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Internet

February 16, 2005

Interview With Fired Google Blogger

When a day job at a hot tech company and nighttime blogging conflict.

David Goldenberg

On Jan. 28, Mark Jen was fired. He joins a growing list of people who lost their jobs over their blogs. But Jen’s case has garnered more attention than others, because he worked at Google, a company beloved by many bloggers. Recently, Gelf spoke to Jen at a San Francisco coffee shop.

Mark Jen started work at Google on January 17, and posted his first comments on his new blog almost immediately. As far as Jen was concerned, the blog was for his girlfriend and a few others to read—he posted a link to it in his America Online user profile, but never got more than a hundred hits per post. Until, that is, Nathan Weinberg of the blog InsideGoogle found the site, and bloggers started linking to Jen’s revealing posts about adjusting to life at Google. Less than a month later, Jen is an out-of-work internet celebrity.

Mark Jen
Jen, an earnest 22-year-old, had gotten a job at Microsoft right after earning his degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan, but after 18 months, he left Redmond, Wash., for what he thought were the greener pastures of Google. “I thought Microsoft had kind of stalled out,” he said. “In general, they were slower to react to changes.” Jen was leaving his Microsoft job as a program manager to join Google, which he thought would be more flexible. He knew his salary wouldn't change much, but he had no idea where he was going to be assigned. He ended up in Google’s AdSense division, which provides targeted ads to websites (including gelf) based on the content of those sites.

During his first week on the job, Jen had a lot to say on his blog about Google’s policies, especially as they compared to what he had experienced at Microsoft. For example, he noted that a lot of Google’s benefits were “thinly veiled timesavers to keep you at work.” He was also treated to Google’s ski weekend retreat at Squaw, and blogged a little bit about the atmosphere there. But when he got back, he was called into the office of one of his managers. (Jen won’t say who the manager is. When asked why, Jen said, "I want to be fair. I don't want to put anyone into the limelight that doesn't want to be there.")

At this point, even though he was getting more hits on his blog, Jen claims he still didn’t know that his posts were being picked up by bigger sites. It was only after talking informally with the manager that he realized that he might be causing trouble for the company. “The guy said, ‘There’s something going on with your blog. Why don’t you take it down,’" said Jen. "So I immediately unpublished the posts.”

Once Jen’s site went dark, though, other bloggers noticed immediately, and started asking lots of questions. Jen says he was then asked by the Google higher-ups to repost his previous entries, but to take out any sensitive material relating to finances or Google products (See some of his original posts here).

The sensitive material that Google management was referring to is not spectacular—almost all of it can be found on public records (try here, for example). One sentence that was taken out read, “Both Google's profits and revenue are growing at an unprecedented rate.”

“At Microsoft I could have said, ‘We’re doing great and we’ve got great products,’ but it just so happens that Google is very strict about what they want us to do," Jen said. Indeed, several bloggers besides Jen have written (and continue to write) about life inside the other tech giants. For instance, see Robert Scoble’s page about life at Microsoft.

But Google is different. Even their PR people—who are trained to get publicity for the company—are secretive about the goings-on inside the Googleplex. Google representatives declined to comment for this article, beyond stating that Jen is no longer a Google employee.

Google’s secrecy gives it an aura that both helps it and hurts it. On the one hand, the mystery about the inner workings of the successful company has helped fuel the favorable, often-deferential media coverage. On the other hand, there’s an army of bloggers who jump on the chance to dig up dirt about Google.

Back at the Googleplex, Mark Jen started asking around about Google’s policy on blogging (it turns out there was none) and reread the non-disclosure agreement he had signed on the first day. Then he started blogging again—no financial details this time.

That Friday, the same manager Jen had talked with previously called Jen back into his office. A human-resources officer was in the room when Jen entered. It was a termination meeting. “I was shocked,” said Jen. “I asked why.”

“At first, they beat around the bush,” Jen said. “But then they told me my blog had upset people and that I wasn’t a good fit. I asked them if there was anything I could do to change their minds, but it was a one-sided conversation. So I said ‘I’ll see you guys later.’ ”

Even now, weeks after he was terminated, Jen doesn’t know what led Google management to decide to fire him even after he had complied with their requests. He says there was some speculation that that there was a movement among Google employees to have him gone, but there is no evidence to back that up. Though Google didn’t give him much in the way of a termination package, he says they didn’t make him sign a nondefamation agreement.

