She was not kidding. Google hired me in January 2007. I worked eight months, and by fall I was off for 15 months of Marine Corps officer training. Google had me back again for practically all of 2009 (and VetNet, the employee resource group for Google veterans, helped me enormously to reacclimate and catch up). Then I received activation orders to report for duty in Afghanistan, to help train the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take over after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. This, I knew, would be a far cry from my life at Google.
I spent seven months in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. And I learned two big lessons that have stuck with me.
The first is patience. Afghan culture is incredibly civilized. When you meet someone, they want to assess you and understand where you come from. In the U.S., people jump on the phone and profess to know each other after 15 minutes. In Afghanistan, new acquaintances drink chai, talk for a few hours and gradually learn about each other's family and personal history. This was quite an adjustment, especially for a Marine, as we have a bias toward action. While we did have some cultural immersion training, like so many things in life, nothing can really prepare you until you see it.
The second lesson I learned is acceptance. There's a misconception about the military--that it strips away individuality. Not true. In fact, teamwork is all about accepting diversity. And I've never seen so much diversity as in Afghanistan. Our "embedded partnering team" was all men (since there are no women in the ANA). But it was a mix of guys with a broad range of backgrounds. Our team leader was born and raised in Bolivia and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, enlisted, and later became an officer. "Hey, Google!" he called me.
I learned to accept people for who they are. And I realized that they're not necessarily going to do things the way you might expect--or advise. You don't tell a Marine to "take that box from point A to point B by picking it up…." The military is way less concerned with how you move the box, as long as it gets moved. Instead, you train your Marines to make good decisions, act morally and do the right thing--as best they can given the circumstances and their knowledge at the time. You offer feedback and train again--lather, rinse, repeat. And you certainly can't tell the Afghans to do things the way we would. They're going to do things their own way--the way that works for them. After all, it is their country.
Returning to Google last fall was quite a transition. Suddenly, the only person I had to worry about was myself. I was writing code again, not running convoys. And I wasn't a mission commander, so I had to retrain myself on how to interact with my peers. Fortunately, VetNet was there once again to back me up and help me learn to fit in again. And it helped that I was getting paid to do what I love. I thought, "Wow, this is the greatest thing in the world: I get to write software all day...with free lunch!"
Afghanistan made me understand the value of teamwork and how individual contributions fit into a larger picture. My time there also made me wonder whether I can and should do more at Google than produce code. Recently, I've been talking with my manager about how I can share my experiences and lessons with managers across the company. This is what we do in the military--why not try it at home?