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Q&A: Google’s Seattle-area engineering leader – an Amazon vet – on big growth and remote work

Geekwire logo Geekwire 7/21/2021 Kurt Schlosser
a man standing in front of a fence: Eric Young, site lead for Google Washington and VP of engineering, poses in a colorful stairwell in the company’s South Lake Union offices in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) © Provided by Geekwire Eric Young, site lead for Google Washington and VP of engineering, poses in a colorful stairwell in the company’s South Lake Union offices in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Google’s growth in the Seattle region is part of what lured Eric Young, a 15-year Amazon veteran, to jump from one tech giant to another back in 2016. Five years later, Young is helping to spark even more growth as the site lead for Washington state and vice president of engineering at Google.

Google was the first Silicon Valley tech company to establish an engineering outpost in the Seattle area in 2004. More than 100 out-of-town companies now have satellite offices in the region, tapping into the bevy of tech talent.

Seventeen years later after setting the trend, Google has more than 7,000 employees across Seattle and other side of Lake Washington in Kirkland. It’s hardly an outpost anymore and is the company’s largest engineering operation, in the U.S., away from its Mountain View, Calif., home.

Google has ongoing construction work at its new Kirkland Urban campus east of Seattle. It also last year signed an agreement to buy nearly 10 acres of land at a car dealership site just down the street in Kirkland.

“This is a full engineering-focused site and most of our product areas actually have a significant presence up here,” Young said during a recent interview with GeekWire.

Google continues to grow across the country, announcing in March that it would invest $7 billion in offices and data centers across 19 U.S. states this year. It also said it will create 10,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. this year.

A native of San Diego, Young made a brief stop in the Bay Area before moving to Seattle in 2000 to work for Amazon, where he spent the entirety of his time working on consumer-focused products and services. When he got the itch to try something new, he made the shift to enterprise at Google. And he got a front-row seat to the growth that has seen Google expand its presence in Kirkland and on Amazon’s home turf of South Lake Union.

We caught up with Young to talk about Google’s plans in the region, remote work options coming out of the pandemic, the competition for talent, what he’s Googling and more. Keep reading for our Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

GW. Thanks for chatting with us, Eric. What did you do primarily at Amazon and what were you doing when you left?

Young: At Amazon my initial role was leading a small engineering team focused on targeted messaging. It was a group within personalization, but largely focused in their consumer division. Throughout my time at Amazon, I actually was focused entirely on the consumer segment of their business. So I started in personalization doing targeted messaging products, then went to support their merchants business, like Seller Central, that created the ability for people to manage their storefronts on Amazon. From there I moved into the fulfillment center, so, picking, packing, shipping, sorting systems. And then ultimately to vendor management, like retail systems and retail pricing. So a variety of functions that were focused entirely on the consumer segment.

GW: What was the attraction to Google? What got you to leave Amazon after 15 years?

Young: With Google I had the opportunity to shift into an enterprise-focused role that was largely focused on our infrastructure and our cloud business, in addition to the site lead role. Honestly I had a great time at Amazon. I spent 15 years there, so obviously I enjoyed it. But I was ready to try something new and different. Google was a company that I always respected; they also had a great proven history of thinking big and taking these “moonshots” as we call them within Google. The idea to be a site lead for a growing area of engineering investment for Google was quite attractive. This is our second largest engineering site outside of the Bay Area, and it was really exciting to be part of that growth and the diversity of products that Google was going to build up here.

GW: Can you pinpoint anything culture wise that immediately struck you after jumping from one tech giant to another? 

Young: Both companies are obviously quite innovative companies and I’ve enjoyed both for that. For me, once you’re 15 years at a place, you get an itch to try something new and something different. That was a real honest motivator of my switch. I also had great interest and admiration for what Google did, but I perhaps erroneously saw it only as a Bay Area company and I was not ready to move to the Bay Area. I was obviously thrilled to see the growth plans here locally and for me it felt like an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

a large building: A Google office building in Seattle’s South Lake Union. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) © Provided by Geekwire A Google office building in Seattle’s South Lake Union. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

GW: What are the latest numbers for Googlers in the Seattle area?

