Could Google's Engineering Ethic Help Move Your Organization Ahead?
July 27, 2011
Posted by Don Dunnington at July 27, 2011 08:31 AM
"If we can't win on quality, we shouldn't win at all" Google's co-founder Larry Page told the company's new brand manager, Douglas Edwards. And quality at Google, Edwards was to learn quickly, rests solely with the brilliant engineers Google was hiring as fast as it could find them.
In his new book, I'm Feeling Lucky: Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, Edwards tells the story of Google's formative years, as it zoomed from an unknown late-comer to the search engine field to the dominator of search, email, advertising and many other online activities. While the book is more than an ode to the glories of brilliant engineering--there are lots of insider stories of human excesses and engineers run-amok--I found myself noting how frequently the Google story centered on its remarkably strong engineering ethic. I found five central characteristics that seem to me to be central to Google's engineering ethic.
While they may seem to apply best to a technology company--especially a startup where everyone sees a chance to become an overnight millionaire--these principles could help any organization that feels stuck in the status quo.
1. Branded by Engineering
Though he was Google's brand manager, Edwards makes no claim to building the Google brand. "The brand was built on product, and the product was built by engineers," Edwards declares from the outset. The product that distinguished Google in seach back then and continues to keep them ahead of the competition today, is Google's PageRank algorithm, which was the first to look at in-bound links to a web page as a measure of the page's relevance to a user's search.
Google started in 1996 as a joint research project by Stanford grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They called their project "Backrub" and changed the name to Google in 1997, based on the mathematical term googol, a very large number (10100). They moved the operation to a friend's garage and incorporated in September 1998. In 1999 they received $50 million in startup funding from two of Silicon Valley's leading venture capital firms.
2. Efficiency Valued Above All
"Efficiency, I would learn very quickly, is valued highly among those who live to make things better," Edwards observes. It was likely this nearly ruthless dedication to efficiency that made Google so disruptive to so many businesses, undercutting the less-efficient advertising model, for example, that had allowed newspapers and magazine to thrive for a very long time.
"Engineers rebel at inefficiency," Edwards writes. "Larry Page more than anyone I ever met, hated systems that ate hours and produced suboptimal results. His burning passion was to help the world stop wasting his time."
3. The Fast Change Imperative
This drive for quality and efficiency leads Google's engineers to another game-changing characteristic of their business model: fast, frequent small changes to their product that would enhance its value to the user.
"Our engineers made quick data-based decisions and implemented them. If the numbers said changing A to B would improve product X, why not do it now," Edwards asks. He sees this urgent mindset to change things now as the driving force of Google's success. "Engineers knew how to make things better, and every minute, every second we delayed improvements, users had to endure sub-optimal interactions with our site."
4. Build the Team
Urs Hölzle is a brilliant Swiss engineer who heads Google's engineering department. Edwards writes that Hölzle's greatest accomplishment was "building the team that built Google." One of the toughest lessons for many people--especially for those who have been highly effective at their craft, whether it's engineering, or selling or writing ad copy--is to leverage that skill through others. Edwards tells how Hölzle continually urged his staff to extend themselves through others:
"Your greatest impact as an engineer," he would tell them, "comes through hiring someone as good as you or better... because over the next year, they will double your productivity. There's nothing else you can do to double your productivity. Even if you"re a genius, that's extraordinarily unlikely to happen."
5. Grow the Company
Companies must grow to keep faith with their engineering ethic. It's not just about profits and satisfying shareholders. Sure, if you don't show quarter-to-quarter earnings growth, your stock gets hammered. But the Google story suggests another, more basic reason why companies have to grow. If you're not growing, you can't build a team. If you're not growing, you can't continue to innovate and push forward quickly with new improvements to your product. If you're not growing, there is little your engineers can do to build the higher quality that builds a higher brand value.
Google went public on August 19, 2004, and by March 4, 2005, Edwards departed Google, having hit "the startup jackpot." He no longer needed to work for the money, and it seems he no longer saw a role for himself at Google that was worth the struggle. He concludes that impatience remains Google's one big flaw: "impatience with those not quick enough to grasp Google's vision." Now that the company is so big and so dominant in so many areas of the Internet, their impatience is more likely to be perceived as arrogant and even sinister.
Yet Edwards admits that after Google he finds himself more impatient with "the way the world works." He asks:
- Why is it so hard to schedule a DVR recording
- Why aren't traffic signals timed to optimize rush hour traffic flow
- Why does the customer service representative ask for your customer number after you"ve already keyed it in for the robot that answered the your call
"These are all solvable problems," he concludes. 'smart people, motivated to make things better, can do almost anything. I feel lucky to have seen firsthand just how true that is."
- "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59" by Douglas Edwards is available in hardcover at Amazon.com for $15.62. I downloaded the Kindle version for my iPad for $14.06.