When I joined Google a little more than 2 years ago, I was asked by a few people to tell the story of how I got there and what my experience was.
I promised I would but I never actually did. Maybe I was shy, maybe I didn’t have the time or maybe I simply thought, probably wrongly, that it wasn’t interesting enough.
I decided to finally honor that promise and write about it.
I hope this is not too late and that it will be useful to some people.
I will try my best to sum up my experience and stories and provide a few advices from them.
Oh, one more thing. This is not a guide on how to get a job at Google. Based on my experience, I do not think such a thing exists. It will not describe the interview process in detail (such as the questions asked) nor disclose any confidential information.
The sole purpose of this article is to talk about my pre-Google personal experiences. I hope this will be useful for you, at least a little.
Baguettes and berets
If you don’t know me, I’m a 27 years old Frenchman born in a small city in Paris suburban area called Lagny. I spent the first 6 years of my life there and then moved to the south of France where I lived and studied in various cities such as Toulon, Hyères, Arles and Marseille.
Today, I’m a visual designer for Google Chrome and Chrome OS, living in San Francisco.
I got a High school diploma in what was called “social and economics”, then I studied 2 years in a general technology school and 3 additional years in a multimedia project management school.
What these schools and courses had in common is that they taught you a general approach on various subjects. It didn’t specialize you. Thinking back, I think I was taught how to become an effective swiss army knife.
I started by learning the basics of social science and economics mixed with history and philosophy. Add a bit of math to that and you get my High school diploma.
The following two years were all about introducing you to everything you can do with a computer, a screen and a camera. From code to design to filming and photography. Very broad subjects.
The last three years that led to my masters degree were multimedia management. It was all about managing people, project, public speaking and… wearing a suit.
Looking back at it, the more I was going through these school courses, the less I was learning the skills I use in my current everyday job.
I learned at school what I didn’t want to do.
School is not about teaching, not really. It’s about opening your mind. I forgot most of what I learned at school but it helped me visualize and understand the things that I wanted to do and the things that I wanted to avoid.
It’s by learning a subject that you realize it’s not for you.
I had to learn math to discover that I hated it, I had to learn to code to discover that my appeal to it wasn’t as strong as my appeal to align pixels.
I had to wear a suit to realize that this is not something that I would want to wear everyday. I learned how to manage projects and people to understand that what I really wanted to do is to spend my entire day in Photoshop, listening to Hans Zimmer and Amon Tobin.
Maybe it’s not the best path to follow to learn things, but it was mine. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot of useful things in these schools but somehow, it’s the things I hated to learn that gave me the most beneficial lessons and drove me to my key skills.
In any given project, I always volunteered for the design part, it was my refuge. In response to possibilities of acquiring more knowledge, I specialized in one thing.
In the 5 years following my High school diploma, I dismissed a lot of potential knowledge to obsess over details in interfaces.
Is it a good thing ? I do not know. I’m not a fast learner. I found what I was good at and instead of searching to acquire a broader range of skills, I maximized the strong ones.
Let’s summarize who I was after my studies:
An obsessed interface designer focused on web and mobile design. I was comfortable and self-confident enough to present my ideas in front of people.
I had a daily schedule made of an hour and a half of web browsing to discover, save and categorize inspiration across the web followed by 8 hours of visual design in Photoshop and Illustrator. Also, I was fluent in English, and this was key.
My work history is tightly linked to my school history. My 3 years of multimedia management were alternate. I had to spend a month at school and the other in any company nice enough to welcome and form a newbie.
I was lucky enough to work for companies who made me do some actual work besides bringing coffee and I will always be grateful for that. Here is the biggest thing I learned and that I have absolutely no doubt about whatsoever:
The best way to learn is to work for real people, in real companies.
The benefit from working and learning at the same time with people who actually make a living out of what you want to do is by orders of magnitude more beneficial than school. Any internship will teach you more about real life work than any class.
Now I’m not saying that you don’t learn anything at school. You need it to give you the basics, the by-the-book approach of design and tech but being able to apply learned principles and confront them to real situations and projects is priceless. Combining school and in-situ internship is for me the best pedagogical approach to learning a subject, at least in our field.
The first Year
During the first year of alternation, I learned print, logo and identity design. From an intern perspective, I did a decent job. From a professional designer standard, I was terrible. My work was messy and full of mistakes. Thankfully, it was ok, because I was with the right people.
