I'm Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee Number 59

What was it like to know Larry and Sergey in the company's early days?

I'm Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee Number 59
Douglas Edwards
Allen Lane, 432pp, £20

Perhaps I've been seduced by The Social Network into thinking that the story of every tech start-up should be an epic struggle involving clashing egos and sullen geniuses. Office rivalries, marketing meetings and arguments about fonts are never going to have the same allure.

And so it was on page 28 of I'm Feeling Lucky that I realised Doug Edwards and I might have rather different opinions on what constitutes an exciting book about the early days of Google. Here is the paragraph that did it: "'As of last night, Google's result font has become sans-serif,' engineer Marissa Mayer announced to the company at large. 'We tested the change and Larry and I reviewed it with some other engineers who were here and offered opinions about it.'" A heated discussion ensues about the way in which the engineers -- Google's hyperkinetic worker bees -- have once again forged forwards, ignoring Doug's cooler head.

To be fair, I'm Feeling Lucky doesn't aspire to be a warts-and-all portrayal of life at Google. Edwards clearly feels loyal to the company that rescued him from being a marketing manager at a struggling local newspaper, introduced him to a whiplash-smart set of geeks and made him a very rich man.

The book covers the mid-section of Google's ascent: Edwards joined as its 59th employee in 1999 and left six years later when the company went public, which made many of its staff instant millionaires. If there is an arc to the narrative -- it sometimes feels more like a string of hard-fought battles, often against his bête noire, Marissa -- it is the account of how Google "grew up".

When Edwards went for his job interview, the company's co-founder Sergey Brin, then 26, turned up wearing gym gear and inline skates. Another early employee, he records, was interviewed on Hallowe'en as "Sergey, attired in a full-size cow suit, absent-mindedly stroked his rubber udder".

The office, or "Googleplex", was similarly free and easy. There were free meals in the cramped staff canteen, free massages from on-site therapists and a notable absence of job titles and hierarchy. But over time, as Google won ever bigger contracts to supply search for the likes of Yahoo and AOL, the playfulness got squeezed to the margins. In 2001, Brin and his "twin" Larry Page, who had written Google's original search algorithm together while still at Stanford University, took on a Wall Street-friendly heavy hitter, Eric Schmidt, to be their public face and to transmit their commands to the workforce. A painful reorganisation followed, which left many engineers nursing grievances (or redundancy notices).

As Edwards tells it, Google's rise to world dominance was never seriously in jeopardy but there were missteps along the way. Remember Froogle? Few people do and it has now been rebranded as Google Product Search. Then there was Orkut, a prototype social network developed by one of the firm's engineers in his “20 per cent" -- the fifth of the week that workers were allowed to devote to pet projects. Conceived around the same time as Mark Zuckerberg was annoying the Winklevoss twins with a little website called the Facebook, Orkut was launched without a full workover by the company and users soon began to find ways to spam each other. It was big in Brazil and India but flopped everywhere else. (A similar fate awaited the company's next stab at social media, Buzz, but that hasn't stopped it having another go with Google+, this time throwing its full technical weight behind the project.)

Although Edwards rarely says so explicitly, it is clear that his relationship with Page and Brin became more distant as the years went on, which can give the disconcerting impression that there's a better book happening somewhere just down the corridor. The co-founders are fascinating and elusive: you are left with the impression of two hugely talented workaholics, perpetually bemused that human behaviour isn't as simple and easy to predict as their beloved algorithms. This shows in the debates over privacy. Even though Edwards left before the company ran into a storm over Street View (which stored people's wifi network data), he weathered the outcry over targeted advertising and Gmail, which both involved using huge amounts of personal information in pursuit of revenue.

By the time the company was ready to go public, Edwards's role had been marginalised and reduced to almost nothing. He decided to leave, had an exit interview "with an HR staffer I had never met before" and found himself at the supermarket a week later, realising that his newfound wealth meant he no longer had to buy whichever ice cream was on sale (he's since set up a blog for "Xooglers" -- ex-Googlers).

As marketing manager, Edwards was always against Google publicising its "Don't be evil" motto, arguing that the words would be used as a stick with which to beat it every time it did something controversial. But at the end of the book, he insists that it isn't the frightening behemoth its critics would like us to think. Google obsessives and marketers will want to read I'm Feeling Lucky to learn how an unorthodox company communicated with the world in its early years but there is too much emphasis on meetings and minutiae to make it appealing to general readers. With a heavy irony, what this book about the world's best search engine needs is a better filtering system, to find the nuggets of interest amid the humdrum.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide