July 09, 2015 by Romain Bouqueau

"How Google Works" book review

Dear readers,


Today we are going to review the book "How Google Works". This book talks about the future of organizations with Google structure as a background story.

How Google works cover

The authors are Eric Schmidt (Chairman, ex-CEO) and Jonathan Rosenberg (ex-VP Products).

Analysis on the situation

The vision of the first "Googlers" led to an analysis on what was going to happen in the next twenty years. They concluded that three things are changing the world and are free:

  • Ubiquitous information (the Internet).
  • Reachability (now called "Mobile"): anytime/anywhere.
  • Supercomputing everywhere (now called "Cloud computing"): pay as you go, more on the client side (Google considers smartphones as supercomputers in your pocket).

Of course the world has seen more innovation during the last ten years: MOOCs, robotics, 3D printers, healthcare, big data, green energies, ... but that's out of the scope of this book.

The world changes faster

There are two scales to consider: 1) from creation to viability and 2) from viability to deployment. For example:

  • Electricity took 40 years to make viable, the Internet 4 years.
  • Air-conditioning was viable but it took an additional 60 years to be deployed, mobile phones only 10 years.

Thanks to new networks (planes, phones, the Internet), communications are faster. The world is changing faster.

With the Internet, the way from product to customer is almost direct. In this new system, what matters is the product. The Google's view is that the best products will win. So the people doing the products, the engineers, are the one that matters. More on my view on this in the conclusion.

Hence the theory about "smart creatives" (more below), who need to be managed differently.

Executives should try to take advantage of this new environment. Most of them don't. Governments don't. More on the "disruption" part below.

Managing innovations brought at Google

The authors think that Google has innovated internally in several ways:

  • Culture.
  • Hiring.
  • Approach to innovation.
  • Decision making.
  • Communication.

Things tend to be considered peer-based, not hierarchy-based. The organization is as flat as possible to make decision processes as short as possible. Companies such as Google or Facebook are able to deliver every day improvements on their online products. Traditional companies update every year (e.g. Microsoft Office or Apple MacOS).

Beliefs at Google

Here is a list of interesting theories or facts from the book:

  • Smart Creatives: Google wants to hire passionate, "learning animals" that Google's executives name "Smart Creatives". They use committees (designed by field experiments) to take hiring decisions. Each hire is reviewed by the CEO.
  • Focus first on users and metrics, not money or customers ("we'll figure out later how to make money"). This leads to lots of abandoned Google products (Reader, Code...)
  • Build platforms that scale. The future is about platforms that scale according to Google leaders (Android, Engine, etc.)

The peer culture at Google encourages to create projects. There is no such thing as "Google Friday" but Smart Creatives are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time trying something else. Most of the time, it occurs outside of regular office hours... (Managers consider that a job at Google should be a way of living rather than something that occupies a large part of your life.)

For a project to grow, one has to convince other Googlers that it would be interesting to contribute (whatever the reason: it is cool, it is challenging, it will change the world, it has been dismissed my management, etc.). Projects are voted using a Web interface and the most popular projects are put on the managers' plans.

What happens when Google gets disrupted?

Well it seems that disruption may come from within Google. Otherwise Google can acquire, build or ignore the challenger. The list acquisition by Google is impressive.

There is also a tendency to accuse governments in the book. Governments are presented as enemies that should not interfere as they don't understand. The authors explain it is normal to play with laws and regulations when dealing with innovative technologies. That's why there are many lawyers at Google (who are preferably "Smart Creatives").

There is also a red-line: don't be evil. Don't imagine what Google would be without that rule, it would be really really evil.

Regrets on the book (analysis part 1)

As you can imagine, the book contains a self satisfacit about the authors' achievements and the achievements of their ex-Googlers' friends (Marissa Mayer, now CEO at Yahoo; Sheryl Sandberg, now COO at Facebook, etc.). I abstracted this layer for you because they deliver a brilliant analysis on Google's specific state of mind.

I regret the analysis mostly talks about events that took place starting at 2008 (when Google could fulfill their "mobile" vision). My regret is fed by the fact that most of the culture and decisions are described as being here as soon as 2001 (google was founded in 1998). It would really be interesting to have a book by Sergey Brin and Larry Page to get this perspective.

Final words (analysis part 2)

Along the pages, we discovered that Google is not managed as any other company. The founders kept thinking as if Google was still a startup (importance of hiring, facilities (food, gym, yoga, ...), lean management, short paths, etc.) and it proved to create a very challenging environment for workers.

The taylorization of learning and working at all stages is present everywhere without being named. The book ignores the fact that actions have a social meaning (e.g. education to become a free (wo)man, working to contribute to the society, etc.). Engineers are used as super-robots who learn fast... until most of them get replaced by computers of any kind?

On the one hand, human beings doesn't seem to be the priority of these top managers. They see engineers as productive resources. Yoga (and other facilities) are not here to make you feel better for the sake of having happy employees, but only to make them more productive. This is not limited to Google. Food for thought on the current work/company/society model.

On the other hand, the Google management acts as if there working force were intrapreneurs (i.e. entrepreneurs within the company). Entrepreneurs have to be learning animals. Googlers can innovate in a more secure environment. There is a quote from the psychoanalyst F. Dolto that I love: "Parties are freedom in security". That's it :)

Governments are presented as enemies. I don't agree. In democracies governments are elected by people (or at least selected by people who were). In Google the level of democracy is very superficial. Hence criticizing Governments as it is done in the book seems weak although it may be necessary to play with the rules because Governments move slower than innovators. Playing with laws may be necessary, but sometimes it forgets the "disrupted"s are human beings. Humans may be conservative because, as said Steve Jobs: "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Another part which seems a short circuit is product. Not all company can hire the best engineers. I could even say that most companies rely on third-party companies to build most of their products. Therefore this part seemed quite difficult to reuse.

Related readings

Freedom, Inc.: Free Your Employees and Let Them Lead Your Business to Higher Productivity, Profits, and Growth

Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers

If you appreciated to read this review, please leave a message below. I'd be happy to have feedback and conversation with you. Cheers :)

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