Before I came to Silicon Valley, the first twenty years of my life weren’t very interesting. I grew up mostly in Flint, Michigan (of Michael Moore fame), which, if you’ve heard of it, is exactly like you imagine. If happiness is reality compared with your expectations, then I am the happiest person alive and little could change that for the rest of my life.
In self-development, there’s your comfort zone, your panic zone, and your learning zone. Picture a target board with your comfort zone in the center. Despite some (literal and figurative) stray bullet holes, Flint was the bulls-eye. At 21 I’d already satisfied my major life goals. I was first person in my family to go to real college, I had achieved my goal height of 5’8,” and was going to be the first of my friends to make it not only out of Flint, but to California.
In 2006 I drove 2,000 miles west, parked, and stepped out into the panic zone. The economy in Silicon Valley was booming, everyone knew it—and acted like it. None of the hot tech companies wanted my resume, so I starting sending them other people’s. I hired engineers to all the top tech giants (Yahoo, Oracle, EA, Cisco…) save for one glaring omission. It was common knowledge that to get into Google, you had to go to Stanford or an Ivy. As the most desirable employer on the planet, it was their privilege and prerogative to only hire the Best of the Best, and my Big 10 degree didn’t cut it. As I found out later, there’s actually an internal chart saying so.
I never applied to Google. It’s not that I thought I could network my way in without applying, I was just certain that some algorithm, probably the same one that keeps “V1agra” out of my inbox and search results, would reject my resume. I was a very different person at 22. Anyway, they found me; and a few recruiters invited me to explore opportunities (their words, of course) with the company. After a series of famously grilling interviews, they offered me a contract position, as is custom with in-house recruiting. I never asked how much I’d be paid because I knew I’d take whatever it was. I’d also heard that because Google could hire anyone they wanted and had so many perks, the pay was terribad. My first day I found out my contract was for $45 per hour, or $95,000 for the year. The contract excluded benefits or vacation but I was healthy and duh, it’s California, I was already living a vacation.
Even in the contractor orientation, I was the only state school graduate. After weeks of training, I learned I’d been allocated to “Yolanda’s team.” I had never heard of any Yolanda and had the impression I’d be put on something like Site Reliability Engineering or the Partner Solutions Organization, so I didn’t know what to make of this.
As it turned out, Yolanda, a Stanford MBA who’d been an investment banking VP and a Principal at Boston Consulting Group, was starting Google’s X Labs for People Operations—the Seal Team Six of staffing. As they say, it was all up and to the right from there.
Our small team (which inexplicably nicknamed “central”) came up with strategic experiments and special projects that other groups were structurally inhibited from devoting time to. Sure, we also did unglamorous triage work and acted as a clearinghouse for orphaned and misfit candidates, but that let us partner with senior managers across Google globally. I went on to travel to four continents for Google and hired people to twelve different offices.
Yolanda also helped me “convert” to become a full-time Googler. This was a really big deal. Contractors are told that conversion possible, which was true, but less than a percent were actually given the offer. At Google, employees wore white badges and contractors donned the Red Badge of Shame. I called it the Red Badge of Courage, but I really hated it. There are thousands of Google contractors, but the badge embarrassed me. It seems silly, but getting that white badge significantly improved my self esteem.
I was later told I was individually selected for this team. That still amazes me, considering there was nothing about me on paper that could’ve impressed them. Working for Yolanda was the best thing that could have ever happened in my early career.
In “How Will You Measure Your Life?”, an article based on a commencement speech that has literally changed the course of my life, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen writes that “management is the most noble professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.” If there is nobility in good management, then Yolanda is royalty. Management is not my chosen career path, but the most valuable thing I could learn early on was how much of a difference having the right–and best–people in an organization makes.
As I embark on a new adventure in my career in Talent, I want to help people like I was back then. As important, I want to help connect them to people like Yolanda that see the potential of people like I was. The best part of my career (and life) has been helping people get to the most exciting moments in theirs; and the scale at which I’m able to do that is how I will measure my life.