Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 by Douglas Edwards

I've come to realize that I enjoy a good biographical or autobiographical book - you get to see mostly the highlights of a period of time, to get some more insight, some more backstory.  I enjoyed the Conrad Hilton story and DisneyWar and I definitely enjoyed this one.  The downside to biographical books is that at some point the book ends but history moves on.  This was less frustrating because the period covered (1999-2005) is still fresher in my mind and the details explained were ones I had lived through as a customer.

This was a really good read - it was fascinating to learn what went on inside Google, but provided some cautionary tales as well.

The takeaways I got from it:

* You really have to give someone something to believe in.  It would be harder (but not impossible) to foster that kind of culture within our large, old non-profit.  But it has to feel special, it has to be something people want to be a part of.

* You always need to be hiring people smarter than yourself. I've often heard it said that "Wow, if I was being interviewed today, I wouldn't get hired."  I know that's not entirely true, but on the other hand, it's because we're there, we're smart and we're improving the process.  Therefore, we need to continue to bring in smarter and smarter people to shake things up and make sure we're doing the right things.

* Trust the data and test, test, test.  Take risks, but make sure you can measure them.  Don't use the testing as an excuse not to intuit or move quickly and boldly.  If you're transparent, apologies will be accepted and mistakes forgotten quickly.

* Move fast.  (There wasn't entire sections on having to refactor code so that your Google sign-on worked flawlessly everywhere.  That wouldn't have made for a good story, but you know it eventually came.  But what they did do was execute quickly, improvise, enhance and test.)

* Keep the customer the focus.  While it's true that in some cases they did things and then waited for the customers to figure out, it was also very apparent that they were focused on improving the lives of their customers.  They weren't free of quibbles and squabbles, but they still kept the focus on the customer.  And the customers love(d) them for it.

* People are brilliant.  (Committees aren't.  Give people space and tools to prove it.)

* Manage your own career. (The author worked hard, accomplished a lot, but in the end, found himself without a place as the world shifted around him.)

* All startups slow down. (What made Google so crazy in the early days wasn't sustainable.  But they were wise enough to realize that they needed to diversify and have additional revenue-generating products.)

* Don't kill Google Reader.  Ok, that one wasn't in there, but I have to say it.

* Set unreasonable goals (but only a reasonable number at the same time) - Google made some giant leaps because their lives depended on it and they believed they could.  And so they did.

* Things are solvable.  Forget everything else and pick a problem and solve it.  You will be rewarded for it.  Do it repeatedly and you'll change the world.  (Look at all the random stuff they're doing, from glasses to cars... why?  To solve fun and interesting challenges.  Sure, there's a lot of potential money there, but it's also gotta be a lot of fun.)

* Stay connected to your people.  If you insulate yourself, you will lose touch. (They had a regular Friday afternoon meeting that introduce new staff and highlight stuff that had been accomplished that week.)

* Leave margin.  Leave time for legitimate (not forced) fun, leave time for group celebrations (not forced).

* Always be producing.  They had a system that everyone had to update each week telling what they had been working on.   (If you didn't, it would make up fake and embarrassing stuff and put your name on it.)

* Perk your employees.  Seriously.  Even if you're not going to give them all the free food they want, there are things you can do to make your employees lives better, simpler, easier.  This deserves its own blog post, I think.

* Be open and transparent.  (Some of that was lost when they became a public company, but for the most part, they made data available internally, presented relevant stats regularly and always celebrated their successes.)

If I had any negatives, they're super-minor - I guess I would say that there was a lot of foreshadowing, as if the author felt like he had to keep teasing the next chapter or section, as if I was constantly about to bail.  That and it wasn't exactly linear.  Not that there's anything wrong with it, I just wish that were a little clearer.  As he explored different overlapping themes, he'd start at a relevant point and move forwards, so we slowly progressed from 1999 to 2005, but at a halting pace, sometimes moving backwards.  Again, not necessarily bad, just a little confusing.  That's probably mostly my problem.

The most important thing of all, not necessarily a theme from this book but probably one collectively evident from all biographical works:

* Timing is important, but mostly in retrospect - someone's amazing story could start tomorrow or started last month.  (Including yours.  Are you doing something amazing?  Something exciting?  If not, why not?)
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