Steven Levy, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
This book started off annoying me by being a little too worshipful of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in my opinion. So clever! So Montessori! These cheeky little geniuses will rock your world! They’re going to take over your brain and you’re going to like it! But it improved early on other histories I’ve read of Google (lest this sound like an unfortunately dull hobby of mine, I mean shorter essays over a period of ten years or so). which tend to focus on a couple of things heavily: the Google Doodles and their approach to raising venture capital. I’ve heard about all I ever want to hear about doodles and Google’s fundraising. Levy doesn’t quite stay away from the latter but it’s mercifully short at least. Instead he gets into things that are more interesting to me, namely the engineering.
He spends a fair portion of the book getting to grips with the basic design of and use-cases of the two key Google products, search and ads, in a way that’s useful to me as someone with a software engineering background, so that was a win. I’m not sure how that would read to people without said background although it didn’t strike me as very technical. Later it deals with some of Google’s key expansions: the creation of its massive set of data centres, the Youtube acquisition, the attempt to become a major search player in China, book scanning and search, and finally, social.
I’ll certainly give Levy credit for finally explaining to me the wisdom that Google “doesn’t get social”, which I hear everywhere and which no one has ever given me a bite-sized cogent explanation for. (This is a terrible admission from someone who is meant to have some idea about the tech industry, yes? But I’m not really your go to person for social either. I use it, but I don’t make sweeping claims about it.) Levy’s bite-sized explanation: Google is philosophically committed to the best answers arising from processing huge amounts of data, and is resistant to cases where the best answers arise from polling one’s friends. Whether it’s true I have no idea but at least it’s truthy.
Levy has created a good history of Google for people especially interested in Google I think, but he largely hasn’t jumped over the bar of making Google into an interesting story for people who don’t have an existing interest in it, in the way that people have done with Enron, for example. There are parts of it that start to get close, particularly the treatment of Google’s expansion into China and its sometime Beijing office. But it’s not quite there. Possibly Levy didn’t have access to enough critical sources, or, if he did, he didn’t use them to their full extent for fear of jeopardising his access to Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt and to the Google campus. (Also, it sounds like Google makes it very hard for any current employee to be an anonymous source.)
Read it if: you are interested in the history of Google, and find them impressive. You don’t need to be a complete fanboy.
Caution for: as noted, not really a book for people seeking a rollicking good story of corporate ups and downs in general; and not really for people looking for really sharp criticism of Google either, although his critical distance certainly increases as the book goes on.