Google was about 1,000 people when I started in 2003, which means last week’s layoffs were more than an order of magnitude larger than the entire company I’d originally joined. Even though I’ve been gone for a decade now and don’t know the majority of now Xooglers impacted, there were a number of 15–20 year vets included in the separation. While I understand the decisions to cut headcount and costs, hearing about these folks in particular made me sad. High performers and culture carriers for years — terminated via email and without the opportunity to celebrate their time with their teams.
It was easy to merge your identity with your employment at Google. Heck, they encouraged it. Googlers being Googley and eating, drinking, partying, celebrating, dating, marrying, etc together. The Mountain View campus was originally built to feel like a university.
As a result, abrupt separation can be really difficult for people who prioritized their work and their badge. Leading up to my departure in 2013, and after, I too feared the impact of losing that part of my self-worth. And I shared that anxiety in a blog post, reprinted below.
Originally Published June, 2013 [and lightly edited/updated]
email@example.com: From 2003–2013, it was a pretty powerful email address for me. I was the first “Hunter” to work at Google, so I got the six-letter name (the second Hunter went for retnuh@ — “hunter” backwards. Obviously he’s an engineer). And for that decade, sending something from @google.com pretty much meant any recipient would at least open the email, even if they had no idea who I was. Since I’d joined Google from a lesser-known startup the automatic relevance was especially pleasurable.
Often it wasn’t just an email address that drew attention. In the earliest Google years I had to be thoughtful about wearing logo gear outside of work. People would stop me on the street to tell me their Google search stories of triumph or failure, ask me about their website ranking, and, around the time of the IPO, make wild assumptions about my net worth.
When I started at YouTube (along with an even hipper hunter@youtube addy) in 2007, the attention continued (it just shifted younger and to more aspiring rappers than webmasters). Everyone always had a favorite video to tell you about. And they assumed you knew it among the hundreds of millions of videos on the site.
The braggadocious email identities and random interactions with strangers were cool, but the really sweet nectar came only as I started to take on more responsibility on YouTube’s product team. The role connected me with notable technologists, investors, and media industry figures. YouTube founder Chad Hurley was also very generous including me in stuff, which resulted in invites to parties, meetings, and meals above my pay grade.
I started thinking about leaving YouTube in late 2010 once Chad announced that he was stepping down from the CEO role. I knew a phase of YouTube’s evolution was coming to a close and that it was likely best for both the company and myself that a different leader commit to the next part of the journey. But one of the things that kept me from making this change proactively was ego — the joy of being relevant because of my role. It certainly wasn’t just this feeling; I loved the team and the community, too, but in hindsight, there was definitely an insecurity that kept me from stepping away.
All of a sudden, the question I had asked myself — “Do I matter because of my job?” — was going to be answered against my will. After taking the summer off, I came back to YouTube in a capacity of my own creation, working in an area that had always been important to me: how YouTube is used as a platform for education, social change, and activism/free expression. This was the role I kept until I left Google roughly 15 months later (with another brief absence for paternity leave in 2012. Yippee!).
So why am I writing this now? Not nostalgia for Google — I continue to admire the company tremendously and care about many of the people but have no interest in returning. Rather, I want to acknowledge my own struggles with separating “where I work” from “why I matter” and self-worth.
You are not your org chart, your department budget, or your title.
Careers are sets of decisions where you have the chance to emerge from the chrysalis every so often and show the world, show yourself, how you’ve evolved. You are not your org chart, your department budget, or your title. Don’t let success at a company prevent you from pursuing scary and wonderful new opportunities to build. It took me a little longer than it should have, but from the other side, it’s pretty awesome.