When folk singer Bob Dylan faced cries of “Judas” for playing an electric guitar during his 1966 world tour, he famously turned to his band and told them to “play it f*cking loud”.
Three decades later that same attitude would propel Google to become one of the world’s largest internet companies, with an annual turnover of more than $30bn.
The analogy between Google and Dylan comes from Douglas Edwards who, as one of Google’s early employees, found himself expected to “play f*cking loud”, no matter how much Google’s business strategy flew in the face of accepted wisdom.
Edwards was employee number 59, joining Google’s marketing team in 1999 – just three years after Stanford engineering graduates Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided to turn their PhD research project into a Silicon Valley start-up.
Specifically, it’s Page that Edwards compares to Dylan – linking the men through their unquestioning belief that they are doing the right thing and their conviction that the rest of the world will fall in step behind them.
“That’s Larry Page – if people don’t get it, he knows he’s right and he just turns to the band and says, ‘Play f*cking loud’,” said Edwards, whose book on the company’s early days, I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, was published last month.
‘Just do it’ was Google’s modus operandi in those early days – get an idea out the door and then test it to see if it works, no matter how many people told you it couldn’t be done.
This iconoclastic approach allowed Google to squeeze operating costs extremely tightly – cramming 1,500 servers into a datacentre cage that normally held 50 machines – and to adopt new business models – such as selling user-generated ads against search keywords – that secured its multibillion-dollar ad revenues.
During Edwards’ six years with Google, the moment that perhaps best embodies the company’s refusal to set limits on what it could achieve was its decision in 2000 to…
…provide search results to Yahoo, whose size at the time far outstripped that of the fledgling Google.
Agreeing to serve Yahoo meant upgrading Google’s systems to handle a tenfold increase in visitor traffic at a time when the company was also expanding the number of sites it indexed from millions to one billion – all which had to be achieved within months.
Yet Google pulled it off, and Edwards writes about the exponential growth in traffic and revenue as the company bested each major challenge thrown at it – by dint of ingenuity, self reliance and the willingness of its staff to forgo sleep.
Working at the Googleplex
Google’s perks are well known. During Edwards’ time at the company, they were extraordinary even by Silicon Valley’s standards – the masseurs, the company doctor, company car wash, hairdressers, free breakfast, lunch and dinner cooked by the ex-chef to the Grateful Dead, games consoles, free soft drinks, sweets, new tech kit available on demand – the list goes on.
But there was a reason Google provided so many everyday necessities on site – working at Google was a 24/7 commitment, with Edwards typically arriving at the Googleplex at the crack of dawn and working late into the night.
“They reduce the friction of everyday life, of having to go out to get a doctor’s appointment for a physical or to get your car washed,” Edwards said.
“I know people who didn’t go shopping for years because their every meal was at Google – think how much time that saves.
“If they could have put dormitories into the building, people would have lived there.
“Google tried to smooth over all those things that slow you down during everyday existence so you could move more smoothly through the day – what that meant was that you were freed up with more time to engage with projects at work.”
Having to learn everything afresh
Upon entering Google from the corporate world, Edwards found himself having to reassess everything he learnt as a marketing executive for the San Jose Mercury News.
As well as adjusting to the flat corporate structure, where “ideas ruled over age or experience”, Page and Brin had a wilful disregard for traditional ideas of how a business should be run.
Edwards writes of his horror at…
…Page’s idea to serve unscreened, customer-created ads next to search results, fearing it would unleash offensive content that would damage Google’s brand, only to see the AdWords programme become the main source of Google’s billion-dollar advertising revenues.
Another Google success that Edwards was set against were the Google Doodles, the sketches that adorn the Google logo to mark special occasions, as he was anxious about their effect on brand identity.
“I learned to be receptive to alternatives, and not just to assume that conventional wisdom is the best practice because that’s the way people have always done it,” he said.
“Too many organisations feel like they’re being innovative when they make an incremental change. What Google taught me is, why make an incremental change when you can change the entire industry?”
Keeping this iconoclastic approach from descending into anarchy is Google’s love affair with data. Edwards said every idea needs to be backed up with hard data to show why it is the best option and why it has been a success.
“There was always the sense that the most important thing to do is to get real, not theoretical, feedback and to not get lost in the debate about product features,” Edwards said.
