In the Plex: a Closer Look at Google

After finishing Douglas Edwards’s I’m Feeling Lucky, I continued my reading about Google with Steven Levy’s In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. In the Plex is longer and more in-depth than I’m Feeling Lucky, and the tone is more critical. Where Edwards focused on the early years, culminating in Google’s triumphant initial public offering in 2004, Levy’s book takes Google up to the present day, describing conflicts with privacy advocates, anti-trust investigations, the moral grey area of Google’s operations in China, and the challenges of sustaining a culture of innovation in a large corporation.

Levy benefited from an unusual degree of access, including interviews with hundreds of Google employees and opportunities to attend internal meetings over a two-year period. The best parts of the book reveal exactly what the subtitle promises: how Google thinks and works.

Google’s look and feel

I was intrigued by an anecdote about Google’s longtime UI designer Marissa Mayer critiquing a product redesign. Trying to explain why she didn’t like the design, she summed up the essence of Google’s style: “It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where… It looks too editorialized. Google products are machine-driven. They’re created by machines. And that is what makes us powerful. That’s what makes our products great.” Google’s look and feel are intended to convey the neutral efficiency of the products; its design is shaped by data and testing, not by any individual’s aesthetic or agenda.

(I can’t help wondering, though, if the latest redesign still reflects Mayer’s philosophy. It includes some elements where style seems to have trumped functionality – such as the elegant but somewhat confusing Gmail toolbar icons.)

Monoculture

Having some experience in an organization with a homogeneous workforce, I was interested to learn that while Google’s famously stringent hiring process has filled the company with brilliant, talented people, it has also contributed to the formation of a corporate monoculture that’s sometimes out-of-step with society at large:

“From the beginning, Google profiled people by which college they had attended. As [Larry] Page said, ‘We hired people like us’ – brainy strivers from privileged backgrounds who aced the SAT, brought home good grades and wrote the essays that got them into the best schools… There were exceptions but not enough to stop some Googlers from worrying that the workforce would take on an inbred aspect. ‘You’re going to get groupthink,’ warned Doug Edwards, an early marketing hire. ‘Everybody’s going to have the same background, the same opinions. You need to mix it up.'”

A lack of diverse viewpoints within the company may help explain Google’s missteps in social networking. Google is known for its commitment to “dogfooding” new products. (From the expression “eat your own dogfood,” the practice dictates that software developers use the products they are building.) But when Google Buzz was released in 2010, it quickly became apparent that internal testing had failed to identify a major problem – that users would feel their privacy had been violated when Buzz automatically created a network based on their email contacts. Levy writes:

“Google had made a critical error. Its employees differed from the general population… Nicole Wong, the lawyer in charge of Google’s policy operations, later admitted the mistake. ‘The on-boarding [dogfood] process is not like doing it in the wild, and the social network of 20,000 Googlers is not like being on the Internet. That process failed us.'”

Management

You wouldn’t think Google would have much in common with Bell Canada, so I was surprised to learn that in 2008 Larry Page recruited Bell’s Patrick Pichette as Google’s new CFO.  What could Pichette, who had been forcing through some tough cost-cutting in labour negotiations with Bell’s unionized workers, have to offer Google, a company famous for granting its employees lavish perks like free food and massages? It turns out that several years of rapid growth and aggressive hiring had left Google ill-equipped to effectively manage its workforce:

“Oddly, whereas Google had built its data infrastructure to reroute around failure, it had no human infrastructure to deal with failed projects. ‘We didn’t know which ones they were, because we never paused to ask ourselves that question,’ says Pichette.

The array of different Google products in beta at any given time – some of them overlapping or competing with each other – seems to bear out this observation.

Google and government

The last chapter of “In the Plex” describes Google’s relations with the U.S. government, and includes a section about several Google employees who were inspired by Barack Obama’s election to leave Google to work in Washington, D.C. with the starry-eyed goal of using technology and Google-esque efficiency and innovation to improve government. As someone who works in government, I found much to identify with:

“[W]hen the outsiders…hit the nation’s capital, they went straight into a buzz saw of illogic, bad intentions, mistrust, and, worst of all, obsolete gadgets. Not only were they chained to outdated Windows computers, but they were denied the Internet tools they had come to rely on as much as breathing. Rules dictated that there could be no Facebook, no Google Talk, no Gmail, no Twitter, no Skype.”

Katie Stanton, one of the former Googlers, lamented: “Working in government is like running a marathon. Blindfolded. Wearing sandbags.” The truth of that statement sums up why I remain so fascinated with Google: despite its problems, Google still seems to represent a better way of working and a model for those of us who would like to leave our blindfolds and sandbags behind.

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