Which means, of course, that Jen can continue to blog and talk about his ordeal, though he has little interest in talking about Google’s policies, and has no plans to sue for wrongful termination. He doesn’t even feel very bitter about being fired. “I’m not going to say I’m the smartest guy, but I recognize I made mistakes,” he said.

When Jen was fired for blogging, some of the biggest blogs took notice. Even Slashdot wondered whether the story was true. In order to understand the buzz this story created, it’s necessary to understand how preoccupied many tech bloggers are with giants like Microsoft and Google. Though many decry such companies as “evil empires” that control their online applications, readers cannot seem to learn enough about them. After Jen was fired, his blog was inundated with posts berating him for losing a dream job.

Jen’s site now has so many visitors that he has enrolled it in Google’s AdSense to display relevant ads. He claims that he is donating all of the profits to charity, including his first check—one hundred dollars—to a Celiac disease charity one of his readers alerted him to. But, of course, Jen is not entirely altruistic in his moment in the spotlight. He plans to use his internet celebrity status to find himself a new job; indeed, he has gotten several offers already, though he won’t say from which companies. If his future employers wanted him to, Jen says he would give up his blog.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Comments

- Internet
- posted on Feb 16, 05
ZF

Let's face it, everybody is being very kind to this guy on various blogs, but Google realized he wasn't a good fit because he revealed that he's really not very smart at all... Credit to them for doing something about it.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 17, 05
Zach

Interesting interview. Thanks for the info!

- Internet
- posted on Feb 17, 05
Scott

I disagree with the following:

'The sensitive material that Google management was referring to is not spectacular -- almost all of it can be found on public records (try here, for example). One sentence that was taken out read, “Both Google's profits and revenue are growing at an unprecedented rate.”'

First of all, let's put this in a bit of context. There's more to the post than what you (and I) quoted above -- it might be worth it for folks to read the entire original post. GOOG has had problems with inappropriate financial disclosures in the past -- the Playboy interview just prior to the IPO is probably the most notable. In addition, many analysts did not expect that GOOG's profits would keep growing at an unprecedented rate. Quite the contrary: many were expecting things to cool off after the buzz from the IPO died down. Also, the information posted in Mr. Jen's blog was not available publicly at the time.

Now consider that it is the week before you are to make your latest earnings announcement and one of your employees publicly posts on his blog that he had just attended an internal sales presentation where the latest financial results were discussed -- and the results are phenominal. While that may come across as vague to some (although, it seemed quite clear to me that things were great and getting better at GOOG), professional investors kill for that kind of infomation. And, no wonder: the next week when GOOG announced fantastic earnings (which, of course, anyone who read Mr. Jen's blog knew they were going to do) the stock jumped at the open by more than $21, and closed at a record high (at that time) for GOOG of $205.96.

So, the information in question was not available publicly prior to the disclosure by Mr. Jen. And, clearly the way he characterized it made it material. There's a legal term for that: "material, non-public information." Most people call it "inside information," and the SEC has very strict regulations about what can and can't be publicly disclosed -- and, incidently, how to handle things when "material, non-public information" has been inadvertantly made public.

I can imagine quite a few people at GOOG getting upset about that little post. That alone is probably enough to justify termination. Throw in all the other posts (that apparently made others unhappy) and it was probably inevitable.

Just imagine if one of GOOG's senior executives had posted the same thing. We'd be reading about an SEC investigation of violations of Reg FD and class-action lawsuits.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 17, 05
vzn

its a pity that google is looking a little
schizophrenic these days. its a premier web company;
the web is about openness. but to survive in
the darwinian capitalist ratrace, it must be
secretive of its competitive advantages.

a new social ettiquete that integrates ones
job & ones personal identity is being forged
in the blogosphere. it will take years to sort
out the details. recall the introduction of
the telephone.

discussion on topics on the cutting edge
of algorithmics & mathematics, click on my initials

- Internet
- posted on Feb 17, 05
Cap'n Ken

Kudos for scoring the interview. Good to get the whole wrap-up.

But the point I've made elsewhere about Jen is this:

Put aside the discussions of how well companies handle employee bloggers; whether he disclosed insider information; etc. The kid seemed more interested in writing about Google than working for Google. Sure, it's a fascinating place, but to start a new job and immediately begin posting stuff about working there makes me question what his priority was.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Google suits took all this into consideration and figured the potential downside of keeping a guy who seems like he's just interested in writing about the company outweighs the value of keeping him (since he'd just been on the job a couple of weeks).

