Blossoming in New Soil - Follow Up
A deeper look at change and evolution
When I wrote Blossoming in New Soil, an article about how to unleash your own potential I was struggling with the decision of whether to leave Facebook after 11 years. On December 30, I received an offer to become CEO of Ancestry, so I started the new year debating my future.
On the evening of January 5th, I called Yuji for his advice. After we spoke I thought about what he said, sat down, and dictated Blossoming in New Soil in one sitting. Then I messaged him at 1 AM with the completed draft. His response after reading it was: “The way it is written, it sounds like you should leave.” I had not thought of what I had written that way until he mentioned it.
Later, after I announced my decision to take on a new job several friends who knew I was wrestling with the decision shared, “I totally knew once I read that note that you would take the job.” The funny thing is that during the moment I wrote it I didn’t even know what my choice would be. Writing the article helped me think through what I wanted to do as the next step in my career, and I realized that what Yuji had was what I wanted: the opportunity to try something new and different and explore new possibilities. Perhaps in some ways, my subconscious told me the answer I struggled with, but I, myself, didn’t recognize it until later.
After I wrote about Yuji’s experience evolving in his new job, many people had follow-up questions as to what prompted his change. As I embark on my new career adventure I also want to understand how to make the most of this new opportunity.
Yuji graciously answered my questions about his own journey.
What made you leave Facebook after 10 years to go to Niantic?
First, the opportunity at Niantic was nearly perfect for me. I’m a huge gamer, but I didn’t want to work at a game studio. I wanted to work at a tech company. Niantic is a private company that was spun out of Google, so it had the tech culture I grew up in. I was also looking to be the head of engineering at a company I admired. Finally, I loved Pokemon Go, and I knew my kids would be very happy with the choice.
But that’s not the whole story. The story actually began about two-and-a-half years earlier. I had just been promoted to Senior Director, and a few of my peers asked me what my secret was to getting promoted. They wanted to know what differentiated a Director from a Senior Director, and what I did to get there. I told them that it wasn’t any one thing, that I just continued to get better at my job and take on more responsibility. This meant managing more people, bringing more products to life, driving broader initiatives across the company, and building a stronger bench. It really was about getting 10-20 percent better each performance review cycle.
I asked myself the natural next question: where do I want to go from here? The next step up is Vice President, but I suspected that getting there was going to be about more incremental growth. I’d have to take on more responsibility, grow more senior leaders on my team and have more product impact. But fundamentally, I didn’t believe my job would look that different after the promo to VP. I’d be doing the same kind of work, but at a larger scale.
I decided to open my mind to the possibility of a seismic shift. It was terrifying to consider leaving a place as great as Facebook, or a manager as great as Deb, but I decided that I should at least consider what a step-change in growth might look like.
What changed when you went to Niantic?
Two important changes happened when I went to Niantic.
One: the expectations were much higher. I was not only expected to be a great manager and leader for the team, but I was expected to be a public figure within the company, and to be a key driver of the company’s strategy. I wasn’t used to that role, as Deb was always the public face of our team, and she and others drove the product and company strategy. I was happy to make magic happen in the background.
Two: since nobody knew me, I found it was much easier to reinvent myself. One of my biggest “areas for growth” at Facebook was speaking up in meetings and leading from the front. I never felt comfortable doing that, and I think part of the problem was that I saw myself as the version that everyone else saw. It was a circular and self-reinforcing thought process, and since everyone was used to me being the quiet leader, I felt most comfortable being the quiet leader. By joining a completely new team, I found that nobody had any preconceived notions. It was not hard to become the person who leans in and expresses his thoughts freely.
In retrospect, I don’t think my slow growth in this area at Facebook was due to anyone except for myself. The notion that I was a “quiet leader” was a self-fulfilling prophecy. That being said, I had wanted to break out of that mold for years. It seems crazy to me that I was able to do in a matter of weeks what I did not accomplish over many years at Facebook.
