Googled - Ken Auletta

Subtitled "The End of the World as We Know It", you know you're in for some hyperbole... prepare to be disappointed.

It's actually a fairly level-headed book, with views from both within and outside of the company. It's a little bit long in the tooth now (2011), but covers the history before that point pretty well.

Why this book? Conventional logic says you should research a company before taking a job offer, but Google has a pretty well-known reputation, so I wasn't too worried. On the other hand, I then spotted this book in a charity shop and thought it'd be silly not to take the chance to read a bit more, so here we are....

The book runs through the history of Google right from its start (shock!). It looks like the author had good access to the senior people, as well as people in other industries, and it does cover both the business practicalities and the culture.

Not a huge amount was a great surprise, which is perhaps a good thing if I'm going to be working there. Perhaps the biggest thing was the framing of the company as a media company - how it interacts with news, books, video companies etc. I think this is perhaps something of a rabbit/duck optical illusion, as I've always thought of it as a tech company, but I think the media angle is entirely fair.

This has made me think harder about my previous workplace. Google engineers everything it does - mostly in this search/ads/media kind of space. It's tech applied to an area. Investment banks are not like this. They talk about the tech, but it's not really primary - the engineering mindset does not run the place.

It's not even clear that an engineering mindset should run the place. There are a lot of human factors involved, and the whole thing is much more like old-school advertising than Google's automated ad auctions. Regulatory interactions certainly don't look rational. Hyper-rational optimisation behaviour can look very close to market manipulation.

There are places in finance where engineering-led quantitative mindsets rule. Various hedge funds and high-frequency trading shops do very well from this. Retail banks, dealing with scale and the change to digital technology, try the mindset, although I think it's difficult to instill in huge organisations that don't have it already. Certain parts of IBs have the engineering mindset. As a whole, though, they do not.

Back to this book: It talks a fair amount about Google's "Don't be evil" corporate policy. It does genuinely seem to be believed, but largely from the user experience end of things ("Don't be evil to the customer"). Stomping into new areas and whacking incumbents and destroying existing business models does not count as evil, even if you've been previously cooperating with those people. There does seem to be a consistency and logic to it.

Overall, it's not bad. Not an exciting page-turner, but a solid business analysis. For a bonus, you get a big pile of the author's business maxims at the back - I think he's observed behaviour across Silicon Valley and couldn't resist trying to codify the effective business practices, and it's kind of interesting. In short, I wouldn't buy a copy new, but would be happy enough to get it second-hand.

Posted 2015-04-28.