Wednesday, December 24, 2014

You've never had it so good

My local Waitrose has a display called Christmas Must Haves selling nothing but champagne:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Life in Google's magic circle

How Google WorksHow Google Works by Eric Schmidt

There's a pun in the title: it's about how the company operates, not how Google search is engineered. So you may be a little disappointed if you are expecting techy insights. Instead, this is a slightly preachy but interesting 'how to' book on running a successful company in the internet age.

And it's based on experience at a company that's legendary for its mind-blowing profit margins, its impact on the daily lives of a significant proportion of the human population, and, not least, a fabulously generous workplace ("free lunches, subsidized massages, green pastures offices").

Life at the Googleplex has taken on legendary status of its own, inspiring a movie, The Internship, and Dave Eggars' novel, The Circle. Well, try and deny that this, from The Circle, is really about Google - or least, about what Googlers like to think about Google:

"Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work."

How Google Works doesn't quite put it in those terms, but there is a lot of talk about "smart creatives", a type of employee that the authors see as key to the success of businesses today. These are people who combine technical prowess with a healthy interest in business and the marketplace and have unlimited persistence, energy and initiative. They may be awkward to manage, but they're worth it.

On the question of the lavish lifestyle in Google offices, Schmidt and his co-author Jonathan Rosenberg, another senior Google manager, make a distinction between the free food and so on ("Google’s main campus courtyard on a summer evening looks like family camp, there are so many children running around while their parents enjoy a nice dinner"), and the comparatively unlavish office conditions. When Schmidt joined at the very top of the company, he was surprised when another member of staff moved into what he thought was his own office, explaining politely that there wasn't enough room elsewhere.

It turns out that this kind of overcrowding is actually company policy, all part of getting the best out of the staff: "smart creatives thrive on interacting with each other. The mixture you get when you cram them together is combustible, so a top priority must be to keep them crowded."

The book goes through various more conventional aspects of business management - hiring, product development, decision making, communication, remuneration - and mixes some Google insights with a sizeable slice of conventional business wisdom (management guru the late Peter Drucker, whose work goes back to the 1930s, gets half a dozen mentions).

The result is not exactly revelatory, but has its moments. For instance, the authors claim that successful products need to be based on technical innovation. Just being useful, or even being what people think they want, isn't enough: "basing products on technical insights has always been a core principle of Google." And failing this test accounts for some of Google's failures: "when we look back at other Google products that didn’t make it (iGoogle, Desktop, Notebook, Sidewiki, Knol, Health, even the popular Reader), they all either lacked underlying technical insights from the outset, or the insights upon which they were based became dated as the Internet evolved."

For my money, How Google Works would have been more interesting if it has simply told the Google story from the authors' privileged perspective. But like other Silicon Valley titans, Schmidt and Rosenberg have either decided they didn't want to spill too many beans, or their publisher persuaded them that there's a bigger market for more instructional business books. I had exactly the same feeling about Reid Hoffman's The Start-Up of You: the story of LInkedIn would have been better than a How To book about careers. Even Biz Stone's Things a Little Bird Told Me, while being more autobiographical and less bashful about telling the story of Twitter, came with a coating of advice and moralising.

If you ever want to try for a job at Google, there are some useful tips here. First, the standard interview question in the early days, "explain something complicated to me that I don't know about" (also used by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos) is no longer part of the recruitment process. Nor indeed are the famous brain-teasers. Schmidt gives as an example of the kind of interview question he favours: “If I were to look at the web history section of your browser, what would I learn about you that isn’t on your résumé?” Tricky.

And where once Google was famous for the number of interviews candidates were put through, after managers discovered that one poor candidate had had 30 interviews, and even then nobody was able to decide whether to hire him, they introduced a rule that nobody should be interviewed more than five times. Five sounds bad enough. Especially when you know that the people who are interviewing you won't actually be making the decision. Hiring is done by hiring committees who get sent "candidate packets" summarising the results of the interviews, in a form whose gist can be absorbed in 120 seconds.