“It was about trying something, and what went hand in glove with that was that if you tried something and it was the wrong thing then there was a willingness to kill it.”
If the data looks bad then no idea is too big to fail, Edwards said – whether it is Page’s idea for an affiliate scheme that failed to drive traffic in the late 1990s or the now defunct collaboration platform Google Wave.
“I found it quite refreshing after having been at a company where you took years to plan and launch something and, regardless of the feedback you got in the market, you just kept it out there because you spent so much time building it,” he said.
Computer says no
Of course, the flip side of reducing every decision to an algorithm, where X has to be greater than Y for Z to be a success, is that not every factor can easily be measured and assigned a value.
As someone whose job involved manipulating sentiment, not code, Edwards argued that data shouldn’t always win the day.
“This was at the heart of some of the issues I had with the company, because I was always a believer that…
…there are some things that cannot be quantified – for example, what is the quantifiable value of an April Fool’s joke or of language that we would use to describe the products? The emotional connection people have with a brand is not something you can always reduce to a number,” he said.
The need to validate every decision with data can also slow progress to a crawl. In 2009, ex-Google designer Douglas Bowman criticised the constraints of having to work for a company that, when trying to decide which shade of blue will work best on a web page, tests 41 variations of the two shades to see which one performs better.
Edwards believes it is Google’s tendency to dance to the tune of the data that leads the company to occasionally make decisions without considering the wider repercussions, offering the example of how Google initially allowed the IM service Google Buzz to automatically import people’s contacts from their Gmail account.
“The numbers will tell you we’ve saved years of human productivity by doing this but, of course, people object to having their contacts exposed to the entire world,” he said.
And the furore over Google’s conduct over the years doesn’t stop with its launch of Buzz. The company has repeatedly found itself embroiled in controversy – from the legal action prompted by its book-scanning project to the privacy outcry following the inadvertent collection of wi-fi traffic by its Google Streetview cars.
The data-driven mindset that leads Google to stumble into these brouhahas stems from Page and Brin creating Google in their own image, Edwards said, populating the Googleplex with “too many rational people and not enough irrational people, when the rest of the world is the reverse of that”.
“I think they’re puzzled by what they would view as an irrational response to their products,” he said.
“Look at book-scanning. To Larry and Sergey, you’re going to improve the world’s understanding by scanning every book and making all of this knowledge accessible. You don’t even need to ask permission because clearly everybody’s going to view this as a good thing – we’re increasing the sum total of human knowledge,” he said.
For Edwards, one of the biggest sources of job frustration in the early days of Google came down to…
…problems with communication – the founders’ inability to clearly communicate their latest grand vision to the rest of the company.
In the book, Edwards recounts how Brin once rejected an ad campaign saying simply, “You need to think about it some more” and, when asked to clarify what he didn’t like about it, simply repeated the statement.
“Larry and Sergey never seemed to feel it was worth their time to put the effort into explaining what they were doing. [Their attitude was] it was so self-evident that you should be able to figure it out for yourself,” Edwards said.
For Edwards, the appointment of Eric Schmidt as CEO in 2001, a role he has since stepped down from, relieved some of the frustration of trying to second-guess his bosses’ grand plan.
“When Eric Schmidt came in he added this layer of transparency. In the book I call him a good UI for the employees in the company [to what Page and Brin were thinking]. Eric was much more adept at internal communications and communication with the outside world,” he said.
What it means to have worked at Google
Google might not have been the easiest company to work for but, the way Edwards describes it, life was rarely dull – where else would one of the company co-founders interrupt a meeting to suggest discussing space tethers?
“It’s a cliché but the thing I’ll miss the most is the conversations I had with the people there – the notion that you could start talking to anybody and learn something,” Edwards said.
When he left the company in 2005, Edwards departed with far more than just fond memories of his co-workers, however.
Not long after joining, Edwards was given the chance to buy stock in Google, and he decided to invest at the price of 20 cents a share. Today, shares in Google sell for more than $600 each.
He won’t specify how much money he walked away with, preferring instead to simply say: “I made enough that I’m able to select the projects that I work on going forward.”
If anyone has earned the right to title their book I’m Feeling Lucky, it’s Edwards.