Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Google Your Career

Google was started by two geeky youngsters from Stanford University -- its beginning is legendary. I heard it from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ram Shriram. Shriram had made his fortune working with start-ups like Junglee and Netscape. Thereafter, he decided to become an angel investor. On one of his visits to Stanford to catch up with professor Jeff Ullman, he met the two Google co-founders. The professor told Shriram that he should be backing these two young men. Despite the existence of the concept of internet-based search engines, there was something unusual here. Shriram and Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun, were willing to listen to the professor and took out their cheque books. It was then that everyone realised that the two youngsters did not even have a company name, much less a bank account. On the spot, they thought of the name 'Google' and Shriram filled the 'to payee' column accordingly. The rest is history. Google became a great IPO success, is meeting profit projections and has already become a Wall Street darling. I like the way the company raised itself to industry leadership. I think it has huge lessons for working professionals who could take a leaf or two from the Google story to build their own careers.

To begin with, Google built itself on a solid value proposition and took a uniquely differentiated position. It provided value to the world before demanding any value for itself. It served until the world became dependent on it. It created value by meeting the unstated needs of unseen customers. That is a sure way, though a more difficult one, to win. It did not fear incumbency. So what if there were established large players who could have eaten Google for breakfast? Finally, Google persevered. It wasn't an overnight success story. These are elements that build memorable professional careers as well. But wait, I haven't told you the real secret sauce of their success, yet.

Google started as a search engine. You typed in keywords and it looked through millions of pages all over the world's far-flung servers and reported what matched your needs. As time went by, they tried to make the search process more intelligent, more intuitive. They did not stop with that. When millions of people came to them with their search queries, they added the now famous 'gmail' to their basket of products -- virtually unlimited storage, with no need to delete anything, more intuitive organisation of all your communication needs. What next at Google? I meet industry analysts who tell me that the next great wave of computing could come in the form of 'service on demand' from Google. You want to process your payroll? You want to print invoices and file tax returns? You want to manage your inventory? You will probably just go to Google and use any of these applications for a fraction of what it costs to own a software that does these sorts of things today. This may or may not turn out to be the state of the future. But, what is undeniable is the fact that Google will remain a force to contend with in the days ahead.

Now think of your career and mine. If we can be compared to Google, the question becomes, what new value have you and I added of late? I meet many folks who started out in sales, and have grown up over time to manage larger territories and bigger accounts. I meet engineers who started in production or information systems or planning, and kept growing in a linear manner 'managing' essentially more of the same as years went by. Will this model work in the future? The answer is a short 'no'.

We may all choose to become a generalist, a specialist, remain an individual professional contributor, be a manager or a leader or whatever else we want. But in any of those, one must be sure to question periodically, "What new service offering do I have to offer to the world around me? Do I deliver it after someone has asked for it or am I pre-investing in building the capability?" Just as Google needs to create new value for its users constantly, as professionals, we can't just be the best search engine and stay put. People who just continue to deliver the same good old stuff, cease to be interesting to the world around them after a while. I like people to look at their careers as five-year spans. Every five-year span is usually populated by two major assignments.

Usually, we think of these assignments in terms of roles, job-descriptions, responsibilities, span of control, location and of course, compensation. It is time to take a leaf out of Google's book. We need, periodically, to do a Google to our careers to create unusual new value and stay the favourite.

"This article appeared in Business Times Oct 28, 2005. Its written by Subroto Bagchi, Co-founder and chief operating officer at Mind Tree Consulting. "

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