For all of the information that Google gives us about the world around us, getting information about Google itself is extremely difficult. Part of that is because its founders don’t have a whole lot of interest in spending time with the media telling Google’s story (they’d rather work on changing on the planet) and part of it is because Google is organized in a very untraditional way. As a result, it’s hard to get a handle on how Google operates and why it does the things it does. Thankfully (and surprisingly), Steven Levy that pulls the curtain on the wizards at Google.
Over a two-year period, Levy got unprecedented access to people, places, and meetings at the Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. The fruit of that labor is a new book called In the Plex that does a deep dive on how Google become Google, how it made its fortune, the ambitious culture inside the company, the moral dilemma in China, Google’s relationship with governments, and the aggressive expansion into new frontiers of information.
Levy is currently doing a speaking tour about In the Plex, and I caught up with him on April 26 at his stop in Louisville, Kentucky. Below are some of the highlights that I took away from Levy about his book and his general impressions of Google.
- Early on, co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin made a list of all the smartest and most influential people in computer science and then went down the list and tried to hire every one of them.
- Once Page and Brin hired a bunch of smart people, they set them on the mission of turning what they had originally created at Google into an artificial intelligence learning machine.
- When Google created its AdWords and AdSense programs, it hired a bunch of statisticians and mathematicians in order to predict user behaviors of times, days, and events that will people will be doing different types of searches. This information is a critical part of the auctions for various ads.
- When the company went public, the Google co-founders forcefully told investors that sometimes they would forgo profits to do the right thing for humanity, and Levy saw this action in multiple ways during his behind-the-scenes stint st Google.
- In 2004, Bill Gates told Levy that spam would disappear in about a year. At that same meeting, Levy told Gates about how he was now using Gmail because of its huge storage limits and told him how much data he had in his Gmail account. Gates started going off about how Google wasn’t compressing the data correctly and was using way too much storage for the number of messages. Levy said Gates was stuck in the old paradigm where storage costs were expensive. With inexpensive storage, Google could offer virtually unlimited storage (with minimal compression) and totally change the game.
- When Google launched Gmail, a lot of users freaked out about contextual ads that matched subjects in their emails because they thought it meant that people at Google were reading their messages. Google was perplexed by this because they thought it would be apparent to people that it was just a computer doing the matching. Levy cited this as the beginning of Google’s privacy problems and associated it as a pitfall of the engineering mentality at Google.
- One of the holy grails that Google is working on is “zero query search” where Google can anticipate that you’ll want a search and give it to you before you ask for it. This could be location-based where you look at a building or based on past regular behaviors, for example.
- Levy called Page, who recently returned to the CEO job, a “very unusual” and “very ambitious” guy. Levy said Page is ambitious in the good sense of the word –he wants to accomplish big things. In fact, Page told Levy that in these amazing times he’s surprised that people aren’t more ambitious because there are so many possibilities for doing things that have never been done before.
- Google calls its big, ambitious projects “moonshots.” Two examples are its experiments with self-driving cars (using what it’s learned about artificial intelligence) and Google Books.
- Page and Brin continue to be stunned by the negative reactions and lawsuits surrounding Google Books. They sincerely see this as something that Google is doing for the good of humanity.
- “Google is a failure machine,” Levy said. You see that in the millions of computers that it builds itself to run its data centers. The hardware and software are engineered so that if a machine fails, the whole server farm keeps running without even a minor blip. You also see it in the way Google allows its employees to try lots of different projects and many of them fail. Google leaders believe that if they aren’t having enough failures then they aren’t taking enough risks.
- In most companies, the job of the lawyers is to say, “no.” That’s not the case at Google, according to Levy. At Google, the job of the lawyers is to figure out how to say “yes” to the things that Page and Brin want to do.
- Levy’s favorite part of the book is the chapter on China. While Google went into China in order to help change China for the better, Levy believes that China changed Google more than Google changed China.
- “Emerald Sea” is the codename for Google’s big social initiative, likely coming this year. The name comes from an Albert Bierstadt painting of a ship engulfed by a huge wave. Google used this to symbolize the idea of either riding the social wave or getting drowned by it.
- “Google is very worried about Facebook. It’s going through a Facebook panic right now,” Levy said. “It drives Google insane that there’s all this valuable information [in Facebook] that it can’t use.”