A Keynote Conversation with Steven Levy

March 10, 2011
By Lisa Barone in Internet Marketing Conferences

Good morning, friends! It’s the final day of SMX West. Can you believe it? It feels like we just got here!  Time flies when you’re learning good stuff and surrounded by even better people.  I’ve had some absolutely great conversations with folks this week, so thanks to everyone who made my SMX.  This is the best industry in the world!

Enough gushing, Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman are up on stage and getting ready to chat with Steven Levy about the state of search.

Steven is a senior writer for Wired magazine, has previously worked with Newsweek, and has written a bunch of books. He’s basically living my life. Or at least the life I’d have if I was cooler.  Steven wrote a book called In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives. After getting pretty much unparalleled access to the company.

How did you get the idea to do this? How did you get started with it?  How did your first meeting with Google go?

Hackers were very much a subculture when I wrote the book Hackers. The whole topic has become more mainstream since I started writing about it in the early 1980s. It’s a natural transition that I’m writing about things people know about more. Google, when it started, wasn’t mainstream. It was an outlying startup. As I was writing this book, I was also preparing the 25th anniversary of Hackers. I realized that this book is probably the most like Hackers in terms of following a lot of different things.  Writing about Google, I had to work it into some kind of narrative where people would turn the page.

Working for Newsweek I would try and keep track of new things. This was in 1998 – I learned about the Google search engine. I determined I really wanted to visit these people because it seemed like an important startup and something that might grow into something else [Understatements for 500, Alex]. He called the person in charge of PR and said he had to meet them. It was October of 1999. He remembers it because everyone was dressed for Halloween. Larry was dressed like a viking and Sergey was dressed like a cow. He went out there with all the medicine balls and things and the viking and the cow took him into a room and explained Page Rank to me. Hee! That may be the best sentence I’ve ever written. :D

You’ve seen the inner-workings of a lot of tech companies and have spent time at Google. How do you find them different?

Google was different. The organizing principle of the book came from my realization of how different Google was. He was always fascinated with Google but wanted to write about something other people weren’t when it came to the engine. Google has a program called Associate Product Managers. The PMs they were getting from other tech companies didn’t fit in because they didn’t understand the culture.  They decided they’d get their PMs straight out of school before they were corrupted. So they have that Associate Product Managers program. Marissa Mayer bet that they’d be successful by just throwing people into the water and seeing how they did. This project has a program that takes place over two years where the PMs earn their stripes. In the middle they go on an international trip. Marissa Mayer acts as their den mother and takes them around. He went with them in 2007 and was immersed in their culture. They try to be like a startup in many, many ways. He learned the importance of speed and scale.  He saw them all freak out at the inefficiency of the Bangladesh passport system.

Historically Google is known for doing projects in small, unhindered teams. We’ve seen a change at the top with Larry Page coming back as CEO of the company. Do you see how they approach product development changing?

Throughout Google’s history there’s been panic that they’re becoming a big company and they need to roll things back.   At one point they got rid of all the middle managers because they wanted people reporting directly…but it didn’t work. They found out that people LIKE to be managed and they rolled it back.  He thinks things are different now. Larry has become super energized, people are going to weekend/midnight meetings and getting these very detailed notes from Larry.

You’ve talked about how Google is a very data-driven company. You’ve also covered and spent time with Apple – which seems kind of the opposite. Is that a fair characterization?

It’s a fair characterization of the companies but it makes sense when you think that Apple makes electronics and Google is an Internet company. Google auctions off server access to different groups internally.  It sort of makes sense that Google would be so much more data driven. At Google, speed is motherhood and scale is apple pie. Those things are built into everything they do.

Google is coming against a lot of external pressure. We’re hearing a lot of demands for transparency of their algorithm. How do you think they should respond to this? Do you see any potential regulatory interference?

He thinks its fascinating to see all this net neutrality stuff saying Google should open up its processes.  A judge once ruled that search results are an opinion protected by the constitution. So, legally, they can do what they want but, more than that, they say morally they’re out to serve their users by this. If the people who are ranked happen to fall or rise, that’s just something that comes with the consequence of judging what’s best for their users in the search results. Google has always had difficultly coming to grips with its power. They think of themselves as a startup, denying the fact that they’re so big.

On the one hand you have proponents of search neutrality and at the same time you have this big cry that content farms are ruining the Web, you have to get rid of this junk, etc. They ruled out the Panda/Farmer update, which is them, ultimately, expressing an opinion. What is your take on that? Was it fair?

You could look at the search results as a user and see that there’s a difference there. One thing he feels Google doesn’t do a good job at is if you do a search for “hotels”, the people in your audience have done a good job making it less useful than it should be. Hee! Last week he stayed at the Westin Long Beach. He typed it into Google and Westin Long Beach-related stuff dominated the first 10 links. He liked that. When he mentioned that to the Google search quality engineers, they weren’t sure whether it was exactly that update but it probably did have something to do with it. If you’re looking for information on something, it makes sense that a site like The New York Times or Wikipedia would come up higher than a site with a random writer writing for $20. He thinks Google should operate in a way that it couldn’t be gamed. When Google talks to marketers, they’re not teaching them how to game their system, but how to expand their vocabulary.  In an ideal world, it would just work.

You’re talking about Google’s culture internally and the engineers are the guys who are really influential. But being a big company, they have finance people, PR people, etc. How is the interaction?

It’s very cordial. When they hire people they refer to the non-engineers as “athletes”. If you work at Google, you have to come to grips to the fact that the engineers rule.  You learn to be happy with that because that’s just the way Google is. it’s a kingdom of the engineers.  People who aren’t engineers are respected, but they never have the status of the engineers.

You talked about how Google wants to believe they’re still a startup company, but how can they do that? He talked to someone being headhunted by Google and its taking them five months to hire him. And that’s someone they WANT!

Google will say that their hiring process is less convoluted than it used to be.  He remember a guy working in Marissa Mayer’s group, he was 39 and Google asked him for his high school GPA. He couldn’t even find them.  It’s very much how elite colleges choose their students. They want to make sure they’re up to their standards. Google people are suckers for metrics. In order to do more than 8 interviews for a hire, you need permission. They have pretty firm metrics. To this day, every single hire at Google goes through Larry Page. There’s been over 30k people they’ve hired there.

How are things in Google’s international office compared to the mothership?

They want those offices to be Google. They also understand that these things are embedded into a certain culture. He doesn’t think its unusual that there’s some tension between those buildings and Mountain View but they try and minimize those.

You’ve spent a lot of time with Google. How do you write objectively?

You have to write what’s important to your readers. I’m not there to learn things for myself, I’m there to pass it on to my readers. You have to be critical. He likes a lot of people there, he’s gotten friendly with them, they go out to dinner, etc. But, ultimately, that’s what writers do. They serve their readers. Because people at Google have had such a good opportunity to present their case to him, he’s probably going to understand their side of the story more. The goal of the book was to give people a sense about how people at Google think. And he’s critical, at points.

Thanks to Steven for giving us an inside view to Google’s brain! We’ll be back in a bit. :)


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