I'm sure Google is a great place to work, but just reading about the quantitative rigour and clever original thinking with which everything is approached sometimes made me long for a few weeks of sleepy 9 to 5 in a widget factory.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

History under our noses: a walk round East Sheen

At the crossroads between the Upper Richmond Road and Sheen Lane, there's a milestone from 1751, next to the 20th Century war memorial - two landmarks that are self-consciously 'historical' at an intersection of the modern world. 

A leaflet from the excellent Barnes and Mortlake Historical Society pointed us to some more subtle links to the past, no further from home.  

Our first stop, down Sheen Lane towards the station, was the left turn into St Leonards Road. If you'd asked me to find you a barn in East Sheen, I would have been stumped. But there is one, large as life, which our leaflet told us may have been left over from the market gardening business that once dominated the area.  

More definite is the history of the building on the north corner of Sheen Lane and St Leonards Road. It has a turret, an appropriately showy feature of the department store it once was. Rayner Canham opened for business about 1910 and only closed in the 1960s, when it was known as Simmonds. There's a flavour of the place in one of the ground floor windows, which still advertises its wares: 

Continuing away from Sheen Lane, the leaflet directed us to St Leonards Court, a 1930s apartment development. At it centre is a raised lawn with a small circular building on its edge. This turns out to be the entrance to an air raid shelter which still exists beneath the lawn. It's apparently one of the best examples still around, and is being preserved. It may be that one day, parties of schoolchildren will be touring its four large rooms - two for men, two for women. 

If you're wondering whether an air raid shelter was really needed, another piece of work by the Historical Society proves emphatically that it was: a map of where Second World War bombs fell in the area shows that nobody was more than a street away from having one land on them. Thankfully, most of the red dots on the map also report "no casualties", although the one at Mortlake Brewery records "160 quarters of malt lost".

One connection with the war not recorded in the leaflet, is the blue plaque on another apartment block in Sheen Lane: it shows where the BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby lived in the couple of years before the outbreak of war. I wonder if during his busy, dangerous years reporting the war, he wished he was back in East Sheen.   

A more subtle connection with the war is the unmarked house a couple of streets over, in Richmond Park Road, which provided a temporary home for a double agent, sending messages to Germany to fool its military commanders into thinking the D-Day landings would be at Calais rather than Normandy. Four bombs had landed in that part of Richmond Park Road in the autumn of 1940. By the time the Pole known as Agent Brutus was at work, East Sheen was relatively safe from bombs, though no doubt their effect was still visible in most streets.  

The leaflet from Barnes and Mortlake Historical Society is 'Sheen Vale: A circular walk starting at Sheen Lane Centre, Sheen Lane, SW14'. It includes plenty of other points of interest in addition to those mentioned above. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A room with an Italian view

We didn't really need to leave our hotel room at the Hotel Continental in Naga, near Lake Garda. There was so much to be seen from the balcony:

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Promising debut novel mines the intelligence war behind D-Day

The Best of Our SpiesThe Best of Our Spies by Alex Gerlis

My former BBC colleague Alex Gerlis makes the career transition from news journalist to novelist with complete conviction in this, his first novel.

The Best of Our Spies is an ingeniously constructed tale set in the intelligence war surrounding D-Day. Gerlis' fictional characters operate within an authentic historical background that must have been the product of some serious historical research.

If the lengths that Britain's intelligence services go to in the story seem to stretch credibility, Ben Macintyre's Double Cross shows that with so much at stake nothing was considered too much trouble - or indeed too ludicrous - if it might put the German occupiers of France off the scent of the planned Allied invasion of Normandy.

Indeed, if you have read non-fiction accounts on the same theme, such as Macintyre's, then Gerlis' introduction of real historical figures such as Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, gives his story a real plausibility.

There is also interest in how ordinary parts of West London such as Ealing, Wandsworth and Ham were the scenes of potentially grisly espionage activities out of keeping with their pleasant but mundane character today.

Gerlis' hero, Owen, grows as a character, so much so that the surprising denouement is genuinely moving.

It's easy to imagine the novel as an exciting movie, with great locations and good male and female leads.

