Jen Fitzpatrick started out in Google’s first class of interns in 1999. She now runs one of the company’s most important businesses. And along the way, she saw–and shape–a lot of history.
Google is officially celebrating its 20th birthday this Thursday. But though its namesake search engine launched in 1998, the then tiny startup didn’t get around to hiring any interns until 1999. When it did, Jen Fitzpatrick was one of them. Then she became one of the company’s first women engineers. Over the subsequent years, she co-founded Google’s user experience team and worked on search, advertising, Google News, and other products. In 2014, she took on overarching responsibility for Google Maps and Local as Google’s VP for geo.
I recently visited Fitzpatrick at her Google office to chat about why she joined the company, why she’s stayed, and the challenges and opportunities of her current job. This interview has been edited for publication.
“MY PARENTS THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY”
Fast Company: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to work at Google?
Jen Fitzpatrick: I was a student in the computer science department at Stanford at the time, and first heard of Google as a product before it had turned into Google when it was still a research product. And I quite literally just fell in love with the product. I was a student; information was a big deal to me. It very quickly turned into an indispensable tool in my life. And I found myself enthusiastically telling all of my friends and family about this sort of life-altering new tool that I thought they needed to discover and learn about as well.
When it came a time a few months later to look for a summer internship, I couldn’t imagine anything other than working on a product that I really cared about. I wasn’t interested in just going and writing code for the sake of writing code. Google was at the very top of the list from that standpoint. So I applied for and luckily got, an internship. I was part of the first intern class. There were four of us that year. Very quickly I discovered, in ways that kind of surprised and shocked me, just how much there was to learn. I had thought that living in a university setting was kind of the pinnacle of what learning and being constantly challenged looked like and felt like.
At the end of the internship, I got an offer to stay on, which I happily accepted, and literally have been here ever since.
FC: Did it feel like you were coming aboard a rocket ship that was going places?
JF: There’s absolutely no way I could have predicted back then what Google would become today. That never crossed my mind in my wildest imagination. It was clear from the very early days that we were onto something in the sense that the more word of mouth spread, the more people discovered the Google experience. It was growing because it was fundamentally different and better than anything else out there at the time.
You felt momentum based on that. When I started working here, no one had heard of Google. My parents thought I was crazy taking a job at this tiny little startup that no one had ever heard of. And moving from there toward a world where you would tell people where you work and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve used that Google thing. That was really great.” The world was waking up to the existence of Google, and everyone had their own personal story about how it had either changed their life or been instrumental in one particular moment that they could remember. It felt like everyone, as time went on, had a Google story of their own.
“THERE WAS A FOCUS ON BEING AS AMBITIOUS AS POSSIBLE”
FC: Was the Google culture in place when you arrived or did you see it evolve in front of your own eyes?
JF: I would say the imprints of the culture were there right from the start. But it’s obviously grown and evolved, as all cultures do with time. I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised at how consistent the culture has remained, now almost 20 years later.
From the earliest days, there was a focus on being as ambitious as possible in whatever we tackled. Not settling for just, “What do we need to do this week, or this month, or this quarter?” But thinking about, how do we work to deliver amazing things that work at scale, that work for the whole planet? That scale of thinking was there very early on.
The other thing that stands out to me from the early days is having a culture of healthy debate, but also deep collaboration. I can’t think of any projects, when I look back, where it was one person sitting alone, toiling and getting something done. There were lots and lots of teamwork, and lots and lots of healthy and sometimes vigorous debate about things, but in ways that wound up getting us to better places. And I think that is still very much a hallmark of the culture here.