Interview: Aanand Mohapatra (Google, Prod-2013)

(This is a compressed version of the original interview. Please visit the uncompressed version to read the full interview, with more questions and insights)

 Please tell us more about your current profile, and what a typical workday is like for you?

To understand my role a little better, I’ll take a step back. Google, as a company, makes money predominantly through advertising on Google’s platforms. When we search for something, you see some “organic listings”. Organic listings are those that a company does not pay for, and there are paid-listings. There are ads on YouTube, Gmail, Maps. That’s how Google makes money and keeps the internet free. My job is to work with these advertising partners who invest with Google to use its potential customers and grow their customer base. I specifically spend my time with retail advertisers all across the United States.

What a typical day looks like for me is with three predominant partners. The customer- to understand what their goals are, what they’re currently doing, is there scope for improvement, and how they can partner with Google. Another one is my internal sales partner- we have a large sales team servicing these customers. The third one is our engineering team-our engineering managers, who rely on people like me for feedback on what do customers want; what can we build so that we can say “Let’s spend a million dollars on this, this year’;  how can our product roadmap evolve from an engineering standpoint based on the needs of the market and that of the customer.

 When you mention the role of engineers in marketing, could you explain a bit more? It is not seen as a standard field by people.

I do not get involved with any of the engineering aspects.

Engineers develop products-in its most simplistic sense; computer engineers develop products. Google’s advertising product is self-served; it has a front-end UI and some back end algorithms-how we match ads, derive a score, how an ad auction runs and more. Engineers virtually design that auction; the mathematical aspect and how the auction is taking place. We have over a billion advertisers entering this auction. We also need some excellent hardware engineers designing the right components to derive these results and deliver them to you in under a second. All kinds of engineers are involved in this. Our interface, as the sales and marketing team, is predominantly through the product management role. Engineers work with product managers who built the product’s road map and tried to understand its requirements. 

The product manager and the engineering director are the ones who filter out or prioritise which requests are realistic and work with us to understand what the customer wants as well. They could build two features, but which one will be more beneficial and which one is going to be more urgent? Google as a company, typically we try to “protect” our software engineers as much as possible. We want them to spend as much time as they can writing code; working with a marketing or sales team isn’t going to be beneficial.

Have you worked somewhere else before? If you have, how different is it working on Google, compared to other companies in general?

My first job out of college was ZS Associates, that was my campus placement from college. I was hired as a business analytics associate, and I did that for ten months based out of their office in Gurgaon before I joined Google. Before I get into my experiences, I’d like to mention everybody has different experiences over here. I went through not what a lot of other folks are feeling, either at Google or at ZS. But one of the things I felt when I entered ZS was, whether it was because of the hiring or whether it was because of the role that my peer set- when I noticed- was very similar to me in background. It just felt like a massive mesh of engineering students, because that was the hiring criteria. For my role and the teams that I worked on- being an engineer was the only base criteria, they didn’t hire anybody outside of engineering colleges.

When I moved to Google from ZS Associates, the roles that I was explicitly doing, I would say I was an exception to the rule. There were very few people who were engineers who were doing that role. Most of my peers were marketing or English literature graduates or something else. I think it was my first time collaborating in a professional setting with folks whose educational background were very different from mine.

Google has consistently been voted the top place to work for; they’ve figured out the science behind keeping their employees happy and satisfied. Significant things that attribute to that are the strong values that we have, and in the employees, we hire and stick to those values that drive us.

You had mentioned that coming from an engineering background when you joined Google, you had experienced and interacted with other people from very different backgrounds, be it literature, marketing or management. We noticed that you had not pursued a master’s degree. Why was that? And how did you bridge that gap when you had to shift profiles as well? 

The way I think about it is, the reasons to pursue a degree, the main part is education- the thirst for knowledge and wanting to learn what is there. Another aspect is what it’s going to do for you and your personal and professional lives: how is it going to help me, will it get me somewhere I want to go faster, is it going to accelerate something for me. Multiple times in my career, I’ve thought about a different professional degree or trying to think through what kind of education, but I’ve never found something that checks both of those boxes for me.

Thankfully, at Google, the managers that I’ve had, have always tried to build some sort of experiential learning for me that satiates both the learning portion of it and the accelerated growth portion of it. It’d be like, “what are you going to learn from an MBA class; how to manage people? Here you go, go manage people”. Maybe you’ll fail, but you’ll learn something through that, and you’d have a partner to walk you through it. I’ve gotten enough opportunities to go through that from an experiential standpoint that I haven’t considered spending that much amount of money and going down that path.

One of the benefits of being over here in the US is that I feel like there is less stigma about going to school even when you’re much older. In India, it’s like “oh, you’re 30 and you want to go back to school?” but here, people who are 45 and 50 go to school as well. 