During your life, if you’re lucky enough, you will meet people who will help you grow. People who will help you reach what you think was too far, by standing on their shoulders.
This was the kind of person my boss was during this first year. We were a two people company, he had a ton of experience and was eager to share it. He was patient and when he detected the smallest amount of talent in me, he helped me expand it.
I wasn’t expecting that, it think it’s rare to meet somebody who needs to make a living and is still available to help you grow professionally and personally. I’m trying to carry on this lesson, but I’m not there yet.
It takes a lot of selflessness.
The second and third year
I spent the second and third year of my alternation in another company. I left my first year one because I needed to make a little bit more money, he couldn’t assume an intern anymore and I was ready to move on.
The company was a small web agency created by one person who was sick of being given orders and wanted to make cool things by and for himself.
Now let’s take a break here for a quick advice to any aspiring designer who wants to land any job/internship:
Smile and engage.
As simple as that. At the time I was a shy guy with a bit of confidence issues when it came to selling myself. Saying that my presentation was underwhelming is an understatement. If I wasn’t supported by an employee of this same company, I think I would still be searching an internship right now. Hurray for networking and string pulling.
Ok, back on the subject. You remember what I wrote earlier about my first boss ? Well you can re-apply this here. Two in a row can be considered lucky, and it is. Luck is an important factor in your career but I will get back to that.
These two years improved my visual design skills at an incredibly fast rate.
I was working on a large range of projects from complex web-design to phone applications. It was a balance of internal and client projects. A good way to keep some freedom in your work while making a living. I even did a few email design for mass mailing which I’m not very proud of but teach you the realities of the field. This is also important:
You will not always be working on something that makes you proud, but you will always learn something out of it.
Following the same logic as for school, doing something you do not like builds you and defines you as a designer.
This work was thankfully secondary. A large majority was incredibly interesting projects with a lot of challenges for a young designer. I grew exponentially with every work because I had freedom and responsibility. My boss was a safety net, a knowledgable guide that was there when I needed him. But he trusted me from the start, giving me enough responsibility to feel involved in everything I was doing.
Be a safety net for the person you want to see evolve. Make him feel impactful and in control of his decisions and projects.
I finished my studies and was hired full time in this company. I stayed another year before being hired by Google and I loved every second of it.
In addition to school courses and learning with pros, learning by yourself will be a great asset in your career. Some may say that it is all you need, especially in our line of work.
If you have the passion about something, self teaching should come naturally. If you have fun learning stuff, you are where you’re supposed to be.
My favorite way of learning was by looking at other people’s work and learn from the .psds they were sharing, that’s why I’m still doing that to this day. A way to return the favor.
There will always be more talented people than you.
Look up to them and try to catch up.
Networking and design communities
Something you need to know: I hate networking. Actually I used to. I’m getting a little bit better at it but even today, I’m awkward. I have this weird expression on my face that makes people think I’m obnoxious sometimes. I don’t know, maybe I am a little bit. But I think it’s mostly shyness.
Anyway, I learned very early that networking is important to develop your career, especially in our field. Dennis Covent will probably explain why better than me in his blog post so I will not spend too much time on it.
That’s the beauty of internet, you can network without engaging anybody in the real world. You can build yourself as a designer and build your web presence simply by participating in communities. If you are alone on an island, you have virtually the same chance of being recognized for your work as anybody else.
Of course this is not entirely true, an outgoing person living in San Francisco will probably network easier than a brown bear living in a south France cave with poor internet connection but you know what I mean.
Thankfully, I wasn’t a bear, I had a decent internet connection and a need to share things. So I started a little blog using Tumblr.
It was simply about sharing things about design and writing various notes about it. Some sort of personal Pinterest. Very few readers but that was fine. I enjoyed it. Heres an important note about that:
If you enjoy sharing things, even to an extremely small audience, keep it up as long as you like doing it.
So I continued writing my little blog and I was eventually contacted by a bigger french site focused on web-design and various source of inspiration for designers. My audience suddenly exploded, of course. This blog had way more visibility. I started shifting from sharing inspiration to creating my own design resources, or “freebies”, after discovering the work of Orman Clark and his work on Premium pixel. I was and still am a huge fan.
It was a great way for me to improve, satisfy my compulsion for pixels and gave me things to share. I also learned a lot from reverse engineering other designers freebies, it was my way to give back. I even started writing tutorials.
And then the owner of the blog asked me this question:
“Do you need an invite to Dribbble?”
