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The Google Way

Bernard Girard
Published by No Starch Press
ISBN: 978-1-59327-184-8
256 pages
£ 19.99
Published: 3rd April 2009
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the June 2009 issue (pdf), (html)

The Google phenomenon has spawned quite a number of books about the company's history and the reasons for its success. David Vise's The Google Story was published in 2006 and is an interesting and mostly admiring factual history of Page and Brin and the company that they built, drawing its moral and practical conclusions mainly only implicitly. Also published in 2006 was The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle, which I have not read.

This year at least two books have been published which try to draw more explicit lessons from Google's success for others to learn from: one is What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, and another is this book The Google Way by Bernard Girard.

There will undoubtedly be more such books, because the Google phenomenon is so extraordinary, and because there is a natural human tendency to try to look at any greatly successful individual or organisation (Caesar, Napoleon, Microsoft…) and try to boil down the essence of their success into a formula, a magic medicine which, if you take two drops of it each day, can give you the same success.

However, this book does not come into the category of those cruder “self-help” histories that fall too easily into the trap of post hoc ergo propter hoc and prompt the critical reader want to ask the author “if you know so much about how it's done, then why are you writing books and not a billionaire / world emperor / whatever?”.

Girard's book was originally published in French in 2008. He explicitly makes large claims for what can be learned from Google: the introduction is entitled “A Management Breakthrough”, and throughout the book he looks at particular attitudes, working practices and strategies that Google has adopted and analyses why he thinks they have been so powerful.

The author seems to draw on quite a lot of insider knowledge for some of the detail of his descriptions of what goes on at the Googleplex, and to some extent breaks through the company's combination of openness about the wider generalities of how they work and secrecy about the detail.

Despite often talking as though Google's overall approach constitutes unique genius, when discussing the details Girard is more than ready to admit that many of the particular features that he singles out had been adopted with success in the past by other companies. So, for example, Google's well-known “20 per cent” rule (one fifth of your time for your own projects) was anticipated by similar practices years ago at 3M and HP. Similarly Google's preference for small teams is not unique, and nor is its understanding of why there is an optimum team size for many kinds of collaborative work.

The book particularly emphasises the contribution of unfettered research (try something and see what it might lead to) and of a deliberately fostered culture of peer review as factors in Google's innovative fertility. Girard is also impressed by the company's policy of “recruiting the best”, devoting a chapter to hiring practices in which he details an extraordinary emphasis on extremely thorough interviewing and selection methods. He quotes a figure of one Google employee in 14 working in recruitment in 2005 (presumably this is quite apart from the highly organised but very time consuming process of informal but very exacting “peer interviewing” that puts every successful candidate through perhaps eight separate interviews). He includes an example of what he claims is a genuine Google Labs Aptitude Test question: his example is a rather wacky “psychological” question based on a social situation (on your first day at Google, you discover that your cubicle mate wrote the textbook you used as a primary resource at graduate school, followed by humorous multiple choice suggested reactions). I suspect this is not typical.

I was impressed by the description of how Google has automated the process of advertising sales and customer relationships, and also by the author's speculation that the particular personalities of Page, Brin and Schmidt make the triumvirate at the top particularly productive and stable.

The book concludes with some interesting speculations about the future (“Can Google Evade Conformity” and “A look ahead”).

I have one criticism of the design of the book: for some reason No Starch Press have decided that each chapter should begin with a page that is half blank and half set in super-sized text (about 18pt). I suspect that I will not be alone in finding this style annoying and pretentious.

I found this an interesting book about a very interesting phenomenon, and I can recommend it.

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