The Google Way

How One Company Is Revolutionizing Management as We Know It
Despite the Over-The-Top Title, a Pretty Good Read on What Makes Google Tick as Told Through Interviews With Former Googlers.

Google is young enough that there are still people on staff that go back to its beginnings, yet has been around long enough that they’ve had its share of challenges along the way to becoming an established technology leader. In The Google Way, Bernard Girard writes from interviews with former staffers and other sources about what makes Google different than other technology companies, how that was achieved and what kinds of challenges Google is starting to face today. The author’s background is a management consultant, so it’s not surprising that he focuses on how Google manages its employees.

In the book, there are three sections: the elements that make the company successful, what Google’s founder’s philosophy is and a look at some of the challenges facing google in the future. Running through the book are two themes: one is finding the right balance between what people are good at and what can be automated effectively, another is putting users first as summed up in Larry Page’s mantra “Put users first, the rest will follow.” This emphasis of putting user’s needs ahead of marketing needs often puts pressure on the company- pressure that they have so far avoided caving into.

In The Google Way, he places the company’s founders in a history of innovators going back to Ford’s assembly line to less-successful innovators like Xerox’s experience PARC and other American businesses. As he sees it, Google has made several innovations in areas ranging from people and team management to product conception by re-examining deeply-held business-school beliefs. Either modifying them or rejecting them outright in favour of their ideas, ideas usually based on the work of other researchers thanks to Google’s ties to academia that provides an on-going source of ideas and talent. Google’s founders are good at taking ideas from different disciplines and applying them to solve new problems.

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The major part of the book looks at ten factors, grouped into a section called “A Formula 1 Engine”, that sets Google apart. Bernard makes the point that Google’s success comes from the process, specifically finding and hiring first-rate people, then making effective use of them. These principals range from the well-known 20% rule allowing staff to work on personal projects, to recruiting practices and creating small teams with goals that can be achieved quickly. Each section ends by asking if the point applies to other companies. There’s a lot of interesting examples of how Google’s principals are being implemented in other businesses. Maybe none more than the French restaurant (p. 225) that lets sous-chefs invent new dishes that get put on an experimental menu for customers to, um, beta test. As Girard points out, no organization should expect to be successful by copying these ideas as-is, but rather look at them as ideas that could be adapted to other situations.

The last part of the book looks at some of the challenges Google will face. These challenges range from cultural (Google works best in English), governmental (Privacy concerns, regulation) to business (areas where there are strong competitors like corporate search or applications like mail or office application) as well as company politics (employee shareholders, different classes of employees). This is perhaps the most relevant section given the news over the past few months that Google is closing down some of their less-successful projects. It’s easy to write about what the company is doing right, but while confident they can overcome them, here Girard writes about where he expects Google to encounter problems in the near-term.

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The Google Way focuses on what has made the company successful, namely its ability to harness the talents of its staff and continue to attract new talent. It’s recommended summer reading.