In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

Posted by jack_miller | Published 6 months ago

With 253 ratings

By: Steven Levy, L. J. Ganser, et al.

Purchased At: $32.00

Few companies in history have ever been as successful and as admired as Google, the company that has transformed the Internet and become an indispensable part of our lives. How has Google done it? Veteran technology reporter Steven Levy was granted unprecedented access to the company, and in this revelatory book he takes listeners inside Google headquarters - the Googleplex - to explain how Google works.

While they were still students at Stanford, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin revolutionized Internet search. They followed this brilliant innovation with another, as two of Google's earliest employees found a way to do what no one else had: make billions of dollars from Internet advertising. With this cash cow (until Google's IPO, nobody other than Google management had any idea how lucrative the company's ad business was), Google was able to expand dramatically and take on other transformative projects: more efficient data centers, open-source cell phones, free Internet video (YouTube), cloud computing, digitizing books, and much more.

The key to Google's success in all these businesses, Levy reveals, is its engineering mind-set and adoption of such Internet values as speed, openness, experimentation, and risk taking. After it's unapologetically elitist approach to hiring, Google pampers its engineers with free food and dry cleaning, on-site doctors and masseuses, and gives them all the resources they need to succeed. Even today, with a workforce of more than 23,000, Larry Page signs off on every hire.

But has Google lost its innovative edge? It stumbled badly in China. And now, with its newest initiative, social networking, Google is chasing a successful competitor for the first time. Some employees are leaving the company for smaller, nimbler start-ups. Can the company that famously decided not to be "evil" still compete?

No other book has turned Google inside out as Levy does with In the Plex.

Want free food and dry cleaning, on work-site physicians, masseuses? Go to work for Google, the Net's hottest search engine.
Google marked a turning point in civilization as its revolution in technology and computer dynamics evolved into the "world's information". At Google the future is already underway. More than 70% of searches are Google searches in the U.S.
But beyond just search this enterprise would remake the energy industry, the medical information infrastructure, the book world, radio, television and communications. All this began by two Montessori kids who evolved questioning authority.
Book searches were a Google staple where an estimated 33 million published books became a targeted sanctum.

- omari_lopez

I went into this book thinking I was going to obtain insight into how the Google founders think and how Google approaches business. I was worried that the author, apparently given inside access and being one who writes professionally depending on this kind of access, would have a compromised objectivity by painting only a rosy picture. Then as I read on, it felt at times like I was reading an advertisement for why one should work at Google and something written to avoid offending the corporate Google and its employees.

Even Google mistakes are cast in a positive upbeat light. No real discussion of blunders like the Logitech Google relation with Google TV.

Wasn't explicitly looking for the bad....but just looking for something truthful and insightful. Google and its founders success are obvious. They've done great things and the founders and employees have done excellent ground breaking work. And the book is written well in the sense that it's easy to read and conveys information in the form of stories versus more dry treatments. However, it reads only like something a fan would write about their idol...and there are discrete instances where I even cringed at how much of a fanboy book this was.

It's unfortunate but a reality that it's hard to obtain inside access to companies in order to write about them and then not write anything but a glowing story. Otherwise...no one else will let you in. Not to mention that it's written about contemporary living powerful people and a corporation...so it would be intimidating to write anything more blunt. It's no wonder that you see books on the likes of Ford and Edison long after their time that are more of an exposure of reality....and we will probably have to wait 50-100 years to hear what really makes Google tick, how the founders think, and how the company works. Which is a shame because it could be helpful to entrepreneurs who really would like to learn from such folks and not just be fed fluff. The real deal, warts and all, the good and bad, will have to wait.

- charlie_wilson

This book describes the initial growth of Google, and does a good job of describing how the Google culture (kind of like Intel's chip production allocation culture) generally tries to be a data-driven culture that operates by collecting lots of data (eg user queries) and then analyzing the data to determine how to proceed. In this way, the culture de-emphasizes individual human opinions in favor of aggregate statistical results, where they are available.

