11 May 2012

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Autobiography | Douglas Edwards

Sigh, it turns out that all I read in the last 11 days was three books. Either I'm slowing down, or the books are a lot fatter. (Hint: the latter).

I'm Feeling Lucky, subtitled The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, is a biographical look at the internet giant everyone loves to love. Douglas Edwards, who is almost sure he was Employee Number 59, or some number like that, joined Google when it was still a startup operating from a few rooms without proper interior decoration, and left it in 2007. In the meantime, he was the director in charge of customer communications, and wrote much of the text that is the public face of Google, including the help pages, and a few of the April Fools jokes. He interacted closely with several of the better-known people in Google, including the founders, Larry Page “When did we ever make a mistake?” and Sergey Brin, who would ask interviewees to explain to him something complicated that he didn't already know, the CEO Eric Schmidt who put his stamp on the company despite having to juggle these two, assorted engineering geniuses from Urs Holzle down, Jonathan Rosenberg, who tried to manage 80 odd people directly with some success, and Marissa Mayer with whom Edwards skirmished till the very last day (some of the sheer bitterness of the fight still seeps out despite the damning with faint praise), and survived the madhouse that is Google.

Does it describe Google with accuracy? Yup. Better than that other famous books about Google, like The Google Story and Search? Yup. Should every aspiring candidate applying to join Google with stars in their eyes read it? If they want.

See, the thing with Google is that it changes. All the time. Some brave souls are trying to implement six-sigma processes there even as I type. Haven't a snowball's chance; don't tell them though, they might just prove me wrong. Six-sigma needs stable processes. Har-de-har. Six-sigma needs a lot of data for the stats to work. Har-de-har. Google has more data than the tools and techniques of the statistics underlying six-sigma can handle. And Google interviewers keep trying to hire people smarter than themselves. Ever come across a smartie who could leave well alone? Especially an engineer? HAR-DE-HAR-HAR.

Well written, a personal story, accessible to most of the population who aren't Google-level engineers, this is Google as seen from the inside by a graduate in English, who learnt* marketing the traditional way, and relearned it the Google way. And lived to tell the tale.

Google is a big company now. It's no longer a startup, despite the entire management and most of the employees doing their best to retain the small-company attitude. Failed already. It's a huge company, and grows faster not only by hiring more, but by buying out companies with cool new tech. Things have changed since Edwards was there, even in just a few short years. You can still trust the company—mostly. You can still trust the founders—their intentions are good, even if the method to their madness is often not clear. But Google is no longer the teddy bear we knew and loved. Or at least, the teddy bear is big as a polar bear now. Does Google trim costs like it used to? Naah. The interiors of the offices are a geek's dream. As an employee there is fond of saying every time someone shakes their head at yet another over-the-top spend, “What's the name of the company? Huh?” The rest, depending on their mood, growl or crow: “Google!”

It's not the Google of old. With Facebook's IPO rising from the depths into the light of shallow water, a lot of people are looking to Facebook to be the new Google? Is Facebook the new Google? Nope. Google happens once a lifetime. If you're lucky, you get to touch it with your own very hands. And if you're Douglas Edwards, you live to tell the tale. I forgive him everything for the punny titles to the sections in the chapters.

Rating: 4 stars.

Perhaps I should induce employee number 36270 to write a book, too. Naah, outdated already.

* PS: Oh, yes, Google's employees will always spell that 'learned' instead.

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