C100 48 Hours in the Valley – Fireside Chat with Gokul Rajaram

August 21, 2014 Fireside chat with Katherine Barr and Gokul Rajaram

This post originally appeared on the Mohr Davidow Ventures blog on August 22nd, 2014. 

Katherine Barr (KB), General Partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures and Co-Chair of the C100, had the opportunity to interview Gokul Rajaram, formerly of Google and Facebook and currently Product Engineering Lead at Square at a recent C100 event in San Francisco. Entitled, 48 Hours in the Valley it drew a group of many of the most promising, up-and-coming Canadian tech entrepreneurs to the Bay Area.

KB: You have been referred to as the Godfather of AdSense.  What key lessons did you learn while you were Product Management Director of AdSense?

GR: I joined Google not knowing what exactly I would be working on.  When hiring, I think it’s important to focus on the company and the people, not necessarily the type of job s/he will do.  If you think of your job as confined to one specific thing, then that’s what you will do.  I started working with the AdSense team as a product manager part time, and when the project soon started to snowball, I joined full-time.  We hit $100M in revenue within six months, and AdSense went on to become very successful.

KB: What else did you learn as it relates to hiring?

GR: In terms of hiring, you want employees who are passionate and generalists, with hunger and smarts.  Startups grow fast – you want employees who are passionate about your mission and not just focused on “what job am I doing?”  Whoever you hire, you want them to jump right in and figure it out.

While at Google, teams had a max of eight people (five to six engineers at the most, a product manager, and product designer), so the teams were designed to be small, self-sufficient, and efficient.  Each team had a clear mandate, was able to determine how to organize, and had very clear metrics against which to be held accountable.  They were not allowed to hire more employees or bring on more resources until they reached the target metrics.  You can’t allow projects to get too big without the proper metrics in place first.  Each team reported quarterly objectives and key results, and then set goals for the next quarter based on metrics attained.  Let employees have a stake in this or else they will leave once their options vest; micromanage and your best people leave.


Katherine Barr and Gokul Rajaram at 48hrs in the Valley, June 16th, 2014. Photo by Kris Krug 

KB: After Google, you moved on to become Co-Founder and CEO of Chai Labs.  What words of advice to you have for the entrepreneurs in the room after starting your own company?

On Fundraising:

GR: In December 2007, Chai Labs raised $1.5M in four days but then had to let people go in October 2008 when we struggled to raise money for the next round after the financial crash. The main point is to not wait to fundraise but think about your role as CEO as fundraising continuously.  Raise more money than you think you may need as the landscape for fundraising changes a lot over time.  And don’t build your whole business on your fundraising plan because if you don’t have cash, you’re done.

On Culture:

GR: One bad apple in a company can kill.  Key questions to ask when interviewing potential employees include: Are they passionate about the mission, and do they fit with the lifestyle required?  I would vet this asking everyone to have lunch with the candidates.  You can find out a lot about people over a lunch.  You want engineers who are strong product engineers too, so you want to make sure that they have thought about your product.  Zero curiosity equals zero culture fit.  You want a hunger fit.  Have an onboarding process with whatever time you can give towards it.  For example, have the new employees fix bugs and give them a mentor to work with.

KB: How do you maintain a healthy and productive product development culture?

GR: Make product development very product-centric.  Get rid of bureaucracy, specifically in getting code from inception to production.

Employees should be continuously learning, both from internal resources (other employees) and external resources (TED talks, etc.).  

Employees should be encouraged to express their creativity and unleash innovation, so you need to provide a way for them to do so.  Google provides 20% time for innovative projects.  Facebook has hackathons once a quarter.  Square and Twitter both have a Hack Week.

KB: What key takeaways do you have from your time as Product Director of Ads for Facebook?

GR: My experience at Facebook was different from Google.  A four to six week boot camp is Facebook’s onboarding process for new engineers, which helps you understand all of the systems at Facebook and enables you to add value quickly.  When you get employees familiarized with the entire company, it is easier for them to figure out which team they want to join.  So, employees are hired as generalists, initially.  They are assigned a mentor during onboarding and work on fixing bugs and adding features within the first week.

The interviewing and hiring process is very challenging.  It takes time away from engineering, so the CEO needs to make it a mandate that engineers are involved, otherwise no one would do it.  At Facebook we had a list of questions so people didn’t repeat the same question to the candidate.  The person that completed the interview would hand off the answers to the questions s/he asked so there weren’t any repeats.

KB: You are now the Product Engineering Lead at Square.  What are the key lessons you’ve learned from this experience?

GR: I was at Facebook for 3.5 years and was then approached by Square.  Square is very mission-driven: the company actually wants to improve the lives of people. This is very different than having purely business goals.  Jack Dorsey, the CEO, sends out nuggets of things that interest him to the employees.  He also sends customer compliments and complaints so that we all have direct access to them.  He is the MC every Friday at 4pm for Town Square meetings.  This is a single event for the entire company across all offices in all countries where we share company successes.


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