'DigitalHobbit' Leaves Google for Social Networking Startup

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-04-13 Print this article Print

There is an illuminating post from a newly former Googler that anyone who has been closely tracking the company for signs of discontent should read.

"DigitalHobbit" is anonymous (I will call him/her Bilbo to make it easier for everyone to follow) and doesn't say what he did at Google in this WordPress blog. Bilbo told me he was a software engineer in the AdWords Report Center.
Bilbo confirms what Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan and several other bloggers have said about the exodus of so many Google folks in the past year or so: Bilbo left Google because the culture has moved distinctly from being like a startup to a more established enterprise. Moreover, the stock upside of moving to a startup is greater.

Here is an excerpt from DigitalHobbit's post:

But in the end, I have realized that I am just much more of a startup person than a big-company person. Perks and everything are great, but this is ultimately not what motivates me. At an early stage startup, every single individual has a tremendous impact on the company (good or bad...), along with a much broader set of responsibilities (everybody has to wear many hats). Then, there's the pioneering spirit, which is extremely energizing and contagious. These days, it seems like a lot of the true innovations are made at small startups, which have the benefit of being orders of magnitude times more agile and efficient than a large company will ever be. Sure, many ideas don't go anywhere, but every once in a while, something new comes along that leaves a big footprint (and let's not forget that even Google started out like this). Last but not least, there is of course a significantly bigger upside to working at a startup. Of course the harsh truth is that most startups fail, but at least there is that 1 in 10 chance of being tremendously successful (and the sense of actually being able to contribute to this chance). As a recent Google employee, I would have never gotten rich there, even if the stock had doubled or tripled in price.

It's hard to argue with this logic, particularly for a programmer who wants to build cool new apps. The big business-to-startup rationale was likely the same for other programming defectors.

Bilbo goes on to offer some details that otherwise don't come to light from the time-for-a-new-challenge statements from ex-Googlers. For example, Bilbo enjoyed working with its team but "was unable to be passionate about my particular product area."

While this "is less of a problem later, as it is generally encouraged to switch projects every 1-2 years," Bilbo told me that "while there are many challenging projects within that area, I personally would have been more interested in working on Google Apps (perhaps Gmail or Reader), OpenSocial or within Mobile."

Indeed, those seem to be the hot apps right now that get loads of ink from TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb and others in the blogosphere. 

Another scale-related problem, according to Bilbo: "Due to the sheer size of the code base and the vast number of Google-specific tools and frameworks, it also takes a very long time to learn how to actually become productive at Google, which can be frustrating at times."

Not feeling productive after about a year on the job must be a nightmare. You can't really tell whether what you are doing is adding value, and if you're not getting feedback about how you're doing you can get down on yourself. At a startup, the opportunity to create and drive a product to fruition is quite the lure.

To wit, Bilbo is going to work for a mobile social networking startup currently toiling in stealth mode, where he will lead software development as the director of engineering, as well as having a hand in architecture, implementation, product direction and hosting, among other things.

There is an intriguing theme to these defections: Most of these programmers and executives are joining smaller Google rivals. Last year, programming guru Adam Bosworth left Google Health to blaze a health info trail at Keas. Sheryl Sandberg left to run Facebook's business more than a month ago.

Now our Bilbo is headed to a startup that would seem to compete with Google's Jaiku and Zingku mobile social networks, two units that have been suspiciously quiet.

I look forward to seeing how the mobile social networking space evolves in the rest of 2008 and beyond. I'll be equally interested to see what other talent flees Google for the creative freedom and excitement of startups such as the one Bilbo is off to.


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