This interview is with John Milinovich, Social Lead at Google Offers. (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
- UCLA undergrad
- Stanford Social Data Lab
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure thing. I’m 24 years old. I went to UCLA and graduated in 2010. I studied architecture and accounting there, and have since worked at Yahoo! and I currently work at Google. In my free time, I work in the Social Data Lab at Stanford and participate in hackathons and side projects whenever possible.
Q. How has your career path brought you to your current role?
A. I have two or three guiding principles that I really try to follow. The first, which my parents really helped instill in me, is that if you do what you’re passionate about, the rest will follow. That’s really been a big guider for me in terms of, when I have many opportunities, figuring out which one to pursue by really understanding what it is that’s driving me within myself and really aligning that to the decisions I make. In addition, something a little more pragmatic is, at any decision point, you always have to choose an option that opens more doors than it closes. Because you never can really understand how the future will unfold, but you can understand an opportunity through the context of what it can do for you, and what it could expose you to in the future. And I think that’s really important.
So I interned at Yahoo! as a financial analyst after my junior year at UCLA down in their Burbank office. And at the end of my tenure there, I was given the opportunity to work full-time after I graduated up in Silicon Valley at their headquarters. I jumped at the opportunity because I knew that Silicon Valley was where I wanted to be, and I felt very passionately about the opportunity that Yahoo! had afforded me, and was very excited to dive in.
So during my senior year in college, I worked in a lot of startup jobs and odd-ball jobs, started some of my own side projects, and consulted on some web development stuff, as well as worked for a startup in a business analyst and marketing type of role. Then when I hit the ground in August 2010 up in Silicon Valley with Yahoo!, it gave me a good trajectory to really hit the ground running.
I had the good opportunity to work on some very interesting projects in process automation, basically trying to clean up a lot internal processes in the finance group. And then after about seven months there, I was actually reached out to by a recruiter at Google for an opportunity to join a new team that was ultimately going to be the Google Offers team. It was before the product had launched, which was very intriguing to me.
When I was joining the team, it was actually a customer support type of role that I was actually being recruited for. And my immediate first thought was that I wasn’t really sure whether that would be the best fit for me, but after going through the interview process, understanding more about the opportunity, and really reflecting on what doors working at Google could offer me, I decided to go for it. And that was honestly one of the biggest moments in my career so far — it really opened me up to a whole new world of what a big tech company should be run like, and this whole new world of social and local commerce.
So when I hit the ground at Google, one of the things that was very unique about the opportunity was that, because the product I was working on — Offers — hadn’t launched yet, there was still a lot of stuff that needed to be done. And frankly, not enough people who were able to do it.
So after looking at the landscape of the different things people were working, I identified a need within the social media space for somebody to really take charge and define and understand what our social media strategy would be. So in the Google vein of taking a 20% project, I volunteered myself for a 20% project of actually defining and executing against our social strategy. And after diving into that, it was something I proved so much value in, that they let me do it with 100% of my time and actually create my own job doing social media.
And again, a large piece of that, and something I really got to make a big mark on, was not just the actual strategy of how you engage customers, but also taking it to the level of customer acquisition and driving purchases, being able to actually calculate an ROI for your social efforts. And then also being able to aggregate and collect the data that’s created through these various social interactions, and make those valuable throughout the cross-functional team.
Through a lot of these efforts, I really threw myself into this whole social space in general — again, following the mantra of, doing what you’re passionate about and the rest will follow. That’s how I ended up working in the Social Data Lab at Stanford. And that’s been a really opportunity for me to really challenge the edge thinking of social media and social data, and actually to start being part of this data revolution. As part of that, what I get to do is help host workshops for Fortune 500 companies, and center them around this design thinking of understanding how they can better design products leveraging social data. That’s been awesome and a lot of fun.
And again, I’m a total nerd, so in whatever free time I have, I love going to hackathons, working on side projects, or teaching myself how to code.
Q. What is it like working at Google?
A. It’s great. Google is the perfect microcosm of Silicon Valley culture, in that everyone is extremely motivated, extremely smart, and absolutely loves what they’re working on. And that creates a culture of work hard / play hard. We take a great amount of pride in the products we build, and we have a very strong “dog food” culture, which means we “eat our own dog food.” We all use Android phones, we all use GMail, Docs, Calendar, etc, for everything. And we actually are exposed to the next generation of products and get to beta test everything and help report bugs and find issues with new products, so that by the time it’s rolled out to the hundreds of millions or billion people we touch everyday, it’s perfect.
Google is an absolutely amazing place to meet a lot of like-minded people, to work with people who really care about what they’re doing, and people who can really challenge you to be the best professional you can be.
Q. Tell us about your current role. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
A. The umbrella my team sits under is Consumer Operations. So the core guiding principle of our team is to provide outstanding support to our users, but then to also be able to leverage and drive insights from the data we can create from our customer interactions with our product.
For me, that means both the social aspect of things, but also diving in and doing a lot of analysis on top of the data our customers leave and their interactions with our support channels. Because I come from an analyst background and did the finance piece, I’m very well-suited to do a lot of that work on my current team, so that’s a lot of the stuff I do on a daily basis. So, for example, this could mean looking at the types of deals people purchase and which deals they have issues with, and then being able to abstract that to understand trends in the deal category versus issue type, to see if we can rewrite our terms with our deals in different ways to prevent people from having issues with them.
On the social aspect, this means I have two working groups that are responsible for the content creation for our Google+ and Twitter channels. And I coordinate a lot of the efforts we have around customer engagement, which is the general chitter-chatter that happens, as well as our larger-scale campaign management where we have more structured campaigns and initiatives that we want to push out. And then also how we scale this across to 35 to 40 cities.
