After Calculated Risk, Digital Media Alum Relishing Life at Google
What would you risk to land your dream job?
Most of us only ever get to entertain this question hypothetically, but for Cody Sielawa, it became a very real dilemma when an unexpected opportunity came his way.
In the summer of 2014, the KCAD alum (’12, Digital Media) was working at Grand Rapids-based web and mobile design firm Mighty in the Midwest when he found himself at a career crossroads. One path led to a sure thing: a job offer from full-service digital advertising agency VML (formerly Biggs|Gilmore) to work as an Art Director in Manhattan. The other led to a chance to interview with one of the most forward-thinking and dynamic companies in the world.
Sielawa had already accepted the offer from VML and was packing his things for a move to the Big Apple when he was contacted by a very persistent recruiter from Google. Typically, Google’s interview process lasts about five months, but given the circumstances and the company’s keen interest in Sielawa’s talents, the recruiter was willing to expedite the process. No guarantees were made, but sensing that the opportunity of his young lifetime was knocking, Sielawa answered.
Sielawa and his Google colleagues plotting some April Fools' mischief
“They actually rushed their interview process to keep me from moving out to the East Coast,” he recalled. "It was a giant juggling act; I left my job at Mighty and began this very calculated process where I had to fully commit to moving to New York while at the same time flipping a mental switch whenever Google gave me a new task. I needed to dedicate all of my energy to landing that job, which eventually meant putting off all of my relocation planning for a week and a half in order to allow myself the freedom to produce the best work possible."
Sielawa says that he got so caught up in keeping up with Google’s process that he would often forget that if it didn’t work out, he’d need to scramble to line everything up for the job at VML. All told, he was unemployed for over a month while he waited to see if his risk would pay dividends, and in the end, it did.
“The key for me was to focus my entire mind on only one thing at a time,” he said. “When the task is done, focus and fulfill another, but trying to do everything at once and overwhelming yourself won’t get you where you want to go.”
Outside the Googleplex (credit: Cody Sielawa)
In October of 2014, Sielawa headed out West to work as a visual designer at the Googleplex, Google’s original (and largest) corporate campus in Mountain View, CA. He immediately took to his new surroundings, and what designer wouldn’t? The Googleplex is known around the world as an intellectual, creative, and technological playground where curiosity and exploration are business as usual.
“It’s a very unique environment,” he said. “There’s this constant flow of energy and ideas, and so many amazing tools and technologies that you have access to. There’s also just the sheer size of the place – I mean, where else do you ride a bike to get to inter-office meetings?”
(above) Google-colored bikes help employees navigate the company's sprawling campus; (below) Sielawa snaps a photo from his bike on the way to a meeting (credit: Cody Sielawa)
Currently, Sielawa is part of a team of over 15 designers who work on both the Chrome browser and the rapidly emerging open-source Chrome operating system. His first publicly released project involved doing design work on Google’s devilishly clever April Fools’ gag – a faux release announcement for a “self-browsing” Chromebook laptop that duped more than a few tech-savvy people. While he can’t go into much detail about his work (Google, understandably, has to play its cards close to the chest until major initiatives and developments are launched), he can’t say enough about the way the company fosters a culture of community and collective intelligence among its employees.
The Googleplex's amenities include a Cross-Fit course (above) and a bowling alley (below) for employee use - you know you want to work here (credit: Cody Sielawa)
“Everyone thinks of Google as a tech company, but there are so many different disciplines and diverse sets of knowledge here – science, engineering, mathematics, design, you name it. Everyone is really open to working across disciplines and bouncing ideas off of one another.”
Google doesn’t believe in using a trial-by-fire approach with its new hires. Instead, Sielawa says, they start them off with a manageable workload and allow them the flexibility to explore different projects and tools to discover what they’re passionate about.
Sielawa relaxes with a book on his lunch break (credit: Cody Sielawa)
“They really want to develop your talent, so they don’t put you in over your head. But at the same time, I got bored quickly with what they gave me at first and just started asking for more work. It’s really nice to be given the freedom and support to find work that really interests you.”
A big part of the reason why Sielawa embraces Google’s philosophy – and why the company was so interested in him – is the way in which his talent was developed right here at KCAD and in several West Michigan companies.
In 2010, while still a student, he joined Grand Rapids-based web design firm Neural Planet, where he spent nearly two years doing front-end web development and working closely with clients. The skills he learned there under the wing of President Dominic Greenman helped him develop a new personal portfolio website every year, which was instrumental in being noticed by recruiters like the one from Google.
Just months after graduating, Sielawa went to work for VML at the company’s Kalamazoo, MI branch, where his Art Director (and fellow KCAD alum) Courtney Stuart exposed him to the ins and outs of the advertising business and campaign concepting. After eight months there it was on to Mighty in the Midwest, where Sielawa says CEO and Creative Director Cliff Wegner’s mentorship was invaluable.
“I learned an incredible amount from Cliff about creative direction, work ethic, client relationships, and presenting. He was hugely instrumental in getting me to where I am right now. Mighty is a phenomenal company; they approach projects the right way and treat clients like family. It was a really tough decision to leave them.”
The Googleplex is just over 40 miles from San Francisco, where Sielawa captured this stunning photo of the Golden Gate Bridge (credit: Cody Sielawa)
By now though, Sielawa has realized that when it comes to navigating the professional landscape, easy decisions are few and far between. And no matter what choice is made, success always comes from a willingness to dive into whatever lies ahead.
“I feel like I’m in a really good position right now,” he said. “If I can find the right path within Google that will allow me to foster creative direction and mentor other designers, I plan on staying as long as I can.”