Exit Interview: Jessica Powell, Google's ex-Head of Comms
"It was a feeling building up in me for a few years, this very vague, mild sense of doom that this is not what I should be doing"
What a CASUAL moment in America—I, for one, am finding the light, low-stakes mood to be prime conditions for my best thinking and work (doing generous air quotes around “work” as I toggle around a dozen+ tabs, including “The ‘Bush Did 9/11’ Guy Has Some Regrets”…)! Anyway, switching things up this week from the usual mandate; I took a bunch of my own questions to Jessica Powell, who I rightfully assumed would give good answers. I’m a little sheepish that my first choice of interview subject is Google’s literal former head of PR, worried as I am that this blog is too Google-focused, mostly accessible and interesting to those familiar with that sub-universe, and even more cloyingly niche, the sub-sub-universe of Google comms and marketing departments…but alas, we write what we know, we are who we are, it is what it is, and so on.
What I think makes Jessica so compelling is not actually having had such a huge, crazy job at a huge, crazy megacorp like Google in a turbulent and consequential period in its history (though can you imagine the PRESSURE? I’m furtively popping a roll of tums just thinking about it) but her later-career arc. She’s talked a lot about the ennui and disillusionment she experienced in her last years at Google, things that you don’t often associate with people who’ve achieved that level of power, probably because of the personality/compartmentalization/lack of rich inner life one also associates with that level of power. When she left Google, Jessica went on to get an MFA, and her career moves have been unexpected/creative/weird/interesting ever since, while still somehow fitting tidily in the neoliberal productivity/prestige matrix (she published a novel, co-founded a start-up, was just named a contributing opinion writer at the NYTimes, etc.). There’s a quintessence of having Figured Something Out, or at least having unblocked the chakras (more on next time! *winks to camera, makes peace sign with one hand, mimes rolling a doobie with the other*). Here, she discusses the value/values of “mission-driven” tech companies, what it’s like managing lots and lots of people (turns out it really IS “lonely at the top”!), and the $100 that finally lured her out of Google.
I polled some friends who are either still in communications and marketing at Google or are alumni working at other companies now about what to ask you, and a couple of themes came up a lot. One was around company values and the role they play in Big Tech today. Mark Zuckerberg recently said on Axios that if there’s one thing he would have done differently, it would’ve been to speak up more about Facebook’s values–free expression, voice, etc–upfront. Haha. I think that Google did always try to do that, but ultimately what do the values mean if the company is always choosing growth over anything else? And when you are the frontline for spinning a company decision when you know the values aren’t genuine, how do you navigate that internally without “sacrificing your career to the cause”?[editor’s note: amazing softball first question there, Claire!!!]
So, one of the most important functions of communications in a company is acting as friction, particularly with the leadership. Because as companies get larger and more successful, we as employees start to feel invincible. We tend to become very tunnel-visioned in terms of how we interpret the outside world’s perception of us.
So when a big hairy thing comes along, the issue quite often is getting explained to you by a lawyer or a product manager, someone you have no reason not to trust. It’s not that they’re lying to you, but it’s coming very much from the company perspective. So one of the most important things for a comms person to do is to try to remain level-headed and retain a healthy dose of skepticism so that you are channeling the outside world as you advocate for a certain decision with the leadership team (or whoever is making a particular decision). Otherwise it’s very easy for the group to start rationalizing things, and arrive at a conclusion that sounds very good and palatable to them, but that might be causing real harms externally. There always needs to be someone in the room that’s rooting for the company but is also thinking about 1) how it’s going to be perceived externally and 2) if it’s a company with a strong values backbone, how the decision maps back to the company’s values.
If you look at Facebook, the internal conversation there, especially pre-pandemic, was “the world is out to get us, they just hate us.” There wasn’t so much self-reflection, not a lot of asking “what are we doing wrong?” I’m not saying no one was ever asking that, but in these really large companies the groupthink becomes very, very strong. I also think the vast majority of time in corporate PR the stuff you’re saying and doing doesn’t feel like spin. Sometimes you are literally just pitching a product launch or putting out a fire related to an outage or a battery issue.
So I’m hearing that you really believe in the values. But in 2020 the values feel sort of complicated and hollow, right? Like Facebook and YouTube talking about freedom of expression and “letting every voice be heard!” feels quite simplistic in the face of, say, what’s happening with misinformation and radicalization and democracy in general.
I don't like values when they’re just used for marketing, and that does definitely happen at times in the Valley.
But on the whole, I think it’s a good thing that companies have values. I don't know if I want to live in a world where corporations are so transparently for profit that there is no such thing as some internal ethical guideline about what they will and won't do. People, young people in particular, want to work in organizations that generally want to make the world a better place and are guided by a set of values. There will still be bad decisions made along the way, but fewer than if those values hadn't existed.
When you're a public company, it becomes very difficult because the market doesn’t care about your values. You’re up against that constantly. If you really didn't want to show any misinformation on Facebook or any content creation platform, there is a way to do that but it would slow down your product, slow down the virality of video views, etc.
Right. “Suspend the algorithm” is the “defund the police” option.
