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Reflections on ‘In the Plex’

Posted July 11th, 2011 by Andrew Goodman

It’s always a bit tough to digest the latest Important Book on Google when you work in the industry. The concern is that you’ll be forced to rehearse and rehash warmed-over stories. And at times, these books make you want to exclaim: “Do you believe everything they tell you?”

Fortunately, Steven Levy has created such a rich, engaging portrait of Google’s development that these concerns melt away in the first chapters of In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. Having had the time to dig fully into it, here are some of the themes that really stood out for me:

  • Entrepreneurs-cum-pan-technologists like Page and Brin have a lot to teach other prospective entrepreneurs. It’s clear that in balancing outside input and media noise with a drive to create superior, groundbreaking products that elegantly solve problems, the latter needs to win out. Many of us might be distracted by the slightest little criticism, and go ’round in circles with non-fans, hoping to win them over, or worse, hear their naysaying point of view! New products and new ways of showing advertising will be inherently unfamiliar to the masses. Many objections will be of the knee-jerk variety. While Page and Brin both had exacting performance standards and were extremely critical of products until they were ready for prime time, when it came to buying into unusual concepts, they waved broader objections away (such as the notion that ads in GMail would be ‘creepy’) without so much as a thought.
  • That skill must get easier to master over time, mainly because many outsiders are not well-meaning, but either competitors, protectors of the status quo, or in many cases, idiots. Proposed California legislation against targeted advertising in email came from a Democrat who seemed to get randomly up in arms over any type of commercial offer, online or offline. It took some serious lobbying, and a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton with none other than Google Special Adviser Al Gore (plus post-it notes, hand puppets, etc.) to convince the legislator to water down the bill some. It never became law.
  • One error several recent Google book authors — Levy included — seem to drift into, is to credit Google with trends that are really inherent to the Internet, where Google’s solution came along and got adopted by many, but not *first*. Case in point being the concept of using “cloud” based email to take care of all your messages and to change one’s whole way of working. Personally, I moved exclusively to web-based email through Yahoo (down to having it manage all of my other email accounts) somewhere around 2002. I did switch to GMail early on, when it proved better. The point is that Hotmail and Yahoo Mail were much earlier, and Google soft-innovated and improved on them. But it did not invent the category, nor even pioneer the relevant user behavior. But because competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo had no momentum and even less cool factor, no one writes books about them. History is written by the victors, as always.
  • In “In the ‘Plex,” I learned that one of the early architects of the AdWords auction was an engineer from Sarnia, Ontario (where I lived for three years, and where my sister was born). The takeaway seems to be that if you can survive the toxic soils of Sarnia, you are at least a very special person, and possibly, superintelligent. There are quite a few Canadians lurking in the Google honor roll… so many, in fact, it’s difficult to keep track!
  • Back to GMail. Many people are aware of the bold move Google made to add virtually unlimited storage, based on an insight about Moore’s Law that should really have been available to anyone. But few would have known that Paul Buchheit wanted to create the application in Javascript, just because it was a challenge that might have a payoff if it worked well in the real world. This was seen as odd at the time, coming as it did before the widespread popularity of AJAX, a technology that greatly speeds up workflow for online applications (making them work more like a desktop app). In the Plex is chock full of stories like this: little nuggets that seem so familiar because they now form part of how we work and live our everyday lives. Without the freedom to come up with innovations like this, Google — and our daily working lives — simply wouldn’t be what they are today. This is why Buchheit still feels that Google is Awesome, despite moving onto other ventures.
  • Indeed, there are a couple hundred compelling, for-the-ages business stories lurking in the ‘Plex (literally the Plex, not just the book). To me, many of them are far more riveting than comparable yarns you’ll read about GE, Enron, or whatnot (on those, enjoy Christopher Byron, Testosterone, Inc.) Undoubtedly, that is because Google has created something — many things — of lasting value, to scale, in record time.

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