By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)
What happens when you take a bunch of engineers, put them in charge of the company and don’t give them any business guidance except “Question everything”? Nine times out of ten, you get anarchy. The tenth time you get Google, the company that has defined digital (and mainstream) culture for the past decade and quite possibly the most successful startup of all time.
Ken Auletta, the NEW YORKER’s masterful media columnist tries to decipher the magic formula that built this digital phenomenon in his new book GOOGLED. It’s a comprehensive and in-depth look at a company that’s barely a decade old. Auletta was given complete insider access to the company and all it’s principals and the result is a multi-faceted profile of the search giant.
What’s most refreshing about the book is Auletta’s objective perspective. Unlike other “traditional” print journalists, Auletta does not start from an assumption that the digital world (and by extension Google) is an evil force that has sabotaged the media world. In fact, in one passage Auletta notes “If Google is destroying or weakening old business models, it is because the Internet inevitably destroys old ways of doing things, spurs ‘creative destruction’. This does not mean that Google is not ambitious to grow, and will not grow at the expense of others.”
There’s a lot for developers and development firms to take away from this volume. Auletta spends a substantial amount of time on Google’s “20% policy” and notes the numerous technological innovations like Gmail and Google News that have been created due to that effort. He also dives in to Google’s famous benefits policies (massages, gourmet food, etc.) and explains how Google’s founders wanted to insure their engineers weren’t distracted from their efforts and were working in the most creative environment possible. It’s hard to argue with the results, isn’t it?
But Auletta also doesn’t shy away from the downside of an engineering driven culture. Google’s insensitivity towards privacy concerns and it’s somewhat naïve approach to Washington and the EU are just two examples of the company’s siloed approach backfiring on them. He also cleverly notes that Google’s famous motto “Don’t be evil.” Leaves a lot of room for interpretation. After all, in Google’s mind, making all the world’s data available online is a noble effort. The Author’s Guild, privacy advocates and many others have taken a somewhat different view. The binary world of computer engineers often is at odds with the numerous shades of gray we deal with in the real world.
Ultimately, Auletta identifies the key component to Google’s success – the trust of its customers. Trust in the quality of Google’s search results. Trust that the ads they sell are relevant to their users. And trust that they can give Google some of their most private information and that the company won’t “be evil”.
It’s a powerful lesson for anyone creating digital projects. The best design and the most powerful technologies are still dependent on human relationships and positive perceptions for success. And they probably always will be.
Take the time to read Auletta’s fascinating account of what could be the world’s first $100 billion dollar company and ask yourself, “What can I learn from Google?”