Review: I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59

I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59I’m Feeling Lucky is an entertaining look at Google’s start-up days by Douglas Edwards, a marketing professional who was Google’s 59th employee. Edwards tells a story about being brand manager in a company where marketing wasn’t much valued. This could be described as unenviable, if not for the value of the stock options he received which should have made even the worst of his experiences bearable in retrospect.

Edwards portrays himself as a hapless naive soul in over his head, which makes for a fun narrative. There are plenty of good anecdotes, like the time when Matt Cutts’s wife had the idea of baking free “porn cookies” as a reward for everyone who helped test the new Google porn filter – “Search for porn, get a cookie” was the unmissable incentive. There’s also an account of the challenges of establishing Google in China, when Edwards is sent there to find a new Chinese name for the brand because “while Yahoo’s name translated as ‘elegant tiger,’ ours was rendered with characters that meant ‘old dog.’”

The section about how the company reacted on and after September 11th is really fascinating. I remember at the time wondering what the decision-making process was behind the content which appeared then on the Google homepage and it’s interesting to see this explained.

Since the story ends over six years ago, when the author left Google in April 2005, it doesn’t provide an up-to-date insider’s view of how Google operates today. However, there’s still a lot here which is helpful for understanding the issues the company now faces. There’s a vivid picture of the culture clash between engineering and marketing in an engineering-lead environment and some memorable vignettes of bosses Larry Page and Sergey Brin – such as the following anecdote, where Sergey sets out his ambitions for Google’s future:

“Speed is an issue for me,” [Sergey] said, “… If search engines were faster and better, they could be integrated into your thought process.” He saw Google becoming an invisible component in every user’s decision-making, not just a tool for finding a particular fact. Apparently “brain-integration” was one of our hitherto undisclosed corporate goals.

Sergey’s stated aims for Google becoming an “invisible component” in every user’s decision making is revealing – given that recent critiques like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Everything” and Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble” have lamented the effects of Google’s “invisible” personalisation and default options in shaping the way people are now receiving news and other information.

Another fascinating section for current concerns about the company comes from the discussion of attitudes towards privacy issues. Now that governments across Europe are legislating on providing explicit opt-outs for tracking cookies, it’s interesting to see the stated reasoning behind Google’s initial cookies policy. Edwards writes:

What if we let users opt out of accepting our cookies altogether? I liked that idea, but Marissa [Mayer] raised an interesting point. We would clearly want to set the default as “accept Google’s cookies.” If we fully explained what that meant to most users, however, they would probably prefer not to to accept our cookie. So our default setting would go against users’ wishes.

…so it was better not to open the issue up at all. The vehemence of management insistence that there were no privacy issues with Google indicates that they were very aware that privacy concerns could be a serious problem – such as in the following account of Sergey’s reaction to early PR problems with Gmail:

Sergey paced the office like a tiger in a tiny cage, commanding us to set up a war room to deal with the problem, demanding we put up more information on the site, and insisting that we tell everyone, “There is no privacy issue.”

The conflict between Google’s need as a company to make money out of mining user-supplied data for ad personalisation and it’s desire to portray itself as a friend of user privacy is obviously something which continues to this day.

There’s also an interesting account of how Google’s original social network “Orkut” got set up, in a section called “The Antisocial Network”, which shows how Google lost out on an opportunity to compete with Facebook early on.

Edward’s narrative overall is undeniably rose-tinted, but he doesn’t avoid criticism of Google where it’s due – as in this part of his closing analysis:

Is Google secretive? No question. Arrogant? Maybe. Tone-deaf to the concerns of the very users it claims to serve? Occasionally. But evil? I don’t think so.

This is a fun read for a business/tech book and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone’s who’s interested in Google, search or the history of the web.

I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 is written by Douglas Edwards and published by Allen Lane.

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