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

In the Plex by Steven Levy
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's review
Dec 22, 2011

liked it

In The Plex was good but it was a little long and wasn't especially focused. Google is super important and interesting though, so I'm glad I read it. Some thoughts:

1. Google is the company most likely to invent real Artificial Intelligence. It's an explicit goal and they have the data and computer power to do it. "From the very start, it's founder saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence." Google is the largest manufacturer of computer servers in the world and they are all linked together using Google File System. Larry Page is a supporter of Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity University. They even say that they see the future of Google as an implant in your brain. They have become super paranoid about leaking details about this kind of thing though, especially after some of the recent PR failures around privacy.

2. Google is incredibly fucking full of itself. They alllways see themselves as the underdog, which makes them defensive. Tim Armstrong tells a story about how they tried to sell ads to GM in 2005 and they said "Who does car research online?" I mean it is possible GM was that dumb, but by 2005 I think the internet and Google were pretty widely known and even someone at GM would have been embarrassed to have zero internet strategy.
They are also rude and almost a parody of bratty internet entrepeneurs. There is a story about Larry going to a formal dinner with Prince Phillip and then eating the souffle incorrectly. When Marissa politely tells him he's doing it wrong he tells her "Who says?" Seriously? Grow the fuck up. Also: Larry and Sergey made the building engineers redo the air filtration systems because they are "very sensitive people" and "they smell things most of us don't smell." It is possible if everyone had this advanced sense of smell we would all realize that Google's shit actually doesn't stink.
They also seem to ignore people that don't look like them - engineers from traditional prestige schools. It takes everyone to run that company and failing to recognize that just makes it harder to achieve your ultimate goals. They even kept asking people for SAT scores even after their own internal data proved that it had a poor correlation with success at the company, which was the only time I can remember in the whole book when they explicitly over-ruled a piece of data. This leads to embarrassing problems during the dogfooding process - like when they released Chrome and nobody realized it didn't work with Hotmail, or when they released Buzz and didn't realize people would freak out if their top email contacts were made public.

3. Building a search engine is really hard and Bing, etc will have a tough time catching up. "Crawling, indexing, relevance of results and speedy delivery" are the four core steps in a search and they are really hard to do right and take a ton of computer resources to do. I wish it had actually gone more in depth into exactly how this works, but Google has a huge lead because the more searches you process the more data you have about what people click on and the more you can improve your results. You need a ton of these searches to get anything meaningful. Even then, 1/3 of all searches are virgin requests.

4. Lessons for Newsroot: Google focuses on data, simplifies things in the minds of 1) consumers and 2) its own engineers. The initial Google layout succeeded partially because it was so simple and clear and it had a great brand. Internally, its very clear what people should be trying to improve - speed and the "long clicks" that indicate people have found what they want. When Google gets away from easily measured results like in +1, Orkut, Buzz, Wave, etc it does a lot worse. Give people simple, clear goals that are measurable with a single number and they will continually improve.
They designed their offices for human density, like a trading floor or a successful city. They use the "corporation as housewife" model - they take care of people's laundry, etc as much as possible to recreate the dorm because they view the American university system as the greatest incubator of innovation in history.
People want to be managed. They like it when they have direction and goals. Google thought people didn't and tried to implement that in their organizational structure but it failed.
Being born of the web and focusing on that is a huge advantage. It helped Google beat Microsoft. It will help us.
Speed is a feature, and something that is even a little faster will often feel better and win users.
Don't get ahead of yourself - Google had GDrive, which sounded like an awesome Dropbox competitor, but killed it because they thought everything should be on the cloud and nobody would care about individual files. Don't kill something that's good now because your philosophy says people shouldn't like it.
"You don't want to buy companies that want to sell."
"Freshness" of search results is huge.
Recruiting people: everyone wants to work on changing the world and where their product and ideas can gain traction and affect people.
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Reading Progress

December 22, 2011 – Started Reading
December 22, 2011 – Shelved
January 2, 2012 – Finished Reading

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