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Becoming a Google Product Manager – Interview with Google’s Johanna Wright

October 8, 2010

Johanna Wright – Google – Director of Product Management

Chances are you found your way to this article through a Google search.  Just over a month ago Google announced that they are serving 1 billion users per week, and launched Google Instant – Google’s new feature that instantly shows search results based on predictions while you type.

OneDublin.org recently met with Johanna Wright, Director of Product Management at Google, who led the team responsible for Google Instant (prior to Google Instant, Johanna worked on Google Universal Search).  Johanna majored in math at Barnard College (Class of 1997) and later earned an MBA from UCLA (Class of 2005).

Dublin students, parents and educators – if you’ve ever wondered how technology companies like Google bring cool new products to market, read on. And read about more women in science, technology, engineering and math fields (including interviews with MythBusters, Disney Imagineering, NASA and more), in our Women in STEM Series of articles.

James Morehead: What experiences in middle and high school led to your interest in math?

Johanna Wright: Growing up I didn’t have any conception that math was hard or that I shouldn’t do math.  I think it was kind of expected in my family that we would be good at math.  My mom’s a math teacher – she was actually my eighth grade math teacher.  My mom’s pretty innovative and she taught a lot of after school classes on how to combine art and mathematics.  Math was a core piece of my childhood and also art, and those were my two favorite classes later on in college.  My mom had a big influence on that.

I went to a high school at the Commonwealth School in Boston and there were two math tracks. They tested us to see which track we should be in, and I tested into the Math B track.  I remember thinking that I should be in Math A, so I went and talked to the Math A teacher, Mr. Kaplan, and said, ‘Hey I think I should be in the Math A track,’ and he agreed to give me a shot.  My parents encouraged me and made me think I was good at math, and the teacher took a chance on me.  I think there’s a lesson there which is to stand up for yourself and push forward.

The teacher was superb, really inspirational.  I loved that class and the students loved that class, and our teacher made us think that math was exciting.  So those were the big influences for me in junior high and high school – my mom and my high school math teacher.

Morehead: Where did you go after high school?

JW: I attended Barnard College in New York as a math major and my interest in computer science grew while at college.  I remember a combined Barnard / Columbia class called Honors Mathematics, which was for people who were interested in being math majors.  It was a self-selection thing – there wasn’t an entrance exam.  You took Honors Math if you were really interested in math.  I had an awesome teacher there, so I’d like to give another shout out to Professor Robert Friedman.

There were a lot of people who dropped out of the class, but the people who stuck around liked the class so much that we begged for an extra day of math class. Our professor used to come in an extra day a week and teach us more math.  Both of these high school and college teachers pushed us to develop our own thoughts and think through the problem.  If you asked Professor Friedman a question, he would respond, “Well, why don’t you meditate on that one?”  So he really pushed us to try and figure out things on our own and have lively discussions about math.

I had a friend in my dorm across the hallway from me who had been to a technical high school in Virginia.  She wasn’t really that into math, but she had done some computer programming in college.  I convinced her to come to my full math class, and she convinced me that I should be taking computer science classes.  That’s why I started taking computer science.  She was a really helpful influence as a friend, and I ended up really liking my computer science classes.

Computer science is very hands on, whereas in math you figure it out and write your answers on paper – there’s no feedback along the way.  When you’re programming you get a lot of feedback and the computer helps you understand whether or not you’re getting things right.  I felt like that was a neat dimension and made it more fun.

By the end of college, I was considering whether or not I should purse a math PhD or look for a job.  I had taken as many math classes you could take, graduate math classes, and I actually didn’t like them as much.  I felt by the time I was graduating from college, computer science was a more creative outlet for me.  It was an area in which I could have more fun. [Johanna later earned an MBA at UCLA.]

Morehead: Tell me about what a product manager at Google does every day and what skills are required to have a role like that?

JW: Sure.  A product manager is responsible for defining what our feature set is.  What feature you develop in a product, what products should be developed even down to minutiae like the color of a button.  One way that we talk about this is that you’re the cross-functional lead, you’re the bridge between the engineering team, the marketing team, the sales team, the user design team, and the support team.  You’re the voice of the user, and then translate that voice into clear requirements that engineers can understand and build.

