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Urs Hölzle, SVP Engineering Google, Swisspreneur Podcast

EP #350 - Urs Hölzle: Google’s Employee #8

Urs Hölzle

October 26, 2023

1:52 - When should Swiss startups go to the US? 

9:05 - Meeting the Google founders

12:47 - How to scale culture

23:27 - Current AI developments

28:04 - Leaving Silicon Valley

About Urs Hölzle:

⁠Urs Hölzle⁠ is SVP of Engineering at ⁠Google⁠, having started there in 1999 as their first Search Engine Mechanic and altogether 8th employee. Prior to Google, he started his own company Animorphic LLC in 1994 following the completion of his PhD in Computer Science at Stanford, and later worked as an Associate Professor at UC Santa Barbara and a consultant at Sun Microsystems. 

Having watched Google grow from a tiny company to the megalithic enterprise it is today, Urs had a front row seat to the development of its culture, and played an active role in shaping it. Here’s his advice for other scaling ventures:

  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast: if you have the right culture, it doesn’t matter if you have the right strategy from day 1, because sooner or later you will find it. Being in a team full of smart people who know how to contribute and how to contradict you means the right strategy naturally shapes itself. However, if you have the wrong culture, then the best strategy in the world wouldn’t do much for you.
  • Psychological safety: do the people in your team feel free to speak up and contradict those in positions of authority? When you’re building a scaling venture, you’re making decisions quickly: it’s extremely unlikely that you’re not making any wrong moves. You need these outspoken people as a safety net, and no one’s outspoken if they think getting fired will be the sure consequence of speaking up. 
  • Ask yourself “What does this potential hire add to the team?”: if you have too uniform a team, that team is not going to go nearly as far as one with different skill sets and perspectives. Similarly, you need to be certain that this potential hire is open to being corrected by someone else. It doesn’t matter how smart they are — if they’re not willing to grow, they won’t be much of an addition.

Memorable Quotes:

"Right place, right time is not something you can force."

"I think the #1 reason companies fail is not being mindful enough about scaling well."

"Sometimes the most dangerous thing is to be the smartest person in the room, because it means you stop learning."

If you'd like to listen to more conversations about working at Google, check out our first episode with ⁠⁠Thomas Dübendorfer⁠⁠.

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