How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, book review

This voyeuristic view of the birth and rise of Google is absorbing if lacking in depth

Max Wallis
Thursday 11 September 2014 15:05
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The world's lodestar: Google headquarters in Mount View, California
The world's lodestar: Google headquarters in Mount View, California

In its 16 years of life, Google has gone from a three-man operation working from a garage in Menlo Park, California, to a colossus worth $300bn, employing 52,000 people worldwide.

Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin often get the laurels for the mind-bending success of the company, but behind them, standing in the wings, are Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, the authors of this book and, in large part, the success of the company itself.

Arriving in Mountain View, Silicon Valley, in the early 2000s as seasoned executives with a brief to bring order to, what they call "the chaotic place" – they found their well-worn management models fell flat. To manage the Googleplex's "smart creatives" they would need new maxims. Here, over 286 pages, is the codex of those ideas.

Inevitably, a lot of the book is concerned with abstruse management strategies but there is much besides to fascinate the general reader, too. For it allows us to go behind the net curtains and see inside an organisation that most of us never interact with save for pressing "Enter" on Google search. It can be absorbing: take, for example, the revelation that some in the company consider it to be "post-gay", blind to all differences including sexual orientation. Laudable, of course. But what you won't find is a nod to the fact that 70 per cent of the company is male, or that 61 per cent of it is white. Necessarily, the book only gives a partial, Google-friendly view.

There is lots of occluding management speak in the book, but amid such zirconia, you find diamonds. One particularly arresting anecdote relates to the search engine's foray into China. After setting up shop in Beijing, Google found its US operations under cyber-attack from Chinese soil. Their response was forthright: they said they would remove the censorship the Chinese had insisted on. In the event, after some to-ing and fro-ing they pulled out altogether. They lost the battle, but facing off with the world's second most powerful nation shows both their gall and how the company sees its place in the world.

While the authors are magnanimous in enumerating Google's failed ventures – Notebook? Wave? PigeonRank? You don't remember them for a reason – on the meaty questions of tax, or of privacy and civil liberties, for which the company is criticised, they are quiet, and to an extent that is not surprising.

How Google Works comes at a time when we have access to an Alexandrian library of information at the click of a mouse. Google is the web's lodestar, a driving light in the murky skies of the net. Although it might not delve deep into the philosophy of the company, or provide us with its world view in any depth, what it does do is provide us with a blinking view of what it is to work at one of the world's most successful companies. For that voyeuristic reason alone, it is worth reading.

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