Research Lead, Google People Analytics
PhD in Anthropology, Stanford University, 2018
Note: Since the time of this interview, E’lana Jordan has resigned from Google and will be starting a new role as People Analytics Partner at Netflix in March 2021.
Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, the world of work has changed for everyone. For many of us privileged enough to work within the knowledge economy, that has meant an increase in telework in all its forms: working at home, conducting meetings over videoconferencing technology, ever more emails and Slack messages. It’s hard to know what the impact of this shift will be on us and our relationship with work—unless you directly research this phenomenon in real time, that is.
Enter people analytics, a growing field of research within Human Resources (HR) that has at its core a very simple goal: to make work better. Enter, also, E’lana Jordan, former qualitative and ethnographic research lead for Google People Analytics and current People Analytics Partner at Netflix. When I am fortunate enough to speak with E’lana from her apartment in Oakland (over Zoom, of course), I learn that it was at Google where the field of people analytics was first popularized.
“They were one of the first big companies to use data in such a way to inform business decisions. We sit within HR—we call our HR department People Operations—and we try to understand employee challenges and come up with processes and programs, all in service of making work better. And so, Google being a data-driven company, we want all these new processes and programs and systems and ways of working to be backed up by sound data.
People analytics sits adjacent to another rapidly growing field of tech, user experience research (UXR)
, and while the two fields certainly share research methods, such as user experience and testability studies, E’lana is quick to point out that UXR is ultimately focused on a product (such as an app or a service) while people analytics works in service of people themselves. In the context of the pandemic, for example, E’lana’s team will seek to understand how Google employees are adjusting to the shifts in their professional lives: Do they prefer to work from home or in the office? What are the challenges of working from home? What do they miss from being in the office and collaborating in person? Understanding the answers to these questions, according to E’lana, helps to inform leadership decisions around next steps, including what a return to the office might look like.
Thanks to her graduate training, E’lana is well placed to design these research studies, which require her to identify research questions and the appropriate methodologies to answer them. She received her PhD in Anthropology from Stanford in 2018, where she studied water scarcity in Colombia. Despite knowing deep down that she was never fully committed to an academic career, a combination of curiosity, uncertainty, and institutional pressure led her to apply for tenure track jobs and postdoctoral positions alongside an array of industry roles. The role of resident anthropologist at Google arose through a friend, who saw the vacancy and put E’lana in touch with another mutual friend, a researcher on that same team at Google. Through this connection, E’lana was able to learn not only about the position itself but also about elements of the application, such as resume building and the interview process. Though she got her job, the transition out of academia into industry was not necessarily straightforward.
“I remember having a conversation with my advisor, and another professor came into the room and I told them that I got a job at Google working as a researcher, and they were like, ‘Oh, well, welcome to the dark side of ethnography.’ Like, okay, not the response that I was hoping for!” Luckily, she was not deterred. “I knew as I was applying to non-academic and industry jobs that I was making the right choice, that this was what I wanted, that I’d get what I deserve in terms of pay: it might be an uphill battle because it was a totally new world, but in the end I felt like it was a good decision and worth the time and effort that I put into applying.”
Despite her confidence in her choices, E’lana still felt some hesitation around going into tech, particularly because the Google walkouts
happened right as she was poised to join the company. “I think something that helped me was knowing where my vision and values aligned, and knowing that what I’m doing is helping people be their best selves at work. How can I do that? How can I use my expertise and my skills to bring that work forward? That’s something that always grounds me. I can’t control what Google does. I don’t have a say in any of the big decisions, but what I do have control over is how I operate, where I want to add value, and what spaces I want to be in. I like what I do and I like helping people. Some of the people who work for Google are doing some really cool, off the cuff, innovative things and contributing in ways that I would have never imagined, and I want to help them do their best for the world and for Google, and I’m grounded in that. Our work becomes so much part of our lives and who we are, and if we can make those experiences and moments meaningful, then I’m on board.”
One of the ways in which E’lana has the opportunity to combine her anthropological expertise and her drive to make work better is by designing research studies that seek to understand the culture at Google. Deferring a performance review cycle
, for example, engendered a lot of strong reactions in workers, and E’lana’s team conducted an ethnography in order to understand not only how
employees were reacting to this decision, but also the nuances of why
they were feeling that way. Another, larger, undertaking was her creation of a diagnostic tool in order to understand, define, and change not only the culture at Google, but also other organizations which are in need of better frameworks for moving their own cultural needles. In all of these projects, E’lana’s ability to connect the dots—
between data points, trends, isolated moments—
to paint a bigger picture and situate these phenomena within their broader context, in a way that few other people around her match, is part of what drives her success in her role. “A PhD brings expertise: you are an expert in your field, whatever that field may be. Being able to think critically and ask those questions that people may not necessarily think about is going to be really important, as well as the rigor that we can bring to the work that we do. Leveraging those unique skill sets is really important in bringing value to your research team.” Part of this, for E’lana, involves consulting on projects that require a strong qualitative research focus, especially when business leaders need some convincing that thick description and other forms of qualitative data are just as valuable as those gained through quantitative research methods.
While the mechanics of designing a research study are the same in academia and industry, the biggest difference for E’lana at Google was the need to consider stakeholders in her design, meaning she must ask herself who the key players are: Who will receive her findings and use them to make decisions? Whose buy-in does she need? Alternatively, who might be a worthwhile partner or collaborator in this work: whose particular skills or expertise might move the research along? The emphasis on collaboration was another major departure from the world of academic research for E’lana. Her day-to-day work at Google involves lot of meetings: often with collaborators, often with the legal team; fleshing out ideas for interviews, focus groups, observations, or surveys; getting feedback from others on things she might have missed or alternative perspectives she might wish to consider; and justifying the research within the bounds of internal employee protection protocols.
E’lana tells me that this level of collaboration creates a sense of accountability, “because sometimes your part, the part you’re working on, is just a small part of a larger project,” which is different from the inherently solitary, self-directed nature of much academic research in the humanities and social sciences. Also absent from many academic research projects is the obligation to make the work appeal to stakeholders. “You have to get people on board and say, ‘here, I found these interesting results, and this can be helpful for you because XYZ,’ so it’s about using this research to make recommendations for the business.”
It’s clear, from listening to E’lana, that the dynamism her role affords her, the trust and responsibility placed in her as the team’s resident anthropologist, are deeply stimulating and emboldening in ways that traditional academic research perhaps wouldn’t be. I ask her what she loves about working at Google, and she laughs, as if to say, “Where to start?”
“I like the amount of flexibility at Google. It’s a big place, and it has its pluses and minuses, but one of the benefits of being at a big place is that there’s so much opportunity. There are just so many different things that you can do. You can be attracted to that; you can be empowered to really take control of your career and create a new opportunity for yourself. I love that flexibility and that freedom in that space. You don’t have to do the thing that you were doing before: you can create a new role, and I’m in the process of imagining what else [ethnography] could look like, [and doing so] with the full support of my managers, other colleagues, and mentors. That’s really cool.”
As we end the call, I can’t help but feel a little envious of E’lana: in a moment where it feels like door after door is swinging shut, and that the walls of the academy as we typically understand it seem to be closing in, she has fashioned a path for herself that allows her to keep reimagining the world not only for herself, but also for the people around her. Making work better, for E’lana, is a small way of making the world better, and it’s clear that transcending conventional expectations of what a Stanford anthropologist ought to do post-graduation allows her to do that every single day.
Profile written by Chiara Giovanni, PhD ’23, Comparative Literature. Interview conducted in October, 2020.