In In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, Steven Levy presents an insider’s viewpoint on Google’s development and growth over the years, from its earliest days as a start-up to the global force it is today. Throughout the book, Levy grapples with the questions which shaped Google’s expansion. Central to the book is the idea that Google is a company founded on a sincere desire to do good and on an enjoyment of play and discovery on the part of both Larry Page and Sersey Brin, characteristics which they sought and cultivated in their employees. As Google grew, however, the founders and the company as a whole faced challenges in retaining that essential mission and culture. Interestingly, Levy presents the conflict less as desire to do good against desire for money or growth, and more as the conflict well-intentioned individuals face when their actions and impulses have consequences amplified by the size and influence of a multinational corporation.
Levy begins by describing Google’s beginnings as the doctoral research of Page and Brin. He describes the technical underpinnings of PageRank and Search, Google’s original and core product, in a way that is understandable to non-technical readers, while retaining enough detail to allow readers to understand the potential ramifications of the design of search, and why it later would encounter challenges with privacy issues. Google’s approach to search, Levy explains, relied on collecting massive amounts of data to continually improve their engine, using information about when and where users clicked, how often they searched, what words they substituted or where they searched from to more accurately connect people to the information they were seeking.
Levy goes on to describe how Google, as he says, “cracked the code on internet profits”. The answer is surprisingly simple: advertisements. Google’s two main revenue sources (at least in its early days, although potentially not anymore) came from two advertisement programs, AdWords and AdSense. The first allows adverstisers to bid on key words to have their ads displayed when people search for that key word. The key was an online auction system, which made it possible for companies both massive and tiny to bid on key words, opening up advertising in a way that traditional golf, lunch, and handshake deals did not permit. The second program uses Google’s algorithms to extract key words from webpages, and then Google acts as a middleman for advertisers to place their content on related sites.
In subsequent chapters, Levy discusses various expansions and initiatives undertaken by Google, from building data centers, to Google phones and Android, to Google’s expansion to China. In each case, Levy addresses the beginnings of each project, and the considerations which motivated its evolution into the form that exists today. As someone who grew up with many of these products and services, it’s intriguing to read about how things I take for granted– like the ability to buy a phone independent of a service contract, for instance — were the direct result of choices Google made spurring an industry level change. Levy concludes by discussing how the Googley mentality translated– or failed to translate– to the government.
In-Depth: Don’t Be Evil: How Google Built Its Culture
In many ways, Google was a company that transformed an industry. Practices originally adopted by Google, such as abundant, quality free food on site, are now essentially industry standards. Yet these were by and large choices which were unconventional, even revolutionary. Levy notes that both Brin and Page were, as he puts it, Montessori kids: they attended Montessori schools early on, which emphasize freedom of choice for children and play as a form of learning. Levy asserts that it was this mentality which allowed Google to retain its unique culture as it expanded. Its founders showed a deep and abiding reluctance to do anything simply because that is how it has always been. From hiring a CEO to their IPO, the leading team at Google constantly asked why, and only made decisions once they had an answer.
As Google grew, its founders sought to retain its essential culture, both the generic freedom and agility of a start-up and the more quirky, fundamentally, uniquely Googley aspects. Levy quotes Page as saying that they “hired people like us”: they wanted people who were well-educated software engineers, but more than that, they wanted people who thought Googley. People who thought outside the box, and never stopped innovating. People who believe data trumps all.
One of the most radical choices Google’s founders made was a disinclination to adopt a traditional mangerial structure. Instead of looking for managers who could understand computer science, Google sought computer scientists who wanted to be CEOs one day, creating the role of associate product manager. Instead of wielding authority in design decisions, the APMs had to use data to persuage the engineers that their way really was better. Final deciding power remained with the Uber Tech Lead, an engineer.
Google’s entire model centered on giving really smart, motivated engineers the resources to innovate to their heart’s content. They hired the best talent, created a college-like atmosphere to fulfill almost any possible need on-site, and did their best to remove bureaucratic hurdles to ingenuity.
Levy continually emphasizes that Google’s motto, “Don’t Be Evil”, remained a central value of the company in its expansion, and that whatever the consequences, the choices Google made were by and large directed by a desire to remain true to that motto. The phrase was coined by Paul Buccheit in early discussions on Google’s cultural values, and came to define the company’s mission. It also became a weapon for Google’s critics to wield against the company whenever it failed to live up to the high standard it set.
In the Plex is a compelling, comprehensive look at Google’s birth, expansion, and culture. While no book can address everything about a company as large as Google, particularly when Google continues to develop and expand into new areas, Levy does an excellent job discussing a variety of different aspects and perspectives on the company. To me, the most intriguing part of the book was the chapter on data centers, because I suspect that this is the domain in which we have, to the greatest degree, yet to see the full extent of Google’s ambitions for the future. To me, Google’s decisive acquisition of data centers suggests a vision for expansion to new services and products, perhaps even new industries, that we as outsiders haven’t even dreamt of at this point. I would surprised if Google has completely realized this vision, but whatever it is, I’ll be interested to see what’s next.