Young: We have about 7,000 people up here split evenly on both sides of the lake. So 50-50, almost down the middle exactly throughout our history on Seattle versus Kirkland. It’s just amazing how many people naturally choose that preference.

GW: That number matches what Facebook told me for their size here as well. We used to call them engineering outposts, but they’re like full-on little companies.

Young: Yeah, it’s certainly not an outpost. This is a full engineering-focused site and most of our product areas actually have a significant presence up here. So it is an active area of investment across all the products that we work on, not just a subset. So it is an area of growth for sure.

a view of a city: A rendering of Google’s Kirkland Urban campus. (Google Photo) © Provided by Geekwire A rendering of Google’s Kirkland Urban campus. (Google Photo)

GW: Can you speak about that growth? You’ve grabbed significantly more space in Kirkland. In Seattle and South Lake Union, the cloud presence is new. Are their plans to continue going gangbusters?

Young: We don’t see the growth slowing down at all. We definitely have enjoyed the opportunity to be up here. You can see the growth in South Lake Union, just moving from Fremont into the South Lake Union campus. There’s four buildings now, the fifth building, the former Guitar Center building, will open up next year. On Kirkland I think we’ve been public with the fact that we’re building a fifth building on Sixth Street campus, which is our fifth building on the campus we’re currently at. Plus we’re in the process of opening up Kirkland Urban, where we’ll ultimately occupy four buildings there and are in the process of moving into the first one now. We definitely don’t plan to decelerate any of our growth here, and many portions of our business, like cloud in general, are largely getting built up in the Pacific Northwest. So this is a huge area of growth.

GW: Are you still holding onto Fremont or will you transition out of there to South Lake Union?

Young: Our Fremont office is still part of our campus plans, and South Lake Union was an expansion on top of that, not a replacement of it.

a group of people walking on a bridge: Google’s campus in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, emptied out in March 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. (GeekWire File Photo / Kurt Schlosser) © Provided by Geekwire Google’s campus in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, emptied out in March 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. (GeekWire File Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

GW: Anything new on return-to-office plans coming out of COVID?

Young: We’re trying to take a deliberate approach, a phased approach for employees to come back into the office. Right now, they’ve been able to come back in since April on a voluntary basis; we’re probably less than 20% occupied on any given day right now. But people will be transitioning back to the office by September and they’ll be given a choice of three operating modes. They could be an office-based employee where they’re expected to be in the office three days a week. The other two days a week they can work from home or they can choose to come into the office if they want. Plus they’ll have a month of flex time where they can just work from anywhere they’re authorized to work from. So if it’s another country they still have to be authorized to work out of that country. We offer that as the primary default mode.

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There’s two other modes. You can choose to relocate to another Google office location — stay on your current team, but go work in another location where Google has an office [and] be an office-based employee there, with all the perks and amenities of being in the office, but still work on your current team virtually, through remote technology. The third one is just go entirely remote and work somewhere that we don’t have an office, but engage like we have through the pandemic via video conferencing as your primary means of interaction.

GW: That would be a [real] option for folks, or that would be sort of the less preferred of the three?

Young: Actually all three are operating modes we want to support. We will actually post positions that will support people to be hired into fully remote positions as well. We really are embracing it. It’s true that the early days of Google culture still remain and the office is like a cherished part of our work environment, but we really do want to invent the future of work. Whether it be through fully remote experiences and hybrid teams, we’re looking to try to figure out how to make that be some of the perks and flexibility that you get if you come to Google.

GW: That’s interesting on the heels of your answers related to new buildings that you guys are occupying. Obviously companies are still heavily invested in that physical space. How do you feel about running an engineering center as we embark on this new reality, coming out of remote work?

Young: I think there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. For some people it’s about coming back to the office and seeing your colleagues again and having the newfound flexibility of some hybrid time at home, plus the ability to work from anywhere. Obviously there’s a lot of invention that has to happen, which is about how to bring teams together and support collaboration with hybrid teams. We’ve been successful the past year in the pandemic, but everyone was working remote. When you get back to a model where some teams are in the office and some teams are remote, we’ve got to debug the interactions to ensure that there’s equity for everyone. Meaning, if you’re on a video conference and you don’t benefit from the casual encounters in the hall and such, how do we ensure that we build inclusive, hybrid, high-functioning teams? We don’t have all the answers, but we’ll be doing a lot of experiments to try to figure out how to make it work. And that’s kind of exciting for us, but obviously a lot of unknowns to work through for sure.

