Saturday, October 11, 2014

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

Title: How Google Works
Author: Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by the author. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is reward aplenty!

The only reason I'm rating this book positively is that I want as many people as possible to read it - not for what's overtly written, but for the corporate subtext, for the hypocrisy, and for the sheer gall of it.

I skipped the foreword, the introduction, whatever. If the writer doesn't think it's worth putting in chapter one, then this reviewer doesn't think it's worth reading. I went right to chapter one - which isn't identified as such, but seemed a likely candidate (maybe the book needs a good search engine?!).

There I was treated to a story which seemed to me to completely undermine the entire philosophy espoused in the rest of the book: Google co-founder Larry Page was sitting in his office trying out search terms to see what the Google ad generator came up with, and the ads really didn't apply to the search terms, thereby failing epically.

The conceit promoted by the writers in this book is that Page didn't call a meeting because Google has a different culture. He didn't sit around jawing about it. Instead, he used the stealth method to guilt people into fixing it. He wasted paper printing out the ads, highlighted the problems he found, and stuck them on the break-area bulletin board. By Monday, a handful of people working through the weekend had come-up with the first steps towards a solution. Meanwhile Page was home taking the weekend off. I know all about that corporate culture.

But contrast this with co-author Schmidt's statement in an interview here:

In the book, we mention the women we work with who have a terrible burden, if you will, of working in a start-up: it's intense, but then they also have the majority of the family duties, typically. Somehow, they're able to get through it with help and so forth. We observe in the book that, for example, they'll go quiet for a few hours while they're busy taking care of the family or whatever it is they're doing, and then they emerge at 11 o'clock at night, working hard to make sure that their responsibilities are taken care of.

Seriously? How is that corporate culture in any way, shape, or form better than what we find in every other business? The authors proclaim that this (Larry Page posting problems on the bulletin board for someone else to fix) was a huge success story, but it's actually a story of a failure - at least initially. It means that when the coding was put in place to achieve this objective to begin with, it was never properly tested - yet the product was turned out into the market-place.

Later we get the other side of this coin when the authors try to claim that it needs to be done right, not put out wrong to win market share and then incrementally fixed, which is the Microsoft corporate method. Lack of detail in following up this problem also suggests that this initial failure (and the reason underlying it) was never addressed - at least not according to what I read in this book. The authors seem to have a blind spot, conflating 'culture' with 'indentured servitude', and seem unaware that they're promoting what they perceive as successes and largely glossing over how they generated and fixed, or got past, failures. They seem not to grasp that the right culture will spontaneously arise when employees are treated like people instead of pack mules. You can't force it into place by posting print-outs on bulletin boards and then enjoying your weekend while other work their tails off for you.

David Packard may well have said (as the authors assert) that companies exist to do something worthwhile and make a contribution to society, but the bottom line for very nearly every corporation in the civilized world is the bottom line and that's tied to keeping shareholder or ownership happy. It's that simple. It doesn't mean they can't be decent places to work, but it does mean that profit will override decency every time, and this is an inescapable fact, because those companies which don't follow this rule go out of business.

It's funny that the authors contrast Packard's statement with one made by Lehman brothers - and then mention that the latter went out of business as if a poorly worded mission statement was completely to blame. Hewlett-Packard is still in business, but it's hardly an exemplar of stellar corporate conduct as the 2006 spy scandal showed.

The authors launch into a series of items claiming that these are what helps Google work better: crowded, messy conditions, rich, free snack rooms, and cafeterias with gourmet food (no word on healthy food, just on gourmet). While this might well work at Google, and Apple, and similar places, such conceits do not work in manufacturing because messy workplaces are dangerous workplaces, and companies which run on razor-thin margins simply cannot afford to splurge on luxuries even if they would love to.

Indeed, Google's culture flies in the face of very successful Japanese corporations who operate on precisely the opposite principles: ones built around cleanliness and orderliness. The authors indirectly admit this when they later praise Toyota, one of these very corporations! It's just downright insulting to imply, as these authors do on page 44, that if you can't cope with messiness, you're just stupid.

I found it interesting also on page 44 to read of Google's expanding product line, where every product was advertising! Not one of the things mentioned had to do with information storage and retrieval (unless you count advertising as such!). There's an interesting review of this book in Britain's The Guardian newspaper where Steven Poole points out a discrepancy between Google's 1996 The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine paper and their current tight focus on advertising. Google becomes an ad agency!

Of course it's easy to criticize. One reviewer took Google to task for having 70% of the corporation male, and 61% of it white, but that same reviewer never compared Google with other, similar, corporations. Is Google doing evil because other businesses have much more equitable percentages in those areas, or is it merely not doing good because it's on par with others? Maybe it's ahead of others and therefore while these statistics rather blow, Google isn't exactly the worst place to work? The reviewer is silent.

OTOH, it's easy to criticize when there's a lot to criticize. The author's comments on page 39 made me wonder why Google isn't based in Texas, where the 'work ethic' they espouse seems to fit precisely. They actually say that the best cultures invite people to be overworked - but in a good way!! Seriously? They don't say a word about how this "culture" responds when people need time off, or what checks and balances they have in place to prevent a culture of routinely overworking your employees (but in a good way) from getting out of hand.

