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The Googleplex Goes Hollywood with “The Internship”

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

During the months I spent researching In the Plex, I often encountered the term “Googliness.” It was kind of a puzzle from Lewis Carrol. You can’t understand the company unless you grasp the meaning of this term, but of course the term means nothing unless you have a sense of Google’s essence. “Googley” is also as much an aspirational value as a descriptor. When Googlers use the term, they are referring to their optimism, constructive ambition, brains, technical prowess, and quirkiness. No one at the company uses the term in matters of risking privacy, avoiding taxes, or pulling the plug on popular products.

Movies like “The Internship,” the studiously irreverent genre of buddy comedy that typically stars people like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, usually send audiences off into the night with a tacked-on inspirational message. For almost 90 minutes, these movies feature slouches who wisecrack and misbehave. But as the closing credits approach, these losers change their lives by embracing an inspirational ideal, be it loyalty, integrity, or better hygiene.

In the case of the “The Internship,” starring (of course) Vaughn and Wilson, the ideal is Googliness.

In fact, Google is all over this movie, which was shot with the complete cooperation with the company. (Google might not have had script approval, but considerable influence—for instance, the filmmakers cut a proposed scene involving a crash of the self-driving car.) I watched the movie in a packed sneak preview on Saturday night at a movie complex only steps away from the actual Googleplex. My companions were Googlers, as were many others in the audience. As one might expect, it was warmly received, even though it’s not nearly as funny as “Wedding Crashers.”

The movie hinges on a few suspensions of disbelief. First you must swallow the premise of two failed middle-aged salesmen getting into Google’s vaunted internship program. While diversity in gender, race and sexual orientation is indeed valued at Google, the one aspect of diversity that the company has always neglected is class status. Attendees of lower-tier colleges (let alone the University of Phoenix, the online education mill that our heroes enroll in to claim student status) face an almost impossible hiring hurdle. Also forgivable is the conceit that Google’s summer internship is a tournament-style team competition for jobs—the director Shawn Levy refers to this departure from reality as the “motor” that drives the plot.

The real motor of the plot, though, is a classic ducks-out-of-water situation. Two 40-something Willie Lomans lose their sales jobs—their boss calls them “dinosaurs.” So they join up with the firm that symbolizes the future. Google is familiar as a service to the entire movie-watching public. But (except for those who read In the Plex!) the actual company itself is a vague ideal—some sort of pampered corporate retreat where brainy people are indulged by goodies as they code up our online world.

The movie takes all the well-known pieces of this myth (free food!) and expands them to make Google look like some sort of geek Brigadoon, a truly magic kingdom. Now, I have to admit that there is a bit truth to this. A couple of summers ago, my sister and my father (who is over 90) visited California and I got some Google friends to host us for lunch on the campus. They were bowled over—on a gorgeous July day employees in shorts and sandals were eating alfresco, playing beach volleyball, and languorously tapping on keyboards while taking some sun.

But the filmmakers take this idyllic vision over the top. When our protragonists hit campus—some of it filmed at the real Googleplex– the dreary world of rust-belt dealmaking is replaced by a planet of fun. The colors are deep and lush, like Pandora in “Avatar.” Self-driving cars buzz around. Sergey himself pedals by on an elliptical bike. It’s like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when everything turns Technicolor. (Indeed, Shawn Levy has described his intent to make the Googleplex look like The Emerald City.)

The subliminal message is that Google is some sort of otherworldy workplace paradise, and the people working there are adepts driving to enrich the pitiful existence of those on the outside. You can just imagine how thousands of kids watching this might now rejigger their career ambitions to make Google their destination.

Google products are embedded throughout the movie, and people throw around geek terms like HTML 5 with reasonable accuracy. (There’s even a C++ joke.) Unfortunately, most of the plotting and characterization is superficial and obvious. Real Googlers are funnier and quirkier in much more interesting and bizarre ways than the movie depicts, and some deeper research and smarter screenwriting might have made this a much better movie. The moviemakers also could have taken a clue from Google in enforcing efficiency. Some scenes, like the one in the rather tame strip club, seem to go on forever. This would not have happened if Larry Page had been in the editing room counting off seconds, as he has been known to do during product demos.

But from Google’s point of view, the movie could not possibly be better. The company is depicted in all cases as a force for progress and righteousness. There’s even a scene implying that Google considers phone help lines as a high-priority means of serving customers, a premise funnier than anything in the movie.