At some point the question is: are we optimizing for our values or for the business? Like everything in life, it’s a compromise. I think the question for every individual professional is–and this sounds totally uninspiring–where do you draw the line? What are the levels of pragmatic compromise that you’re OK with, and where does it not work, or feels like too much?
Did you like running a big team?
One thing I really liked when I was leading a team was that I felt like I had some power to change things. At different points in my career, at different companies, I saw things that were happening that I didn’t think were good, and that it would be better to change, but as a manager there's still very little you can change, at least in terms of bureaucracy. The best you can do is tackle the small space you have and even that small space you have is still very, very affected by larger policies.
Whereas once you run an entire org, you can just start things and stop things. Yes, you might butt up against larger company bureaucracy, but at least there's a level of responsibility and scale that feels like you can make a change. It doesn’t even have to be about big weighty issues. For example, as a leader, not sending emails on the weekend to people in your organization helps create a culture where people are less likely to send emails on the weekend.
I really enjoyed that part of being a leader because you could see how making certain shifts could really impact people on a personal level. Because I could see across my org, sometimes I could see certain opportunities for people that other people couldn't see just because of where they were sitting.
On the other hand, I didn't like that people wouldn't talk to me in the micro kitchen. I didn't like the fact that if I started talking to someone more junior in my department they might act nervous, that at offsites people wouldn’t come talk to me because they were intimidated.
How did you deal with bad managers?
I think my predecessor, Rachel, was very good about taking a tough stance on low performance. I very much learned from watching her. She also packed our organization very lean, which forced us to make sure that we always had the best people in place. When resources are scant, you can’t afford to let bad performance drag on.
Now what can be hard, and what I think employees don't always see, is that the path of managing out a manager (or any employee) can take a very long time. Even when it’s alarmingly obvious to the person’s team, it can take months to deal with. So what looks like the company doing nothing is actually the company doing all the things it is required to do from a legal and humane perspective to ensure that the process is fair and based on concrete feedback.
But in general, and talking about any company, I would agree with you. I think the reason people don't deal with poor managers even when they know that there's a problem is that it's really hard to have honest conversations. It's a lot easier to not manage them out. It’s a lot easier to give people “tough” feedback in a roundabout way, which means they can often rationalize it, and not hear it for what it is. Generally, humans are not good managers. And likewise, generally, there are very few repercussions in companies for not dealing with bad managers.
It often struck me that bad managers get ahead. The people who are great at managing up but are hated by their teams are the ones who rise through the ranks.
I’m sure I made the mistake of over-valuing someone who managed up well. But on the whole, I didn’t hear this complaint in our department. I also think people on my team knew I hated anything that looked like bragging. We had a weekly presentation where people would share projects they had done--best-practice sharing, type of stuff. You weren’t allowed to show me your successes without also telling me what you wished you had done differently and what you thought you could improve for the next time.
So while I think it's absolutely true that you have people who are really good at managing up, the culture of how successful that strategy is sits squarely with the leader and what they value and communicate.
If you’ve made it clear that good management is important to you then you might not get perfect management, but the culture will adjust to the expectation. If you say diversity really matters and you expect to see diverse candidates every time you're hiring, and you also talk about that a lot, then you will start to see a shift towards diversity in your candidate pool and hiring pool, because ultimately people want to make their bosses happy and their boss has communicated this is important to them. If you are a bully, you yell at your team, and you create a really aggressive culture, you will have managers that do the same things to their team. Culture starts at the very top.
I’m curious to hear about your decision to leave Google and what you did afterwards.
I wrote a Medium article called “How to Quit Your Job in 837 Easy Steps” which sort of sums it up. It was a feeling building up in me for a few years, this very vague, mild sense of doom, that this is not what I should be doing. It coincided, too, with having two kids and being very sleep deprived and finding it really hard to juggle a very demanding job where I felt like I was working constantly. It was that thing where you are nursing the baby while trying to answer work emails and it's six in the morning.
So it was a general unhappiness with my life. I was tired of defending certain things. I felt like I’d lost the skepticism I’d come in with, and also the creativity, something that was very valuable to me. The final component was looking around at my organization and seeing people constantly vying for more. I felt like if I were to ask people on my team if they wanted my job, they’d say, “yes, I’d love to have your job someday.” Or talking to my peers at other companies, they’d say my role was a great job by many, many measures. These jobs are so incredibly well-paid it almost feels wrong to stay in a job that you don’t want to do, just sitting there collecting money. Why not give someone else a chance?
Those thoughts circled in an unproductive way for a very long time. It really wasn't clear to me what I should do. I even went and interviewed at other companies. I spoke to one company that makes very fancy cars because it seemed really cool. Everyone was always talking about how their CEO was very wild and crazy and doing all these insane things. In the first 20 seconds of talking to them I was like “I hate cars. I cannot think of something that interests me less than cars.” In the end, I realized it didn't matter where I went. I was done with PR, I was done cleaning up other people's messes.