This deserves a section of his own simply to make a point. Dribbble played a huge part in my career and I think this is the case for a lot of people.
I joined it the 6th of March 2011 and published this shot:
My first shot made me rapidly get followers. At the time I was publishing a freebie per week. It took a lot of time, I was pretty much doing nothing else during the week besides working and creating photoshop goodies to share and updating my blog. Doing this created a lot more opportunities than I ever thought it would. Suddenly, people contacted me for work, outside of France.
Oh and also, it’s where Google found me.
A little bit of freelance
Remember that at the time, I was working in the web agency. That’s during my full time year that I started receiving work inquiries from companies outside of France via Dribbble. The first one I received was from a print company based in Sweden. That was a big deal for me. I was speaking enough English to understand them, but we were talking about business here. I was fresh out of school and not that confident about handling my own projects.
So I proposed to my boss to make this request a company project. He would teach me the business part of it and I would handle the rest.
This is how I started my first “sort of freelance project”.
Based on my experience, if you ever get the chance to do side projects for real people as a young designer, take the opportunity. It will teach you a lot.
It went smoothly, they were satisfied by the result, I delivered in time and we built a pretty good relationship. This project added to my portfolio, I was more confident because I went out of my comfort zone and did it.
Going out of your comfort zone will greatly improve your confidence.
I was continuing my constant flow of freebies on Dribbble and spending half of my day in photoshop, designing mock-ups after mock-ups for sites, mail, iPhone apps and iPad apps. I was designing everything I could from video players to upload panels (why?! I’m not sure). I was getting more followers and more work inquiries.
As the inquiries got more numerous, I learned to choose the projects I wanted to work on, taking them both for the companies and starting a few projects on my own. Usually, everything went well for a simple reason: I got all my inquiries via Dribbble from clients who knew what they wanted and knew what to expect from me based on my previous work. Being able to choose your client is a luxury. I was able to do that because I had a full time job.
If you have the time and if your situation allows it, taking side projects as a freelancer while you have a full time job is a good way to try it out and see if it’s something for you. Be careful though because you will not see the sunlight a lot.
Getting all these clients also helped me to do one important thing, build up a portfolio. Which brings me to this.
Working for free
Before anything else I suggest you read this article by Dann Petty.
I know this is a delicate subject. Every work deserves payment. There are a lot of people that will take this opportunity to exploit young designers and I received my share of “I need a design for a youtube-like site, $200 should be enough.” or “there is 5 other designers working on this, I will pay the one I pick”.
Working for free is all about building your portfolio.
Now, you will only be able to do that if you actually manage to pay for your internet bill first of course. One benefit to it is that you will choose the project you want. You will work on what makes you happy and what you will be happy to show as a work reference. If you work with the right persons, it will open doors for you.
That’s why I accepted a lot of requests with no money involved, any student party that needed a poster, every little website design with very low budget because I knew the guy, this kind of thing.
Do it when you are a student, when you’re eager to do over hours and work on various stuff. Yes they will get something for really cheap or even nothing, but as a young designer you will get invaluable experience, you just need to be careful.
As for being able to pick your clients, working for free is a luxury, it is not for everybody. I was able to do it because I had a supporting boss, family and a full time job. If you can to, consider it but do it for the right people.
“Want to chat ?”
The year went by and I received my first recruitment email from a company in Spain. That was weird. For the first time somebody wanted me to work for him, in a big structure, out of my country. He wanted to know if I would consider “a chat”, and they would bring me to their headquarters for it.
I actually told my boss about it what he told me was: “go for it!”. Remember what I wrote earlier about the kind of people that will help you grow?
So I went for it and accepted to go there just to chat. Why not after all? I wasn’t that in love with the city I was living in, I loved my job for sure but I saw an opportunity to grow.
If you see an opportunity, if you have the slightest doubt or “what if” in your mind, just go for it.
They paid for the plane ticket and the hotel just to talk to me. I know, now it sounds completely normal to some people but that was crazy for me in a world where I heard clients not willing to pay more than a few hundred bucks for a website design… when they were actually willing to pay anything.
So I did the interviews and got to know them a little better. Things were clicking and I was starting to consider the fact that I could move from France to Spain. It wasn’t that far after all and these people were pretty awesome. But a week after being back home I received another email.
I think this is spam
This email was from Google as you probably guessed. I really thought it was spam. It was completely out of the blue.
I answered… you know… just in case.
