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:

  1. 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.

  2. There are a lot of outstanding photographers posting great pictures.

  3. 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.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ryan Cousineau (Mar 27 2013, at 10:42)

Huh. At the risk of excess glibness, the fact that nobody is paying attention to Identity seems VERY INTERESTING.

And it suggests that as an unsolved, unsexy problem, it is a place where work done now will matter a lot.


From: John Cowan (Mar 27 2013, at 11:27)

Google *isn't* centralized, though it is office-oriented. Less than half of all engineers worked in Mountain View as of my departure date. "Remote office" is a very misleading term for a very distributed company: the New York office alone has more than a thousand engineers.


From: Tony Mach (Mar 27 2013, at 11:44)

About MBAs with desiccated souls turning Google evil: That can be a slow process, as MBAs grow like weed.

It was around 2005 that I was living in Hamburg/Germany and looking for a new job as software developer. I wasn't particularly interested in doing any web-related work, but an Google ad caught my eye (not that I consider myself fit for Google).

So the Hamburg dependance of Google were looking for an intern, highly qualified, with a list of requirements longer than my leg, someone top notch, "with strong artistic skills, technical knowledge, and impressive portfolio", who can deliver the goods, "a creative, hardworking web developer", someone who could "fulfill several projects requests simultaneously while meeting tight deadlines". And oh, did I mention it, it was an internship.

If you want someone who is "hardworking", then offer him/her an proper job – and not an internship.

I take it there were some changes since then in Google's Hamburg office. But it is such things that can creep in that make me worry about the "not evil" part.


From: Doug Roberts (Mar 27 2013, at 12:28)

Glad you're happy working at Google, Tim. I visited there a couple of years ago and was given a tour by a colleague.

A couple of months ago a Google headhunter cold-called me after finding my HPC creds on LinkedIn. We had a nice chat, but I told him I was not interested in looking at Google for employment.

While I do I use lots of the Google infrastructure every day, I also have a bone to pick with the Google Device Support Team's handling of bug issues with the new Nexus 4 phone.

I don't want to make the outright claim that they are being dishonest to people who call their toll-free support number complaining about wifi and bluetooth issues with the phone.

But they pretty much are. Check it out for yourself in case you're interested:




From: Pete Forman (Mar 27 2013, at 13:07)

"Not asking first is best" is idiomatic in Python, expressed as EAFP: it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.


From: Selden (Mar 27 2013, at 14:08)

What a wonderful essay!

Re speed: I'm a retired librarian, and we used to talk about the "transaction cost" of using a search engine. Most people rarely get their query right on the first try, and need to try, try again before getting it right. One of the virtues of Google is that the transaction cost is very low.


From: Daniel Cormier (Mar 27 2013, at 17:11)

I read your blog every now and then. Today I found this post from an article on my RSS feeds, where they were sharing your comments regarding Google and evil. I decided to read the whole article and enjoyed it. Thanks.

I discovered something about your blog that bugs me. You embed undecorated red (#a00, to be precise) links among the other black text of your posts. I found that by accident when moving my mouse across the page and seeing the mouse cursor change when it was over the link. Red links are a problem for people who are red/green colorblind, like me (and somewhere around 7-10% of males, depending on which study you're looking at).

The small amount of red present in a font only a couple pixels wide isn't enough to stand out as something other than black, so it blends right in to the rest of the text around it. On a calibrated monitor, it pretty much looks like this to me: (That's from a tool called "Color Oracle".)

A pretty good article with much more information can be found here, if you're interested: (that anchor skips right to the part about assigning colors to things; there's much more information about colorblindness earlier in the page)


From: Nicholas Sushkin (Mar 27 2013, at 18:47)

Keep doing the identity stuff.

would be great if Google did it well


From: Dewald Reynecke (Mar 28 2013, at 00:22)

Wow, time flies! You made me go back three years in my note books now and I am relieved to find that I did actually accomplish something.

Glad you're having fun. In time the identity issue will become important by when the work you (and your peers) are doing now will be all we've got in a time of need. Thanks.


From: Simon Gauld (Mar 28 2013, at 02:08)

Great, great post Tim.

I really enjoy your writing style and honesty. It shouts out "integrity". Also, your curtain-reveals on google are great fun for programmers at large.



From: len (Mar 28 2013, at 15:43)

I left a job I didn't like for a job that seemed challenging but proved to be uncomfortable (IADS needs to finally be laid to rest; the lack of tool support for XML is unbearable and the stylesheet system is 2.4 decades past its sell-by date). Still, there was a good office, a desk and the usual office intrigue made slightly more intriguing by the security requirements.

Then Obama and Congress sequestered us into unemployment. And so it goes. Life Among the MICsters is as uncertain as any other. Work from home? If required sure, but preferred? No. I need to be far from my home studio and the lure of half-finished songs.


From: Larry Reid (Mar 31 2013, at 11:14)

I would love to see identity done right. Is it that hard, technically, or is it because it's in the best interest of the large companies to keep it proprietary?


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