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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