Today you have Coursera, Udemy, so many courses on YouTube, so many open courses being distributed everywhere, so that if the thirst is truly for the knowledge. If you want to learn something, there are so many free libraries, video courses, people from top universities delivering these courses the same way it is delivered to the best students. Try to at least dip your toes before you commit to a degree because committing to a degree is a monetary and time investment, both of which are essential resources and not always available in plenty. 

You had a profile change even when you moved from your previous company to Google. How did you go about that as well, to bridge that gap?

“When a lot of things are changing, try to find what is not changing”. If you only focus on the change, you’re always going to feel a sense of discomfort saying “everything is changing and this is all new to me”. When a lot of things are changing, try to understand, “well, these things are still the same”, and that helps you to get this confidence that’s like “well, I can go through this change because there are some things that are the same and are not unknown and alien and are friendly and known to me”. Through that change, I think what I could continue to bank on was that Google still wanted me for my analytic ability; being good at math, being good at excel sheets and more. They still wanted me for that, which helped me shine my role in Google India.

 It is effortless to go into a professional set up and look at other people and think “They’re very different from me, and I need to become more like them”. If you become more like them, you take your competitive edge off. You need to understand how the collective thing can be greater than the sum of its parts and how you can complement others’ skills. 

You studied Production engineering during your B. Tech right. What got you interested in sales and advertising? What were some steps you took to get the basics when you were still in college? You applied through TnP in college, so what additional steps did you take to acquire those skills?

I stumbled upon it as most people will stumble upon paths in their careers. I envy those who make a game plan and stick to it; I didn’t. It’s not like what I wanted to do back in my third year in college. I got exactly that; it wasn’t my dream to be in sales and marketing. From a foundational standpoint, what NIT Trichy does well and what all of us as students do well is building some necessary skills that are non-negotiable irrespective of what professional industry you get into. How you communicate, how you think, and how you collaborate are skills that you need to build regardless of your industry. You could be building cars, you could be making ads, you could be writing code, you could be doing sales and marketing, or even just in your personal lives, these are things that are just going to come in handy. Try to rely on yourself and build all of those things.

 In college, maybe the only thing I did was continuing to tell myself “you’re not going down a single path, always keep your options open”. I think production engineering helped me with that a lot. I’m making a joke here, but in production engineering, we’d always ask ourselves what the path is here, and we’d tell ourselves the path is to change our directions.

Production Engineering in NIT Trichy when we look at it from outside is called Industrial and operations engineering. You could go down the manufacturing stream where you’d learn about tools, materials, the hardness of materials, and how truly manufacturing happens and become a pro at that, or the route of the operations as well, where they taught us about supply chains, project management and things like that. 

Pick your electives smartly, don’t pick your electives based on “my friends are going there”. Try to do what you truly enjoy as in a later point of time it will in some way add up to what you’re doing.

How similar or different is a software profile when you compare it with sales and advertising, or even analytics for that matter?

Short answer- very, very different.

I have the comfort of saying I’m not out there saving lives; I’m not out there making sure and keeping the systems up. If one of my customers has a question about their campaign, it could be answered tomorrow at 9:01 am, and that would be fine. I don’t have the urge to check my laptop. For many software engineers, depending on what they’re working on and how critical their role is in the entire operation, a lot of them have to work late hours. Not to scare anyone away from that path, I think there are many gains in that path as well- but they’re envious of the flexibility my approach gives me. It is a little less pressure because it’s a little less important if I were to say it.

Moving on to your college life a bit more, what clubs were you a part of? Did some of the clubs help you in acquiring these soft-skills, either knowingly or unknowingly?

The clubs that I was a part of- Balls By Picasso where I ended up being president in my final year as well, Guest Lectures team for Pragyan, I was a part of that organising team and headed that in my final year as well. Did they help me? Yes. Balls by Picasso attracts people who are already good quizzers, or good in whatever events we’re doing, and there is some requirement for that, but how do we upskill people? Do I truly feel like those clubs upskilled me? I’m not as sure. I think to some degree they did, but I wouldn’t say my experience over there is what shaped me to do this. It is a lot of the work that I’ve done before that even made me eligible for those clubs.

But 100%, Guest Lectures, how many folks can say when they were in college, they had the opportunity to work with Nobel laureates, and invite them to your college, and even have an exchange with these luminaries of their fields? It was a great experience; I was fortunate to get to do that. Same with Balls by Picasso, not just being a part of the club but also being the president of the club in the final year also gave me some sense of finances, some sense of resources, some sense of negotiation. Those are things that are valuable to me in my role today as well and will be beneficial for everyone in their roles. I’ll end by saying one of the biggest things I picked up from clubs is not just the work you do over there, but also the network.