But I have mixed feelings about the book. Much of it reads like so many of the other gooey, sugary fan books of various Silicon Valley companies where stereotypes are emphasized because it makes a "better" story because of the images that are invoked. (eg. It's cool to do all the anti-traditional (dare I say almost juvenile?) things (like scavenger hunts, etc) normally associated with tech start-ups and their people). It seems to me that ever since the late 1970s too many tech-company books have spread the "it's cool to do X" gooey company philosophies around, and this book seems to be no different.

I think the strength of the book is the discussion of how search grew up, and the descriptions of the technical / algorithmic solutions and infrastructures that were required to implement the Google that we know today. I found the main weakness of the book to be all the tedious descriptions of how wonderful the corporate anti-traditional culture was, and how special it was (really, how could it be, after 30+ years of engineer - driven tech companies before Google?).

I would recommend this book to people who are interested in a layman's-level description of how search grew up, the issues that arose, and the technical / infrastructure solutions that were developed. The scale and technical sophistication of the Google infrastructure (like Amazon and it's AWS infrastructure) just boggles the technical mind, and it is quite interesting to read about it. But I really think the gooey cult stuff was overdone in the book.

- callan_watson

Very interesting and entertaining book about one of the world's most recognisable brands: Google.

Main points from the book:

- do first, sort out the problems as you go along. Avoid dealing with problems too far in advance: if you do your ideas will die before they get beyond your own skull.
- there's no such thing as `the one right way' to do something. Use your imagination and surprise yourself and others. Commitment is worth far far more than slavish rule-following. (ie: cargo cultism doesn't work...)
- Montessori education seems rather interesting...
- sticking to one thing is how to get really far
- the time is always ripe for something big...
- it's possible to believe you're doing good in the world even when you're heading up a multi-billion dollar advertising monster. And to persuade someone to write a very positive book about your project too...

A worthwhile insight into Google anyway. Would be interested to see a more balanced `review' of the company though :)

- jefferson_sanders

Very good book about the culture of Google and will help you understand the way they work. Essential reading for anyone in online marketing if they want to understand Google. Mantra is incomplete, they quote "don't be evil" but the full version is "don't be evil, only we are allowed to be evil"!!

- bryant_brooks

Must read: Levy is a great writer, deeply perceptive, and had unprecedented and wide-ranging access to the key players. Those are the ingredients for a revealing and enlightening synthesis of not just google, but an example of human enterprise in action.

- karlie_gomez

Didn't know much about Google and how it worked. Now I do. Well written and detailed. Personal analysis of the key players was not too sycophantic. Good read.

- tiffany_richardson

Great book

- tinsley_torres

Very good audio. You need this in your collection to really understand Google. It is about 20 hours long and very well read.

- kathleen_peterson

What could have been a dry but informative read is a well structured narrative covering the details of technology we use every day and the people behind it.

- leilani_lewis

Arrived quite promptly, well-wrapped and in a good condition. The book itself really eye-opening and interesting, a good read for anyone.

- raymond_castillo

Provides a great in depth look on how Google is - what happened to make it so and some of the war stories from the early days.

- fabian_mendoza

I have read many books on Google, and so far this one has been the best. It seems apparent that the author gained first-hand access to Google's top management. In fact facts and ideas are recounted as if the author had experienced them in person. Google's history is told from the very (legendary) garage-based start to the launch of Google + when the company eventually tries to get serious about its commitment to social networks. Levy describes all the successful (i.e.adwords, adsense, gmail, chrome, earth, streetview, etc.) and not so successful (buzz, okurt, etc.) Google products in detail, as well as the internal workings which led to their launch and the relevant legal implications (intellectual property and copyright issues, data privacy and antitrust ). This is really a fascinating book and one of the best technology reads I have enjoyed for some time.

- ishaan_wilson

This book holistically explores the history and various products of Google Inc. The book’s significance comes from Levy’s ongoing access to various Google employees, attendance at company events and product discussions, and other Google-related cultural and business elements since the company’s inception in 1999. In essence, Levy provides us with a superb – if sometimes favourably biased – account of Google’s growth and development.

