In the Plex: the Google story as only Google could (or would) tell it

From Google’s early days as a Stanford research project and the creation of the search engine that put the company on the map to its present role as a leader in the field of cloud computing, Steven Levy’s In the Plex provides an in-depth chronicle of the company, its products, and the employees behind it all.

While the internet has threatened the existence of traditional institutions like the music industry and print newspapers, it has also helped to create new institutions.  Google is the internet institution par excellence. What was once a start-up with no model for generating revenue has become a $30 billion company that is the subject of anit-trust litigation and the victim of hacking at the hands of a foreign government.  Key to accomplishing this growth was the creation of Google’s ingenious advertising models, AdSense and AdWords.  By lowering the financial barriers to advertising and using a cost-per-click pricing system that connects dollars to actual website traffic, Google was able to capitalize on long-tail advertisers.  The company’s profitability has enabled it to transition beyond search to become the web-based operating system of the future.

The strength of Levy’s book lies in the unparalleled access that the author had to the individuals behind the company—and not just the founders, but the salespeople, PR, and Google’s most precious commodity, the engineers.  Based primarily on interviews with current and former Google employees, In the Plex is essentially the story of Google as told by Google.  As a result, the book succeeds in providing the reader with a sense of what it is like inside of the company, including how decisions are made, the distinctive corporate culture, and the dynamics between the founders and former CEO Eric Schmidt.

Yet, Levy’s access to the company is also a limitation.  The author seems to have succumbed to what one might refer to as Google group think, which at times appears to cloud the judgment of even Google’s brightest employees.  Central to this form of group think is the belief that what the world needs is more Google, and that brilliant engineers are capable of solving all sorts of entrenched political and social problems if only the rest of the world would just get out of the way.  It was precisely this sort of group think that led to the company’s ill-fated venture into China.  The company’s policy director, Andrew  McLaughlin, summed up the main question regarding the company’s decision whether or not to enter the Chinese market thusly, “Will Google accelerate positive change and freedom of expression in China by being there, or will we accelerate it by staying out?” (Levy 277).  There was a missing third option—that Google probably wouldn’t have had much impact on positive change in China one way or another—to which the company was oblivious.

For the most part, Levy has drunk the Google Kool-Aid and is along for the ride.  He resists criticizing the decision makers or the decision-making process even when the decisions lead to monumental failures as in the case of Google’s foray into China or the company’s inability to capitalize on the popularity of social media sites like Facebook (I think the jury is still out on Google+).

While an unfounded belief in Google’s power to improve the world is dangerous, Google does have a lot to offer, particularly in the public sector, where government agencies could better serve their constituents through innovation. It was disappointing that even in the Obama White House, which seemed to offer such promise for bringing the executive office into the digital age, the Googlers who joined the administration were stymied by institutional barriers.

However, in contrast to the White House, an increasing number of local governments are creating spaces in which innovation can occur.  For example, about two years ago Mayor Menino created the Office of New Urban Mechanics, which fosters innovation by engaging constituents in the design and delivery of services.  One of the Office’s earliest accomplishments was the creation of the award-winning smartphone application, Citizens Connect, which makes it easier for constituents to report issues like graffiti and broken streetlights to the City.

Google could play an important role in contributing to innovation at the local level by donating their most valuable resource: their talent.  The company could institute a program that would allow Google employees to take a year of paid leave to work with local government or non-profits.  The Google employees would not only provide technical assistance, they would also be expected to help the government agency or non-profit implement policies and programs that would continue to foster innovation, much like Mayor Menino’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.  Such a program might just make the world a little more Googley—in a good way.

 

Levy, Steven (2011).  In the Plex.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

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