Don’t think about, “I’m in this club” or “I’m in that club”, whatever club you’re in, try to build your network, try to build friendships because we’re all brilliant people at NIT Trichy. We’re all going to be extremely successful, and relying on your network is an excellent way of growing your professional career as well. Build strong bonds in whatever clubs you’re in, in whatever groups you’re in college. You don’t necessarily need to stack-rank the groups saying “this has more professional success” or “this more immediate success than the other”. It will all lead to success; it just depends on what you do there.

This is more on the academic side of what you did in college. Did you take any internships under a professor when you were in college? Of course, you would have had a compulsory internship in your third year’s summer. How have all these internships helped you to build your profile?

I did a project with a professor at IIT Delhi, and it was a project where we had used logic to allocate hospital beds at a nursing home. It was an operations project, close to what I was studying in production engineering at that time- operations resource and operations management- how do we derive that mathematical logic or statistical logic from allocating beds based on historical demand and predict future demand. It was a combination of forecasting and scheduling. This project opened the gates to what a literature review is and the whole world of scientific journals.

The other internship I did was with Rane India, Chennai in their supply and sourcing division. Even in my job interview for ZS, a huge factor that helped me was the project that I did in IIT Delhi. ZS is an analytics company, but their customers are predominantly from the healthcare space. The fact that I had done some statistics, analytics, or mathematics in a nursing home or a healthcare space, it checked both of their boxes, and they were like, “we want to work with you”. 

What do you think is special about, or exclusive to your experiences in NIT Trichy? What are some of the experiences that you still cherish?

The thing that stays with you the longest is friends. How my mind works is that I don’t associate a lot of memories with places. It’s never like, “Oh remember we used to go to Snacky and do this”, it’s always like “remember we used to do this with this person”. Most of my memories are associated with people, and that’s what I cherish the most.

During the pandemic, when everybody is staying at home, has brought us closer. We do video-conferences and play games like Ludo and hearts online.

Other things I remember were the hardships- you do remember the hardships as well; the difficult times we went through. In our four years, power-cuts were our greatest hardships; which, putting things into perspective, is not the most challenging thing you could go through.

In this regard, if you could redo some of the things if you had the chance to go back in time, what would you change or do differently?

I would have tried to make more friends, expand my network a little bit more. Not getting redos and maintaining attendance is also something I’d do differently. Staying back in Trichy in the summer is not something I’d recommend. If Trichy gives you nightmares, being in Trichy when nobody else is around in the hostels, during the hottest months of the year, and when all the bloodlines (so to say) of college are closed as well, there are no places to go and eat, is a different kind of nightmare. Avoid it. 

Back in the day, we didn’t have Wi-Fi on campus, and some of us used to have these dongles.  I probably could have been one of the dongle-getters, to spend more time on the internet to learn and spend a little less time watching movies and TV Shows and more on Coursera and YouTube. 

Do you have any particular advice for people who want to come and seek work abroad? And if so, how difficult or easy is it going to be to adapt, considering COVID as well, being the current situation. Apart from the traditional skills, in these times are there extra skills one might require?

The lens of COVID is such a difficult one to answer because it is just so unknown. However, I can speak from personal experience, for me when I switched- it was within the same team. I still had many things that were not changing for me, and I could ground myself with that. However, when I moved to San Francisco, there’s a notion of a credit score, I needed to get an apartment, I had no idea how to figure that out. I called my friend from NIT Trichy, and he was my roommate for my first two years, and he helped me out because he had already been there for one year before me. Your network is going to be extremely helpful; your friends are going to be extremely helpful.

We look at America, and we think one thing, but when you come here, you’ll realise there are many micro-cultures here. Do your research. That will 100% help you to be more successful and will reduce some of the shocks. That said, be prepared for the shock, it’s going to happen. Embrace the difference. Focus on the things that brought you here and not the stuff you’re giving up, and that is the framing that helped me. I came here to accelerate what I was doing on a professional standpoint and unlock some new opportunities, and that is still here. Maybe samosas and pav bhajis are the trade-offs. I came here for the possibilities.

You had mentioned a shock in terms of living. You have worked in India, and now you have worked in the USA, was there a professional shock as well?

Time as a resource, I have emulated what a lot of folks over here look at it as: “9-5, we can have the best time. We can go out, we can have lunch, we can be best friends. But at 5 I’ve got to go back to my spouse, my family, my dog, my friend, or whatever it is”. People try to form a sense of boundary, so that was a shock. It is a hindrance to some extent; it scared me a little about how I’d grow professionally if these people weren’t my friends. Biases around gender, age, education, race, and so on, don’t exist here, unlike India. Besides, I truly felt valued for the ideas that I brought to the table, and not for who is behind those ideas. People over here are very blunt. They give it to you as it is, but still in a friendly way – they deliver it with sincerity instead of being dismissive. 

