Why I Left Google, Part 2: From seeking my passion to burning out

January 12, 2021
In part 2 of the series, I discuss how a series of experiments to pursue my passion for human-centered design at Google ultimately leads to an unexpected burnout.

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

I joined Google in August 2010 fresh out of college as an advertising strategist on a sales team in the Cambridge office (Boston area). My background was neither in business nor in advertising, as I studied International Relations and French as an avid fan of cultural studies. Google had a series of entry-level sales and marketing programs for new graduates of all academic backgrounds (a great diversity strategy). My digital savviness and creativity as a self-taught web and graphic designer along with my soft skills were enough to get me into the door.

The first few years were an intense deep dive into the highly technical and data-driven world of digital marketing, which was before unknown to me. I quickly embraced the Google philosophy of learning, persevering and experimenting in order to survive a fast-paced environment with a steep learning curve — basically, if you don't know how to do something, figure it out as quickly as possible.

Discovering my passion for human-centered design at Google via a side project

This philosophy drove me to explore Google’s numerous learning opportunities, one which would change the entire trajectory of my career. By chance, I attended a workshop on design thinking in early 2012 run by a Googler who was a part of a community called the CSI:Lab (Creative Skills for Innovation). This “Googler-to-Googler” community, started in April 2010 by Frederik Pferdt (now the Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google), enabled teams in and outside of Google to experience innovation culture through hands-on workshops.

I was overjoyed to discover a discipline where I could integrate my design sensibility with my curiosity for the human experience. I attended three more workshops that year and decided to officially join the CSI:Lab community in January 2013 as a design thinking facilitator (a 20% side project alongside my core role).

The Human-Centered Design Process (Source: Greater Good Studio)

Pursuing the passion by redesigning my career : successes & failures

As I started facilitating more workshops in 2013, I realized that I had discovered a new driving force in my career. The challenge was that, well, it was a side project that didn’t exist as an actual role in the Cambridge office. I wasn’t in Mountain View (HQ), New York or London where numerous opportunities could’ve been at my disposal. I had already decided that year to move to France (a dream of mine) and wasn’t looking to uproot my entire personal life again for quite some time.

I had to try to make it work under my current conditions. So in my third year at Google, I unknowingly started running a series of experiments to redesign my career toward human-centered design.

Here are some of the key lessons I learned along the way.

Experiment #1 : Take on a side project

Google’s culture of 20% projects made it fairly easy at first to explore my passion for human-centered design and balance it in terms of time management with my core role. My manager encouraged this work, as I was able to develop valuable problem-solving and facilitation skills that I could bring back to my team. I was also able to find new meaning in my work by exploring innovation challenges with different teams and even with non-profits.

Verdict: Success

Key Lesson: Working cross-functionally and beyond the walls of your company not only provides meaning in your work but helps you find new sources of inspiration.

Experiment #2 : Pitch a hybrid role and pursue continuing studies

Because my core role was highly focused on data and very little on design (besides data visualization), I saw an opportunity in a colleague’s maternity leave to pitch my manager to partially take on her role, which was focused on industry research and creative storytelling. My manager agreed to a 50/50 split between my role and her role, which opened the doors for me to explore visual design. Through Google’s education reimbursement program, my manager also approved a typography course at a local design school to sharpen my design skills. This led to my first official design project in my core role: a custom user interface for a branded YouTube channel that was eventually transformed into a 3D stand and touch screen at a marketing industry event.

The YouTube Marketing Clinic

Verdict: Success

Key Lesson: Dare to formulate a compelling pitch for what you want in your role, even if you may face a “no,” and proactively seek out learning opportunities (and company programs) that will support your goals while providing value to your team.

Experiment #3 (the turning point) : Maximize opportunities in both my core role and side project

Once I moved to France into a role as a regional product expert for Google Analytics, I questioned how human-centered design could fit into highly analytical and technical work. Soon enough, however, I realized that a design-driven approach could help to address complex challenges related to organizational silos in decision-making that technology on its own couldn’t solve. As a result, I launched an innovation taskforce, a measurement training program designed via co-creation, and a series of design-inspired marketing workshops with clients.

At the same time, I took on more challenging opportunities in my side project: co-leading a large-scale thinking workshop for P&G at a racetrack in Hungary, facilitating a People Development team through the early stages of a redesign of the Noogler onboarding experience in Japan, and rethinking onboarding for design thinking facilitators at Google with experts at the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam, Germany.

Getting amped for design thinking workshops for 500 people on the Hungaroring racetrack

While in the end, these initiatives showed the impact of human-centered design in driving innovation and enabled me to progress from a skills perspective, they destroyed me from a health standpoint. Amidst a jam-packed travel schedule that regularly sent me to dozens of destinations in Europe and beyond for two years straight, I found myself doing two roles on 150% time. An 80%/20% balance was virtually a myth for me at this point. By mid-2015, I was facing chronic pain, an avalanche of physical illnesses and emotional distress. By pure obligation, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was in a state of burnout.

Verdict: Failure

Key Lesson: Pursuing your passion at all costs can be completely unsustainable if you don’t have the right KPIs and environment to support you and a strong sense of self-awareness. I was swept up in a “work as hard as you can to pursue your goals” mentality that I no longer was seeing things clearly.

Continue to Part 3

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I help teams align their business practices with their values by harnessing the power of inclusive design. All it takes is an openness to change and a willingness to evolve your culture and practices.
"I strongly recommend Sandra for any job that requires strong analytical skills, an innovative mindset and leadership."
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