What skills does that take?  I think it takes a lot of skills.  At Google we really favor people who have a technical background – a computer science background – because our products are so complex technically that if you can’t understand the technology, you can’t really succeed in this job.  It takes data analysis skills, the ability to really understand and manipulate data, it takes creativity – taking comments people are making in the market and turning those into tangible features and things that people can use, and it takes communication skills.  Can you speak the language of a whole variety of teams?  Can you speak business speak with your sales team and give executive presentations, but can you also speak with engineers?

Morehead: In your career at Google so far, what’s the most interesting technology problem you’ve solved?

JW: I’d say the projects that I’ve worked on at Google that have been the most interesting are very collaborative. It’s hard to say that I as an individual solved them on my own.  If we take the example of Google Instant which launched recently, it took a whole team – it was very complex technically.  Some examples: how do we know when we should be showing you the results immediately?  How good of a prediction do we think we have?  How do we serve so many queries?  How do we make it fast?

These are really fascinating technology problems, but when you’re working on something that’s the scale of Google Search, you really need to be able to collaborate with experts in multiple areas.  You work with the statisticians to understand the way that users behave when they’re searching for something, and you work with infrastructure engineers to understand our caching systems and the implications of where to put server machines, etc.  I’m balking at saying I’ve solved any one technology problem, working at Google is so fun because you work with a whole host of people to solve exciting problems.

Morehead: That kind of ties into my next question, and I appreciate your answer around the teamwork that it takes to solve problems in a technology company.  I was watching your talk at the Google Instant Launch event, and it was noted earlier in that discussion that Google passed the one billion users per week mark.  You started to touch on this in your last answer, but in layman’s terms, how does Google support so many users and provide search results so quickly?

JW: That’s a hard question.  How are we so fast?  There are so many layers of our technology stack.  There are two answers.  There’s one which is technical – at each layer how do we index search queries?  How do we figure out where machines should go?  How do we make sure that the smallest amount of code is sent over the wire?  The other is a Google philosophy – a maxim that ‘fast is better than slow’.

We’ve gotten a lot of pressure not to let anything out the door that makes search slower.  A lot of it comes from our founders since they really believe that speed matters more than anything else.  I’ve run up against this a number of times where we’ve tried to launch something that seems like it’ll just be a great feature and they said no.  Unless you can make it fast, you can’t launch it.  There’s a cultural bias that permeates across every team that your stuff just has to be fast or else it’s not good enough to be a part of Google.

Morehead: I love the maxim ‘fast is better than slow’.  It’s so simple but a hard thing to achieve.  For students reading this article, what is your top reason high school students should aspire to go to college after graduation?

JW: Aspire to go to college – you just have so many more opportunities if you go to college.  My husband is a perfect example – he actually just graduated from college about two or three months ago. He’s a very smart guy and it’s really clear to me the kinds of opportunities that are available to him now versus before he finished college. There’s a whole host of jobs available to him now where before he was going to be stuck as a production guy and have difficulty moving forward.  He’s even going back now to get a PhD in statistics.

There are so many opportunities if you go to college.  I think that a lot of jobs assume that you will have gone to college and won’t look at your resume if you haven’t.  For me at Google you can’t even really do this job without the kinds of things you learn in college such as the deep technical skills you get from getting a degree.  I do think you learn a lot socially about how to get along with people in college.  I think people who haven’t gone to college miss out on meeting people from variety of places.  Colleges bring people together from a lot of different areas.

Johanna Wright and family

Morehead: Finally, what is it like working for Marissa Mayer [Google’s Vice President of Product Management] – someone who made the list of Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women?  And does working for a highly influential woman in an industry that still suffers from male stereotypes make a difference?

JW: I love working for Marissa.  I guess I haven’t seen gender factor into my professional life that much.  Marissa is my boss and I work with her everyday, so it’s hard for me to see her as a woman in computer science more than just seeing her as Marissa because she’s someone I know and someone I work with.  But I do think it’s helpful, and I do know that Google has a fair number of really solid women product managers, and I think probably it’s helpful for them to see senior leadership that are women.

Marissa is a great boss, and one interesting fact about me is I’ve had two children while I’ve been at Google and having Marissa as a boss has meant that having children hasn’t impacted my career trajectory negatively at all.  Marissa creates an environment where it’s okay to be a woman, it’s okay to be a mother, and I think that gives some comfort to people in the organization that they can continue to have the lives that they may want to lead while contributing in a meaningful way at Google.

[Update] Since this article was published, Ms. Wright has been promoted to Google Vice President, Search and Assist – Android.

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