Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Google Way: How One Company is Revolutionizing Management As We Know It

Author: Bernard Girard Format: Hardcover, 256 pages Publisher: No Starch Press (April 10, 2009) ISBN-10: 1593271840 ISBN-13: 978-1593271848 This is a very interesting read, but you may not know why you're reading it at first, or even exactly what you're reading. The title suggests that you'll learn the "Google way" of doing things and this is largely true. It also suggests that the "Google way" is a unique set of operations, philosophies, and processes that have resulted in Google's incredible success and that perhaps, by learning "the way", you may be able to replicate that success in your own efforts. Is that true? Probably not. Whenever I hear a term such as "the Google way" or "the HP way" or "the giant-Fortune-500-megahuge-corporation way", I think of the mechanics a large company uses to operate on a day-to-day basis. My understanding of these "ways" is that they result in an evolutionary slowness in getting even the most simple and mundane tasks done (I once waited months to be hired for a temporary job at a very large corporation because all such temp hiring decisions had to flow through the CEO, which is madness, but it was their "way"). The general theme of this book, is to describe for the reader the origins of Google and how the development of the "Google way" resulted in it's tremendous success, including possible future directions for the search engine giant. To accomplish this, Girard pulls not just from all of the publicly available information on Google and its founders, but interviews with former Google staffers, general history, philosophy, and classic corporate strategies. For instance, lessons learned by Ford's revolutionary creation of the assembly line, creativity and Edison, and the invention of the steam engine, are all brought into play to illuminate the various concepts and methods of developing something that had never existed before. Not that there weren't search engines before Google, but there was never a business model like "The Google Way" before Page and Brin created it, then brought in Eric Schmidt (formerly of Novell) to help continue nurturing it. Girard's book won't tell you how to create another "Google". It can't. One of the points I walked away from the book with, is that a unique set of situational and environmental circumstances had to occur for Google to be created in the way it was created, at the moment in history it was created. Those circumstances have passed and, while I'm sure it's quite possible to make another company at least as successful as Google in the future, it will not be created, developed, and operated, in exactly the same way as Google. It isn't enough that Page and Brin "bucked the system" to create Google, it was their specific approach in doing so (after all, not all rebels succeed just because they're rebels). Defying corporate "tribal knowledge" in and of itself wasn't sufficient to account for Google's success. Being a rebel in this instance, doesn't mean being chaotic or necessarily defiant. Page and Brin were extremely thoughtful in their approach, they just were thoughtful in a different direction than the traditional compass heading. You won't get an insider's view of Google from this book, at least not in microscopic detail. If this were a book officially sanctioned by Google, it would probably speak with a different voice, and one that more closely quoted the "party line" (all companies have a party line which is used by the company to publicly describe themselves, while not disclosing much of the actual inner workings). Girard's book sacrifices the "insider's look" of Google, at least to some degree, in order to be able to speak about Google with more latitude. I didn't get the feeling I was learning "secret knowledge" while reading, and as I mentioned, everything in the book is backed up by all of Girard's sources, listed in detailed notes. The part of the book I wanted to get to was Google and the future. This would be squarely Girard's opinion about what's next for this company; something he couldn't get directly from source information (though he could derive from it). Girard wrote the book as the current economic meltdown was beginning (it seems to have been finished slightly before Obama was elected) and he weaves this information into his projection of how Google might respond. It's probably still too soon to see if these projections are at all accurate, but time will tell. I found the book to be well-rounded in its coverage of the various aspects of "life at Google" and specially appreciated the scope of history and philosophy that Girard brought in to his work. It gave the lens used to view Google a better and sometimes unexpected perspective. Although the book isn't exclusively about how search works (though the topic is covered for obvious reason), I found I was glad that I'd read (and reviewed) Bill Tancer's (Hitwise Intelligence) book, Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters, because it expanded that particular dimension of Google for me while reading "The Google Way". If you find the "entity" of Google a fascinating topic and want to look "under the covers", I think you'll enjoy what Girard has created.