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I’m feeling lucky

August 9th, 2011 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

Book cover

I recently read a book called I’m Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee 59 by Douglas Edwards. No point explaining what it is about, the title sums it up quite nicely, but for what it is worth it is the erstwhile brand manager of Google telling the story of his five or so years in the company.

By a coincidence I finished reading it just before Google Plus suddenly appeared. One reason why I didn’t get round to writing the review on Amazon was that I was busy playing with Google Plus, but having just read about the behind-the-scenes decisions and debates around earlier product launches I looked at the new product launch in a different way. I couldn’t help looking at all the aspects of it and wondering what discussions and arguments might have gone into them.

Here is what I wrote about it on Amazon:

This is probably as close as we are going to get to the inside story of Google, for a good few years anyway. Douglas Edwards joined the company in 1999 just as it was starting to expand and was one of the first employees who was not an engineer. He recounts some of his experiences of the six years he spent there from his perspective in a clear way, making it interesting even for those who can’t remember the days when search meant using Alta Vista or Lycos on Netscape.

This will not be the whole story for several reasons. Firstly, there is the element of loyalty to previous colleagues and a company that still had a family atmosphere when the author joined it (at that time every new employee was still interviewd by either Sergey Brin or Larry Page). There is also the practical fact that employees from that long ago probably still have a significant shareholding and won’t want to say anything damaging or give way secrets, but on top of that it is still just one person’s point of view and maybe there are old office politics scores to settle.

Having said that, I get the feeling that the account is as honest as it can be, given those caveats. It is a shame that it is written by somebody out of the loop of the technical aspects, though that is a blessing as well in that it keeps the book readable because it doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail. Still, I sometimes found myself wanting to know just a little more, but on balance I think that the author’s status as a non-engineer makes him a bit more like the majority of us, viewing events through eyes more like ours than an engineers’ would be.

I do think that a result of all that is that Edwards downplays his own contribution and role somewhat. Towards the end, in his tales of contract negotiations with AOL he seemed to be blowing his own trumpet a bit, but otherwise I suspect a bit of false modesty. Google is a demanding employer that rewards success and probably doesn’t tolerate failure or carry passengers, especially not when it was a smaller company and waiting for its IPO. He would not have managed to stay there for six years without being more impressive than he comes across in the book. It is a bit like Nick Mason’s story of Pink Floyd where he hardly mentions his own drumming.

The other problem about the book is unavoidable – it only goes up to 2005 when Edwards left the company. By the end I was left wanting the book to go on and cover all those products that came along afterwards: Google Earth, Maps, Street View, Buzz, Wave, the instant search preview thing, the privacy controversies, Google Apps, Chrome, Android, the Chrome OS and now Google Plus. I am hoping that somebody will write the follow up.

One of the highlights was a frank (up to a point) discussion of the economics of working for a small start-up and the rewards if it becomes successful. It falls short of actually saying how much an early employee made from their share options when the company went public, but otherwise gives those of us who have always worked in stable, normal jobs a bit of an insight into that culture.

It might seem like I have just pointed out a load of bad things about the book, but they are just comparitive shortcomings – comparing this book to the perfect Google story which will probably never be written for all sorts of practical reasons. As it is this is a good read that is much more suitable to the general reading public than a standard story of a business. It has human interest, a history of a company in its infancy, as well as some background on an industry.

If you wait for the ideal Google book you will wait a very, very long time. This is more than good enough for now, and a lot better than you would expect.

A couple of things stick in my mind about this book. One is the job interview with Sergey Brin and I still can’t help wondering how I would cope with it. Brin basically said he was giving five minutes preparation and then he wanted a presentation explaining how to do something that he (Sergey) doesn’t already know. Talk about high pressure.

What is remarkable is reading about how close to failure the company came several times when it took on new contracts and had to scale everything up at extremely short notice and realising how easily things could have gone the other way at a couple of key moments – and then wondering what the online landscape would look like if Google had not won those early search wars. Would somebody else have come up with Android? Or Street View?

It is a good read: a business book for people not terribly interested in business and a computer book accesible to non-experts but which will probably interest computer experts and business geeks alike.

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