Google

In the Plex – How Google thinks, works and shapes our lives

I’ve just completed reading Steven Levy’s book about Google which was started by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996 – a year after I started my first company. One of my developers mentioned Google to me in passing in 1999 just two years after the domain was registered and said that it gave much better results than the other search engines (e.g. Alta Vista, Yahoo, etc.) of the day. It was true. And I’ve been watching and marvelling at the growth ever since.

I was amazed how quickly the Google website responded to queries and thought that they must have a lot of servers in a lot of locations around the world to service the requests so quickly. Reading Levy’s book I discovered just how many servers – at one point they were the biggest PC manufacturer in the world (bigger than HP, Dell and Lenovo) and that they had over 24 facilities in 2009 probably with 100,000 of servers in each (Google keeps a lot of things secret so this is pretty much a guess). Google pioneered robust computing – developing Hadoop as a storage system that worked even if hard disks, computers or networks failed. The massive compute and storage facility allowed them to use global search histories to improve results on queries even though 30% of searches are “virgin”.

Coming from a Montessori and research background the founders created an atmosphere at Google that is very different from many other companies – the use of colour and recreation facilities are the well-publicised face of this. The real difference is the challenge and discourse of equals and an environment where agreement with the prevailing group is not a required for success. Continued education was not just a term; Google invited amazing guest speakers such as novelist Salman Rushdie, economist Jeffrey Sachs, journalist Bob Woodward and U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain amongst many others. In fact, I was surprised just how well connected Google is into the political and ruling class in America. Al Gore was an advisor and they had strong links with Barak Obama.

The different atmosphere is something I would have appreciated when I moved from an academic environment to the commercial environment and started at Logica (now CGI Group). In Logica in the 1990s you did what you were told, received no training and were supposed to switch off at 17:30…

The speed of innovation and idea generation is amazing. Success or failure of projects depended upon hard evidence of use by customers and users. It’s an engineering approach and I’m an engineer so it is obvious to me but clearly not so obvious to many others. How many innovations have you heard of? Adwords; Google Maps; Chrome; Translation System; Google Car; Android; Search (no pornography); Gmail; OCR; Google Glasses; Street View; are just a few. Heard of Google Authors – no? It’s gone! Engineers just got on with producing something; testing whether people used it; and refining the product – survival of the fittest – Lean Commercialisation in fact. As Levy says: “You can’t dwell on problems too early or they will swamp the virtues and you will decide not to do the project.”

Everyone should have at least one small paradox: Even though Google is all about evidence-driven decision making, they still depended upon “Grade score averages” when it came to employment even after their own internal evidence showed poor correlation to successful employment.

Page and Brin are undoubtedly brilliant but to be so successful one also needs luck and the ability to realise and exploit that luck when it occurs. For example early on they exploited the way Telco’s billed for bandwidth to reduce their network costs to near zero and there was a ready pool of very talented people available close by.

Steven Levy’s book is an excellent read, I enjoyed his style and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know how Google grew so quickly.

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