In The Plex – Book Report


in the plex

Named after the mathematical term googol, which referred to the number 1 followed by 100 zeros, Google has changed the way the world accesses information on the world wide web. The founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, grew up as Montessori kids, which has allowed them to pursue what interests them and do things that make sense, rather than because some authority instructed them to do so (122). LarryAndSergey (13) transformed the Internet by taking advantage of the infinite database that holds an ever-expanding universe of human knowledge. Their mission was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, which would later be combined with its mantra, “Don’t be evil”.

Larry and Sergey

Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin (right) when they were young

Initially known as BackRub, Google stemmed from the founders’ interest in optimizing the search engine by ranking the relevance of search results. PageRank was the search algorithm that turned a dorm room research project into a powerful tool. BackRub was turned down by many companies, but the founders’ ultimate goal was not to make a lot of money, but to create a product that will be popularly used (30). As the web grew, advancements in the system were continually made. The Stanford research project proved to be widely successful on campus. It was handling as many as 10,000 queries a day, causing large consumption of Stanford’s Internet capacity. It became clear that more equipment will be needed as Google continued to grow. Finally, the founders filed for incorporation and worked out of Susan Wojcicki’s garage. From the very beginning, the founders would exercise an elitist approach to hiring, only selecting those who have both the high intelligence and the “googley” personality. New ideas would emerge from Google’s early, growing team and improvements to their product would be made on a regular basis. People wanted to work for Google even during its early stages when the tech start-up was still in working stages and did not generate profit, because they knew it was going to be a disruptive innovation.

Although funds were low and the company struggled with a “tight-pocketbook policy” (83) in 2001, the breakthrough for Google came when it cracked the code on internet profit. The company generated so much revenue from their ad system that “it became the lifeblood of Google, funding every new idea and innovation the company conceived thereafter” (83). AdWords was created by Eric Veach, a Google engineer who would reinvent the Vickery second-bid auction from scratch. The ad auction “eliminated the fear of ‘winner’s remorse’” (90) by allowing the highest bidder to pay the second highest bid. Besides its implementation of this popular system, Google’s advertising strategies stood out for its demand on ad quality. AdWords Select, an updated version of AdWords, would become “a built-in function to regulate ad quality”, and it would directly impact the results of auctions. Google once again reiterated its emphasis on user experience rather than revenue maximization.

Throughout the years, Google’s engineers continued to work on major products such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive, and Google Books. Some of these projects were successful, and some weren’t, such as Orkut (Google’s attempt to build a social media site). What encouraged the creation of these innovative products was the company’s “20 percent rule”. It states that “employees can devote one day a week, or the equivalent, to a project of their choosing, as opposed to something imposed by a manager or boss”(124). This is a clear example of how the founders integrated their “Montessori” upbringing into the overall company culture. As Urs Hölzle, Google’s 8th employee, would describe the culture, “We designed Google to be the kind of place where the kind of people we wanted to work here would work for free” (125).

google motto.jpg


Take a look around any of the Google campuses, and you’ll find sawhorse desks, physio balls, scooters, roller blades, cafés, gourmet cafeterias, and playrooms. The whole place is modeled after the American university system. Employees are pampered with free food (it’s estimated that Google spends a total of about $80 million a year for free food (134)), immediate access to essential equipment such as stationery and chargers, massage services, housekeeping services, transportation, and more. The logic behind this was to remove any impediments to productivity. “You feel good about being here. And that’s what’s Googley” (132).

google office.jpg

The founders’ playful yet intimidating personalities created a culture that balances both work and play. However, outside of Google, the googliness has brought upon confusion and consequences. For instance, when Brin and Page presented Google to potential investors before their IPO, they introduced themselves by first names and dressed in casual clothing. The presentation deemed too idealistic to investors because Google made it clear that it was “willing to forgo some profits” in order to fulfill its long-term goal of  “providing a greater service to the world and doing things that matter” (150). As a result, their opening price fell from the expected $135 per share to $85 per share. Another practice that is unique to Google’s culture was the way they celebrate April Fool’s Day. When Gmail was ready to be launched, the founders intentionally announced the product on April 1st, causing massive confusion over whether the product was a hoax. There would be many more products that will be released on April Fool’s Day.

As the company began to expand internationally, it had a tough time with the Chinese government. Google, known as GuGe (translates to “Valley Song”) in China, battled with the government’s strict censorship policies. The Chinese government required the search engine be censored according to what they considered as appropriate information. For instance, the issues with Falun Gong and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre were controversial topics that the government did not want its citizens to have dissenting opinions on. Any websites and services that would provide messages that are in opposition with the government’s propaganda were frowned upon by Chinese officials. Because Google was insistent on having a presence in China, it complied with the rules but faced a backlash in the states. The company’s business motto was to not be evil, but what it was doing in China was encouraging censorship. Google promised “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible” yet it was not abiding by its core value in China. Eventually, the company stopped fiddling with the search results and decided to do the right thing. The government would censor the web search itself rather than forcing Google to censor the search engine.

My Review

In The Plex by Steven Levy provides an in-depth history of how Google operates, its unique culture, innovative projects, and its worldwide impact. There are parts of the book that will make you laugh and parts that will leave you shocked. Author Levy takes the readers on a journey to explore every aspect of Google.

It was fascinating to learn about how a dorm room research project is now a multi-billion dollar company. As a student who relies heavily on Google products such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, and Google Drive, I now have a deeper appreciation for these daily necessities. I am very excited to visit Google with the class in the Fall and can’t wait to look behind the scenes of how different tech companies operate.


3 thoughts on “In The Plex – Book Report

  1. This book seems like a great read! I loved hearing about the beginning stages of Google, especially that many of its features started as a dorm projects. It is exciting that they maintained their high standards for employees even as a small company, and they care about their employees’ passions for other innovative projects with the “20 percent rule.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great summary! After visiting Google’s campus last year, it’s interesting to read about their “don’t be evil” mantra and the culture of work and play having seen manifestations of that in person (including a ball pit!). As you mentioned, Google had plenty of trouble capturing market share in China and Baidu has been able to capture 80%+ market share as a result. That being said, Google has certainly cracked the code to internet profits and I’m excited to see what the next development in the G Suite will be!

    Liked by 1 person

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