Todd Nemet's Reviews > In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

In the Plex by Steven Levy
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May 28, 11

bookshelves: kindle
Read from April 24 to May 10, 2011

Disclosure: I worked at Google between 2003 and 2009 and consequently I own a couple of shares and if Larry Page would bother sticking around for more than fifteen minutes during earnings calls now that he is CEO the price might get high enough again for me to sell some of them.

Corollary to the previous disclosure: When I do sell some stock, you will be able to tell because the price will rise sharply right after I sell it.

Another disclosure: I know several of the people mentioned in the book, and even I interviewed a few of them and got a referral bonus for one. Quite a few I have a passing acquaintance with, and the rest of the people in this book probably saw me at one point or another on campus and thought "that tall guy looks sort of like Max Ibel."

Completely unrelated disclosure, which is actually an oxymoron if you think about it: A friend and I recently sketched out some ideas for a Google-related movie, which you are all totally invited to invest in. Here is a quick summary of the plot:

OPENING: Europeans sail to the New World, where they are greeted by the ruler of a native tribe. The Europeans wage war against this tribe. Cut to 400 YEARS LATER: A book scanner working on the Google Books project is turning the pages of a copy of History Of The Columbian Peoples and recognizes a headdress his grandfather had on his wall from one of the illustrations in the book. Although he is unable to read that well, he suddenly understands that his people have been oppressed for centuries. He tries to organize his fellow book scanners, but he is just laughed at. His girlfriend leaves him, and then his supervisor writes him up for taking two power drinks instead of the one allotted for his shift. LATER, in his TRUCK: The book scanner is smoking a joint and leafing through the history book that he stole from the scanning room. A security guard sees him and approaches to ask him about a box of organic seaweed snacks that has gone missing from the break room. Thinking he has been caught for stealing the book, the book scanner flees from the security guard and is struck and killed by a shuttle carrying a bunch of full-time employees from San Francisco's Mission District. His last words are, "Seaweed snacks? I don't even like seaweed. ." SLOW FADE TO BLACK as the full-time employees decide to walk the rest of the way to campus rather than wait for the replacement shuttle.

Anyway, that's the gist of it. The working title is "Red Blood On A Yellow Badge," but I am leaning toward "Fingers On The Page" for the final title. I will probably play the part of the book scanner, and we have some emails in to Parker Posey's agent.

Oh yeah, a disclosure that I almost forgot: I ate lunch at Google twice this week to catch up with some friends there. None of them had even heard of this book, which I thought was odd. The free food is in no way influencing this review, though I had this papaya and mango salad with a little bit of hot pepper that was out of this world. And I took three peanut butter cookies despite their proximity to a sign reminding me not to be evil.

With these disclosures out of the way, I will now start my review.

But first, one real quick disclosure: Since leaving Google I have been making a living by helping companies increase the qualified organic traffic to their web site or sites. In other words I help them show up in Google (and Bing) search results for keywords related to their businesses. For lack of a better term, this is called search engine optimization or SEO. Despite the many defects in my character and many areas in which I am lacking knowledge, I am quite good at this for some reason.

I tend to focus on the technical implications of a web site's architecture, and in doing this I always stress strict adherence to established web protocols and the webmaster guidelines laid out by Google and Bing.

(Aside: In SEO argot this is known as "white hat SEO," as opposed to "black hat SEO." "Black hat" SEOs, who try a panoply of tricks to help sites rank higher than they really deserve to for certain keywords, in turn have taken their name from people who break into computer systems to commit crimes. Adopting this terminology allows the so-called "black hat" SEOs to pretend they are super leet -- like Jeff Goldblum uploading a virus into that alien ship in Independence Day -- as they buy links from a pimply-faced Estonian kid with a network of splogs.)

Here's a disclosure that you will probably wish that I could undisclose: As I write this I am wearing only a pair of sweatpants.

So anyway, my review: Matt Cutts tweeted that people who say that Google is just a media company are saying more about themselves than about Google. At the time I thought that was pretty snotty, especially coming from Matt who is an incredibly nice person, but after reading this book I now understand what he meant by that and completely agree with him.

To understand Google you have to get inside the spectrum-y head of Larry Page. I'm pretty sure that the ghosts of Nikola Tesla and Alan Turing and Edwin Armstrong (the inventor of FM who killed himself after RCA basically stole his patents) are using Larry Page as an instrument of their revenge on the world. He is an inventor and an idealist who has managed to amass enough money and the right team to carry out his don't-be-evil plans. There are two other guys who help run Google, but I forget their names.

One more disclosure: I peed one urinal over from Larry Page at the 2008 sales conference in San Francisco.

Whenever you read an article tsk tsking about how Google is being "distracted" or doing something as a "distraction" -- stuff like building self-driving cars, working on several operating systems, releasing entire computer languages into the public domain, funding contests to land probes on the moon -- you are actually reading about the real Google.

The multi-billion dollar revenue machine is certainly nice, but after reading this book I am more certain than ever that it is not the heart and soul of Google. This business is run very carefully by some very smart people, which enables Google to hide its deeply subversive nature from the world for the most part.

