Being successful at Google certainly doesn’t happen overnight. It is a timely process lasting many years.
When Martijn recommended us “Joris, an excellent friend of mine”, we didn’t know what to expect. We wondered whether Joris was going to be another laid-back, extravagant Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Well, let us tell you straight away, Joris is not like that, he is different.
Joris is a Product Manager at Google Mountain View. Before that, he has been working for the Tech Giant in its London and Amsterdam offices. All in all, he combines more than 10 years of experience at Google. He’s an alumnus of the University of Amsterdam as well as a graduate in Artificial Intelligence from Stanford University.
But that is only one part of the story.
At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures and the victories.
In a few words; we want to share the real stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Everything in Italic symbolizes the voice of the writer, aka, us at Venture Insider.
How did it all start?
I grew up in the Netherlands and studied Economics at the University of Amsterdam. On the side, I’ve always been programming and building my own stuff. This was my real hobby.
I spent a year in Berlin and a year in Mexico during my studies. When I graduated, the first thing I did was looking at whether Google had any openings. You have to keep in mind that the company was quite young back then. Time flies, Joris!
It was an interesting place, at the edge of business and technology, where I thought I could excel. Luckily, everything worked out: I found an internship in Sales at the Amsterdam office. I worked as an analyst for 6 months and got quickly hired as an Account Manager.
I was working with a bunch of big clients, some spending more than $1B with us, and analyzing the use of advertising products to help them grow. After a year, I decided to move to London to become a Financial Analyst. Although still within Google, this was much more technical. Based on data analysis, I was advising the directors of the European Offices. This was a lot of fun!
And then, the holy grail?
Yeah (laughing). I moved to Mountain View, Google’s HQ. I was still doing financial analyses but very different ones. I was looking at both the Android and Chrome operating systems; how they compete in the market, where we can leverage opportunities, where we should invest… This was pretty fun as well, though much less technical.
We were trying to answer the real big business questions, about billion dollars investments and long term strategy. It was much more serious than my previous projects, but again, I enjoyed it a lot. It seems like you’re having a good time Joris!
In parallel, I continued to build my own products, such as this Facebook App, which gave you a cool overview of all information about your friends, the gender ratio and age distribution, where they lived or what books they read. It didn’t go too bad, and I ended up with over 100,000 users! I also built a little app that helped people do Google searches from different locations and devices (say, a search for “taxi” in Tokyo from an iPhone). Over the years this received many acquisition offers.
As years passed by, it became pretty clear that, within Google, decision-making lies with Product Management. Luckily, I had the right mix of business and tech background, able to bridge the gap. The perfect Product Manager.
So, I gave myself a year to see whether I could get a product opportunity. I pitched many product ideas for our new emerging markets organization and, one day, a product lead came by and said: rather than pitching these ideas, why don’t you assemble a team, prepare some prototypes and see how it does? The first steps of my transition into a full-time product manager.
Since then, I’ve been building products for emerging markets for about five years. I’ve launched a lot of different products — some of them now have over 100M users! Today, I lead a team of seven product managers, mentoring them, and trying to get these products to move in the right direction.
Was this all planned?
I always wanted to work at Google and become a leader there, but I didn’t have much more concrete plans than that.
Moreover, I have always loved California. I went on a road trip with my dad when I was 22 and absolutely loved it. So, I have always had this dream of living in California, and that coincided pretty well with growing within Google. I remember that, during the first phone interview with a Google recruiter ten years ago back in Berlin, I told him it was my dream to move to California. It took a couple of years from there, but I made it happen.
What’s the secret formula to get to Product Management at Google without any technical background?
So there are two different answers here.
One is: technical expertise is definitely helpful. I’ve built a lot of products myself. I’ve taken courses online, and I spent a few years doing a graduate program in Artificial Intelligence from Stanford.
That said, it is definitely possible to do product management without a technical background, or with a less strong technical background.
In that case, I think the most important thing is building your own products.
If you build a simple app, you won’t need extraordinary coding skills. The most important aspect is going through the whole motion of coming up with an idea, coding and designing it, and finally finding traction for it.
If you build a product and get it to some level of success, that is the real test of whether you can be a product manager.
It’s been 10 years, how has Google evolved?
Good question! I have been in such different positions that it’s almost as if I had worked for different companies. I have seen the company from drastically different angles, and it’s thus hard to comment on its evolution.
What I can say for sure is that Google has grown exponentially and that it’s a lot more thoughtful about how it positions itself in society. As a trusted tech company reaching billions of users, rather than rapidly releasing products to see what happens, Google is a little more careful and deliberate.