I think it's wonderful that Google has confidence in overworking people and trusting that these people will know best how to squeeze in a hour or two of quality family time before the go back to slaving over a hot computer at midnight - probably barefoot and in the kitchen, close by the coffee machine, too. Then, when they're caught up on their work from eleven to one, they can no doubt grab a few hours of sleep before they get back into the office at six am. What a joyful work group that would be. This from the same authors who decried working from home because it doesn't work: people need to be able to reach over the wall of their tiny, messy cube and tap their colleague on the shoulder.

No wonder Google is happy to give their employees (oh sorry, are they called associates to make it more palatable?) 20% of their work week for their own projects. If they're already putting in sixty-six hours, including weekends - to meet the corporation's bottom line, what does Google lose by allowing the other sixteen hours of their overwork to go to waste - especially if it turns into a project that can net them even more cash to go towards their annual half trillion (or so) revenues (and for which the employee receives no bonus).

Yes, it's fine for working moms to be literally forced to work at home because they're forced to own this overwork they've been required to take on. I can't help but wonder why Schmidt and Rosenberg can espouse this about spouses without offering even a glimmer of a question about why it is that women are the ones bearing this burden instead of sharing it equally with men. Do they care? Or are they so far up the pay and benefits hierarchy that their own spouse doesn't actually need to work?

I mentioned earlier that a reviewer had remarked that Google's 'associates' (or whatever they're euphemistically termed without changing reality at all) are 70% male, but the reviewer never mentioned how pay compares between genders and interestingly, neither do the authors of this book. For all I know, Google is sterling in this regard, and better than comparable employers, but having seen the details of their "culture", I have to confess that I have my doubts.

The authors talk about employee day trips/team-building exercises like they're cheap and every company can afford them. Wrong. When the margins are slim, these things don't happen. When the economy downturns, these things are the first things to go. The bottom line rules and it always will, or the company goes bust. It's called capitalism.

On page 56, the authors discuss examples of corporations where senior employees have been observed doing "menial" tasks, such as picking up some errant trash they may have seen in the hallway, or wiping down a counter. Rightly or wrongly, do rest assured that this is the exception, not the rule, regardless of how it may be perceived by employees, but contrast this with Larry Page's behavior described in the opening paragraphs of this book: he perceives a problem, notifies no-one, sticks some printed pages on the bulletin board and goes home for the weekend. That's egalitarian? I have to mention how impressed I am: never in the field of human endeavor have so many contradictions been packed into so few many pages by so few!

The authors relate a story about Kevin Systrom. He had no degree in computer science and so was refused the chance to go into Google's Associate Product Manager program. Subsequently he left Google and founded Instagram. Google lost him through short-sightedness, and the authors admit this, but they also talk proudly about hiring the best computer scientists straight out of school - forget about experienced people, forget about gifted amateurs, go for young, inexperienced turkey cocks with degrees and hope they'll produce something innovative and magical! Hypocritical much?

I found it interesting that the authors quote Eric Schmidt's Novell experience such a lot since Novell went into a huge decline post 1995, and was eventually bought up by the Attachmate group. Of this, wikipedia says, Analysts commented that the primary reason for Novell's demise was linked to its channel strategy and mismanagement of channel partners under Eric Schmidt's leadership. Schmidt also worked at Sun, which declined from a 140 billion dollar industry to a seven billion dollar one by the time Oracle bought it up. I'm not sure how much of a recommendation that is for a business model.

Moreover, you won't find a word in here about Steve Jobs going ballistic at Schmidt over what he called "bait and switch" whereby Google came up with their own phone, and then changed it so that it looked very similar to Apple's iPhone. You'll have to read Steven Levy's In the Plex to get details of that. You can read a bit about it here. You can read more about it in Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs. You won't hear about it from Schmidt.

Here are some enlightening quotes all from a few pages:

We've both worked with young moms who go completely dark for a few hours in the evening. Then, around nine, the emails and chats start coming..." (culture means 'always on'!)
...if you're working your butt off without deriving any enjoyment, something's probably wrong." (not definitely, only probably!) (page 50)
Everyone's fun when they're dancing to Billy Idol and swigging an Anchor Steam." - page 50
(seriously? What age range does this company hire?)
...core beliefs: excellence in everything they do, superior customer service, and respect for the individual. - page 54
(if you have to spell these out, there's something wrong with your culture! I've noticed that that last one rapidly goes out the window when the corporation is having a - what's the pc term for it? Oh yes, Force reduction.
As Eric was leaving, an assistant brought Mark [Zuckerberg]'s dinner and placed it by his computer. There was no doubt where his commitment lay. - page 56
(to indentured servitude and chained to your work?)
...which translates from Hebrew as "Follow me". Anyone who aspires to lead a smart creatives needs to adopt this attitude. - page 56
(that everyone else is sheep? What happened to "smart creatives"?)
...the company's "Don't be evil" mantra..." - page 56
(why would a corporation which hires the best people it can, even need that as a mantra? One reviewer pointed out that there appears to be a discrepancy between this so-called 'mantra' and Google's activities in Europe where it is under repeated scrutiny from government overseers. The authors appear to admit that by recounting a meeting where an engineer had to quote this mantra because the corporation was ready to plow ahead with an advertising revenue scheme. Apparently no one had bothered to chant the mantra while thinking it up, and even when it was brought up by the engineer, it was still the subject of a "...long, sometimes contentious discussion..."! Apparently one person's evil is another one's stock-in-trade.
"...we won't presume to tell you how to create a business plan. But we can tell you with 100% certainty that if you have one, it is wrong." - page 58

In short I highly recommend this exercise in foot-in-mouth acrobatics. It's better than watching the clowns at the circus.

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