The book covers Google’s successes, failures, and difficulties as it grew from a graduate project at Stanford University to the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Throughout we see just how important algorithmic learning and automation is; core to Google’s business philosophy is that using humans to rank or evaluate things “was out of the question. First, it was inherently impractical. Further, humans were unreliable. Only algorithms – well drawn, efficiently executed, and based on sound data – could deliver unbiased results” (p. 16). This attitude of the ‘pure algorithm’ is pervasive; translation between languages is just an information problem that can – through suitable algorithms – accurately and effectively translate even the cultural uniqueness that is linked to languages. Moreover, when Google’s search algorithms routinely display anti-Semitic websites after searching for “Jew” the founders refused to modify the search algorithms because the algorithms had “spoke” and “Brin’s ideals, no matter how heartfelt, could not justify intervention. “I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,” he said. “It’s a bad technology practice”" (p. 275). This is an important statement: the founders see the product of human mathematical ingenuity as non-human and lacking bias born of their human creation.

This conception of the ‘pure’ and ‘good’ algorithm that is devoid of human bias drove the aesthetic development of the Google’s products line, insofar as “the message Google wanted to convey was that its products had no human bias” (p. 207). Calling their mobile operating system Android is clearly linked with this popular conception: the device is distinct from humanity and independent of it past creation; creation itself (seemingly) is not seen as establishing particular narratives, biases, ethics, or other determining contingencies. Similar conceptions drove the naming of Google’s web browser, Chrome.

Though the algorithm might be seen as pure, actions surrounding those mathematical equations and code are often wrapped in ethical and political questions inside of the company. Ethical questions arose when the GMail team discussed inserting ads based on data mining email. There were strong worries at Google that this behaviour was “just going to be creepy and weird”, though the company’s founders “were really entranced by it . . . We felt like, ‘Wow, something was mentioned in my email and I actually got an ad that was relevant!’ That was amazing. We thought that was a great thing.” As for the potential blowback, Brin says, “We didn’t give it a second thought. There were plenty of things to question, but I never batted an eyelash at that. It never occurred to me as a privacy thing” (p. 170-1). This issue of privacy, highlighted in the middle of the book, returns with a fury towards the conclusion when Levy examines Google’s involvement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In Levy’s discussion of the DoubleClick acquisition we learn a great deal about Google’s corporate behaviours. The FTC investigated the potential implications of DoubleClick’s acquisition and ultimately permitted Google’s purchase. After explaining, in quite some depth, the significance of Google’s potential acquisition of the company Levy writes that the FTC investigation “failed to perceive the admittedly complicated privacy implications that were unique in this case. For its part, Google helped foment misunderstanding by not being clear about the unprecedented benefits it would gain in tracking consumer behaviour . . . the DoubleClick cookie provided a potentially voluminous amount of information about its users and their interests, virtually all of it compiled by stealth” (p. 333). While Google’s actions here are not terribly surprising – we somewhat cynically expect companies to struggle to increase their revenues within the confines of the law – they are telling: DoubleClick’s acquisition was key to Google’s continuing dominance of the online advertising marketshare and, as such, if government couldn’t find out it was coming to a bad conclusion then Google wasn’t going to help correct that conclusion.

Questions of ethics also arose around the problem of video-based copyright infringement. Key people at Google felt, and presumably still feel, that such infringement “when you come right down to it” is “evil” (p. 229). Similarly there were serious questions around what is an inappropriate degree of censorship to incorporate into the company’s Search product, questions that were prominently raised not just when Eric Schmidt tried (and failed) to remove some search results about himself but also when Google entered the Chinese search market.

Indeed, it is the many-page account of Google’s troubles in China that are amongst the most important – and revealing – in Levy’s book. To begin, from the book we discover that there were intense debates within Google about the appropriateness of even doing business in the country, with the company’s chief policy directory Andrew McLaughlin strongly arguing against launching business in China. McLaughlin lost the argument but, upon entering the Chinese market, another problem arose for Google: a cult culture arose around the Googler in charge of China, Kai-Fu, which was seen as very ‘non-Googley’. There were also culturally-driven missteps, including gifts that were (mis)perceived as bribes and other cross-cultural frictions.

