Monday, August 30, 2010

New Beginnings

One week from today, I will be on a plane headed for Accra, the capital of Ghana and, for the next several months, my new home. It's hard to believe that after this long journey, after all of the trials and roadblocks overcome, that the day has finally arrived. Today, I rejoin my old company and my old community. A little bit of background...

The Long and Winding Road

During my freshman year at Cornell, I met a woman named Laura Granka, who would go on to be responsible for much of my subsequent success in college. Laura was a User Experience Researcher at Google and an alumna of Cornell. She was giving a talk to the Information Science department, where I studied, and on a whim, I decided to attend. Google had always seemed like a fascinating place to work, and her job certainly sounded interesting, so we got to talking over email. Several correspondences later, she asked me for my résumé. The rest, as they say, is history. Two interviews, a textbook on user research methods, and many months of waiting later, I got the call that would permanently alter the course of my college career. "Hi Ben, this is Lindsay, your recruiter from Google..."

My first summer at Google, I worked at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California. I served on the User Experience Research Team, investigating usability issues with the Docs suite. For my second summer at Google, I decided to switch things up and work in the New York office, again doing user experience research, though this time on a variety of advertising products. During my time in New York, I met two people who inadvertently had a profound impact on me. One was a close friend who had spent a summer traveling through Africa during high school, and the second was an Associate Product Manager on my team who was spending his 20% time working on a project in Africa. Both came back with such extraordinary experiences and only the best things to say about their adventures. And thus the idea began forming in my mind.

After two very enjoyable and instructive summers, I had the nagging suspicion that user experience research wasn't the right path for me in the long term. Another field had become my clear preference, product management. Sure I could run user studies and examine data, but I believed that my greatest skill set really lay in dealing with people, coordinating projects, and setting product vision. I also had the predicament that after two summers with the same company, and one internship left before the end of my undergraduate career, it might be wise to work somewhere else for a while. So I spent my last summer working at Facebook, exploring yet another of my disparate passions, computational sociology, a subject that I had ventured into in my classwork at Cornell. Once again, I enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal, but by this point, my mind was made up. I was going to Africa.

The Dream

To be more specific, I wanted to move to Africa for a year before pursuing graduate school; I wanted to apply the skills I had acquired during college, and I wanted to make a positive impact on the people I was serving. So with no leads and no ideas, I went to my first logical contact, my old mentor at Google, Alfred Spector, the Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives. He gave me some contacts, and eventually, I found some others through a variety of sources, but for months on end, I was only hitting dead ends. People had switched jobs; people didn't have space for me; some people were just slow to respond to email. Finally, in February, I took a trip back to the New York office to visit Alfred again. I explained my situation, and he decided to take a more active role in resolving it. Within a week, I had a phone call set up with Nelson Mattos, the Vice President of Engineering for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa), and a few months and interviews later, I had a job.

Google was a natural fit. After all, their mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universallyaccessible and useful." It seemed that perhaps I could help with those two aspects, serving a part of the world for which the Internet and technology has yielded disproportionally few benefits. Not to mention, it's an awesome company to work for. I knew that I would have the resources and organizational capacity to make a significant impact, and moving to a continent not necessarily known for its safety, I felt a deep sense of comfort knowing that I would be going with Google.

The Job

The job description is still pretty nebulous. I've been told that I'll be based in Ghana, but that I will also be traveling extensively through Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, and South Africa (so just about all over the continent), and that I'll be helping establish seed content for a few products that Google wants to launch in a variety of new markets (a role with clear product management implications). So what does that mean exactly? I wasn't quite sure myself until my second interview with new boss, Juergen Allgayer. To paraphrase him, Google has a set of products built ready to launch, but they aren't very useful without some content already in them. To give an illustrative American example, Google Maps woudn't be very useful if you couldn't look up where the nearest Starbucks is. Analogously, Google Trader, an SMS-based marketplace, isn't very useful without listings from vendors. How am I going to help accomplish this? Your guess is as good as mine. But alas, that's what this blog is for. I hope to keep you all updated about my adventures spreading technology and exploring culture in the developing world. Wish me luck!

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Julianne said...

Good luck, Ben! :)

Antonella said...

Great post, Ben. I hope you continue to write about your adventure in Ghana.
I'm so glad I had a chance to see you today!

jeff hancock said...

Thanks for the update Ben. Good luck with both missions: your's and Google's. Very cool that they fit. Looking forward to the next post.

Kathy said...

Ben, it's so great to be able to follow you to Ghana. I wish you the best of luck in your new venture. Thanks so much for sharing. Your mom is definitely smiling down on you with great pride.

Kathy Grossman

TrainRyder said...

I look forward to your continuing posts. Product management is still a large field and with google it should be an adventure,.

Marji's older half sister

Benjamin Cole said...

Thanks everyone for all of the kind, reassuring messages! It really means a lot to me.

Louise said...

Best of Luck, Ben! Very interesting stuff the way you set up this blog! All success in Ghana and beyond!

Randy Summers (friend of Marjorie's from high school)

David Moinina Sengeh said...

Ben, I know you will grow a lot and you definitely have the right proportions of humility, confidence and desire to make an impact needed in Africa

Benjamin Cole said...

Thanks for the kind messages, David and Randy! :-)