Just a stupid move on his part.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 17, 05
Mr SoAwesome

Scott's post was dead on. Well put.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 17, 05
InternetRingo

Some of said that it's ironic that a company like Google and everything they stand for would do something like this, especially after watching the 60 Minutes interview.

I guess this is what happens when a company is all fun on the outside, but is a true corporate powerhouse on the inside.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 18, 05
David Scott Lewis

At Microsoft, his blog was mostly technical. But that wasn't the case the Google. What made Mark change the tone of his blogging? Perhaps he was unhappy working for the AdSense business unit. If so, that's Google's fault -- and Mark's. Google shouldn't be hiring people and then trying to figure out what to do with them (if this is what really happened).

If Mark's Google blog impacted Google's stock price, he should be fired. Dumb thing to do; I'm sure he'll never do it again. But if it didn't, then he should have been reprimanded but not terminated.

Mark sounds like a bright guy. A bit of a loose cannon, but he's young and inexperienced. Isn't that true of just about everyone at Google: A bunch of kids are running a hugely successful company. Okay, there is adult supervision, but it's basically a pre-school with a bunch of child prodigies. Perhaps Mark was perfectly suited to Google, but Google HR slipped and didn't explain their blogging policy.

I'm sure there is blame to go both ways. Maybe there are some folks in Google HR who need to see the door, too.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 19, 05
Ted

Scott, spot on. David S. Lewis, read Scott's post, and do a bit of homework on the rules and regulations of a publicly traded company.

This isn't about affecting a company's stock price... it's about complying with a very serious law.

Clearly disclosing material, non-public information is against the law. Mark is fortunate that he isn't facing larger rammifications other than a termination.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 19, 05
David Scott Lewis

Ted, you and Scott are absolutely right IFF Mark didn't comply with SEC disclosure regs.

I was commenting less on the legal aspects and more from a management perspective. (I'm not a securities attorney.)

However, I wouldn't let Google HR off the hook. No blogging policy? If any company should know better, it should be Google. After all, how many other companies own a blogging service?

My understanding is that Mark wouldn't be facing "larger ramnifications" due to intent, or (in this case) lack thereof. But again, I'm not a securities attorney.

Perhaps HR departments should start drafting and then implementing blogging/podcasting/vblogging policies.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 20, 05
Scott

Mark,

You are correct that the question of intent is significant. Insider trading rules are still murky to this day -- many say intentionally so. One interesting aspect of this is that Jen indicates in a post on his blog that he thought his blog was only being read by family members and a few close friends. So, whether Mr. Jen intended to "tip" insider information or not, he clearly believed he was only telling it to a few close friends.

Perhaps more signigficant is Google's obligation in such circumstances. My understanding of Reg FD is that once Google senior management learned that "covered material, non-public information" had been "selectively" disclosed, they had a legal duty to disclose the information to the market. As I posted on John Battelle's web site in a comment about the Jen blogging affair (http://battellemedia.com/cgi-bin/mt/talking-87.cgi?entry_id=1271):

"According to Bill Sherman, securities partner at Morrison & Foerster. '...Reg FD provides that if you innocently or naively transmit any material information selectively, you have until the next-trading-day grace period to get that information to the market.'"

Rather than making a proper public disclosure, "Google's response was to have Mr. Jen remove the offending information from his blog. I suppose they could always argue that they didn't think the information was material."

I would assume that lawyers were involved and that Google acted in accordance with their advice. I guess we'll see whether or not it was ultimately good advice.

Another interesting question raised on the Battelle blog is whether or not Google deleted any of this information from its own index.

- Internet
- posted on Feb 22, 05
Luke Pillow-Wang

Well this controversy continues to rage on. If this was another company there'd be almost no discussion. A private enterprise decided to fire an employee for reasons of their own. Too Bad. Happens every day, but life goes on.

There will always plenty of opportunities in the high tech world beside Google.

- Internet
- posted on Apr 04, 07
Bob

I am so happy! I love all the world! Life is beautiful!

- Internet
- posted on Jun 25, 09
jhon

Hi,
I had my interview with Google for associate product manager .. you can read the interview here

http://ferozeh.com/Interviews/Google/google.php

hope it is useful to others..


Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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