Career, Leadership and Life at Google - A Talk with Antonella Pavese
I recently attended a talk on ‘Driving Your UX Career’ at Google led by Antonella Pavese and Christina Storm.
Antonella, who has worked at Google for 11 years and is currently a UX Researcher on Google Cloud, challenged the audience to take on a project that both encourages us to learn and is a bit out of our comfort zone.
Her challenge was the spark I needed to write my first blog post.
I approached Antonella after the talk and asked if she would be my first interview. She was so wonderfully kind to sit down with me to talk about her career, leadership style and work as a UX Researcher at Google.
I've taken the risk of including our conversation in it's entirety here. If we see each other in person I'd love to hear if this feels too long or just right to you as the reader. Enjoy!
You had mentioned in your talk that your career has taken many interesting turns. Can you tell me about your career trajectory and how you ended up at Google?
When I moved into the industry it was a very novel experience. I wasn’t very wise or skilled in understanding how to move in that environment. I had the illusion that if I did the best job I could and did what they asked me to do everything would be fine. That if I tried hard enough to understand the problem and to solve it, everything would work. And it’s not quite that way, I realized.
My first corporate job was in a financial company and when I arrived I didn’t know much about my job. I had an academic background and I knew a lot about research, but I didn’t know so much about user experience research and working in the industry. It was a great learning experience. I learned so much at that job. I also hit against a lot of walls that I didn’t expect to encounter on my path.
Moving to Google
When I moved to Google, I learned that I had to do work to match myself with my career. And that was a very long process of learning because there is the career path that is already carved for you and it's one size fits all. And then there is you, and you have to find a way to match it and that’s a learning process.
At the beginning I was doing research and I was pretty happy about that. Then it became almost unavoidable for me to get into a managing path. In most places that’s how you progress in your career. And so I started to manage teams. Once again, I had to find myself and what I was comfortable doing and what I was happy doing. I ended up managing a super huge team. It was great from a career point of view, but it eventually made me miserable.
Eventually I found the place where I want to be, which was managing a smaller research team. I could be more hands on with research and have interesting, lively discussions with my team about what we would do and what the research strategy was for our products. That was a much better fit for me.
But it’s hard to stay still. When you work in Corporate America, you have a lot of push to move in different directions. It’s hard to keep the course and continue to do the things that are good for you and you are good for.
They say that this system tends to promote people to the point of incompetence. My company is better than that, but I think that it’s still very hard to stick to something that’s a good fit for you. Things change and move incessantly around you. I’m not saying that you have to stop learning or stop growing, but rather that you have to continuously monitor your fit, because there are roles and environments that works better for each person than others and nobody knows better than you want the right job for you is.
Have you found ways to navigate that?
I learned to be much more clear about what I want. And that was a big learning process. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get what you want, because there is always a tension between what you can offer and what the company wants or needs from you.
Can you describe your leadership style and how has it evolved over time?
In the last job I had I was managing a small team of researchers. I felt that was the peak of my management career. I loved the way the team was working. There was a lot of cooperation, mutual support, and exchange of information, and there was a lot of discussion about what we were doing, why and how we were doing it.
It was important to me that each individual researcher had freedom to select their research and to decide what was most important to focus their research on. We got to the point that the team was high functioning, the rare combination of having the right people in charge of the right things.
We were able to have honest and challenging discussions about our work and no one was offended because we knew that we all had the same goal of making our work better. My team got very good at disagreeing with me as long as they could defend their position.
We agreed on the broad picture of what we were doing. There was a good balance between making sure we were doing the right thing and giving individuals independence and ownership of their work.
This is the most important thing for me: collaboration and mutual support among the members of the team. I don’t like and I don’t support when there is a lot of conflict and territoriality. I think it just doesn’t work, it makes people feel uncomfortable, and it wastes a lot of time and energy.
I think so too. Have you ever joined a team where a culture of territoriality already existed?
Yes. And it’s hard to break. It’s important to hire the right people and then use team dynamics to reinforce collaborative behavior. But I’ve noticed in other teams that when a "territorial dynamic" is already established and rewarded it’s really hard to change. It’s easier when you can shape a team early, but not always possible.
Have you seen anything that has worked in changing the dynamics of a team with a this type of culture?
It's critical to have clear roles and responsibilities. People need to know what they own and what they are supposed to be doing. If that is unclear or if there is uncertainty and you’re afraid that someone is going to take stuff from you, then it’s harder to change the dynamic. You need to be able to have a clear message: 'You do this and you are responsible for it'.
Other than that it’s a combination of giving people clarity on their role and not tolerating territorial behaviors. You need to make sure that if somebody doesn't respect other people's work or responsibilities, that behavior is not rewarded socially in some way. I think it’s part of the culture of the team that this type of behavior is a good thing and this other behavior is a bad thing. I don’t have a formula for that. I don’t know if I can make it work in every condition. I think it depends on the personalities on the team.
