D Murali

Journey into Google's brain

D. Murali | Updated on November 15, 2017

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Google's eccentric work culture has a lot to do with the company's immense success.



Google is never afraid of taking on risks, and one such risk was to allow a journalist to spend hundreds of hours with it employees, look over engineers' shoulders as they developed products and sit in on internal confabs, acknowledges Steven Levy in In the Plex: How Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives.

The prologue begins with the question, ‘Have you heard of Google?' posed to villagers in Ragihalli, thirty miles outside Bangalore. “Twenty-two people from a company based in Mountain View, California, had driven in SUVs and vans up an unpaved road to this enclave of seventy threadbare huts with cement floors, surrounded by fields occasionally trampled by unwelcome elephants,” narrates Levy, as an observer on the annual trip of Google associate product managers (APMs), a select group pegged as the company's future leaders. The trip in 2007 had begun in San Francisco and touched down in Tokyo, Beijing, Bangalore, and Tel Aviv before returning home sixteen days later, he says.

The APMs on the trip worked all over Google, one learns. “In search, advertising, applications, and even stealth projects such as Google's attempt to capture the rights to include magazines in its index… Every activity had an underlying purpose to increase the participants' understanding of a technology or business issue, or make them more (in the parlance of the company) ‘Googley.”

An example mentioned in the book is of an activity in Tokyo, when teams of participants engaged in a scavenger hunt in the city's legendary Akihabara electronics district, to buy with $50 the weirdest gadgets they could find – like USB-powered ashtrays shaped like football helmets that suck up smoke, a plate-sized disk that simulated the phases of the moon, a breathalyser you could install in your car, and a stubby wand that when waved back and forth spelled out words in LED lights. “Another Tokyo high point was the 5 am trip to the Tsukiji fish market. It wasn't the fresh sushi that fascinated the APMs but the mechanics of the fish auction, in some ways similar to the way Google works its AdWords program.”

Andy's Android

In a chapter titled ‘Outside the box' you would meet Andy Rubin, ‘a maniacal robot aficionado – he would haunt the Akihabara district of Tokyo for weird Japanese toys, and build a few of his own.' Rubin had co-founded Danger to make a mobile communication device called the Sidekick, less a cell phone than a tiny computer, arguably the first smart phone with a measurable IQ, the author traces. “Instant messaging, not phone calls, was the Sidekick's main purpose; you held it sideways, slid out a keyboard, and began thumb-punching IMs, which appeared in colourful pop-ups on a bright screen. It became popular with teenagers and rap musicians.”

While Sidekick's built-in search engine was Google, what would bring Rubin closer to the search giant was to be Android, the company he founded for creating an operating system that would power whole families of smart phones. Rubin's idea was to give the system to the big network carriers like Verizon or Sprint for free, the book recounts. “This would save the carriers money, since they wouldn't have to license an operating system from a company like Microsoft or build their own. (Typically a carrier pays 20 per cent of the per-phone cost for an operating system.)… Rubin's plan was to make money by selling back-end services to go with the operating system, such as storage, support, and security.”

Google's bet

A turning point in the story was the idea of Larry Page to buy Android, to get deeper into the mobile phone industry. It was 2005, and Google's mission was to access and organise the world's information, the author notes. He explains that, interpreted broadly as Page did, it meant that what was good for the web or for the cloud was good for Google, and what was good for the growing universe of wireless communication over mobile phone carrier networks would also be good for Google. “Because the carriers tightly controlled the software that ran on phones using their networks, Google had reason to worry that it might not have the opportunity to place its services on those nets. An open network would give Google unlimited opportunity, so that even if Google spent millions of dollars to develop an operating system – and then gave it away for free – it would still come out ahead.”

The book cites an interesting snatch of conversation between Rubin and his boss Alan Eustace, Google's director of engineering, on the process Google used to improve itself. Did Rubin hear Eustace talk about quality assurance teams and focus groups? No, Eustace instead likened Google's brain to a baby's, an omnivorous sponge that was always getting smarter from the information it soaked up. He said, for instance, that when a Google user searched for Nike shoes, there were sets of algorithms that determined search results and another set that figured out which ad should appear alongside the results, then another set of algorithms would run an instant auction. “But the system was always learning. Rubin liked hearing that; his own companies had evolved from protean ideas. Danger had originally been centred on digital cameras before becoming a cell phone company…”

Dream, dream

The person to manage the Android product in Google was to be Erick Tseng, a CS master's from MIT who had spent a few years as a McKinsey & Company consultant before going back to school to get an MBA from Stanford. And, over a lunch with Google CEO Eric Schmidt who lectured at the school, Tseng would change his mind from taking a job as a venture capitalist with Sequoia.

What Schmidt told Tseng was to imagine a world where a company like Google can provide cell phones to everyone in the world for free. “Now imagine the possibility of what that can enable. It's not just about the phones. Whether you're in the US or you're in Africa, you will be connected to your family, your friends – and to all the content on the web. That is something Google is possibly working on.” Importantly, the APMs who visited Ragihalli found the villagers to be using mobile phones though unaware of Google.

At first the Android team worked on two different systems, the author writes. One was called the Sooner, based on the existing Android prototype, with a keypad sitting underneath the screen, and designed to get into the market quickly, he adds. “For the long term, Rubin's group wanted to develop a more advanced platform with a touch screen. He dubbed that version the Dream.”

But, when Apple's new iPhone redefined the smart phone in January 2007 – and delivered the future ahead of schedule by offering touch screen, tightly integrated software, and sharp display – ‘Sooner' became never, and Android went straight ahead to the Dream, Levy recalls.

Apparently, it took a while for Steve Jobs to understand that Google was becoming his competitor, as the author underlines.

A tale that can keep you enthralled, even as the New Year rings in.

Tailpiece

“After all the debate what we got was…”

“The lokpal?”

“No, a blockpal!”



Published on January 01, 2012

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