I just went in yesterday. It was exciting. I’m really excited to see people. I know we’ve seen them virtually regularly, but there’s something about 3D that beats 2D.

GW: Your growth on the eastside of Seattle is being matched by Facebook, and Amazon is going big in Bellevue with plans to put 25,000 employees there. How do you guys compete? What makes a Googler not a Facebooker or an Amazonian?

Young: Certainly the local tech scene is competitive — it’s not just the big companies, the startup scene is also very active. We obviously do compete for talent, but I think it’s also important to step back and also recognize that it’s because of each other and not necessarily always in spite of each other that all of us are able to attract and retain some of the best talent that exists in the industry.

The local tech scene is actually what caused us to move up here in 2004. And it’s really what keeps us here today. It’s absolutely true that we do compete with each other, but we compete across a variety of industries and disciplines. And I think for us, we’re really thrilled to be part of the tech scene and we try to be relevant and helpful and flexible to employees who want to look at the whole set of options that Google can provide. Whether it’s the definition of the future of work or whether it’s how we target and try to attract candidates, we do try to make this a compelling offer across the board.

GW: Anything you can talk about related to products and services that you have your hand in that maybe we haven’t shed some light on previously? I know you’ve been away from people for a year, but what are you all working on?

Young: We do have pretty much most Google product areas represented up here. So it’d be hard for me to do an exhaustive list of everything. But obviously it should come as no surprise one of the biggest areas of investment is Google Cloud, and Google Workspace, including the Google Meet video conferencing product that’s largely built up here. Also a huge portion of our Google Maps product; Android Chrome operating system; the work we’re doing in research for AI has teams up here. It’s a mix of both consumer-facing products and enterprise products.

Related to the pandemic, the exposure notification collaborations that we did with Apple were largely integrated by teams up here in the Seattle area.

a man standing in front of a building: Eric Young joined Google in 2016 after 15 years at Amazon. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) © Provided by Geekwire Eric Young joined Google in 2016 after 15 years at Amazon. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

GW: What’s your take on Google’s place among other big tech companies when it comes to increased government scrutiny or the focus around misinformation? How do you stay focused? What do you say to people who wonder about your future direction?

Young: We obviously are focused on helping users. That’s our primary focus and we want to promote authoritative, trustworthy, competent sources. And we also want to make certain that people have the ability to discover what is out there. For the most part, our Googlers locally who are asking us, ‘What are we doing to help?’ They’re usually focused on how are we actually helping consumers get authoritative, accurate information, or where they push us is where could we do more to help support local businesses. The antitrust element has not been a primary concern, but obviously providing trusted information and combating misinformation is something that resonates deeply with all of us and our mission. That is something that we absolutely focus on as the company, across businesses — across YouTube, across search results — and making certain that we promote authoritative data.

GW: How do you view Google in the Seattle area 10 years from now? Do people start to forget about the Bay Area?

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Young: I don’t think they’d forget about the Bay Area, but I do think that obviously the future of work is something that’s really relevant to all businesses here. There’s a lot more focus on flexibility and providing people the opportunity to contribute to areas of the business, not just what their team is working on locally. We continue to see a lot of growth, including in-office growth here in Seattle. Some will want the flexibility of being remote, but we continue to plan to offer a great in-office experience for those people choosing that. So we expect to see growth in terms of our office footprint locally.

GW: What’s the last thing you Googled?

Young: Oh my goodness! I have to double check, I don’t know. Can I just pull up and look at my last search result? … You know what, literally my last search result is ‘U.S. Canada border reopening.’ I am an avid skier. I really want to go skiing up in Whistler this winter. If your readers have any pull and can put in a plug for a reopening of the border in a safe way … I can’t make it on behalf of the company, but I would really appreciate if they would do it. The news article I read in response to that said ‘maybe mid August for vaccinated U.S. travelers.’ I’m holding out hope for that.

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