Book Review: In the Plex by Steven Levy

plexSteven Levy’s 2011 book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives is very much worth reading for anyone in or around the tech industry, or for an outsider who’s seeking an accessible description of what makes Google’s business magical. In other words, even if you know a lot about Google already, there are dozens of interesting nuggets about the creation of the various products. And if you don’t know the first thing about AdWords or why Google search is better than other services, you’ll find a jargon-free yet still sophisticated description.

My Kindle highlights from the book are below.

Google even had its own version of the Learning Annex, called Google University. Besides a number of work-related courses (“Managing Within the Law,” “Advanced Interviewing Techniques”), there were classes in creative writing, Greek mythology, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and, for those contemplating a new career funded with Google gains, “Terroir: The Geology & Wines of California.”

‘Do the right thing’ or something more positive?” she asked. Marissa and Salar agreed with her. But the geeks—Buchheit and Patel—wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be evil” pretty much said it all, as far as they were concerned. They fought off every attempt to drop it from the list. “They liked it the way it was,” Sullivan would later say with a sigh. “It was very important to engineering that they were not going to be like Microsoft, they were not going to be an evil company.”

But then Eric Schmidt revealed Google’s internal motto to a reporter from Wired. To McCaffrey, that was the moment when “Don’t be evil” got out of control and became a hammer to clobber Google’s every move. “We lost it, and I could never grasp it back,” she says. “Everybody would’ve been happy if it could’ve been this sort of silent code or little undercurrent that we secretly harbored instead of this thing that set us up for a lot of ridiculous criticism.” Elliot Schrage, who was in charge of communications and policy for Google from 2005 to 2008, concluded that “Don’t be evil” might originally have benefited the company but became “a millstone around my neck” as Google’s growth took it to controversial regions of the world.

Bo Cowgill, a Google statistician, did a series of studies of his colleagues’ behavior, based on their participation in a “prediction market,” a setup that allowed them to make bets on the success of internal projects. He discovered that “daily stock price movements affect the mood, effort level and decision-making of employees.” As you’d expect, increases in stock performance made people happier and more optimistic—but they also led them to regard innovative ideas more warily, indicating that as Googlers became richer, they became more conservative. That was exactly the downside of the IPO that the founders had dreaded.

Around 2005, Google determined a simple formula to distribute its engineering talent: 70–20–10. Seventy percent of its engineers would work in either search or ads. Twenty percent would focus on key products such as applications. The remaining 10 percent would work on wild cards, which often emerged from the 20 percent time where people could choose their own projects. For all the talk about its other, well-publicized fraction—the 20 percent of free time that supposedly gestated Google’s big innovations—70–20–10 became Google’s magic allocation algorithm.

not just to identify what one wants to do but to break down the task into measurable bites (“key results”). In his book High Output Management, Grove imagined the OKR system applied to Christopher Columbus. The explorer fell short of his objective of finding a trade route to India, but he did carry out some subsidiary OKRs: he gathered a crew; he bought supplies; he avoided pirates; and by discovering the New World, he brought riches to Spain. Doerr had Google at metrics. “Google did more than adopt it,” says Doerr. “They embraced it.” OKRs became an essential component of Google culture. Every employee had to set, and then get approval for, quarterly OKRs and annual OKRs. There were OKRs at the team level, the department level, and even the company level. (Those last were used sparingly, for important initiatives or to address gaping failures.) Four times a year, everything stopped at Google for divisionwide meetings to assess OKR progress.

What’s more, OKRs were not private benchmarks shared only with managers. They were public knowledge, as much a part of an employee’s Google identity as the job description. The OKRs appeared on every employee’s biographical information on MOMA, Google’s internal website. (The name didn’t stand for anything in particular—according to Marissa Mayer, Larry Page just wanted something fast and short and easy to type.) You could even see Larry and Sergey’s OKRs.

For a number of years, Brin and Page drew organizational and clerical support from a pool of four sharp young women known as LSA, or Larry and Sergey Assistants. (Googlers referred to LSA as if it were a single organization. You would say, “I’ll check with LSA to see if Sergey can come to this meeting.”) The system seemed to work well, but Brin and Page felt constrained. By having assistants, they noticed, it was easier for people to ask things of them. “Most people aren’t willing to ask me if they want to meet with me,” says Page. “They’re happy to ask an assistant.” When a meeting request came, an LSA would have to see if Page or Brin actually wanted to do it. In truth, the founders almost never wanted to do it. So one day, Brin and Page abruptly dissolved LSA. They would thereafter have no assistants. Whatever they felt was important at the moment would be their work. Sergey sometimes liked to move his workplace right in the middle of a project he found

Of all of Google’s secrets, this massive digital infrastructure was perhaps its most closely held. It never disclosed the number of these data centers. (According to an industry observer, Data Center Knowledge, there were twenty-four major facilities by 2009, a number Google didn’t confirm or dispute.) Google would not say how many servers it had in those centers. (Google did, however, eventually say that it is the largest computer manufacturer in the world—making its own servers requires it to build more units every year than the industry giants HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Nor did Google spokespeople deny reports that it had more than a million of those servers in operation.) And it never welcomed outsiders to peer into its data centers.

In May, the impatient YouTube founders took out an ad in craigslist offering “hot” women $100 for every ten videos they’d post displaying their charms.They set up a series of meetings at the Denny’s in Redwood City, between Mountain View and YouTube headquarters in San Mateo. The YouTubers told Schmidt that their goal was to democratize the video experience online, and they felt that the idea resonated with him—after all, wasn’t that what Google wanted to do for the whole web?

as Eric Schmidt told a reporter when asked just how Google determines the application of its famous unofficial motto, “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.”

“Just tell me it’s not Google,” said Ballmer, according to Lucovsky’s sworn testimony. Lucovsky confirmed that it was indeed Google. Lucovsky testified that Ballmer went ballistic: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy! I’m going to fucking bury that guy! I have done it before and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” (The reference to having “done it before” seemed to refer to Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions during the browser war, when Schmidt was aligned with the Netscape forces.) For good measure, Ballmer threw a chair across the room, according to Lucovsky. (Ballmer would later say that Lucovsky’s account was exaggerated, but the CEO’s denials were not made under oath.)

With nowhere else to turn—and the economic downturn making the company a less attractive takeover target—Yahoo’s new CEO, former Autodesk head Carol Bartz, arranged to turn over Yahoo’s search business to Microsoft for a bargain price of a billion dollars. Microsoft got the main prize it had sought in the merger for barely 3 percent of its original offer.)

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