I’ve found that whenever you feel you have leadership figured out, there will be a new personality that can completely change the dynamic in a way you weren’t expecting.
True, but I think that for a research team in particular it might be easier to maintain an open environment, because there is an advantage in getting other people’s feedback on your work. You can do research in isolation, but it’s not going to be as good as when you share it and discuss it with other researchers. You need somebody to poke holes in the way you do things, and design is the same thing.
So, discussion and open debate is at the center of a good research (and design) team.
Have there been any influences on your leadership style ?
Every person you meet has an influence on your leadership style - both positive and negative. I’ve had some bad managers and those people taught me a lot about what not to do. And I've had some very good managers that showed me how you can make people feel good about the work they're doing and give them a sense of competence about how they're doing it.
I also read a lot of books. I mentioned Tara Mohr in my talk. I love her approach. I love anything she writes because I think she mixes this idea of your personal mission and what is important for you, your values, with your career - and they are both important. Her way of thinking is a little bit spiritual in the sense of looking inside and looking outside and keeping those two aspects of our existence connected and in balance.
Tara's focus on effectiveness in the outside world with very clear internally driven goals in mind has inspired me a lot. This is what I was talking about before: we live in an environment that tries to shape us and we need to learn how to keep our own shape, because otherwise we are going to be unsatisfied and miserable.
I understand that well. I’ve been figuring that out myself and have gone off the beaten path quite a bit in my career and it’s been wonderfully rewarding. But then there are other times where I have self doubt because I feel like I haven’t done the specific career path that I think I’m supposed to follow.
Can you talk about a time you did something out of your comfort zone that pushed your boundaries?
When you first read the question to me earlier I was thinking that there’s two things. There are a lot of examples, but I picked two.
The first example is more career related. It's the time I mentioned earlier when I decided to take this big job and manage a very large team. I thought that it would be a little bit too much, and I was right. But I did it anyway and I don’t regret it. It was important, and it was useful. But it was a bad choice too, in the sense that it wasn’t the right thing for me to do to be happy.
It was probably the right thing to do in that moment, and it was a step I had to take to know that going increasingly bigger was not the right thing for me. It was a stretching out. And I think that the difference was that I was uncomfortable and I wasn’t supported. The type of job that I was into required me to have a little bit more alliances and support, and I wasn't able to get that. I knew that I needed it but that the situation did not have that possibility for me and I wasn't able to create it for myself then.
It was a situation in which you stretch yourself so much that you actually hurt yourself.
How long were you in that role?
I was there for about three years. In the beginning you try to see how things go and then you have the optimistic view that you can do something about it, and I did something about it. But there were just too many loose ends and too many things that were not in place for me to make it work.
The second example, the uncomfortable thing you do that is a good stretch that makes you stronger and wiser, for me is teaching. Like the other evening, when I presented to the Women in UX social event. It was a stretch for me. I’ve taught several classes recently, one was about women and leadership. Teaching and facilitating always feels a little bit uncomfortable, but in a good way.
That is the place where I love to be stretching - with things I want to learn how to do - because they are things that align with my values and what I want to do in the future.
What advice do you have for women getting into tech?
The first thing that comes to mind is that in this time and age, you do have to be careful of what you get yourself into. Not all environments are friendly or healthy. So make sure you are picking a good, healthy environment because it can be rough and not necessarily in a good stretchy, healthy learning way. That’s not true for all companies. Of course there are many really good places to be.
Just expect that there are going to be biases and it’s going to be harder because in most tech companies the majority of people are men. Even if they are the most wonderful men in the world, there will be a bias just because of the discrepancy in numbers.
I was reflecting on this. I did a lot of work on diversity, and not just women, but in general and I feel that it’s important not to think of yourself as a victim. Sometimes you are in a situation that is objectively hard and the conditions around you are not good, and they are not fair. But it’s important to feel empowered.
Ok, I know that's a cliche word. By "empowered" I mean that you have to try to understand what you can do in that situation. What is the most effective thing that you can do to make things better for you and other people in your situation. Sometimes ranting is important, but it’s not very helpful to change the world. You can find your way to assert yourself and build around you a supportive environment. If that is impossible then maybe that’s not the right place to be.
What’s one of your favorite moments being at Google?
I went on a trip to Haiti with a group of Googlers that were in the Crisis Response team and it was a life-changing experience. This was several months after the earthquake in 2010 and we traveled there because the team wanted to do some field research.
They wanted to figure out how Google could help in the critical moment of a disaster. It was very useful for them because they realized that technology and infrastructure were just not going to work. So they came up with some ideas around, for example, how to provide geographical mapping information in a situation where there might be electricity, or where there might not be internet.
What was learned from this?
In a disaster situation we need to have ways to deal with the fact that everything is unreliable and everything is slow, and everybody is busy. I think that team had a lot of preconception about the goodness and omnipresence of technology. They had to go back to reality and find ways around limitations and constraints.
A special thank you again to Antonella for taking the time to speak with me. Do you have an interesting story to tell? Get in touch and let’s talk!