Work and Working at Google: Two books help explain the Internet Giant
By Mike Gange
by Douglas Edwards
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pages (2011)
Are You Smart Enough To Work at Google?
Little, Brown and Company, 290 pages (2012)
Our modern world has changed a noun into a verb, as we say, “Just Google it.” It’s a phrase that hardly even existed before 1999.
Behind the faceless search engine is a fascinating story. Douglas Edwards does a great job of pulling back the curtain to show us the inner workings of the Google corporation, in “I’m feeling lucky: the confessions of Google employee number 59.” Edwards joined Google as the Director of Consumer Marketing and Brand Management in 1999, before the noun became a verb. He stayed long enough to become a wealthy man when the common stocks went public.
Edwards describes the early days of the organization as very amoeba-like, without any real structure, save for the sagacious wisdom of the two founding partners, whose final decree was how business disputes got settled. According to Edwards, working at Google was akin to a living in frat-boy funhouse, with rollerblade hockey games taking place in the area of a parking lot blocked off with yellow police crime scene tape. At the end of the road hockey game, the still-wet and stinky hockey gear would be dropped into an office or cubicle while the code-writing engineers would return to their mental challenges, challenges that often kept them in front of their computer screens halfway through the night.
Edwards’ job was to help develop the brand that would become Google. He tells of times when the geeky engineers would not listen to the human side, and Edwards had to be at his most persuasive in order to change single words on the web site. And in the aftermath of 9/11 he had to be the brakeman, keeping the search engine elite from quickly putting up uber-patriotic messages and condolences. Early Google was more vision than corporate control. Edwards, the likeable narrator of this tale, walks us through the minefield of a California-computerland culture as it is trying to gain world acceptance and commercial approval. For almost every decision, the founders of Google relied on mathematical logic and technology to provide solutions.
As Edwards tells his story, the company continues to grow, with empty cubicles or offices filled with a flood of newcomers who don’t always understand the corporate culture, or by those who had bigger designs on how things should be run. One incoming Product Manager soon hooked up with one of the founding partners, using her relationship with him to help her filter, interpret or overturn executive decisions. It seems the on-going Google belief that modern technology could help solve all problems was indeed shaped by human interactions.
Edwards was lucky enough to be hired to provide a human elucidation on the Google brand, just as Google was growing and moving from being a search engine company to so much more – adding extras such as Gmail, Maps, and so on. Surrounded by computer engineers meant he had to constantly rely on mathematical analytics to justify everything he did in marketing. Sometimes things within the organization just did not compute.
Edwards’ story is a good one, told with wit, humor and candidness. He straightforwardly tells some of the arrogance within the company, including this blurb Google ran: “You’re brilliant. We’re hiring.” But it worked, and brought in thousands of resumes.
So, how smart do you have to be to work at Google? William Poundstone tries to answer that in “Are You Smart Enough To Work at Google?” Poundstone explains that getting HR people to pay attention to your CV is hard enough, but then comes a series of on-site interviews, sometimes conducted by those very same computer engineering geeks that had a hard time understanding Doug Edwards when he worked there. And they might ask mathematical questions, such as “How many golf balls can you put inside a school bus?” Or they might present a scenario such as, “you are shrunk to a size of a nickel and put into a blender. The blades will start whirling in one minute. What will you do to survive?”
Poundstone’s book is amusing and provocative. He never does say how to get beyond the CV stage to the interview stage. The bottom line is not to be at a loss for words during a job interview and explain your thinking in any situation. Poundstone’s book certainly adds to the mystique that Google has its own corporate culture. Or at least it did have. As Douglas Edwards pointed out, lots changed with the IPO, when lawyers and stockbrokers started meeting Googlers in the building in company conference rooms.
I’m thinking lots about Google would have changed between the hiring of employee #59 and employee 17,059. The irony of finding out about Internet giant Google via printed books is not lost on me.
MIKE GANGE TEACHES MEDIA STUDIES AT FREDERICTON HIGH.
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