Mark Jen's first day as a Google employee, January 17, also marked the debut of his "Ninetyninezeros" blog, which he intended to maintain as a personal journal of his experiences as a Google employee. Little did he know that his tenure at Google would be quite brief.
In the next week, Jen, an associate product manager in Google's AdSense advertising unit, candidly praised and criticized his new employer on a variety of topics, including the intranet, his work laptop, a sales conference, and compensation.
The blog, which Jen naively thought would mainly interest his friends and family, became extremely popular. (Its single-day record is about 60,000 unique visitors.) This level of readership was a far cry from Jen's previous technically oriented blog, which he published while working for 18 months at Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, headquarters before moving to San Francisco to join Google. He quickly discovered that a large audience in the so-called blogosphere was interested in a view of life inside Google.
It turned out that his superiors at Google, which owns the popular Blogger service, also read Ninetyninezeros. On January 26, Jen disclosed in his blog that he had been asked to remove some information from prior postings that Google considered to be sensitive information about the company's finances and products. Then more than a week passed without his posting anything. Rumors abounded among tech industry bloggers over Jen's fate. On February 9, Jen finally disclosed that Google had fired him on January 28--11 days after he had started on the job--and that his blog had "either directly or indirectly" been the reason. If the blog was the cause--Jen says Google gave him no explanation for firing him--he joins a growing list of employees who have lost their jobs because of things they have written in their blogs.
Jen, a Michigan native who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, is currently trying to move on and find a new job. Google declines to talk about Jen other than to confirm that he was an employee there. In this exclusive interview with the IDG News Service, the soft-spoken and courteous Jen chuckles often and doesn't sound bitter, sharing the lessons he learned from his experience as Google's most notorious blogger, the mistakes he made, and his future plans.
IDGNS: Are there any lessons you learned that you can share with others who may be in a similar position of blogging about work in their personal blogs?
Jen: I've learned quite a few lessons from this entire episode. First of all, I learned that blogging is a public forum, and ideas you express are going to be read by more people than you think. That's a crucial lesson. Another lesson is to clear up with your employer before you blog what exactly [it considers] acceptable and unacceptable. Make sure they have a definitive policy, or talk with your manager at length about what is and isn't okay. Also, you have to be sensitive to your corporate culture, and that was one of my biggest mistakes. I hadn't really gotten a good feel for how Google operated at the time. Now I look back and realize I should have been a little bit more sensitive on that front. Those are the big lessons I learned, and I'll be moving on with that knowledge.
IDGNS: Would you be willing to blog about your work experiences at your next job?
Jen: I'll continue to blog, but the content of my blogs will be consistent with any particular requirements of my employer. If the company I work for doesn't care and is willing to let me have an open forum, I'll blog however I feel. But if I take a position with a company that has some specific policies around blogging, then of course I'll adhere to those policies. But in general I'll be blogging from here on out. It's a very interesting space, and there's a huge community built up around it. There's a huge value there.
IDGNS: What's the traffic like to your blog?
Jen: It's dying down. I was just about to blog about the traffic at my blog. At its peak a little over a week ago when the stories first started to break [about my termination]...my blog hit over 100,000 page loads [in a single day]. In total I'm approaching 400,000 [page loads] overall.
IDGNS: What did Google tell you about ending your employment there?
Jen: They've never given me a straight answer. I've requested an official statement or reason as far as why I was terminated, but I wasn't given any such reason. Of course, it's well within their rights to refuse to give me a reason. I was an at-will employee in the state of California, so they really don't need to give me a reason for terminating me. I definitely was surprised at being terminated. It's a shocking thing.
IDGNS: But you feel the blog played a significant part?
Jen: Yeah, definitely. My blog either directly or indirectly was the reason for my termination.
IDGNS: So they didn't say the reason had been your work performance, or that they thought you weren't right for the job?
Jen: No, nothing like that. There was no talk about my performance at all. Performance wasn't an issue.
IDGNS: Are you going to make a claim against Google in any way?
Jen: No, I'm not interested in that. I don't think that's going to be productive.
IDGNS: So this chapter is closed for you and you're moving on?
IDGNS: How do you feel about your status right now? Are you shell-shocked or depressed about this whole situation? Are you amused? Do you think all this attention is going to help you as you look for other job options?
Jen: Initially I was a bit shocked, and it took a little bit to process the event. But now it's more of a matter of just moving on. I've got a lot of good leads for new positions and also a lot of options open. So I learned my lessons from this episode, and I'm moving on to bigger and better things.