This month saw my 3-year anniversary here, and I feel like one of my missions is to be a guide on this Magical Mystery Tour. So, here are some things about Google; without asking anyone first, because not asking first is best.
Being Careful · Startups are all damn-the-torpedos and ship-it-now. Been there, done that, loved it. Inappropriate with a user count on the order of a billion. My first-ever push to Google’s webspace was a couple of paragraphs of documentation; the compulsory review process ended up with four rewrites involving input from three people.
Not management-driven cover-your-ass rewrites, either; topics of debate included “what is the actual failure mode?” and “Don’t talk abstractly about ‘developers’, say ‘You must...’”
Code reviews are way fiercer. The world doesn’t see this process but is in its debt; it occurs in every substantial engineering group not just at Google. And most people don’t know that caution is at the core of the engineering value system; nor why.
Google tries to combine that value with insane risk-taking, as in Gmail or Chrome or Google+. That’s tricky.
Being Android · It’s a consumer product, y’know, and that’s the most important thing about it. Which means that it’s siloed and has to be; Microsoft proved that back in 2007 when its heroic attempt to unsilo consumer platform development squeezed out Vista, a day (by which I mean years) late and a dollar (by which I mean billions) short. If Android’s going to be great, Android has to care about being Android.
And I care about Android, because it’s a really good way to have the Internet in your pocket and as I said before: “freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.”
But I care more about the Net. My adult life has had its share of technical and ethical failures, but I’ve rarely failed to advocate for the Internet. Which is bigger than Android or (by definition) any other single software platform. That’s why I’m happy working here at Google, and not just on Android.
Being Evil · There’s no there there. Near as I can tell three years in, Google really wants you to be online all the time (signed in if possible) and put everything in the cloud and use our search engine and and enjoy those experiences and not get hacked, and that’s about it. The money we make falls out of those things.
The interesting question isn’t “Is Google evil?” (answer: not particularly) but “What’s the downside if Google suddenly becomes evil?” Because the chance is nonzero that when our founders die or get bored, MBAs with desiccated souls will be in command, and not really understand why it matters that people have decided, by and large, to trust us.
Fortunately, there’s a firewall: the Data Liberation Front, which strongly limits the evil that an evil Google could do. It’s simultaneously a useful utility and the canary in the coalmine. People should pay attention to it.
Being Fast · I just can’t say how impressed I am when I hit Google with something like “Copenhagen weather” or “Barca schedule” or “Oscar Winners” and the answer is right there, no more clicks required. Similarly, at the awesome efficiency, when I type a search into Maps, of how it figures what address or neighborhood or business I mean. I can’t remember the last time I actually completed a Maps search and hit Enter.
This is the kind of engineering the Net needs more of.
Being Social · Those of you who don’t use Google+ because you know for sure that it’s an echoing wasteland can skip this section. Personally, I spend quite a bit of time there; here’s why:
There are 29,000 people following me. I don’t know how much weight to put on that number, but there are very few posts that don’t provoke reaction, oftentimes intelligent.
I plug my blog pieces on G+ and it generates loads of traffic; comparable to Twitter in that respect.
There are a lot of outstanding photographers posting great pictures.
It’s where all the Ingress community happens.
The short version: It’s not as efficient for spreading news as Twitter; but it’s way better for having a conversation.
I’m still impressed that, starting in 2011, this company, emphatically not a startup, turned on a dime and built a Google+ that is fairly astonishing in its scale and energy.
Possibly you don’t agree with all the design decisions; I don’t. But I have to say the people doing it are pretty transparent in what they’re trying to achieve and why they’re doing things the way they are.
Good luck to them.
Being Remote · For an Internet-centric geek, Google’s obviously the best place in the world to work. If it weren’t for the remote-worker thing, I’d be pretty well 100% happy.
Speaking of which, I enjoyed the flurry of discussion on remoteness kicked off by Ms Mayer over at Yahoo! I recommend Scott Hanselman’s Being a Remote Worker Sucks - Long Live the Remote Worker for the most emotionally-honest coverage. If you want the contra argument read Farhad Manjoo’s Marissa Mayer Has Made a Terrible Mistake, but he’s wrong.
Obviously, centralized works well for some companies like for example Google; distributed works for others, for example 37 Signals. I’m pretty sure there’s not a hard-and-fast rule waiting to be laid down here.
Me, I’d rather work in an office than by myself, but Google doesn’t have one where I choose to live, so there you go. Yeah, if I ran across another job and it was in Vancouver and it was fulfilling, I’d think seriously about it even if it weren’t Google-level fulfilling.
Being Boring · Uh, Identity, the stuff I work on now. I’ve had submissions to conferences declined, something that hasn’t happened to me in years. Nobody likes Identity, nobody thinks they’re gonna win the Web wars because they do Identity better, nobody wants to own the Identity subsystem.
I consciously picked this work because I thought it was the place to really have an impact. And I still think it will. But everyone’s looking the other way. I can deal with that.
Being Happy · I pretty much still am. I get to work with great people on things that matter. Some year my luck will run out, but not yet.