Gerlis has written about becoming a novelist in a blog for the BBC College of Journalism here.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

The rush for books at Barnes Fair

It was a beautiful day for Barnes Fair. I always visit the book tent, which seemed busier than ever this year. I got chatting to the lady who sold me some, and she said they had taken £5000. And that was before noon. Ebooks, Amazon and other alternatives don't seem to have made much impression here. Or are people just buying books on the cheap because they fear they won't be so easily available in future?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Amazing what you can do with my new camera

It's cheap but clever.

It comes with no instruction manual, but if you can be bothered to Google for one and print 100 pages, there are all sorts of things you can learn about my new stills camera (the SamsungWB250F if you're interested).

Here's what I wasted some time doing on recent train journeys:

Sunday, May 11, 2014

East Sheen's contribution to D-Day

Exactly seventy years ago, allied forces were assembling in the South West of England in preparation for the Normandy landings on D-Day - 6th June 1944. It was the biggest invasion in history, the culmination of years of planning by allied leaders. If France could be recaptured from the Germans, it could turn the tide of the war.

The aim was to send an invading force across the Channel to break through the heavy defences of the Northern coastline. Every advantage was needed, especially surprise.

MI5 was running a network of double agents whom the Germans thought were working for them in Britain but who, in reality, were controlled by the British and used to feed false information to the enemy.

Critically, ahead of D-Day, messages from MI5's double agents were coordinated to give the impression that a large invasion was imminent across the narrowest part of the Channel, at the Pas de Calais, rather than in Normandy.

And this is where East Sheen comes in.

A house in Richmond Park Road (above, courtesy of Google Streetview) was occupied by a Pole, Roman Czerniawski and his wife. Czerniawski, AKA Agent Brutus, was the survivor of a string of hair-raising adventures since the start of the war. He'd set up a network of French resistance spies, been discovered and captured by the Germans in France, and persuaded them that he would now spy for them.

He managed to get himself sent to England, where he immediately started working with MI5 to fool his German spymasters.

From one of East Sheen's innocent-looking semis, Brutus operated his radio transmitter (although the Germans were told it was his wireless operator, Chopin, who was sending the messages. Chopin didn't exist).

In hundreds of messages over a long period, Brutus had built up an elaborate story, of being part of a fictitious invading force assembling in the South East commanded by (the real) General Patton, who was seen around, to add credibility to agents' reports.

As Ben Macintyre recounts of Czerniawski's work from East Sheen, in his gripping Double Cross (2012):

"In three long reports, packed with details supposedly gathered from within the army's operations room at Staines, and tours of Kent and East Anglia, he was able to present the Germans with …'the entire chain of command of the shadow army group in southeast England.' Patton's army, he warned, gave 'the impression of being ready to take part in active operations in the near future'."

Gratifyingly, M15 later got their hands on a German map showing what they believed to be the deployment of allied forces around the UK. It corresponded almost exactly to the fictitious scenario presented to them by the double cross agents.

The result was that when the invading force landed in Normandy, at first the Germans believed it was only a sideshow, perhaps intended to fool them into lowering their defences along the coast.

Although there were 10,000 allied casualties on the first day of the Normandy landings, with 2500 killed, more than 175,000 troops were landed in France and ready to fight.

If the messages from Richmond Park Road had not been heard or believed, those casualty numbers could have been far, far worse, and D-Day might even have been no more successful than the failed Dieppe landings two years earlier.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

10 things that never happen at conferences

1. Anything in the bag you get when you arrive is worth keeping beyond this time tomorrow.
2. The most important speaker has a well prepared speech specially written for the occasion.
3. Nobody says what you learn over coffee is more valuable than the formal sessions.

4. Everyone's pretty relaxed about what the lunch is like.
5. The audience is grateful that someone can 'spare the time' to address them.
6. People listen carefully to what's being said instead of checking their email.
7. The keynote speech is notable or key.
8. It turns out there isn't much to talk about and the whole event finishes a couple of hours early.
9. Everyone agrees it didn't go well and was a massive waste of time.
10. Afterwards you contact someone who gave you their business card over tea.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Is security at Terminal 5 sponsored by Apple and Amazon?

Instead of referring to tablet computers and e-readers, the sign before you get to the x-ray machines at Heathrow Terminal 5 tells you to remove your iPads and Kindles.

If I was Samsung or Kobo, I wouldn't be too pleased.