When Adam Fahrenkopf was a child, “any time I worked on a project—building something, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow—my parents would always encourage me to ‘think out loud’ on the best way to get it done,” he says. That tip led him to “think about problem-solving, planning and executing from an early age.”
Today, Fahrenkopf still relies on that ethos, working alongside teammates to continually improve Google Assistant, the voice-based software tool that relies on an “out loud” interface.
“I work with teams on natural language processing, understanding and fulfillment. The scale and complexity of creating a virtual assistant is exciting and challenging, which calls for innovation not only in the engineering effort, but also how we manage the projects and navigate the unknown.”
Blazing a trail to Google wasn’t predestined. He cultivated mentors and solicited advice. Even when imposter syndrome crept in, he says he would remind himself, “I’d rather fail at something hard than be complacent doing something that I know I can do.”
After several years working in software and web development, Fahrenkopf went back to school and got his MBA. “Find the dream role you want, look at the requirements, and then take inventory on where you fall short. Look for opportunities to improve in those areas.”
Now he pays it forward with the next generation of project leaders—reviewing their résumés and CVs, and helping them land internships. He also keeps up with his mentors, sharing accomplishments and continuing to ask for guidance. “If you remove some of the mentors I’ve had, it removes the links to other relationships and opportunities that ultimately presented the opportunity to work at Google.”
Q&A: Adam Fahrenkopf on machine learning, specialization and navigating ambiguity
What’s the professional accomplishment you’re most proud of?
I worked with a colleague, Ben Royce, on a project to scale marketing insights in video creative using machine learning. We created this project from the ground up navigating organizational buy in, engineering implementation and launch. It culminated in many talks and was also featured on Think With Google.
What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?
We will continue to see an expansion in the number of different specialized roles involved in any given project. There are a number of roles critical to a project now that either didn’t exist or were very rare 10 years ago.
What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?
The ability to navigate ambiguity. Humans will always be involved in The Project Economy, and by nature we are unintentionally ambiguous and tend to make assumptions. At Google, we constantly use the term “thriving in ambiguity.” It’s critical to understand what the real requirements are, why they are requirements and if we really have consensus. Without this, anything else you try to do may be wasted.