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Homeless, Not Harvard, On His Path to Google

No matter where you are, it's entirely possible to reinvent yourself.

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One in a series of articles on career management based on discussions with current and former senior Google leaders and “Greyglers”, i.e., members of an internal employee interest group at Google composed of staff of “a certain age” (i.e., 50+/-).

Some people are under the impression that Google only hires staff with ivy league degrees and/or stellar career credentials.  That is a myth.  Several people that I’ve interviewed have either never gone to college (including one SVP), or quit college and never returned (and they didn’t leave to be the founder of some tech company but, more often, to find themselves).  Similarly, several have experienced rocky patches in their careers and have significant gaps in their resumes but have figured out ways to bounce back and gain skills of value to Google and other employers.  Indeed, I was surprised to learn that a friend and colleague nearly hit rock-bottom early in his life and spent years completely reinventing himself.  He’s now a highly respected manager at Google and a company liaison to government and partner companies. 

My brave friend shared his history with me. He also shared the thoughtful, methodical approach that he took to turn his life around. His story is truly inspiring:

“I faced two major challenges at the start of my career.  They were related.

First, I’m an alcoholic.  I started drinking when I was 14.  I simply drank too much and took drugs too much and went to class too little.  That combination of things resulted in me dropping out of college.  And that was the start of a scary downward spiral. 

I have been homeless.  I’ve lived in my car.  I’ve scrounged in dumpsters for food.  I’ve been mugged.

You can’t tell someone not to be an alcoholic.  In my view, it is a genetic disposition. 

This was a career set-back of at least a decade.  Even after getting sober, I had really low self-esteem and self-confidence.  Because of the esteem issues, it would negatively impact my job interviews.  It took years to get over.

In my early 30’s, I finally began gaining control and took several tactical steps to climb out of the hole I’d created for myself.

First, I went to therapy.  I also went to career management sessions to get help.  This was hard because I was also working and going school at night to learn some marketable skills. 

After a period of time, I realized that there was an attitudinal difference between people who are successful and those who are not.  I decided to hang out with those people who were successful hoping the attitude would rub off and also hoping I could build helpful relationships.  I rented a room in an older woman’s house in [an affluent SF bay area community] so I could hang out with successful people.  I think it worked.

Shortly after moving to the neighborhood, I went to an industry trade show, gathered business cards, and sent a letter to every exhibitor that might have an interesting job and a short commute.  One of the companies called me.  I went in and I discovered that the hiring manager was someone who was from my neighborhood.  The interviews went well and I got hired. 

I was working in Engineering doing new design testing.  One day, I had to do a new product briefing to the Sales and Marketing teams during an offsite at a nice hotel.  It was such a nice setting and the food was so much better than the “roach coach” back at the office.  I decided then that I wanted to go into Marketing and I began taking Marketing classes.  After months of those courses, I went to my boss and asked to become a product manager.  He said that I could do so only if I found my replacement. I found a replacement in the Engineering team.

There are two lessons here:

Lesson 1: Hang out with people who are successful to meet them and learn what they do if you want what they have – knowledge, jobs, titles, money, etc.

Lesson 2: If you see something you want, ask for it, but be aware you will need to work for it.

In my product management job, I networked with a partner company at various trade shows.  After some time, they asked me to come to work for them.  That is when I realized the benefit of professional networking.  The timing was actually perfect. I coincidentally got laid off on a Thursday and had a job offer from the partner company the following week. 

Networking has been beneficial throughout my career.  I transitioned to multiple places later in my career, all through connections.

I did a range of things to build my network.  I spoke at conferences when I had an opportunity. I joined industry associations. I wrote articles when I could. I facilitated classes when I could.  I didn’t know which of these things was going to pay off.  I did all of them.  They were work but they were investments in my personal brand and my career.  You may find some friends along the way and they may result in interviews and job opportunities.

Lesson 3: Professional networking and socializing with people in your field is critical.”

I asked my friend if he had any other advice for people coming up in their careers. His suggestion:

Lesson 4: Change jobs regularly.

“One of the things that I would tell people who are getting out of college now, especially those going into tech: plan on staying at your first 3 companies for a couple of years each. 

There are several advantages to moving regularly: (1) you’ll get variety in experiences; (2) you’ll learn different ways of doing things; (3) you’ll meet a range of people; and (4) you’ll build out a network.

If you move more frequently than every 2 years, the risk is that you won’t learn much, you will be seen as a disloyal-job hopper only looking to bump up your salary, and you will burn connections in your professional network.  (One caveat: move immediately if you are abused or lied to.) 

After those first few jobs, then extend the duration of your jobs to 3-5 years.  If you stay somewhere longer than 5 years, at least in technology, there will be a perception that you are getting stale, that you retired on the job, you are too set in your ways.” 

Finally, I asked my friend where he saw his career was going next.

“Recently I approached my VP about eliminating a significant portion of the administrative tasks in my job.  I’ve wanted to accomplish lots of things that were interesting to me and good for the company but I just couldn’t get to them because my time was consumed by a range of bureaucratic responsibilities.  My VP and SVP were supportive and so I recently transitioned into a new role and am much happier.

Lots of companies wouldn’t be flexible to allow me to focus on what I’m good at and not spend time on what I’m not good at.  At my first job, I was honest with my boss about what I liked and what I didn’t like and the following week I got laid off.  Fortunately, things actually worked out well and I moved on to a better job. Here at Google, it was safe to have that discussion. 

Lesson 5: If you feel like you can be honest with your manager, tell him or her what you enjoy and don’t enjoy.  And work with people that you trust and respect and who trust and respect you.”

My friends’s plans after Google?:

“I’m not planning on leaving Google until they fire me.  Actually my career plan is to die on the job.”

He concluded his comments with a bit of reflection:

“My career can be viewed in two different ways:

The glass half-empty view of my career: If I had gone straight through school and not screwed around early in my career, I could have become an executive much earlier, made more of an impact in the world, and possibly gotten wealthy with the rise of the tech industry. 

The glass half-full view of my career: I went from living in my VW van and dumpster-diving to working at the best company in the world. 

Generally I’m pretty pleased and I think the people I grew up with would be impressed. I know my parents were proud of me before they passed away.”

As my friend’s story illustrates, wherever we are in life, there’s opportunity for great things. In this case, my friend was able to overcome his personal demons and find his way to accomplishment and personal satisfaction by being determined, disciplined, thoughtful and strategic. That combination, together with the specific tactical advice he offers above, will likely open many doors for you as well.

Note: All opinions shared are mine and those of my interviewees and not necessarily those of Google or Alphabet.

Originally published on LinkedIn.com

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