Monday, April 04, 2011

Whose shot? J.R.'s.

Jonathan "J.R." Rosenberg, Google's vice-president of product management announced today that he's leaving the company after nine years. I remember the first time I met him very clearly. Jonathan makes a strong impression. I wrote about it for IFL, but had to cut the section for length. In honor of Jonathan's departure from the Plex, I offer it here.

It was January, 2000. Larry and Sergey had reluctantly agreed to the board of directors' demand that they bring in a high-powered leader to establish a product marketing group. No traditional consumer marketing person could possibly impress them, though. Jonathan, an executive at Excite@Home, fit the bill. He could talk tech with the best of them. As his potential subordinates, my marketing colleagues and I were asked to give our feedback. Jonathan had already gone through two interview rounds, so we knew which way the wind was blowing.

At the appointed time, I awaited Jonathan’s arrival in one of our conference rooms. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” Jonathan’s voice preceded him as he sailed into the room on a gust of enthusiasm. “Or close the wall up with our English dead! Henry the Fifth, act III, scene one. Would you like to hear the rest?”

For the next hour, Jonathan put on a dazzling performance that included a torrent of words about product development, marketing, and the complete works of Shakespeare. Jonathan educated me on brand-building and statistics. He sprayed the whiteboard with pictures and graphs and circled the room as if tacking against some unseen breeze. His voice rose and fell as he rode over questions about working with creative teams, building collaboration and recognizing contributors. He left me awash in information, but skeptical about whether he saw subordinates as a crew of contributors or as galley slaves pulling to the cadence of his commands.

My coworkers and I agreed that Jonathan unquestionably had the intellectual chops for the job, but that our nascent corporate marketing group would be swamped in his wake. The company was small enough that Larry and Sergey apparently felt an obligation to acknowledge our concerns, without bowing to them. They offered me a chance to chat with Jonathan again in a more casual setting.

The Mountain View In N’ Out Burger is an unpretentious paradise for fans of grilled cow flesh. I’d never been there before, but once we arrived, I understood why Jonathan had chosen it. He spoke the local lingo. “A 3 by 3 is three slabs of meat and three slices of cheese. You can get as many layers as you want. Protein style means a burger with no bun and a veggie burger is a bun with no burger…”. There was no avoiding edification in Jonathan’s company.

Once seated on the ketchup-covered benches, we talked about family and work and balancing both in the Valley and by the time I’d wiped away the residue of my Animal Burger, I’d decided he was not the Great Satan I had feared. I sighed. I could work with him, which was lucky for me, because one way or another, Google would have a product management organization. Our marketing group would undoubtedly be subsumed. I would learn from Jonathan, whether I wanted to or not, as we adopted a top-down structure and clearly defined roles. I braced for the changes, telling myself, “That’s how companies grow.”

A couple of days later, Jonathan did the one thing I did not expect. He told us he would stay at Excite. It would be two years before he once more showed up at Google to claim the role of Vice President of Product Management. J.R. had passed when offered his first chance at Google, but Google's execs kept him in their sights and eventually nailed him. The question was, once they had him, what would they do with him?


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