In The Plex, a great history of Google

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

I just finished reading Steven Levy's In the Plex, a great history of Google, Inc.'s origins and growth, and a great insight into what the company could look like in the future, or at least how it might get there.

The story of Google that matters for most people is how it affects their daily lives (searching, web browsing, mobile phones, mapping/navigation, email, calendaring, YouTube, news, etc.) but I appreciate that Levy's book focuses on the personalities and processes driving the evolution of what is arguably one of the most transformative corporate and technological entities of our time.

It can be easy to forget that behind some of the game-changing products and services produced by the company, there were real people thinking through issues of privacy, dealing with cross-cultural considerations and navigating interpersonal dynamics all while trying to make a living and find a sustainable business model.  They had/have desks, meetings, slide shows to give, families to care for, water-cooler conversations to have, and Levy does a great job capturing and re-telling those stories from the days of "two guys in a garage" all the way through the present days of life as an international corporation.  This is not always done with the most critical eye - those with concerns about Google's operations or policies may be put off by the extent to which this book is an homage - but on the whole I think Levy is fair in calling out the moments when individual Google employees or the company as a whole screws up, and placing those in the context of Google's good intentions.

A few themes in what Levy's book revealed about "the Google way":

  1. "Ready, fire, aim" - Google does the bold, innovative or creative thing first, then (for better or worse) readjusts, re-calibrates, rethinks it later
  2. When it comes to figuring out "what works," studying data and using a scientific approach is more important than intuition or speculation.  Despite their many successes with this strategy, Google experienced failures when a data set wasn't complete, e.g. when it doesn't include the preferences, fears, doubts and hopes that are trapped in people's heads or hearts.
  3. Especially in its startup years, Google tried to only hire "A" people; engineers, researchers and thinkers who were either the best in a field of study (or headed that direction), who were driven by the excitement of discovery instead of money, and who could internalize the big picture goals of a project and then go make it a reality.  In their hiring they screened for intelligence, applicable knowledge, experience and adaptability, and as a result, they operate more like a research university than a traditional corporation.  Bureaucracy, office politics and administrative overhead seemingly emerged only with reluctant concessions to what was absolutely necessary to function at a larger scale.
  4. If you want innovation in your organization, it's important to create an environment where challenging accepted ways of doing things is not only permissible, but normal at all levels of authority and leadership.
  5. It's good to introduce questions of morality into the day-to-day operations of your organization.  At the same time, the more people you have, the harder it is to maintain integrity around living out a given set of moral values.

Google's history is particularly of interest to me in that the company was started within a year or so of the company I co-founded, Summersault.  We were in a dorm room instead of a garage, and our goal was making great websites, not letting others search them more effectively.  There are not just a few differences between Summersault and Google today - billions and billions of dollars more in annual revenue, tens of thousands more employees, a private jet here, a self-driving car there, etc. - but I don't think its too conceited to say that we started our company in the same spirit Google did, trying to help people make the most of the web...they just did it on a much bigger scale.

I was recruited by Google several years ago, to be a part of the team that keeps the company's software application infrastructure up and running.  I really enjoyed my conversations with their staff about what it would mean to work there, and it was exciting to think about being a part of something so technically interesting and so global in scope.  In the end I knew that my passion and focus remained with what I'd started here in Richmond and so I declined to continue in the interview process, but In The Plex only reinforces what a great adventure that alternate path through life could have been.

It seems safe to say that most people underestimate the significance of what Google is and does.  Steven Levy's book is a great read, and a great insight into how this one company has transformed the Internet age.

One thought on “In The Plex, a great history of Google

  1. Thanks for the Cliff's notes Chris' notes summary.

    Hiring "A" people seems to be one of those things that managers profess but don't necessarily practice. I participated in one of those Internet start-ups around the same time as Summergoogle. I so clearly recall my conversation about hiring with one of our managers in the early days. "We've got to hire only the best," I said. "We've got to maintain our standard."

    "Sure, of course we will," he told me. "Definitely."

    (I think he had to suppress an urge to pat me on the head and tell me to run along and play.)

    A couple of years later we were hiring anything that passed for bipedal and breathing. And then we promptly imploded.

    The rubble and remains were sold off by Bain Capital. (Yes, that Bain Capital.)

    So, yeah, I'd say that hiring to maintain a culture of quality works better than hiring for expedience.

    Cheers

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