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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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