These cultural issues, however, paled in the face of determining what the company would censor in their Search products. Specifically, there was a problem in “determining what information should not be given to Chinese users. Though the government demanded censorship, it didn’t hand out a complete list of what wasn’t allowed. Following the law required self-censorship, with the implicit risk that if a company failed to block information that the Chinese government didn’t want its citizens to see, it could lose its license.” To deal with the problem Google examined and probed “the sites of competitors, such as China’s top search engine, Baidu, testing them with risky keywords and see what they blocked” (280). This was seen as both technically and politically (and, perhaps, ethically) savvy: Google itself would not engage in censorship beyond the censorship that already existed in the Chinese market.

This process of navigating the Chinese business, cultural, and censorial environment forced Google to establish differing security permissions between their North American and Chinese operations. It wasn’t that the company’s executives didn’t trust their Chinese engineers but that “when you go to a place like China, there’s lots of examples of companies where intellectual property has gone out the door.” Moreover, the company’s engineering director was “concerned that employees in China who were Chinese nationals might be asked by government officials to disclose personal information, and all our access policies derived from that” (p. 301). So, in essence, it wasn’t that Google was necessarily worried about specific engineers but about the social situation and governmental pressures that could be applied to engineers, and thus affect their behaviour and actions.

While Google worried about data exfiltration by employees, it established even more extensive security precautions after some of its Beijing employees succumbed to spearphishing. The consequence of this successful attack was the theft of confidential security code. Though Levy’s book just offers a brief account of the attack on Gaia, Google’s master password system, it succinctly draws together the body of public writing on the topic and boils that writing down in terms that the layperson can both appreciate and understand. This data was subsequently used to gather information about Chinese dissidents who used Google’s products: Google, though being compromised, acted as a boon to the Chinese state in its efforts to surveil and suppress dissenting members of its population.

In the end, this book is incredibly useful for anyone interested in corporate growth, privacy, or corporate-government relations. It’s also, obviously, of interest to “Google-watchers”. Levy has brought significant insights to how Google developed and why certain paths and decisions were chosen over others. He is routinely attentive to the ‘big picture’, or how Google’s services interact with one another and with the world. Though not covered in the review, there are interesting bits and pieces around the company’s relationship with telecommunications carriers and spectrum policy, hardware development, business secrecy, and other topics sure to interest policymakers, scholars, business readers, and the generally interested member of the public. Without any doubt, this is one of the ‘must buy’ books about big data, big corporations, and one of the biggest information giants that collects and controls vast amount of the world’s information.

- emory_miller

I really enjoyed reading the detailed, insightful descriptions of Google early days and appreciated how certain chapters describe the evolution of key Google products such as AdWords or Gmail. I really wished there was more content regarding the more recent years (after 2010). The social network wars, Mayer's departure to Yahoo, Android vs. IOS are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. I guess we should really hope for a sequel book with the same level of depth. Also, the author often uses fancy terms that I felt were really gratuitous and took away a bit from the writing style. Other than that, I really liked the book and I certainly recommend it to anyone that is interested in learning more about Google history and corporate culture.

- cayson_ramos

This is a fascinating book for the IT illiterate like me. It is a revelation as to how search engines work. I was amazed by the maths behind the programmes and by the sheer volume of data processed. The history of Google is very interesting, as is their corporate culture and identity.
What struck me most of all is how isolated and cut off from the real world the people in this company seem to be. This book explains a great deal about google and some of the insights into the intrusion into personal information are quite concerning. Into The Plex is well worth reading from that aspect alone. I did wonder whether George Orwell's 1984 should be mandatory reading for Google's employees.
This book is very well written, easy to read and slightly chilling.It tailed off a little towards the end - but so did the Google storey as the company became mainstream and less innovative.

- clark_richardson

Levy is always reliable for a good, non-sensationalistic and balanced story about watershed developments in Tech. Since Hackers has been reliably chronicling the growth and development of computing as an industry. He clearly loves the subject. This book is no exception. It is worth a read if you want to understand how Google - the organization - works.

- dangelo_long

Book covers only evaluation story of Google. Not the way the work methods of Google

- theodore_morris

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