[This is a continuation of my gratitude experiment.]
There is a Googler named Mike who is brilliant and ridiculous. (Some of you may already be able to guess who it is, by this description alone.) He was one of my Google interviewers, and I was floored that he not only invented a compression algorithm that I'd used for years, but was also uninhibited enough to impersonate a happy puppy during the interview.
Every time I talked to him, Mike did something ridiculous. He inhaled the helium from my happy-face Noogler balloons (a gift from Google to each new employee) and talked in a squeaky voice. He made lamb noises on a street corner when a bunch of us went to a restaurant. Once when I was in his office, he showed me a can of putty which made disgusting noises as he pressed his fingers into it. He described with relish how he and his officemate used it to embarrass people while they talked on the phone.
I usually gave killjoy responses like "Oh my God, that's absurd", but secretly I really liked the silliness.
Summer of 2004 rolled around, and I went through a difficult time. A member of my family was hospitalized, and I didn't know if they would ever recover. To add insult to injury, the insurance company was reluctant to pay for treatment. I had to petition hard to convince them each step of the way. Furthermore, the patient was angry at the way we were handling the situation, and arguments broke out amongst the rest of the family as a result. My brother and I went through the only major fight of our lives, going nearly a week without speaking to each other.
My team at work was also shipping Desktop Search. Suffice it to say that I was not very relaxed at that time.
One day during this period, Mike came over to my work area to visit. We walked around the floor to the microkitchen. He asked how I was, and for some reason, I told him the unpleasant truth without whitewashing.
Previous times I discussed the situation with others were often not comfortable. People would first assume that it was cancer, and pat my arm sympathetically as they described how their aunt battled breast cancer and beat the odds. After I corrected them on the illness and described the ugly details, we would veer off the scripts of social custom. People didn't know what to say, and sometimes this made them very uncomfortable.
That did not happen with Mike. He listened to my tale, throughout my emotional retelling. I was grateful just for that.
Then he brainstormed ideas. He suggested potential solutions in California, in Nevada, in other states. He named people around the company who might be able to help, some who had similar experiences, some who I barely knew. He said I should go ask Eric Schmidt for help. I said it was preposterous to ask our CEO about a family medical issue, and how would Eric help anyway? He said it was not preposterous.
It was in fact preposterous, but it was also very kind. Mike treated the problem as though it were his own. At one point, I made a lighthearted comment on a different subject to give him an "easy out" in the conversation. He ignored me, and kept on proposing solutions. When he ran out of ideas, he looked at me, and said with sincerity, "I don't know what else to suggest. What are we going to do?"
That meant so much to me. One pain I've found in discussing miserable problems with others is that moment of goodbye when they go back to their lives and I go back to mine. Sometimes relief shows in their eyes -- relief that they're not the one dealing with the ordeal. That's understandable and human, but it becomes all the more valuable when someone chooses to take on the problem with you, even if only for a moment.
So, thank you Mike. I never properly thanked you, and you're not the maudlin sort, so this will have to do.