Iris Chen Rises to the Challenge

Iris Chen turned a career crisis of faith into a position as VP of legal for Google—despite having no prior tech experience

At 3:30 a.m., when most of California is fast asleep, Iris Chen might just be baking bread from scratch. She describes herself as an “extreme morning person,” a quality she shares with many a CEO and successful entrepreneur. “That’s my quiet time,” Chen says. “I do a lot of thinking and it gets me energized for the rest of the day.”

Irish Chen Google
Iris Chen, VP of Legal, GooglePhoto: Jay Tsai

For the past thirteen years, the rest of Chen’s day has been spent at Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters. As a vice president in the legal department, she oversees legal support for the company’s digital advertising business, along with many of the company’s well-known products such as, Google Maps, Google Pay, as well as newer offerings in the research and health space.In total, 135 lawyers report to the VP. Chen came to Google right around the time the company transformed from “that search engine company” to, simply, the Google. But working for a tech giant wasn’t originally part of Chen’s career plan.

While many people dream of working at Google, it just wasn’t on Chen’s radar at first. “I didn’t know anything about tech,” she says. “There wasn’t a huge tech presence in New York, where I got most of my legal experience.” After a number of years doing private fund and then broader investment management advisory work practice, Chen says she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to be a lawyer anymore. “I kind of had this moment where my heart just wasn’t in it andI needed to figure out what I wanted to do,” Chen says. “I had gotten married and was thinking about having children and just wasn’t sure private practice and the work I was doing was where I belonged in the long run.”

After randomly applying for a job with Google’s lean New York team, she had a conversation with a hiring manager that convinced her the company might just be where she belonged. There was one problem: “They said it was great meeting me, but they already had another candidate in final stages for the job,” Chen says. “I was heartbroken. I really thought I had found my dream job.”

The story could easily have ended there. But when another position opened at Google’s New York office, Chen went after it hard. Nearly six months of interviews followed, and she eventually got the job.

She came on board supporting the growing advertising business, and after a departmental reorganization in 2010, was asked to move to California to take on a role managing two different legal functions. Her responsibilities continued to expand from there. Along with the teams supporting Google’s myriad commercial interests, Chen also oversees product counsel working with product, engineering, and other functions on product launches, which can involve a variety of issues such as privacy, data use, copyright, and consumer protection.

Chen says part of the reason her duties have continued to increase is because of the skill she has shown in supporting Google’s advertising business, the company’s original major source of revenue. “We have a lot of very mature business models and expertise in commercialization that have evolved in ads and experience building teams to support them. It’s something that some of our newer product areas might still be figuring out,” Chen explains. “I’ve had the benefit of working in a space where there have been a lot of firsts, and we’ve seen that business scale, mature, and evolve to be this highly functioning, well-oiled machine. I think being part of that experience has allowed me to take on other areas of the business because, internally, people see me as someone who understands how we grow businesses at Google and knows how to scale support.”

“I’ve had the benefit of working in a space where there have been a lot of firsts, and we’ve seen that business scale, mature, and evolve to be this highly functioning, well-oiled machine.”

The lawyer’s reputation for taking on difficult challenges doesn’t stop at business. Chen says that working to increase diversity and inclusion at Google have been essential parts of her role. “From the hiring perspective, my hiring mangers know that I feel strongly about and expect a diverse pipeline of candidates,” she says. “If they’re not seeing that, tell me, and I will help remove obstacles so we can get there.”

Chen says she also encourages networking outside of company walls. “Whether it’s bar associations or other communities, it’s important that we’re not seeing the same profiles over and over again, and it’s another way to bring more diversity into the pipeline.”

As an Asian American, Chen says she sees her role as a woman in leadership as an opportunity to mentor those who are looking to elevate their own careers. “I often get contacted for advice, sometimes from people I don’t even know, but I try to make the time to meet, because they might not have someone else they can reach out to,” Chen says.

She’s lucky, she says, that the majority of VPs in legal at Google are women, and considers it a strong motivator for her to help others find their way. Chen’s team is in the early stages of piloting what they’re calling the Voyager Program, providing contract legal opportunities for attorneys who have taken time out of their legal careers and are looking to re-enter the workplace. As a mother herself, Chen says it’s imperative to offer those who have taken time for their families (or for other reasons) to jump-start their careers again.

Thirteen years in, Chen says that what keeps her at Google is the group she’s surrounded by. “I’m fortunate to be able to work with really smart, team-oriented people who work hard, but also don’t take themselves too seriously,” she says. “These are people who are interested in putting good into the world and genuinely believe in the power of technology to improve our lives. That positive energy is something you just want to be around.”