How Google Works - Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

Having read Googled to get the outsider's view, it was nice to discover this rather recently-published book giving an insider's point of view. The authors are senior people, so it's hopefully a good view, although there's then a question of whether they're disconnected from the trenches in an organisation of tens of thousands.

In any case, it offers a compelling vision of what work should be like. There's a decent risk that it's overselling what really goes on at Google, and that my starting to work there will be a disappointment, but there are many things in there that just seems sensible. For example, why not make everyone's objectives publicly visible? Furthermore, if you decouple objectives from feeding directly into other processes, you can encourage people to set themselves really challengning objectives and then appraise themselves objectively, rather than game the system.

The book focuses rather heavily on "smart creatives". Personally, I find the term annoyingly smug, but I guess you need a shorthand code for a particular type of person, the Silicon-Valley-style engineer who thinks rationally and is a self-starter. And of course, the word "smart" is excellent for PR - everyone likes "smart" (you might be bullied for being a swot, or a clever-clogs, but never for being smart). At the end of it all, though, despite the label, smart creatives are the kind of people I want to work with.

I think there are some industries where a lot of this book doesn't apply, or at least apply easily. Google has chosen scalable problems - ones where someone can think hard, write some code, and the rest is automation. Bespoke, high-touch is somewhat different (think creating TV shows or arranging M&A) - you still need smart creatives, but arranged differently. And the approach isn't uniform - Google has everything-as-engineering, with ugly design, and Apple seems to lead from the top for "you will like it like this" design that still seems to involve plenty of smart creatives.

Other industries just have lots of non-smart-creatives. Who are you going to staff your call centres with? I'm guessing that the Google solution is that they'll eventually replace them with robots! The distinction is made, but not very clearly, between Smart Creatives and empowered employees. Empowered employees are a good thing, even if they're not top of their class at a world-class university. Hiring for the right attitude is vital, although if you're Google and work is highly leveraged, you can hold out for top talent and the right attitude.

And in other areas, you can have all the Smart Creatives you like, but you won't get rapid innovation. Basic research doesn't get you results on demand, and while you can create an environment that stifles it, you can't just set up the right environment and expect quick results. Put another way, there's a reason Google hasn't cured cancer yet.

Despite all this, this is a book I would, and indeed have, recommended to friends and colleagues. Understanding the ideas will give you something to apply to your own industry, and encourage you to think "Why can't we do this?". In short, a decent shot of optimism and enthusiasm.

Having read this book, how do I feel about my own employment? Slightly mixed. I am keen to work in a place like this, even if it's not quite as good as the book. On the other hand, do I feel qualified as a smart creative? I realistically feel that I do have elements of it. One thing I think I'm missing is the "make it better" attitude - I tend to think what we've got right now is good enough, and end up surprised when an improvement comes along and delivers. On the other hand, I'm always keen to learn new things and take new approaches, so I'm hoping to pick the attitude up on the job!

Posted 2015-05-05.