We have to take our role in society seriously because our actions have the power to affect billions of people.
What early-stage products are you working on?
So some early-stage products are not public yet. I can thus not talk about them. Come on, Joris; we wanted some exclusivity on Venture Insider!
Besides that, I’m working on Camera Go, a camera that uses the computing power of Google instead of relying on hardware. This is particularly useful in emerging markets, where people use $50 phones. Check out this cool video where they introduce their new night mode!
Another cool project is Kormo, which is a job finding application, specifically targeted at entry-level jobs in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Why staying at Google for 10 years - other than for the free food?
You need to look at Google as if it was 100 companies combined into one. I’ve worked in different roles and in different parts of the business within the company. My path within the company has been fantastic: getting new opportunities, bigger projects, and leading larger teams.
So would I have had a more important impact at a start-up? Difficult to say, but my impact here may well be larger. At Google, I’m leading multiple start-ups! In total there are 100–200 people working on the products I lead. If they were start-ups, they would have raised tens of millions of dollars in capital. That is an exciting way to look at it.
The best alternative opportunity would be to start my own company. One problem with that would be the step back from my current position and scale. Instead of working with 200 people, it would just be my co-founders and me. I could see it being interesting, but only if it’s a really big idea and we’re able to unlock a large amount of funding.
What truly motivates you daily?
Well, I would say two things.
One is intrinsic motivation. I really like building products, positioning them in the market, finding ways to make them grow, and then achieving success with these products. Solving that whole puzzle is just intrinsically very motivating and enjoyable for me.
Secondly, the impact of what we do matters a lot to me. The digitization effort in emerging markets has real, tangible benefits on people’s lives. The concept of contributing to an economic force that helps people develop is extremely motivating.
If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
I definitely worked very hard, in particular in the first 6 years of my career. Lots of late evenings, lots of weekends! You could argue that it came at the cost of social life and other things.
Most importantly, I now have a much healthier lifestyle than before. I exercise for one hour every day, I eat healthy and, overall, and I have good sustainable discipline. This has contributed significantly to my ability to be sharp throughout the day, to make good decisions and to have a lot of energy.
As a student, I wasn’t very motivated and I used to ignore my health. Don’t get me wrong; it was a lot of fun! But in retrospect, if I had been a little more healthy and had gotten a bit of the lifestyle that I have today, I would have kickstarted my career much faster and may have gotten more out of my student years too. That is a minor regret. You guys heard him, eat healthy and go exercise, now!
Where will you be in 5 years?
I’m pretty happy at the spot that I’m in.
Staying here, I’ll lead bigger and bigger organizations quickly. It’s the executive path.
As a leader in a large technology organization, I won’t know everyone in my organization anymore. I set the strategy, hire the right people, and think about the team functioning and societal questions. I enjoy that a lot, and I think it’s a fun path! It’s very human as well.
An inspiring figure?
I would say that career-wise my dad has been an inspiration. He has made a very successful career for himself. He was a professor and started his own law firm. Although this is drastically different from my career, it definitely pushed me in the right direction: I needed to get my stuff working and start building a career!
I have lots of them, but if I have to pick one, it would be Siddharta by Hermann Hesse. The book inspired me in my early 20s since it is about finding your own path, and beautifully written too.
The one Billion Dollars question: what do you think of the future of social media, and how do you see Google contributing to that?
Note: we orientate the question towards The Social Dilemma. Yes, we are annoying people, but listen, this is our job.
Well, great question. Obviously, it is a Hollywood documentary, and it is designed to build hype. I think it approaches the complex problems in a somewhat oversimplified manner. That being said, it does touch on a bunch of real problems that need to be addressed.
It’s good to be realistic: we’re not going to cancel social media.. That’s not gonna happen. The question that needs to be answered is how can we guide this technology such that it has a more positive effect on society? And, very quickly, we start to hit on questions such as censorship and freedom of speech. Those are such complex societal questions that I wonder if they should be left with the technology companies to answer.
Maybe there is a different approach here? Governments could set the guidelines for how we’re going to approach speech on the internet. That also means that we need more tech-savvy people in governments.
Our Main takeaways
- Getting to the top takes time. In the case of Joris, it took a few years before things caught fire.
- Having a side hustle is always beneficial. What you do besides your work can eventually help your career, and take it to the next level.
- A healthy body is what matters. You may ignore your health when you are young, but being active and healthy helps you achieve a lot more.
Inspiring story Joris, thank you very much.
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