But that took me a while. I made a lot of excuses not to have to deal with it: if I just get through this pregnancy, or this one work milestone that’s stressing me out, I’ll feel differently. But the one thing that was very, very clear to me within all this vagary was “what am I if not this job?” I’d generally stopped reading books. I was dealing with a lot of my personal relationships really transactionally, slotting my friends in once a month to see them for a dinner of two hours.
I remember catching up with a friend who’d just had a baby. She started telling me about what a rough birth it was, how she’d fallen into a horrific postpartum depression and had all these physical problems, too. It’d been a month and we were both in the Bay Area, and I didn’t even know. I was like, oh my gosh, I wish you’d called me. And she said, you are so busy with such a huge job, I feel like you would have come because you would have felt like that was the right thing to do, but it would have been the wrong thing to do to you. And the worst part was in my head, I was like, she's right, I would have gone and I would have been so stressed out the entire time about missing out on work stuff. It was a relief to hear that she went through this horrible thing, but came out of it fine and hadn't required me at all. Relief that a friend didn’t call you when she needed. That’s a horrible thing to confront about yourself.
I finally acknowledged there was a problem. So when I was on my second maternity leave, I applied on a whim to grad school because it felt like a way out. I applied in January for a September start, it felt far away and low commitment. I got in and once I paid the $100 deposit, it was like buying a gym membership where once you’ve paid the money you have to go. So it was $100 that finally got me to leave Google.
And it was also important to me because I felt like I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, it wasn't like all of a sudden I was going to be a writer or anything like that. This was just something that I had never studied before and I thought would be interesting. I knew that it would be really hard for me to stop working--after a week of being on vacation, what would I do? I felt like I needed to have something to create some kind of routine immediately and school felt like it would be some sort of a structure that would occupy me while I had this very gentle life crisis of what was I going to do with myself post-Google.
Then while I was at school, a friend sent a manuscript to Medium for a book I’d written years before: The Big Disruption. They liked it and said they’d give it a shot, which was cool for me because back in 2012, an agent had taken it to all the publishing houses in New York and everyone had turned it down. They were like “No one’s interested in tech.” But Medium bought the manuscript and three months later they published it. It was a whirlwind. I wanted to do it anonymously but they talked me out of it. As a comms person you’re so used to being behind the scenes. To all of a sudden have your name attached to something was a weird, uncomfortable feeling.
When you’re so used to writing for other people, when you write for yourself, it feels kind of nice, though, right?
It is now, but at the time I found it really stressful. The process of writing the book was just this cathartic outpouring, but when the book came out I didn't really want to be in the public eye. I didn't want the book to be read as a tell-all about my experience at Google, particularly since I had written it coming out of an experience at a start-up--not Google. Like, if I wanted to write a nonfiction book, I would write a nonfiction book. I just really wanted to be anonymous and have this book out there that people would engage with and think about and yes, laugh at. Not have people wanting to know how many kids I have or what I think about content moderation. I have enormous respect and will always have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who works in comms and marketing, but I just didn't want to do that anymore and I certainly didn't want to do it for myself and my book. I think that's just hard for everyone when they find themselves in the spotlight. You just want the truth to be the thing that wins out and not to feel like you're taking this active role in it, having to think about how something is going to land.
As a final question: now that you’ve left Google, how much do you follow what’s going on? I saw you tweeting about the recent congressional hearings and being relieved to not have to write the talking points for that kind of thing anymore. Has your cynicism towards Big Tech grown or lessened? What’s your vantage point as a former insider now on the outside today?
I still have a lot of people that I care about working at various big tech companies. I think employee sentiment is a lot more complex than the media likes to portray. For much of the media, the classic tech worker is either the person who’s super all about it, all Kool-Aid, or they’re the whistleblower. The media kind of only allows for those two types. I think the vast majority–especially those of us in support functions, who aren’t the highest on the food chain, who aren’t engineers–are aware of the discrepancies and the things that are great about our jobs and that aren't.
Like all things in life you see the complexities and the compromises that people have to make. I also try to not view all these companies as the same. While I had gotten to a point that I felt like there were some values at Google that were butting up against business decisions, I still felt like on the whole the company had a much stronger moral backbone than certainly any other company that I had ever worked at. We would have conversations where we were saying here is this hundreds of millions of dollars opportunity, but do we actually want to be in this particular business? And we’d walk away from it. To me that said something because I have also been in environments where that definitely was not the case.
I do think it’s frustrating, looking across all these companies, to see that there is such a tendency to weigh particular issues or bad actors as if they were just another piece of data . Because in the aggregate, those bad actors or that data cohort may be small. So you minimize the human impact of those issues and you don’t take them as seriously. That is a real problem. Same with the ability to expand and expand and expand with very few checks on that growth.
There's a lot I love about tech. I think it's unparalleled in terms of people asking really huge questions and not assuming that because something has been solved one way that it can't ever be solved another way. I think that is hugely inspiring.
I just have a lot of contradictions like anyone else. I really appreciate what a lot of these companies have done, while also wishing that they were not so beholden to the market and to growth, that they could make decisions that align more closely with their values.
Follow Jessica Powell on Twitter here. Query me at firstname.lastname@example.org.