Read the Google story and see how deeply subversive enlightened capitalism can be: It's possible to make money and make the world a better place; technological advances can be used for more than just squeezing productivity out of workers; proper values and a focus on the long term turns out actually to be fiscally responsible too.

Compare that with the current M.O. of most of today's businesses, especially in finance, which appears to be this: Descend on anything and everything like a swarm of locusts and extract all possible value as quickly as possible. Leave as little as possible for future generations. (Please read Griftopia by Matt Taibbi if you disagree with this assessment.)

No wonder Wall Street keeps trying to punish Google. They are a threat to the status quo. And in this way Tesla will finally get his revenge, laughing as he glides to heaven on a space tether.

Disclosure: I always like to end with several complaints:

(1) Mr. Levy mentions a particular product manager as single-handedly saving the company several times by acquiring companies or launching certain products, usually against Larry Page's wishes. It made me wonder just how credulous this Mr. Levy is. Dude, you got handled.

(2) The book starts with a story about an APM (associate product manager) trip to Africa. I was very disheartened to read this because this is the kind of inconsequential b.s. that the press latches on to and makes a big deal out of, and I sure as heck wasn't going to read a whole book of it. These trips are more for the press than for the APMs. So just skip that part and then book is completely awesome. (We learn that most of those APMs are gone from Google in a few years anyway. This jibes with my experience that most of the non-technical people joining Google these days are joining so that they can get into a good business school and then maybe, who knows, ultimately run a hedge fund or something. There's not much monetary upside left at Google, but it still looks awesome on a resume and/or grad school application.)

(3) I wish I had this book to read while I was still at Google. Working at Google, especially for someone with a lot of previous industry experience, has some very quirky aspects to it, and I think Google would have made a lot more sense to me if I had access to an objective reference like this.

(4) Really??? Scraping Baidu???? This is some SEO inside baseball, but I about fell off my chair when I read that Google was scraping Baidu's results to figure out what to censor in China. Please someone tell me this isn't true. And Mr. Levy, that is not an "elegant solution," as you put it.
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Comments (showing 1-9)

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Vanessa Fox I was going to comment on how this is the very bestest (and dead on) review in the entire world ever, except now I'm fixated on the fact that you look exactly like Max Ibel and I can't believe I never noticed that before and now I'm suspicious that you are in fact Max and I think the only way to settle this once and for all is to go to Zurich and see you both in the same room.

While we eat fondue and chocolate. That part is integral in learning the truth.

Hank Mishkoff This book is sitting on my desk, waiting to be read. I have a couple of good friends who worked there, I've visited the place myself (and even gave a "TechTalk" [or something like that] presentation there), I'm really looking forward to reading it and learning more about what really goes on in this fascinating place.

residentoddball I suggest you move on from SEO and get into comedy, or at least comedic writing. Your review here was not only informative, but made me LOL quite literally. Thanks for sharing your perspective with a nice twist of funny! :)

message 6: by Todd (last edited May 28, 2011 11:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Todd Nemet Vanessa, thank you for the kind words about my review. I have been in the same room with Max Ibel for a search team meeting in Kirkland, so there are a few people who can vouch that we are different people.

One time Meng (the president picture guy) had an entire conversation with me thinking I was Max. I didn't understand why he just went up to me and started talking until the end when he called me Max.

Stacy Sullivan once came over to me to tell me I looked like him.

He wrote a lot of the scripts on the search appliance, so "maxi" was sort of legendary to me. I didn't meet him until years later.

message 5: by Todd (last edited May 29, 2011 12:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Todd Nemet Hank, I definitely recommend reading the book. It will give you a very good and honest perspective on working there. I wish I had attended more tech talks. I have watched more on AppleTV via the Google YouTube channel than I saw while I worked there.

Todd Nemet Residentoddball, thank you for your comment. You are very kind to suggest that I should write comedy. Way back in the early part of my career I wrote for free comedy magazines in Berkeley and San Francisco.

Technically it was *before* my career because I did most of my writing during a year of unemployment between grad school and my first "real" job. Once I started working full time, comedy (as well as Buddhism) lost their appeal.

Back then I was paid in beer and admiring glances from the female staffers, though it is possible that I imagined the latter due to the former. Neither one is very helpful in supporting a family.

I predict that in a few years SEO will become mainstream enough that there will be a fan base large enough to support comedians whose entire sets are made up of SEO jokes. When that day comes I plan on making the switch to comedy.

P.S. I like how your name has "todd" in it.

residentoddball Todd -- Haha, you noticed the "todd". Can't tell you how many people have asked me, "what is a toddball?" :P

So will you have costumes as part of your schtick? Like a black hat and a white hat? lol...corny yes. Me not as funny as you. ;)

message 2: by Steven (new)

Steven Cole residentoddball, I can attest: Todd was one of the more humorous and enjoyable grad students to teach with, but I'm not sure his students ever learned anything from him that would help pass exams. Damn, office hours were fun.

But I think Todd has learned that if he wants to keep reading all these books, he needs a better paying job than stand-up would provide... ;)

Todd Nemet I forgot to mention that Mr. Levy has an excellent book about the team that launched the Macintosh computer called Insanely Great. I found that book to be very inspiring as well. Highly recommended.

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