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

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era