Insiders’ Account

How Google Works: Eric Schmidt  & Jonathan Rosenberg

How Google works. Who won’t like to know? But when you take in the fact that the book is written by the duo who are still involved in the active management of the company you expect it to be, at worst, a PR exercise, and at best, an insiders’ account leaving out the unsavoury details. As it turns out it is a bit of both.

So what makes Google tick? Central to the working of Google’s success is the concept of ‘ smart creatives’ – who are basically engineers with a broader perspective and mental bandwidth than that of your typical engineer. (But your average business school graduate is a strict no no.) As per Eric and Jonathan, it is the smart creatives who are going to create the next big thing critical to the survival and growth of your company in the post-Internet era. The way to retain these dynamos of innovation is not by paying more but by giving them the space to work at things they love and the opportunity to create products that have large-scale impact.

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Since it is best to leave the smart creatives alone to do pretty much what they want to do, hiring the right persons is the key. The hiring process at Google is rigorous and is explained at length in the book. The personal interview rather than one’s SAT score is the best way to gauge a person’s talent and passion, Google believes. A candidate goes through at least five rounds of interviews (brought down from thirty at one stage). Hiring is done by a diverse and large peer group rather than one individual or a dedicated recruitment department.

Eric and Jonathan mock the typical vison and mission statements of companies and offer their own: Don’t be evil – which of course can be as easily lampooned. There are more commandments from the gods of Google : Decide by data, Focus on the customer, and most importantly ‘ Think big’, which evolves to more specific ‘Think 10X’. The adjunct to the last dictum is ‘ Imagine the unimaginable.’ To give Google its due it cannot be accused of not practicing what it preaches. For Google, it is not enough to digitize a set of books or a library, it has to digitize all the books ever published. While others are likely to ask, “Cars that drive themselves couldn’t actually happen, could it?”Google can’t imagine it not happening. Then there is the Project Loon, one that plans to use helium balloons to offer broadband Internet access to the 5 billion people that don’t yet have it.

Innovation, quite naturally, is a highly valued currency at Google. But the authors aren’t too enthused by the idea of Chief Innovation Officers who “will never have enough power to create a primordial ooze ( and only the ooze will lead to ‘ ahhhs’). In other words it is the CEO who must double as the CIO.

Talking of innovation there are interesting narratives on how some of the important developments at Google actually happened  – and not all of these used a lot of money, proving the authors’ contention that too much money often kills creativity.   ‘Google Suggest’, the feature that prompts what you are searching for even as you are typing the first few letters, was developed in an engineer’s  20% time –  the time that engineers at Google use to work on projects of their own choosing without any accountability.   To check if digitization of all books in the world was possible, Google founder Larry Page bought a cheap digital camera, set it up on a tripod and made senior executive Marissa Meyer turn the pages of a book. Sergey Brin, Google’s other founder, employed a similar low-tech mode to check the feasibility of Google Street View -   he took a drive around town with a camera and snapped a photo every few seconds.

Quite expectedly, Google’s failures like Wave, Buzz, Google Reader and its acquisition of Motorola are mentioned but not discussed in detail. ‘Fail well’ is the slogan that is used to brush these episodes away.  Untouched is also the reasons that  led to the reinstatement of Larry and Sergey in CEO’s  chairs  10 years after Eric was recruited in the position to provide ‘ adult supervision’ to the company founded by the duo in their 20s. The legal wrangle with Apple (a company and whose founder Steve Jobs Eric openly admires in the book) concerning IP infringement of iPhone by Android OS is glossed over. And the faith in the ability of technology to solve all the world’s problems, expressed towards end of the book in the segment outlining the author’s vision of the future s, sounds somewhat naïve.

But you won’t have much to complain if you are looking to get a close view of the working of this cult organization even if it is through rose-tinted Google glasses.

(This was originally published in the Sunday Book Review section of the Deccan Herald.)

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