Tuesday July 3, 2012
Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s jolly good fellow
By NICHOLAS YONG
The first Singaporean to work for Google writes a bestseller based on a course he runs.
THE first thing you notice about Chade-Meng Tan, 41, is the toothy grin that he constantly wears.
“Eh, paiseh (embarrassed) to make you wait so long,” says Tan, on being 15 minutes late. He keeps up the smile over the next hour, as you would expect from a man known for training Google employees in something as warm and fuzzy as emotional intelligence.
Appropriately, his job title at Google is Jolly Good Fellow (Which Nobody Can Deny). Really. And Tan, the first Singaporean to work for the global Internet giant, has plenty to smile about.
He is the author of a New York Times bestseller, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path To Achieving Success, Happiness (And World Peace), published in April. Based on a popular course he runs at Google, it includes endorsements from Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo and former United States president Jimmy Carter.
The monicker Jolly Good Fellow started as a joke, says the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) computer science graduate, who has lived in the United States for 14 years, doing postgraduate studies there before joining Google in California as an engineer.
“The highest-ranking engineer in Google is called a Google Fellow and I said, why be a Google Fellow when you can be a jolly good fellow? Everybody laughed and I just got stuck with it after a while,’ says Tan in a recent interview in Singapore where he was visiting promote his book.
His unconventional ideas about people and management found their way into a course he conceptualised in 2007 called Search Inside Yourself. It has been a hit at Google, held every quarter with 60 to 70 students at a time, and attended by more than 1,000 employees over the years.
The company has a policy that gives employees one day a week to work on any project of their choice; it’s called “20% time” and is supposed to encourage employees to give free rein to their imagination. It was during that window that Tan came up with his course, which is heavily influenced by his Buddhist beliefs.
Its simple premise, backed up by scientific analysis, is that emotional intelligence is good for the individual and for business.
Tan, a Buddhist since 1991, believes emotional intelligence can be trained and built up via meditation techniques. He says in all seriousness that if the techniques of Search Inside Yourself are adopted everywhere, it can create conditions for world peace.
While he admits that such goals are lofty and even unrealistic, he seems sincere and unironic about his aims.
He says: “The problem is so important, somebody has to do it. Someone has to fail trying, so that someone might as well be me.”
He works full time as one of Google’s cultural ambassadors and has met everyone from US President Barack Obama to the Dalai Lama. Married to a fellow NTU graduate and the father of a 12-year-old girl, he has also blazed a trail for Singaporeans at Google, as the company now employs at least 20 of them.
But things were not quite as glamorous when Tan joined the company in 2000.
“When I joined, Google had 100 people, now it has 30,000. It was an unprofitable start-up then, and we were trying to survive, so the mindset was very different,” he recalls. He went on to help build, among other projects, Google’s first mobile search service.
Tan – whose father is in the Singapore Armed Forces and his mother is a housewife – has an IQ of 156. He rattles off his considerable achievements during the interview: He learnt to read at 18 months, taught himself computer programming at 12 and won a slew of programming competitions from the age of 15.
However, Tan also says he got punished “all the time because I don’t follow orders” – perhaps an early sign of his creative mind?
When asked why he described his childhood as “very unhappy” in a previous interview, he says cryptically: “It’s tougher to grow up in Singapore. It’s also tougher to grow up if you are smart and you don’t play sports.”
So was he resentful about it? “Not that I remember. Sad, more than anything else. When I was young, I think I just coped by learning stuff like computing. Then I devoted a lot of my energy to winning programming competitions.’
He reckons that his younger brother Roger, 35, a financial analyst, probably had it easier because he was a swimmer. “Sporty kids get it a lot easier,” says Tan.
Later, he declares that the “extremely stifling” nature of Singapore did not suit him: “We have a Government that tells you what to think and what not to think, what to read and what not to read, what to view and what not to view. That’s not right, put it that way.”
Nonetheless, he returns to Singapore annually to spend time with family and friends.
He went to the US to do his master’s in computer science at the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1998. The experience, he says, was like a fish taking to water, quoting a Chinese proverb.
He enthuses: “There was freedom of expression and thought and a lot of autonomy as well.” – The Straits Times Singapore/Asia News Network
Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path To Achieving Success, Happiness (And World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan is available in Malaysian bookstores nationwide.