Even more important to a company that’s constantly under the threat of regulation and litigation, “The Internship” celebrates Google’s self-defined values—that aforementioned Googliness. Though the words “Don’t Be Evil” are never mentioned in the movie, that ethic, as well as the values of cooperation and putting the user first, are clearly implied in the movie’s definition of that term. The winning group of interns wins not just by data-crunching their score, but by their Googliness. And the cardboard villain in the story—an imperious snob who’s out for himself—is told he will never work for Google. Because he isn’t Googley.

The takeaway is that Google is a preserve for goodness, and our trust in them is earned. They’re Googley!

No one has ever used the term “Googliness” to describe a genius for movie product placement. But after “The Internship,” maybe people should.

Auto Erotica: Google As A Car Porn Haven

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

As I tell it in “In the Plex,” on the day of the Google IPO in 2004, director of engineering Wayne Rosing addressed an all-hands meeting.  In his hand was a baseball bat. His message to Googlers was that even though lots of them were going to be pretty rich that day, he would not tolerate any displays of wealth that could endanger the egalitarian company culture. Specifically, he said that if he looked in the parking lot over the next few days and saw an influx of new Porsches or similar bling-y just-bought cars, he would take that baseball bat and smash some windshields.

Google culture is by and large fixed now. But if Wayne Rosing were still around (he left in 2005), he’d probably be very busy with that baseball bat. Case in point: Ben Sloss Treynor, who came to Google in 2003. Treynor has been instrumental in helping build up Google infrastructure and is the father of the company’s Site Engineering Reliability team, which I described in my Wired story about Google data centers. I found him an affable and very helpful source when I interviewed him, twice, for my story.

What I didn’t know what that he is a major, major, car enthusiast who indulges his habit bigtime. According to a Wired.com story that ran today, Treynor has a collection that included but is not limited to “two Ferraris, an extremely rare McLaren 12C Spyder, and the brand-new high-performance Ford Raptor truck.” One of those Ferraris is a 599XX Evo. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds expensive. And in fact, Treynor purchased it for $1.78 million. (OK, it was a charity auction to help Italian earthquake victims.)

It seems that his collection predates the Google IPO. In 2003, Car and Driver magazine featured one of his Vipers, pricet-tag allegedly nearly $140K. Note I did not say one of his cars, but one of his Vipers. (According to the article he already had two of them.)

He seems to have a good sense of humor about his purchases. Recently when an incredulous car buff asked him to prove he owned all that horsepower–by taking their picture with pieces of bread of them– Treynor responded by posing the cars with bread items appropriate to the home country of the respective autos.

But would Wayne Rosing be amused? My guess is if he had stuck around at Google, Rosing would have long given up trying to police displays of wealth. How many Tesla windshields can one guy smash, anyway?

There is a Google Data Center in Finland. There may not be polar bears.

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

 

 

I produced what I hoped was a nice and accurate account of my visit to the Google data center in Hamina, Finland. It included some anecdotes about the local fauna. Specifically, a story about a moose that got on the property before the fencing was completed, and a team laying fiber that encountered a polar bear.

It takes a lot to ruffle a Finn, but apparently the polar bear story has blown out the Nordic stoicism and caused an uproar. It’s worse than a Nokia earnings report.

Let me explain why I included the polar bear in my report. It was an anecdote told to me by a high-ranking Googler, without a smile on his face. He reported that the employees in question had to stay in their car until the polar bear went away. This interview was on the record and recorded, by the way.

I had no reason to doubt the account.  But I am somewhat willing to concede that he may be mistaken.   In my defense, by the time I heard this story, there was no way to go to the scene of the alleged sighting and check for polar bear squat.

Now for the moose issue. At least one indignant Finn added another correction to the piece. According to this correspondent, I was remiss in calling a moose…a moose. In Finland, he told me, they are called elks.

Sorry, but I’m not backing down on this. I may not know the difference between a moose and an elk, but I’m pretty sure there is a difference. What’s more, even the Googlers in Finland refer to the intruder in question as a moose. This rogue moose is somewhat of a legend at the Hamina data center. No one is calling it an elk. And the proof is in the picture below.

 

Meanwhile, via WikiAnswers I have learned that there are polar bears in Finland.  Three of them, in fact.  They are reportedly in the Ranua Wildlife Park, in the Artic Circle.  I cling to the possibility that climate change, or a need to check Gmail,  may have driven at least  one of these snowy ursine creatures southwards, where it immediately began scouting out the broadband situation. Not impossible!

