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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses