I’m feeling lucky

This week I've been reading I'm Feeling Lucky: the confessions of Google employee number 59, by Douglas Edwards.

It's a great read: very funny, with lots of pointers on the good and bad of organizations and organization design. I finished it yesterday and have just gone back to see what pages, I have turned down and what notes I have written in the front of it. Yes, I read the paper version not a Kindle version. Five aspects stood out for me as I read it.

First, there are several descriptions of physical space use in the early (2000 ish) Google offices. For example:

Corridors were so choked with desks and power cords and boxed computer components that a stroll down the hall felt like a tour of Akihabara. … "We took a building that supposedly had a capacity of 220 and packed it with 298 people," George Salah confided. … Cubes for two people held four workstations. …. Worst of all, work teams were split up and located in different parts of the building, hindering communications.

There seems to have been no suggestion at all that people should work off-site, be hoteling, mobile workers and start saving on real estate and carbon emissions. Indeed there's no mention anywhere in the book of thinking of corporate real estate as a heavy investment or energy savings as an imperative. In fact the opposite appears to hold true – people were expected to live on-site 24 hours a day – hence the chef George (wonderful descriptions of him), the massage team, the games pitches, the people bringing their pets in and so on.

Second, cost effectiveness, however, is a recurring theme, "Larry and Sergey wanted to optimize the tradeoff between productivity and rent. … What would happen if you three people in a space designed for two? How about five?" Beyond that they brought in Gerald Aigner "the flaming sword of frugality" to manage supply costs. "They should pay us", Edwards notes was the starting position for any negotiation with a vendor.

Third stuff not related to the immediate task in hand got short shrift from Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Their leadership decision making gets a lot of airing through the book. Then, and maybe now, their particularly idiosyncratic approach to leadership must have been hard going for the troops – no mention of 'leadership development programs' for them, though one wonders if they had not set up the company but been employees of someone else how their careers would have gone.

Take Brin's response to customer feedback email, for example: As the backlog of unanswered emails began to swell, Sergey offered a useful perspective. "Why do we need to answer user email anyway?" he wanted to know. He thought it was inefficient [to respond].

Fourth there is the implied contrast between everybody being able to air their views, but then not being told things that materially affected them. There's a description of a company reorganization in 2001 in which "most of the engineers were caught by surprise. So too were the project managers, who learned in public that their jobs no longer existed."

Fifth as I laughed out loud at the descriptions and the goings on the Zen phrase 'in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities and in the expert's mind there are few' popped into my head. Brin's and Page's way of going about things – in terms of running a business – was the beginner's way and it worked.

Coincidentally today I was talking to an employee at Facebook which is now at the same point in its history as Google was in the period Edwards is writing about. Much of what we were talking about echoed the experiences of Edwards working in a climate of rapid growth, idiosyncratic leaders, innovative product, broad reach, etc.

Is the book worth reading? I'd recommend it. Not just because Google is iconic, but because it tells a very good story of one employee grappling with preconceived ideas of how things should be, with personality conflicts, with leadership hubris, with balancing home and work, with individual and organizational risk taking and with making many mistakes and chalking up a few successes.

It also provides food for thought for example, on the value of prototyping, on the divide and conquer approach (of "getting other people to do our work for free"), on the benefits of everything provided for 24 hour on-site working, on getting the balance right between involvement and command, on working with suppliers and other stakeholders, and on how to grow a successful organization from the ground up.

Were I running an organization design book club this would be one on the list to discuss.

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