Marissa Mayer and The Color Purple

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

I was at, of all places, Facebook when I heard that Marissa Mayer was Yahoo’s new CEO. (The person who broke the news to me, a former prominent Googler, almost burst with joy upon realizing that I hadn’t heard yet. “I can’t believe I’m the one who gets to tell you this!” said that FB’er.)

Anyone who has read IN THE PLEX knows that Marissa was a key figure at Google — and also an important source for me. It’s her quote about Google and Montessori that’s on the back cover of the book. She was extremely generous with her time, starting on the world-spanning Associate Product Manager (APM) trip that was the inspiration for the book. (I also had interviewed her numerous times for Newsweek.) During my research I not only continued interviewing her for background on the company, but what was happening at the moment. And she allowed me to observe some meetings and even her office hours. So I have a pretty good idea how she works and makes decisions.

With that in mind, I think that Yahoo was smart to hire her. I explain why in this post for Wired.com.

I also pointed out that her leadership of the APM program could be a “secret weapon” in rebuilding Yahoo.

Notes from Weather Underground: a Paleo-Google Enterprise Gets Bought

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012


On Monday, the Weather Channel snapped up its key rival on the net, a company called Weather Underground. Millions of people go to wunderground.com, the newly purchased sight, but never type on those letters. Weather Underground is always one of the top search destinations for queries about the weather in various locations, and people have learned to click on its links because it delivers solid information without a distracting profusion of ads.

But the Google connection goes much deeper than search. The president of Weather Underground is Alan Steremberg. But in the mid-1990s he was a grad student at Stanford, and rooming with a guy named Sergey Brin. When Brin and his partner Larry Page began developing a nascent search engine, they needed help, and had some NSF funding to pay for it. So in 1996, Steremeberg and another student, Scott Hassan, took part-time jobs to work on what was then called BackRub, a project that in 1998 became a separate company called Google.

By then Steremberg was gone. But at one point, he was a part of a foursome that revolutionized search. In The Plex relates how all four went to a meeting at a Palo Alto sushi restaurant with Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer to discuss selling BackRub to their company, Excite. The gangup was part of Larry’s strategy: “They had two so we sent four,” Hassan told me. But Excite didn’t buy. And now Kraus and Spencer work for Google.

Steremberg and and Hassan never did work for Google. (John Battelle, in his book “The Search” referred to them as the “missing Beatles.)” Hassan joined a startup called eGroups. He now heads Willow Garage, a robotics company. Sergey is a big supporter.

Steremberg had already been involved with Weather Underground since the early 1990s when it emerged from the Interent-based weather database at the University of Michigan. (The name was an homage to the sixties radical group associated with University.) In 1995 Steremberg and the other co-founders had broken it off from Michigan as a separate company. So BackRub was just a student job for him. Steremberg left around the time Hassan departed. In 1998 he became president of Weather Underground.

When Google got its first funding in 1998, Sergey and Larry made sure to give Hassan and Steremberg some equity. And now Steremberg presumably has equity in the Weather Channel.

Is Microsoft Surface The New Perfect Thing?

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Yesterday Microsoft announced a new device which is claims is both a tablet and a PC. I’ll probably post more about Surface later, probably on Wired.com. But in the meantime I’ve been watching the video of the launch.

This was a very unusual event for Microsoft. The guys from Redmond were totally unselfconscious in picking up a number of Cupertino tropes. On the, um, surface the MS execs aped the fresh enthusiasm with which Steve Jobs (and now Tim Cook and other exec) discussed his products. Clearly Steve Ballmer, Steve Sinofsky and (product GM) Panos Panay were passionate about the company’s new creation, even choked up about it.

But underneath the (here goes again) surface, the energy and emotion seemed rooted in liberation. Freed of farming out hardware implementation to partners, Microsoft was exulting in the opportunities to do cool things in the guise of whole widgetry. They got geeky about the nature of how design was deeply built into the new devices, down to its chemistry and materials. It was refreshing to see.

As I said, I’ll write later about the prospects for Surface. But as someone who’s written a lot about the Apple design process, particularly in my book The Perfect Thing, I saw a lot of parallels. And don’t call me crazy for wondering whether some folks on the Surface team had picked up my book. Panos Panay spoke at length about the concept of “perfect” as a motivating factor in the creation of Surface. The word was like a mantra for him.

