What Makes Google a Great Place to Work & What Does It Have in Common With the U.S. Department of Defense?

Mikayla Maier is a Certified Helicopter Flight Instructor and Commercial Pilot. She deployed to Afghanistan as a Drone Pilot, serving as part of a Secret Surveillance Program. After returning home, Mikayla joined Google X as part of Project Loon, a high altitude balloon internet-providing project. Since leaving the Silicon Valley, Mikayla has started an online weather forecasting service, worked as a Weather Producer for a popular morning news show and competed as a professional cyclist.

Jathan Janove: You worked at Google, which ranks at the top of the Fortune 100 list every year. What makes it such a great place to work?

Mikayla Maier: Google gives its employees a lot of freedom to explore ideas and really solve problems on their own. Without too much supervision, a lot of free thinking is possible. Of course, the amenities are amazing—you can’t beat the food. But seriously, the people are great and the managers I had were really good. They always wanted more, which is pretty typical of tech companies, but that can be good for employees and encourages them to aim higher.

JJ: What made your particular department (Google X) so great?

MM: I think most tech companies have research departments that aim for nearly unachievable goals. Google X is the “moonshot department” of the company. They aim to find the intersection of a big problem, a radical solution and breakthrough technology. The finished product usually ends up somewhere below the crazy idea, but you end up with a really great product.

Google X has a team that works full-time to try to prove that these radical ideas aren’t possible. As Astro Teller suggests, “Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first,” then try to kill the project. It’s a pretty great concept. All the ideas in Google X are crazy so they assign a whole team to research diligently to see if they can or can’t be done. The team tests the technical feasibility of possible projects so all the great projects that actually make it are those that couldn’t be proven impossible.

JJ: How would you describe the level of employee engagement in the moonshot factory of Google X?

MM: People in Google X were especially involved and excited about the work they were doing. Being a part of Google X is like having your own project that really means something to you. It feels like each employee has his or her own project and a job that is integral to the eventual product. Everyone I worked with was excited to be there. Like at most tech companies, it was possible to occasionally work from home. But even on days where you could work from home, people would be in the office just because they were excited to be there. Plus the food was great. And there was free laundry.

JJ: Did you feel that your managers did something special to create an engaging environment?

MM: Management did a good job of listening to employees and making adjustments. As I said before, they expect a lot from their employees. They were always asking for more, but they were also always very accommodating, especially if you needed time off, sick days or personal time. I never had an issue with any of my managers. They were sensitive to my co-workers’ needs and really seemed to go out of their way to make sure every employee was happy to be there and happy to be working in that department.

JJ: What were your co-workers like and what made them so engaged in the project?

MM: Google X hires a lot of people with military experience. People who have served in the military tend to have a get-it-done mentality and are used to long hours and travel. Our project started with one veteran who had military buddies and it blossomed from there. It worked out really well and brought a lot of success to the project.

JJ: Before Google, you spent time as a government contractor in a leadership role. What tactics did you employ as a manager and what did you do to keep the job engaging?

MM: I trained new pilots when they came overseas. It can be really overwhelming, mainly because of the total change in lifestyle when you move to a military base. I took new pilots under my wing, no pun intended, and did my best to help them adjust to life on a base. No matter how much training you do in the U.S., it is a whole different story when you get overseas. In the U.S. we were restricted with respect to airspace and different rules. For example, in school, everything is structured and it can take a long time to complete a task. I recall the startup procedure; in school it could take up to an hour. In theater, after doing it day after day, I could get it down to nine or ten minutes!

We had so much freedom, in a way. Of course, we were stuck on a base, but we didn’t have a lot of supervision. As a lead pilot, I knew what needed to be done and how the mission needed to be conducted. When you do a job every single day—and I mean that; no days off, no holidays—you become really efficient.

It was such a rewarding job, and it was really fun. Knowing we were really helping meant so much to me. I love aviation so that was a big part of it for me. But even more, it takes a team to fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones), so I worked with a lot of different people. It takes a team to get drones in the air, through the mission and returned to base. The team effort was part of what made it such a fun job to have.

JJ: What are some of the similarities between working in a military environment and in Silicon Valley?

MM: Both jobs necessitated working as part of a team. One involved launching drones and the other launching balloons—both are unmanned and take a crew to launch. At Google, we were in a research/development phase, while my UAV job mainly involved finished products that had already been studied in the states. Teamwork was extremely beneficial to both projects.

In a lot of jobs—especially at Google or when drones are involved—favorable outcomes are not achievable without a well-oiled machine of a team. I’m not saying we were all best friends, but when it came down to our jobs, we were all very good at what we did, mainly because we had done it so many times. When it came time for a launch or recovery, nobody had to think about the task they needed to do, they just did it. All the parts of the machine worked well together and we fired on all cylinders, resulting in very successful launches and recoveries.

JJ: Finally, as a woman in traditionally male fields, is there any insight you can offer?

MM: Girls can do anything! I’ve always been interested in how things work, and never let gender stereotypes stop me in anything I do. There are a lot of female helicopter pilots, a lot of women at Google and quite a few female analysts in Afghanistan who aren’t letting gender stereotypes stop them either.


For more information on Jathan’s new book, visit: Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management TrenchesManagement Trenches.