Why I Left Google, Part 3: Mold my career to myself, not to Google

April 27, 2021
In part 3 of the series, I discuss the importance of molding your career to your desires and passions rather than molding yourself to a given company or role.

This is Part 3 in my Why I Left Google series. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't already.

As covered in Parts 1 and 2, I went on a relentless pursuit of my passion in human-centered design at Google despite the fact that no clear role existed around this. What were my first 3 career design experiments?

  • I took on a 20% side project in human-centered design to build my skills
  • I pitched a hybrid role to my boss to do both design and market research while pursuing design studies on the side
  • I maximized opportunities in both my core role and design side project by working at 150%

The latter ultimately led me to burnout that I realize in hindsight was avoidable had I been more aware of the signs. Going through burnout at work is incredibly disheartening and is often not spoken about openly. I was very thankful to my managers and co-workers at Google at the time who were supportive and understanding. But while I dialed down the excess velocity of my pursuit of my passion, I didn't put my foot on the brakes.

Here are the next series of experiments I ran to redesign my career at Google.

Experiment #4 : Propose my own “innovation” role within my department

After my burnout, I hypothesized that creating my own role that would be in line strategically with the team’s objectives while integrating my broad skill set could help me circumvent the need to do two roles at the same time. And so I pitched two variations of my existing role to my manager as an education lead and a change agent with what I thought were compelling KPIs and outcomes. But in the end, the answer was no due to operational constraints and the lack of a strong enough business justification.

Verdict: Failure

Key Lesson: Teams that are evaluated and rewarded more significantly on operational success metrics will be more wary of risk-taking and experimentation that don't have immediate revenue impact. I should have been more strategic and evidence-based in my approach to pitching a new role, but the burnout had left me in such a haze that I had become overly focused on my final destination versus the journey on getting there.

Experiment #5 : Take on a hybrid role (again) while concurrently doing a master’s program in relation to my passion

I had already tested this model back in 2013, but once I realized I couldn’t create my own role, I sought to find a new role that could bring me closer to human-centered design. With limited opportunities in the Paris office, I discovered a global sales training team that had recently been created and that could accommodate a handful of “remote” team members (I was just 1 of 2 people in Paris). I joined as a curriculum manager and was able to evolve this into a hybrid role between instructional designer and content manager to blend my subject matter expertise in measurement with my learning design abilities. Because of the team’s start-up nature, this model worked well for the first 2 quarters.

Once I embarked on a part-time design innovation master's program at Ensci (French design school), I first had to drop my side project because the workload no longer permitted it. I had also reached a ceiling in terms of advancement due to the short-term focus of the design innovation workshops. As the team reached greater success and maturity, my hybrid role began to cause confusion and friction. For my managers, there wasn’t clarity in how to evaluate my contributions that went beyond what was required from my role “on paper” and I seemed to step on the toes of other designers on the team whenever I veered into design territory. Thus, the hybrid role could no longer continue. Moving to a purely design role wasn’t the right fit for me, I was told, and, at this point, I realized that I had run out of options to pursue my passion within this team.

Verdict: Failure

Key Lesson: I was so engrossed in the Google philosophy of “learning, persevering and experimenting” from my early years that I didn’t realize that it didn’t quite apply anymore in my current working conditions. While a hybrid role may have been possible years prior, my team at the time seemingly required crystal clear definition in roles and responsibilities. It was becoming more obvious that every solution I tried was merely a bandaid to the problem.

Experiment #6: Take a sabbatical to pursue my passion elsewhere and return to find a suitable role

Ethnographic research in Burundi for the IdeasBox program

At this juncture, I decided to take 6 months of sabbatical leave in late 2017 and into early 2018 to complete a required professional mission for my master’s program. While I could have pursed a project at Google, I was highly driven by my desire for social impact and eagerness to test my skill set in a new environment. Thus, I decided to join an NGO (Bibliothèques Sans Frontières aka Libraries Without Borders) for 5 months to work on the IdeasBox program, a portable media center that provides access to education, culture and information.

This opportunity opened by eyes to a complex world where my full skill set could be utilized and have significant impact – it sent me to do user research and co-creation in emergency shelters in the greater Paris region and in refugee camps in Burundi. There was no question that this is what I was meant to do in my career – not on the sidelines but front and center as my previous career redesign experiments had taught me.

Upon returning to Google, I returned to my old role (which was no longer hybrid) and spent a few months relentlessly searching for a role in Paris that would align with my vision. I didn’t want to give up without a fight and I was about to receive a diploma with the academic credentials to line up with my professional experience. But I still came up short. It was time for me to go.

Verdict: Success & Failure

Key Lesson: After years of countless experiments of redesigning my career, I realized that I was creating the foundation of a future business. Instead of trying to mold my career to Google, I actually needed to mold my career to myself.

So, can you really pursue your passion at work?

As this story started at the end, you probably already know the answer.

Yes, I truly believe that you can pursue your passion at work.

But only under the proper conditions:

  • Do you have managers and an organizational culture that support experimentation, risk-taking and side projects?
  • Are there the right incentive and performance evaluation systems in place to measure the value of experimentation in “non-core” projects and justify the time invested into it?
  • Is there a margin for error and a willingness to collaborate across functions and outside your company (if your passion takes you beyond your core role)?

I recognize that not everyone has the luxury to create or change these conditions in their company. Or that their philosophy may be different – for some, a job is just a job and passions are pursued outside of work. Others may not have even identified a passion in life or care to find one. And for some, passion doesn’t even come into the picture as work is a means of survival.

I hope, at the very least, that those who have the chance to take the risk to pursue their passion at work approach it as an experiment that’s worth redesigning a couple times before getting it right – for you.

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"I strongly recommend Sandra for any job that requires strong analytical skills, an innovative mindset and leadership."
Muy Cheng Peich, Libraries without Borders