In addition, he and the others dwelt on one symbol of the care and hard work deeply built into the new device: the crisp crackle that comes when the much touted smart cover snaps onto the tablet.
In The Perfect Thing, I have a long passage about coolness in a product. The legendary Israeli tech investor Yossi Vardi went on a quest to understand, and possibly capture the recipe, for coolness. He gathered all the information about great products and experiences. But ultimately, he found there was no code to crack.

He was left with one possibly apocryphal anecdote, about when the Japanese were building the Lexus. Their goal was to make something as cool as a Mercedes. They identified one particular trait: the solid, bizarrely satisfying click made when a Mercedes door shut. They tried to analyze why that sound arose. And they learned that it could not be easily replicated. It could only come when the entire rim of the door snugly closed against the chassis in an exact fit–a consequence of the painstaking planning and execution in every aspect of the car.

“The click came as a consequence of the way the door was, the care they took to make that,” Vardi told me. “And that was a consequence that stood for the perfection of the door.”

I’m not sure whether the Surface team studied my book or not. But I do know one thing: they consistently used one comparison to describe the sound and the feeling you get when the cover of their tablet clicks into place: a door shutting on a high-end luxury car.

Impatience is a Virtue: Year One of Larry Page’s Reign

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

It’s been a busy couple of days at Google. Three pieces on Wired.com about the company, two of which dealt with Larry Page’s one-year anniversary.

The first is an essay on Larry Page’s anniversary as CEO.

Number two is a report on the latest from the company’s shoot-for-the-moon skunkworks, Google[x]. Project Glass is Google’s long-rumored digital heads-up display that lets you do everything a smart phone does in a no-hands, Phil K. Dick style.

Finally, today Larry Page posted a memo to the public about his thoughts after completing a year as CEO and beginning a new one. Here’s my take on it. What I really like about it is that it jibes pretty well with what I’ve been writing about Google and Page for the past few months. He even echoed the key word in my piece the day before–impatience.

To those who have been impatient for Larry Page to address the public, he’s come through nicely.

Google, April 1, and the Trouble With Tricks When You Know They’re Coming

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

April 1 is Google’s high holiday.  Since its earliest days, Google has pulled pranks on its users.   Once, as I relay in my book, Sergey Brin even tricked employees into thinking that shares of the company would soon be revalued, causing some to borrow money to buy their options immediately.  (Google had to square up.)

More generally, I have noticed that over the years, Google has gravitated from small tricks to elaborate presentations of outlandishly extravagant initiatives, often having to do with artificial intelligence. Supposedly the joke was that people might be inclined to believe that Google was unveiling stuff that was many years away from reality.  But the real joke was that even the scariest plans that Google joked about were the kind of thing that Google’s leaders actually dreamed about.   In that sense, Google makes fun of itself.  Sort of.

Even though that the Principle of Internet Idiocy applies to April Fool’s jokes, it’s pretty hard to trick people on 4/1 anymore.  (For those who don’t know, here is the Principle of Internet Idiocy:  when constructing a satire, it is impossible to imagine anything so outrageous that someone on the Internet won’t think it’s real.    Jonathan Switft would have a tough time in this century.)    One can predict with 100 percent certainty that on April Fool’s day, Google will produce many elaborate parodies–Wikipedia is already listing fifteen this year–requiring a lot of initiative.  (The most shocking thing Google could ever do on April 1 is nothing.)  Spontaneity is not a factor—for some employees the project is part of their job.

Left with that, we can only judge Google’s efforts by literary or entertainment value, which can be considerable. But none really deliver the sting of a joke that lures you into thinking, “Is this real?” then ups the ante by being so outrageous that you realize you’ve been stung.  I found Google’s main trick this year to be less of a prank than a slickly produced parody of Google’s ethos and the way it communicates it.   (The same with today’s fake Gmail announcement of a version that uses Morse Code–it’s a very funny parody of a self-congratulatory product announcement but when you’re done you say to yourself, “Hey, it actually is hard to type on a smartphone. Who’s the real butt of this joke?”)

The NASCAR thing is a straightforward description of a partnership between Google and NASCAR to create autonomous racing stock cars.  The home page links to a blog post, supposedly written by Sergey.  The post is poker-faced, only veering in the last minute with a joke about passengers in Google cars being about to eat sushi while driving.

Personally, I would have spiced with up with a head-on treatment of how Google cars would have channeled the hootch-running past of NASCAR—maybe fueling the cultural divide between Googlers and stock car racing aficionados–but that’s just me.