At the time it was during a US holiday so it took five days to receive an answer, reinforcing my spam theory in the meantime.
Turned out it was real and I couldn’t wait to know more.
After checking a few things like my willingness to move to the US in case this ever works, the recruiter told me that I was going to enter the process, starting with a call from a Googler.
At this moment I thanked the thousand of hours spent listening to various American TV series while working at home. Otherwise I would have struggled to understand anything during our conversation. It was still hard though, it is way different to passively learn a language than it is to have an actual human interaction, and my brief 2 weeks school trip in the US when I was fourteen didn’t really help.
I thought I did terribly on the phone but apparently not as they were willing to continue the process. The next step was a design exercise.
This part was very stimulating for me. I had the opportunity to demonstrate how I think and deliver polished visuals. It really wasn’t that different from what I experienced several times with clients, maybe the result was a bit more life changing…
So I sent the finalized exercise crossing my fingers hoping to get a positive answer and avoiding imagining them laughing at my work.
Around two weeks later, they told me they wanted to see me in person, in Mountain View.
What am I doing here ?
At the time I had a two weeks trip in New York with a friend planned 4 month earlier. Some sort of “we’re done with school” trip because we wanted to discover New York and the US.
The confirmation email came during this time. I was stopping twice a day at a Starbuck to get some Wifi and check emails. I mentioned I was in New York and that it would be a good idea to meet during these two weeks, you know, to avoid crossing the atlantic and come back again.
They agreed, set up my flight, two days later I was flying somewhere I’ve never been before, California.
I landed in San Francisco and before realizing what was happening I was driving a rental car on a highway that was going to become the one of my daily commute. The “What am I doing here” moment was when I realized I was driving for the first time on a Californian road, passing signs with cities like San Francisco, Palo Alto and Cupertino written on them. Big deal for me.
The next day were the on-site interviews. It went really fast and was over before I could realize it. One thing I do remember is that, between two interviews, I was asked when I considered joining Google. I answered that I never considered it and that I never imagined being here, it was just not a realistic possibility for me.
Retrospectively, this was a probably a weird if not bad answer but it was the simple truth. I was too tired and disoriented to start thinking about what could be a good answer.
Thinking about it, maybe it was what to do. It sounds cheesy but I think this applies to a lot of situations and to any job applications. You may talk your way into landing a job by finding the right answer at the right moment but you would be at risk of not finding the right thing in the end, something that is neither for you or your employer.
This time I didn’t forget to smile though.
And that was the end of it, I just had to wait for the final decision. I jumped in the plane back to New York, looking to San Francisco by the window, a city I would never enter until I discovered it for the first time, searching for a place to live.
If you want more information about the Google hiring process,
head this way. You will find some useful details on that.
I received the call on a Friday. I was asked if I was interested in joining Chrome. This couldn’t have been better. I didn’t hesitate a second and gave a positive answer. The web made me and now I was going to help make it better.
One thing you may say if entering Google is one of your objectives is that I got really lucky. I was lucky to have the studies that helped me figure out what I wanted to do, lucky that I got two great bosses in a row, lucky that I got a Dribbble invite at the right time with a Googler looking at my work at the right moment, lucky that I was already in the US when they wanted to see me, lucky that there was still some visas available when I applied, and you would be completely right.
Luck played a huge part in this and I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for it. One addendum though:
Be prepared for luck, if it ever happens, make sure you can take your chances.
Reading this article myself, it sounds like I described some sort of magical story made of rainbows and ponies and that I am a huge fanboy writing an advertisement. You may also not agree with what Google is doing, although reading this to the end would seem like a huge waste of your time. This is only my view of it.
I tried to stay true to what I felt at the time and how things worked out.
I feel grateful to be where I am surrounded by people way more clever than me. Is it awesome every day ? No. It can be frustrating and you may not agree with everything. You are part of a gigantic machine that makes things at an unimaginable scale. That’s also part of the thrill.
Will I be there forever ? I do not know, I had my ups and downs but I do love Chrome, Chrome OS, my team and Google.
For now, I’m not going anywhere.
I think it’s an extraordinary experience simply to be here, not just at Google but in the bay area. I’m trying to remind myself that when I tend to act like a spoiled kid. Deep-down, I’m still waiting for them to realize that I’m a fraud and put me on the first plane back to France.
Get in touch
I didn’t cover everything, it was a long story.
If you have any questions or just want to chat or connect, here is some shameless social network self-advertisement: