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Working at Google vs. Working at Microsoft

I have theory that Google's big problem is that the company hasn't realized that it isn't a startup anymore

Dare Obasanjo's Blog

Recently I've been bumping into more and more people who've either left Google to come to Microsoft or got offers from both companies and picked Microsoft over Google. I believe this is part of a larger trend especially since I've seen lots of people who left the company for "greener pastures" return in the past year (at least 8 people I know personally have rejoined). However in this blog post I'll stick to talking about people who've chosen Microsoft over Google.

First of all there’s the post by Sergey Solyanik entitled Back to Microsoft where he primarily gripes about the culture and lack of career development at Google, some key excerpts are

Last week I left Google to go back to Microsoft, where I started this Monday (and so not surprisingly, I was too busy to blog about it)

So why did I leave?

There are many things about Google that are not great, and merit improvement. There are plenty of silly politics, underperformance, inefficiencies and ineffectiveness, and things that are plain stupid. I will not write about these things here because they are immaterial. I did not leave because of them. No company has achieved the status of the perfect workplace, and no one ever will.

I left because Microsoft turned out to be the right place for me.

Google software business is divided between producing the "eye candy" - web properties that are designed to amuse and attract people - and the infrastructure required to support them. Some of the web properties are useful (some extremely useful - search), but most of them primarily help people waste time online (blogger, youtube, orkut, etc)

This orientation towards cool, but not necessarilly useful or essential software really affects the way the software engineering is done. Everything is pretty much run by the engineering - PMs and testers are conspicuously absent from the process. While they do exist in theory, there are too few of them to matter.

On one hand, there are beneficial effects - it is easy to ship software quickly…On the other hand, I was using Google software - a lot of it - in the last year, and slick as it is, there's just too much of it that is regularly broken. It seems like every week 10% of all the features are broken in one or the other browser. And it's a different 10% every week - the old bugs are getting fixed, the new ones introduced. This across Blogger, Gmail, Google Docs, Maps, and more

The culture part is very important here - you can spend more time fixing bugs, you can introduce processes to improve things, but it is very, very hard to change the culture. And the culture at Google values "coolness" tremendously, and the quality of service not as much. At least in the places where I worked.

The second reason I left Google was because I realized that I am not excited by the individual contributor role any more, and I don't want to become a manager at Google.

The Google Manager is a very interesting phenomenon. On one hand, they usually have a LOT of people from different businesses reporting to them, and are perennially very busy.

On the other hand, in my year at Google, I could not figure out what was it they were doing. The better manager that I had collected feedback from my peers and gave it to me. There was no other (observable by me) impact on Google. The worse manager that I had did not do even that, so for me as a manager he was a complete no-op. I asked quite a few other engineers from senior to senior staff levels that had spent far more time at Google than I, and they didn't know either. I am not making this up!

Sergey isn’t the only senior engineer I know who  has contributed significantly to Google projects and then decided Microsoft was a better fit for him. Danny Thorpe who worked on Google Gears is back at Microsoft for his second stint working on developer technologies related to Windows Live.  These aren’t the only folks I’ve seen who’ve decided to make the switch from the big G to the b0rg, these are just the ones who have blogs that I can point at.

Unsurprisingly, the fact that Google isn’t a good place for senior developers is also becoming clearly evident in their interview processes. Take this post from Svetlin Nakov entitled Rejected a Program Manager Position at Microsoft Dublin - My Successful Interview at Microsoft where he concludes

My Experience at Interviews with Microsoft and Google

Few months ago I was interviewed for a software engineer in Google Zurich. If I need to compare Microsoft and Google, I should tell it in short: Google sux! Here are my reasons for this:

1) Google interview were not professional. It was like Olympiad in Informatics. Google asked me only about algorithms and data structures, nothing about software technologies and software engineering. It was obvious that they do not care that I had 12 years software engineering experience. They just ignored this. The only think Google wants to know about their candidates are their algorithms and analytical thinking skills. Nothing about technology, nothing about engineering.

2) Google employ everybody as junior developer, ignoring the existing experience. It is nice to work in Google if it is your first job, really nice, but if you have 12 years of experience with lots of languages, technologies and platforms, at lots of senior positions, you should expect higher position in Google, right?

3) Microsoft have really good interview process. People working in Microsoft are relly very smart and skillful. Their process is far ahead of Google. Their quality of development is far ahead of Google. Their management is ahead of Google and their recruitment is ahead of Google.

Microsoft is Better Place to Work than Google

At my interviews I was asking my interviewers in both Microsoft and Google a lot about the development process, engineering and technologies. I was asking also my colleagues working in these companies. I found for myself that Microsoft is better organized, managed and structured. Microsoft do software development in more professional way than Google. Their engineers are better. Their development process is better. Their products are better. Their technologies are better. Their interviews are better. Google was like a kindergarden - young and not experienced enough people, an office full of fun and entertainment, interviews typical for junior people and lack of traditions in development of high quality software products.

Based on my observations, I have theory that Google’s big problem is that the company hasn’t realized that it isn’t a startup anymore. This disconnect between the company’s status and it’s perception of itself manifests in a number of ways

  1. Startups don’t have a career path for their employees. Does anyone at Facebook know what they want to be in five years besides rich? However once riches are no longer guaranteed and the stock isn’t firing on all cylinders (GOOG is underperforming both the NASDAQ and DOW Jones industrial average this year) then you need to have a better career plan for your employees that goes beyond “free lunches and all the foosball you can handle".

  2. There is no legacy code at a startup. When your code base is young, it isn’t a big deal to have developers checking in new features after an overnight coding fit powered by caffeine and pizza. For the most part, the code base shouldn’t be large enough or interdependent enough for one change to cause issues. However it is practically a law of software development that the older your code gets the more lines of code it accumulates and the more closely coupled your modules become. This means changing things in one part of the code can have adverse effects in another. 

    As all organizations mature they tend to add PROCESS. These processes exist to insulate the companies from the mistakes that occur after a company gets to a certain size and can no longer trust its employees to always do the right thing. Requiring code reviews, design specifications, black box & whitebox & unit testing, usability studies, threat models, etc are all the kinds of overhead that differentiate a mature software development shop from a “fly by the seat of your pants” startup. However once you’ve been through enough fire drills, some of those processes don’t sound as bad as they once did. This is why senior developers value them while junior developers don’t since the latter haven’t been around the block enough.

  3. There is less politics at a startup. In any activity where humans have to come together collaboratively to achieve a goal, there will always be people with different agendas. The more people you add to the mix, the more agendas you have to contend with. Doing things by consensus is OK when you have to get consensus from two or three people who sit in the same hallway as you. It’s a totally different ball game when you need to gain it from lots of people from across a diverse company working on different projects in different regions of the world who have different perspectives on how to solve your problems. At Google, even hiring an undergraduate candidate has to go through several layers of committees which means hiring managers need to possess some political savvy if they want to get their candidates approved.  The founders of Dodgeball quit the Google after their startup was acquired after they realized that they didn’t have the political savvy to get resources allocated to their project.

The fact that Google is having problems retaining employees isn't news, Fortune wrote an article about it just a few months ago. The technology press makes it seem like people are ditching Google for hot startups like FriendFeed and Facebook. However the truth is more nuanced than that. Now that Google is just another big software company, lots of people are comparing it to other big software companies like Microsoft and finding it lacking.


[This post appeared originally here and is republished in full by kind permission of the author, who retains copyright.]


More Stories By Dare Obasanjo

Dare Obasanjo is a Program Manager at Microsoft where he works on the Contacts team. The Contacts team provides back-end support for Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live Expo, and related services. Obasanjo is also known for RSS Bandit, a popular .NET-based RSS reader.

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