’ve just spent the last 4 months building a Chrome extension that does something similar. If Plus has this, then we’re going to get laughed off the stage.”
I was like, “What? But shouldn’t these all work together in a sort of ‘your conversations are available wherever you are?’ kind of way?”
“No, we’re not doing that.”
I was floored. Did he say chrome extension? Did he even understand what I had explained and shown him? Was he a huge fucking idiot? Sigh. Whatever, I pushed forward.
Sitting behind me was the most badass group of people on the team. The User Experience Engineering (UXE) team. They made things come to life. Wielded front-end code like no other. I showed them my work and they were legitimately stoked. This team was lead by the imitable Andy Hertzfeld. A god damned saint. Honestly, working with Andy was the highlight of my short tenure at Google. He seemed genuinely sad the day I told him I was leaving. I was too.
Anyhow, one guy on the team offered to build a prototype. His name was Chris, and without him, this would have never gotten off the ground. He was incredible. Kind and generous, and he put in his all. We collaborated for a couple of weeks and when he was done, you could replace your hash (unique identifier for your account) in the URL and use the prototype with your data. It was superb.
Greg used it to pitch the redesign to Vic. Made me feel shut out and like a disposable employee due to the fact that I wasn’t involved. What was said in that meeting? Was it pitched right? Was the whole vision conveyed? So much anxiety. It didn’t matter. Vic bought in. The whole team would rally around my work.
Everything at Google has to have a code name in order to be taken seriously. I had huge ambitions for this work and the paradigms it introduced. I wanted it to be the North Star. Arrogant right? I told a handful of people I wanted to call it North Star while trying to gauge their reaction. The consensus was pretty much, “Yeah, I guess.”
Greg tells me a couple days later “Vic wants to call it North Star. He thinks it will be foundational.”
I quickly designed a logo for the project. It was essentially a compass rose. I printed a huge version and stuck it on the designated war room. I’d put my flag in the ground. The team huddled together and started phasing the project. Areas of the product were divvied up, people took ownership, everyone worked in tandem. I was the go-to for any questions and direction. I was responsible for finishing the visuals that I had started.
Google+ was such a massive waste of resources. For example, every person at Google gets a corporate card. The entire design team was given a $500 allowance to buy any device they wanted. At one point I bought some shit I shouldn’t have. I just didn’t care any. Greg brought me to HR and tried to have me fired for it. HR was like, “Uhh, I think he understands not to do that again.”
To get the redesign done, many engineers were onboarded to the team. It didn’t even matter what type of experience they had. The conventional thinking was that “If they made it through the hiring process, then they can figure anything out.” This isn’t true. An engineer was tasked with building out the new “share box.” He was an infrastructure engineer. Terrible mismanagement of resources. He never should have been put on this task. I felt bad for him. I sat next to him and wrote the CSS in a chat window, which he would then add to the app. A highly dysfunctional way of writing code.
The marketing team was stellar! They would make these beautifully animated shorts that would show off how to use new features. I was a huge fan of the “Dear Sophie” ad. Makes me cry every time I see it. I wanted to our marketing team to be set up for success. They needed the entirety of the UI recreated in illustrator. No one else on the team could do it, so I did. It was a trial. Took so much effort. Didn’t matter in the scheme of things.
The redesign of Google+ launched. People thought it was pretty good. I was thankful that it wasn’t panned. Now I needed to figure out what was next. I wasn’t planning on leaving. Google is a massive company and it’s relatively trivial to switch teams. The way you do that is by sending an email to a google group and various teams will reach out if they’re interested. I drafted a very brief email.
“Hi all, I’m looking to join another team. Thanks for your consideration.”
I held it in my drafts for a couple of days. Everyone on the team would see it. I felt really bad. I didn’t want to make everyone else feel bad too. I sent it. It did make people feel bad I got an offer to interview for the Fiber TV team. I met them and I was blown away. They had produced a beautiful and usable product, with no designer.
Designing a TV experience has always been a minor fantasy of mine. This team was impressive and I wanted to join them. A few days later I got an email from the head of product at Dropbox. There were toe other designers there. He wanted to know if I wanted to interview. I immediately responded with an emphatic yes.
Another designer at Google hit me up around this time and wanted to know if I wanted to join his crack team for a special project. It was to design a system of iOS components for use by all of Google. I agreed. Apparently, other teams were complaining that they didn’t have the resources to build iOS apps. He wanted to solve that.
I interviewed at Dropbox shortly after. It was a pleasant experience. These people weren’t mired in bullshit and politics. They were at the top of their games. I was so stoked to interview.
About a week later I got on a plane to Google NY to collaborate on this special project. Ironically, the person sitting next to me also worked at Google. They didn’t care. Super antisocial. I thought, “I hate this company so much.”
Showed up to Google NY and joined the other people. It was truly an all-star design team. I was the schlubbiest person there. The engineers helping with the project worked on Google Drive. During our first meeting, we all shared the homework we had done. Mine was on Dropbox. I didn’t like Drive. They asked me to use Drive.
Getting my work into Drive was a shitshow. I felt bad that it failed as they watched. I felt bad that I’d just interviewed with the company that Drive was a carbon copy of. Halfway through the meeting, I got a call. It was the Dropbox recruiter. He said everyone loved me and I got the job. Ughh, what a relief.
I negotiated hard. I got what I felt I was worth. They gave me a signing bonus worth almost as much as the 4-year equity grant from Google.
Aside: Dropbox was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. They treated me with so much love and respect. I did a massive amount of work for them. Was leading teams. Hired a ton. Was there for years.
I got back to the Google Mountain View office after working with the guys in NY. I sent a resignation email to Greg. He forwarded it to HR within seconds.
I sent an email to the company saying goodbye (standard practice). I got hundreds of heartfelt replies from Google employees. Felt great and terrible at the same time.
On my way out, Greg tried to chit-chat and shake my hand. It took everything in me not to tell him to go fuck himself. I walked past his extended hand, and said “Nah, man.”
He said, “Pfftt, really!?”
I turned around and looked him the eye as I backed out of the door. “Yeah, really.”