Why do you think that going to a new company enabled you to change so much?
My guess is that I underestimated the impact of how much your immediate environment affects how you think. It’s not just that the familiarity of the work can become a routine that inhibits change; it’s that how you see yourself can be strongly affected by how you believe others see you. At least, that was what it was like in my situation. So switching up all of the variables all at once definitely served as a catalyst for dramatic change.
What was it about the new job that helped you acquire new skills more quickly?
I think it was the high expectations from my boss and my team that forced me to rise to the occasion. I remember two moments in the first couple of weeks.
The first moment happened during my first week on the job. We have a company-wide Q&A on a monthly basis on Friday afternoons, and I was looking forward to seeing how these were run. At both Google and Facebook, the leader running the event answered the vast majority of the questions. This was Larry and Sergey (usually more of Sergey) at Google, and Mark at Facebook.
My new company had just over 600 people, and I sat in the front row with other new hires to be introduced at the beginning of the Q&A. I expected the CEO would field a majority of the questions, and that I would soak in his wisdom and learn what was going on across the company. Imagine my surprise when two questions in, he handed me the microphone to answer a question in front of 600 people. I was so nervous and surprised that I don’t even remember the question or my answer. But it was clear to me that I had a very different role on this team than I did on my team at Facebook, and it was time to up my game.
The second moment happened in an executive staff meeting, early in my tenure. We were discussing a company-level issue (not engineering-specific), and John called on me: ‘Yuji, you’ve been quiet. I want to hear your thoughts on this topic.’ Again, I was immediately thrown out of my comfort zone, as I usually do not like to weigh in on topics that are not directly in my own domain. I either feel like an impostor for weighing in on topics I didn’t know well, or I worry about offending someone.
As I spoke, I remember feeling unsure if what I was saying was relevant, or if maybe I was saying something that everyone already knew. But then I noticed that people seemed interested in what I had to say, and my comments sparked additional conversation. I realized at that moment that my thoughts and opinions were exactly what people wanted to hear. The reality was literally the opposite of the picture I held in my mind.
How do you feel about the past year and how much you have evolved?
It’s a pretty incredible feeling to grow so much in one year. It made me realize that every once in a while, it’s a good idea to shake things up and challenge yourself. I do, however, believe there’s value in gradual mastery of a role or domain, and you’re probably better off doing that in one place (especially if you like what you’re doing and the people you work with). But if you feel like you’re starting to reach an asymptote in learning and growth, it’s a good idea to shake things up.
What advice would you give to someone in your position at Facebook right now?
My advice is to remember to make time on a regular basis (somewhere between monthly and quarterly) to check in with yourself. Make sure you’re learning and growing in the areas that matter to you. Don’t use promotions as a way of measuring your progress. Promotions are an arbitrary yardstick that are 100 percent someone else’s definition of growth. Getting promoted will probably mean you’ve grown in some dimension, but it’s a dimension that is defined by the ladder you’re on.
It’s definitely worth your time to think about the bigger picture. The lifelong journey you’re on is much more important than job ladder, so make sure you’re picking up the skills that will help you along this journey. For me, I needed a complete change of environment to make that happen. That might not be the case for you, but just make sure you’re being honest with yourself. Life is too short to waste time walking the wrong path.
When I started at Facebook in 2009, I was asked to pick a phrase to go on our badge. I was anxious at the prospect of leaving a company where I had spent my entire tech career to go to Facebook, at the time a startup with fewer than 1,000 employees. I thought about it for several days and ended up choosing the words, “Ready for Adventure”.
When I start my new role at Ancestry on March 1st, it will mark the first time in over a decade that I have changed jobs, and this moment is both exciting and daunting. I hope to take with me the best of what I learned as a leader at Facebook and marry that to the culture and needs of Ancestry. This repotting is an opportunity to learn and grow in new ways, and once again, I am “Ready for Adventure”.