I think one of the things that’s most intriguing about it is, a traditional social strategy will generally only have to care about one brand or a few different products. But because Offers is a locally oriented product, we have to scale in a very different way, which is on city-by-city basis. So we have to be smart about how we scale from a social perspective, and really set up a very strong experimentation framework to collect the data and analytics to be able to prove why what we’re doing is important.
Q. What do you find most exciting about the job?
A. The thing that’s definitely the most exciting is that I’m blazing new trails every day. A lot of the stuff we’re doing is stuff people can intuit and people can understand conceptually why it’s important. But to be able to prove, for example, the value of a human-curated channel versus a machine-curated channel — basically proving the point of why the role of a community manager is important in financial terms — is the type of thing I have to deal with.
And I think that’s interesting, because I’ve actually been able to create some intellectual property in the space and I’m going through the patent application process right now for a lot of the work we’re doing in this realm.
But this also proves one of the biggest challenges in this space. I mean, Google has an amazing and brilliant culture of being data-driven with things. And especially in the social space, it’s sometimes challenging to have to prove that point, but I think it’s actually very valuable because it forces you to think about things in terms of how they’ll scale and how you’ll tell that story if you want to abstract it to one or two levels of management above you.
Q. Tell us more about the patent you’re working on.
A. Well, a lot of what I do is social data integration, figuring out different methods of collecting data from social media, and making that data valuable to various teams. One project I worked on was with our sales operations team to help them understand a new way of collecting social data about the merchants we work with, and leveraging that internally to improve a lot of processes we have for working with those merchants.
And I had an idea for something that would be important and valuable to the product and the company, so I started by laying out a framework for generally what this would be, and then actually worked with my roommate and coded up a proof of concept to go out an extract some of this data. Then I started working with one of the managers on the team that would be responsible for being the business owner for this type of data insights. He and I worked together to prove out this process and concept, and once we had something we felt comfortable with, we worked with our internal patent team to build our case and push this out.
Q. If there was one thing you could change about your experience at Google, what would it be?
A. I guess if I could change anything, I would will all of my friends to live in a five-mile radius of me! I live in Mountain View, but I have a lot of friends who live up in San Francisco and take the shuttle in every day. But in all seriousness, it’s great — I have very few things to complain about.
Q. Tell us more about the Stanford Social Data Lab. How did you find out about it and what do you do there?
A. Yeah, so the Social Data Lab at Stanford is led by Andreas Weigend, who is the former chief scientist at Amazon. He lectures on a few classes on “big data” and “data as the new oil” at Stanford, and works with their Management Science and Engineering group to drive that home. Part of what he also does is this Social Data Lab, which is responsible for preaching the vision of a socially enabled future and the data implications of that has, and then actually working with companies to help them understand how to best use this new data set within their own business operations.
So a lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis with that is to help plan workshops that we host, coordinate outreach, or occasionally speak at conferences on the Lab’s behalf as well. I spoke at my first conference late last month to talk about this social data revolution and challenge the edge thinking on how people understand what this means to their day-to-day lives and how they build products.
In terms of how I got connected with them, when I started to dive into the world of social at Google, I started reading everything I could about the subject. And in that process, I came across the work of the Lab, and was intrigued enough to reach out to Andreas to see whether I could learn more or somehow be involved. And he invited me to one of their meetings, and we took it from there.
Q. What do you see yourself doing in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing now will help you toward that goal?
A. What I’m learning most now is, beyond the core competency of understanding social media and social data very deeply, and the business applications of both, I’m learning how to manage very complex tasks and multiple stakeholders, and how to take a very big vision, break it down into a granular enough level to have different people act against different pieces of it. And then also be able to keep people motivated, be able to measure your results, and be able to tell the whole story in a way that really captivates an audience.
Where I see myself going with all this is at some point in the future I’m absolutely going to pursue my dreams of being a startup founder and taking a lot of what I learned at Google and Yahoo! and applying that in my own venture. I have no timeline for that, but I’m definitely thinking about it deeply and understanding the skills I want to build in order to be the most qualified to do that.
But how I get from where I am now to when that will happen, I’m consciously trying to leave up to fate, because one thing I have realized is that it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone a week or month or year from now. So the best thing to do is to optimize every day and do the most you can at that point, but always keep your ears open for new opportunities or what might be that right idea or problem to take you down that path.
And there’s so much you can do to prepare yourself, but I also think that so much of your success is derived from your network and the people you surround yourself with. And that’s something I take very seriously — not just doing networking where you get someone’s card and you add them to your LinkedIn, but actually developing deeper relationships with people who can be your mentors, your advisors, and be on your board of directors at some point in the future, and whom you can also call at any time to go grab a beer.
That’s something I take very seriously, and in every interaction I have it’s something I think about.
Q. Any advice for people who are interested in transitioning to a role like yours?
A. Have a very honest assessment of yourself in terms of the things you enjoy versus don’t enjoy, and be very careful when taking on things you don’t enjoy, because those are much clearer than what you do enjoy. In other words, you only know what you’ve experienced in the past, and while most of us haven’t experienced everything, we have a very strong resonance with the things we don’t like. So as you look to the future, stay away from things you don’t like and go toward things you do.
And be very conscious of the function you’re doing — how are you adding value, what is the industry you’re in or the type of product you’re working on, and who are you surrounding yourself with. Because I think all three of those things have to come into place to really make a good opportunity. Continue to meet people, talk to people, and really dissect the career paths of people you admire. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, because when you put yourself out there, people will help you.