Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Four reasons Google is still Awesome

My recent predictions about which Google products will succeed (and which won't) are causing people to think that I'm anti-Google, which makes me sad since Google is probably still the best company of its size, and I really enjoyed my time there. 

Unfortunately, positive stories are never as popular as negative ones, but regardless, it's worth highlighting some of the things that continue to differentiate Google as one of the best companies in tech.

1 - They take big risks. People often point to projects such as Wave as evidence that Google has "lost its magic" or something. To me, it's evidence that they are still willing to take risks on new ideas and new ways of doing things (Wave was run as a completely autonomous project in Australia). If everything you do works, then you're not taking many risks and probably aren't innovating either. Obviously, if everything you do fails, that's not good either, but there's a sweet-spot somewhere in the middle. Google has enough big successes, such as Chrome and Android, to show that they are somewhere near that sweet-spot.

2 - They are willing to build new technology seemingly unrelated to the core business. When we started work on Gmail, many people said it was a distraction and that Google should focus on web search. Now nobody questions email, but they wonder why Google is developing self-driving cars. From a market perspective, this looks like a lack of focus, but that's a rather narrow way of viewing things. From a broader perspective, it can be seen as a focus on using technology to improve the world. Did people criticize Edison or Tesla for inventing too many different things?

From an employee perspective these non-core projects are also an opportunity for greater autonomy. Part of what made the Gmail project so fun was that we had a lot of independence and could pursue ideas that other people inside Google thought were "the wrong way to do it". Most other tech companies do not offer that kind of freedom.

3 - They compete in positive ways. Many companies compete in ways that actually destroy value, such as using patent lawsuits to slow down or kill competitors. Google's weapon of choice is more often open source and open standards. There's no question that projects such as Android and Chrome have strategic value and work to weaken Microsoft and others, but they also happen to be good for the world. Google has managed to keep their interests surprisingly well aligned with the interests of their users.

4 - They don't seem to mind honest criticism. I'm currently reading a draft of a forthcoming Google book, and was amused to find that it includes an email that I sent back in 2000 trashing our then most recent product launch. It's painful for me to not tell people what I think, so for the most part I try to find people who don't mind hearing the truth (or my take on it, rather). Much of my interaction with startups consists of me telling them everything that I don't like about their product (and then they thank me!). I've worked for a lot of different companies, and Google was the only one where me speaking my mind never seemed to cause a problem. I'm not claiming that I'm always right, because obviously I'm not, but systems (or individuals) that don't welcome negative feedback are doomed. Cultures that don't laugh at themselves are cults.

Talking about Google is always a little tricky for me given my background, but they continue to be a fascinating company and a great source interesting lessons, so I'm going to keep trying. Hopefully I don't come off as a hater or a fan boy, but simply an honest observer.