A Review: In The Plex by Steven Levy

Overview

The internet powerhouse Google is today starkly contrasts the small startup Larry Page and Sergey Brin began as students at Stanford. Initially, Google wasn’t supposed to be a company at all, but rather a research project investigating the possibilities of improving (or rather, making possible) web search. Ultimately, the founders’ mission was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In combination with a later adopted internal motto “Don’t be evil,” Google was defined by it’s dedication to the user, which would always be prioritized over profit margins.

As “Montessori kids” (121), challenging authority and status quo was ingrained in Page and Brin’s personalities. The company culture at Google stemmed from their common ability to think outside of the box in this manner. This is reflected in their initial reluctance for Google to make the shift from research to legitimate company, and their steadfast commitment to the mission to organize the world’s information to benefit the user. Prior to the bloom of the Google search engine, there was a conception that if a search did not return the best results, the user should have been more specific in his or her query. But to the optimistic founders of this new internet startup, “the user is never wrong” (24).

The name “Google” originates from the number googol, which is 10 to the power of 100. Similarly, a googolplex is a term referring to an unthinkably large number. While even initially this title seemed relevant, it became increasingly accurate as the amount of information available online continued to increase exponentially. Lucky for Brin and Page, accuracy in PageRank (their search algorithm) stemmed from growth of the web.  The algorithm required constant refinement, especially early on (for example, an early search of “running shoes” returned a garden gnome that happened to be wearing shoes). Ultimately, however, more sites meant more links, which gave more information to improve the quality of a search. As web search was the backbone of all innovation for Google, advancements in search continued to increase.

The majority of Google’s revenue stems from advertisements. Sticking true to its values, the “goal [of search ads] is to maximize the user experience, not maximize the revenue per search” (75). Google was eventually able to turn a profit anyway using advanced algorithms to give users the most useful ads and establish ad quality regulations to keep them happy and generate an optimal number of clicks. Critics also believed financial success would never stem from the Google acquisition of YouTube, however, as Youtube grew to become the second largest search engine in the world (behind google.com itself) and Google was able to integrate a similar ad platform into the video sharing site, Youtube eventually turned a profit as well.

A culture that breeds creativity and innovation

An interesting theme Levy highlights is the uniqueness within the atmosphere of the Plex. Google would not have achieved half as much without the aid of the unconventional culture established in Mountain View.

The company culture of defiance of convention was not only reflected in tech innovation, but also in the goofy, easy-going, yet committed precedent established by the early employees. In between work sessions where they sat atop physio balls, Page and Brin could be seen riding around the office on rollerblades. Pranks were not only applauded, but encouraged on April Fool’s day. The company thrived on open and regular communication. Employees were encouraged to harness their creativity, and it was company policy to devote 20% of one’s time to personal projects (though it became jokingly known as “120%” time, as employees tended to work on individual projects on top of a full week’s work). This hard work paid off, as employees enjoyed many perks, such as free food at gourmet cafes, free Google attire, and on-campus services like doctor visits and massages. When the company started expanding and these early employees needed to get serious about hiring recruits, “the Googliness factor” of a recruit’s personality, or his or her ability to mesh with the already established Google culture, was taken into consideration almost as much as his or her credentials.

The “Googly” atmosphere was driven by startup ambition, and even as Google grew to a mature company, the values of progressive thinking and creative engineering with the user in the driver’s seat was constant. This reluctance to shift out of the startup mindset did have a downside, however. As Google grew to a multibillion dollar company with tens of thousands of employees, it was subject to a smaller microscope than it was accustomed. Legal issues involving privacy disputes, alleged copyright infringements, antitrust problems, and monopoly accusations were inevitable. In 2009, Google’s legal department alone had 300 employees. While employees and other progressive tech thinkers saw only value with collection of individual data to enhance the user experience, many viewed the “frightening amount of information under [Google’s] control” (343) as spooky and dangerous. Nevertheless, Google remained loyal to its mission to organize the world’s information, even when potentially controversial socially or legally.

One of the biggest tests to Google’s values came with expansion into China. The Chinese government censored the Chinese translation of google.com, and the only way for the company to be present in the country was to provide a censored search engine with google.cn. This provided a deep dilemma for a company who valued the universal existence of unbiased, unobscured information above all else. Google opted to abide by the government’s demands, believing that providing zero information to the entirety of China was worse than providing censored information. Ultimately, Google stuck true to values and lifted the censor of google.cn with the understanding that the Chinese government could revoke their license. Lucky for Google, the government opted to just censor web search on its own. So, though search results weren’t completely organic, Google itself was not doing the censorship evil anymore.

The impact of company culture on innovation is what drove Google to the financial success it has enjoyed for over a decade, and mission success it has enjoyed since its conception. After reading this book, I have a greater appreciation for the importance of company customs and values and will definitely be comparing and contrasting the cultures of the companies we meet with on our trip to Silicon Valley.

Final Thoughts

It was incredibly interesting to read an in depth account of Google’s history from a close-to insider’s perspective. Steven Levy wrote his account of Google’s growth from startup to internet behemoth in a captivating way. In the cases of legal and social controversy, however, it would have been interesting to compare the Google perspective with a more first-hand perspective from the opposition. It was not drastic, but there was definitely a Google-leaning bias in these situations (which is natural, as Levy is privy to this insider’s view). Ultimately, I would highly recommend this book to those interested in the development of startups, evolution of technology, or in the company of Google, itself.

3 thoughts on “A Review: In The Plex by Steven Levy

  1. Nice summary! I definitely see a lot overlap with the book I read, “I’m Feeling Lucky Confessions of Google Employee Number 59” which was written by a former employee, also an insider! A lot of the visual details and information about the company’s beginnings were the same. The “Googliness” factor certainly played a huge role in the company’s success and changed the way the tech industry thinks about company culture and values. I would be interested to read more about the downsides that were mentioned in “In the Plex” and compare and contrast the two books!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice summary of the book. I’ve read this one, and I had a similar impression as you did. I really wish it was a bit more timely to account for more recent developments, but we’ll probably get a bunch of that in the class already. I think you’ll appreciate the trip to Google that much more having read this book. I think I read this one just after I visited on Tech Trek the first time about 5-6 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the summary! It really is great to see a company enjoy such financial success because of their understanding of how important it is to take care of their employees. Its also kind of comforting knowing that a company as powerful as Google does take extraordinary pride in maintaining ethical standards. Easily the company I’m most excited to visit this March!

    Like

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