Regarding your projects in sales and advertising, could you explain some of the projects you’ve worked on? Are there times when you cannot reveal what projects you’re working in?

Often, I’m a part of a campaign in B to C marketing with brands like Adidas, Gucci, Levi’s. Pre-campaign and Post-campaign are two very different things. Pre- there’s a lot of secrecy, client confidentiality, these brands hold their competitors very close, and marketing is a competitive edge. In the same way, we don’t want to go out there and tell what we’ve done after we’ve done it. They’d like to preserve and use it year after year, and use it with a competitive edge, and let other people figure it out by reverse engineering it. 

If your juniors or any current student were to pursue this career, would you recommend it or not? If they wanted to pursue, what are some of the skills they could acquire, or some of the groundwork that they could do earlier on to have a better edge?

I would strongly recommend doing it; I love doing it, which is why I do it. Sharpen your basics. Be strong in your communication, your thought process, how you analyse situations and decisions. There are great books on brand marketing, advertising, extensive research, and many online courses.

Through the marketing management course at NIT Trichy, I learned the 4 Ps of marketing. It is a little archaic, we don’t use a lot of that anymore, but every piece of education is a good education. Force yourself for some sort of financial learning, which is something NIT Trichy didn’t give a lot of opportunity for. But now with the access of online resources, learning how to read a company’s financial statement, understanding some of the jargon- on what profit is, what margin is, how companies function, irrespective of what industry you get into, is essential at some point in your career.

Digital transformation is a hot topic right now for both customers and job creators. Marketing transformation with a digital lens- on which I spend most of my time – is a critical component of the more extensive digital transformation.

This might be repetitive, but what do you like about working for Google? Why do you think they enjoy the reputation that they do? What have you learnt from, or acquired since working in Google? 

I feel respected and satisfied. I feel incredibly flexible; I rarely feel like I have a massive deadline in front of me, and I’m in total control of all the things around me. With their food policy, That’s one less thing for me to worry about – I could spend that extra 30 minutes getting extra rest, reading the newspaper, spending some time with my loved ones. The reason we have the reputation is that at Google, everything is about the user. There’s a massive sense of responsibility to maintain a user base of more than 2 billion and continue to serve them.

Google is the only place I’ve worked in, apart from a short stint at ZS Associates. Massive credit to any of my professional development goes to Google, and I continue to learn more every day at Google. I think we are very tightly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Experiential learning might be the best form of knowledge; it gives me the most redemption whenever I learn something. I’m fortunate to have the size of people and the diversity of people I have at Google to learn from, and their experiences then shape my experiences as well.

If you were a recruiter for Google and were to come to an Indian engineering college, let’s say NIT Trichy, what are some things that you’d look out for, in a student, either as an intern or a full-time employee?

We typically hire under four buckets. It’s general cognitive ability, role-related knowledge, leadership, and what we call ‘Googliness’. You need to be a smart thinker, apply yourself, and do so not just to get the right answer but also in the right way. The framework is more important than the actual answer you give. Think about scale every single time you’re answering a Google question because it is a company built on scale. So ask some questions –  It shows you’re always thinking and considering variables that weren’t even presented to you. We hire people based on what things people have done for achievements speak louder than potential – It will lead to some impact, whatever scale it may be. Put that on your resume, talk about that when you’re talking about your role-related knowledge. Always contextualise what you’ve done, and always show proof for it. Leadership is less relevant for entry-level positions. Retention is a huge part of our play, so we spend so much money hiring candidates because we don’t want candidates leaving. When we hire you, we’re not thinking, “will you be successful for this next role that we’re hiring you for?” And the last thing to round it all up is Googliness.  Googliness is just, “are you going to add to the company in any form or way?” Are you going to reinforce and try to improve the values that we have? Reinforcing the values for fairness, vices- are you always going to be doing the right thing? If you see someone do the wrong thing, how do you respond? How do you report? If you see something in the company- maybe it’s a user data leakage- how will you escalate that? How will you build the right process,  challenge the status quo and function in ambiguity? All these things contribute to one’s Googliness.

 Did you get a chance to go back to college? Even otherwise, have you heard from your peers if they’d gone to college? How different is it right now, probably from what you’ve heard about from your friends also

I have not had the chance to visit college; I didn’t even get the chance to go back to my graduation ceremony. I did attend an alumni-meet here in New York, where the Director had spoken to us about some of the plans on campus. As I recall, there was a rumour about a Café Coffee Day that threw all our WhatsApp groups in a frenzy. “What, they got a CCD?!” I’m happy and proud to see a lot of the good stuff that’s happening; and I’d love for us to be more involved in whichever way possible.

Aanand Mohapatra can be reached at aanand.mohapatra@gmail.com

Interview transcribed and fine-tuned by Sunil and Varshni.

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