While Google gets high marks for execution, the joke itself really isn’t a mind stretcher.  A driverless NASCAR entry is really not so far-fetched.  I bet if Googlers worked on it for a few years, they could produce something that could actually win the Daytona 500.    Even if some clueless folks forget what day it is and retweets this as fact, you can’t really say they’re very gullible.   NASCAR itself posted a pretty amusing video with scenes of Sergey in a Google stock car (some real cash was spent on this!), and top drivers commenting on it. The drivers seemed to be in the joke, but the fans interviewed – good ole boys out of central casting who seemed repelled at the concept—took it as real.

And you can’t blame them. The fact is that the real world is much weirder than parody these days.  Compare Google’s driverless NASCAR to some of the news items we have seen over the past year (think: GOP primaries).  Stuff routinely occurs that one could not have predicted in a million years.  Stuff that makes even the craziest April Fool’s stunts look sedate.    And now think of this:  if Google in 2003 announced that it had developed self-driving cars, everyone would have taken this as a crazy joke.  But only a few years later, it’s totally real.

Absurdists have good reason to “feel lucky.”   The real world shocks us every day.  But there are no surprises when Google—and just about every other tech website in the world—feels compelled to come up with hoaxes on the one day when people expect to see hoaxes.    And that’s why April 1 is the dullest day of the year.

 

Driving Mis(information) Daisey: Theatre, Journalism, Truth and Greed

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

 

OK, I know it’s not Google.  But here are some thoughts on the Mike Daisey thing.

A theatre monologuist is not the same as a non-fiction journalist. The former is more like a roman a clef novelist, entitled to reengineer the pesky truth to shape a talk into a play. The latter cannot entertain even for a second the prospect of fabrication.

Daisey’s play obviously (to me) took liberties. I don’t hold him to his ludicrous self-portrayal as an over-the-top Apple fanboy (pre-China.) It set up what was to come. But presenting Apple’s alleged atrocities as first-person observation is something else, especially since he was explicitly asking for change. Even so, if somewhere,–maybe in the program or in interviews–he indicated he was fictionalizing what his readings told him was a situation worth exposing, it would have been ok. (Why not include a bibliography in the program?) His job as playwright is to move us in the theatre.

Explaining what was real and not might have made for less on an impact. But he wasn’t entitled to the impact–and celebrity buzz–of a witness. Only to the impact of a dramatist who wanted to make a point.

Instead, he presented himself as a witness in the controversy itself, and replayed his fictions in non-fiction settings, like the NY Times op-ed page. And he seems to have intentionally misled This American Life to regard his fabrications as fact. He doesn’t seem to have done this for the cause of Chinese workers, but self-aggrandizement and profit. It helped his play and his brand.

(Also, implicit in his presentation was that actual reporters couldn’t get the real stories from workers that he, a clueless theatre guy, got by pure gumption. Now we know that he made up his encounters, from stories written by real reporters.)

Daisey’s lame explanation–not really an apology–ignores his greed. I hope when he creates his next play–I expect it to be about this controversy–he accepts his culpability and examines why he behaved so cravenly. If so, it should be terrific.

Who’s Got the Silver? Khan Academy gets Google’s First Employee

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

 

Google’s very first employee—hired when the company was still working from its founders’ Stanford dorm rooms—is out of there. It came out today that after fourteen years at Google, Craig Silverstein would leave the company to work for Khan Academy, an educational startup that is itself a child of YouTube.

Craig was known for many things, but in the past few years most reporters connected with him as a mercurial commentator on Google culture. His gentle touch was instrumental in forming that culture. In the early days he would bring go around the cubicles crying out, “Bread!” and distributing loaves he’d baked himself. For the past few years he seemed to have a flexible portfolio, moving between New York and Mountain View. He was one of a surprising number of very early Googlers who, though rich enough to live like pashas without ever working again, have stuck with thecompany. Every so often one of those early employees peels off. Still, a number of the first group of employees— like Susan Wojicki (ads), Urs Hölzle (infrastructure), Salar Kamanger (YouTube), and Marissa Mayer (local) — still work long hours at key Google jobs. They can recall when just about the entire company could fit into a van for a ski trip. Now, if the Motorola Mobility deal goes through (word is that’s imminent) Google’s headcount will approach 50,000. That’s a lot of vans.

Though Craig has concentrated on culture in recent years, his technical chops were instrumental in getting the young company off the ground. A number of early employees I talked to mentioned that Silverstein’s tech prowess was one sign that the company was serious about hiring the best talent. And Craig himself was a great source for In the Plex, enduring multiple interviews.

Best of luck, Craig! Google will miss you.