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

For some reason, I have always been interested in Google, not only in its products but also how it operates as a business. Over the past year, I have incorporated a number of Google practices into my operations at work, and it has made a positive difference. I am planning to also leverage these ideas to help manage my CAP programs. Steven Levy’s book,  In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives*, provides a very detailed behind the scenes of Google. The book explained why Google does what it does the way it does it.

Across 424 pages, a prologue, an epilogue, and seven chapters, Levy provided an extremely detailed look into Google. He discussed the start-up, the people, the products, and facilities. Each chapter contained 3-4 subsections in which Levy focused on a specific topic helping to illustrate the main chapter. Levy provided rich detail for each story he told.

The chapters covered the following topics:

  • The World According to Google: Biography of a Search Engine
  • Googlenomics: Cracking the Code on Internet Profits
  • Don’t Be Evil: How Google Built Its Culture
  • Google’s Cloud: Building Data Centers That Hold Everything Ever Written
  • Outside the Box: The Google Phone Company and the Google TV Company
  • GuGe: Google’s Moral Dilemma in China
  • Google.gov: Is What’s Good for Google Good for Government—or the Public?

Steven Levy writes about technology and has been writing about Google and Apple for more than a decade. In this book, he provided an outsider’s view of the inside of Google. In the last paragraph of the prologue, he stated,

“Here is Google: How it works, what it thinks, why it’s changing, how it will continue to change us. And how it hopes to maintain its soul” (Levy, 2011, p. 7).

The World According to Google: Biography of a Search Engine

In this first chapter, Levy told the story of how Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford. While at Standford, they began their project to search the web. Even from the beginning, they wanted to commercialize their efforts. Very rapidly, they outgrew Standford in more ways than one. One interesting note was that Google PageRank was actually named after Larry Page. In the book, Levy provided great detail on how page ranking actually works.

What I found most fascinating was how much Page and Brin’s background had upon the direction of Google. Page and Brin were both Montessori kids, and Page also studied Human Computer Interactions. They believed the human conducting the search was key to the process. They also believed in setting audacious goals, trying, and failing. Failing was a feedback mechanism to future improvement.

Page and Brin could not build Google alone, they needed to build a team. Levy went into great detail explaining how many of the key players joined Google, what they were responsible for, and where they later went and what they did.

Levy also did a great job explaining how Google responded to world events. They would regularly set up a “war room” and develop a solution to help adjust the search engine to properly respond to the situation. One example was the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Googlenomics: Cracking the Code on Internet Profits

With Google AdWords and AdSense, Google figured out how to make a profit on the internet. At the base level, Google developed a program people found extremely useful—the search engine. Within this system and systems that followed, Google strived to get advertising into the system but not make it aggressive thus ruining the user experience. As a result, they make billions of dollars each year.

Page and Brin are the heart and brains of Google. They are quick to recognize opportunities to leverage their company’s expertise, and they also relied on their gut feeling. In most cases, they were successful. Google maps came about because of a bad experience that Page had with another navigation system.

In order to sell more advertising, Google created tools to help advertisers see their own success or shortcomings. Numbers were central to everything Google did. Google valued computer engineers over everyone else.

Don’t Be Evil: How Google Built Its Culture

Levy pointed out that because of their Montessori background Page and Brin were always asking why something had to be the way it was. To help creativity, Google instituted a 20% rule where employees could devote 20% of their time to explore and create whatever they wanted.

“It was crucial to Montessori that nothing a teacher does destroy a child’s creative innocence” (Levy, 2011, p. 125).

As Levy approached each section, he would wind back the clock to start the story from the earliest point possible.

Google grew data centers so rapidly, they would buy the cheapest hard drives in bulk, and replace them as they failed. On the other hand, Google did take care of their computer engineers in both salary, equipment, and access to resources they needed.

Some of the management practices I thought were interesting include the TGIF weekly sessions, OKRs, and project tracking. Google also had its own learning annex where employees could take classes on a myriad of subjects. Google also takes great pains in its hiring process to try to find the best individual for their company. Being able to work as part of a team is a key element.

Levy also detailed how Google came about one of their core values “Don’t be evil.” It has been central to product develop and company direction. This simple phrase has been tested over and over as Google has continued to operate.

Google’s Cloud: Building Data Centers That Hold Everything Ever Written

In this section, Levy detailed Google’s expansion. He not only talked about the development of other Google products such as Gmail but also the privacy and security concerns that came with them. Levy next told the story of how Google increased its data centers and built the data center in The Dalles.

As Google grew as a business, Levy noted they tried to keep a low profile and not report out how much money they were actually making.

In 2007, Google began developing applications and competing against Microsoft. They had a huge advantage over Microsoft in that they were free and in the cloud. Google also competed by developing their own web browser—Google Chrome. I regularly use Google applications and Chrome because they exist in the cloud. I can work anytime and anywhere… for free. Google’s move to a cloud-based environment was a smart one. This is very much in line with Google’s mission.

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (About Google).

Outside the Box: The Google Phone Company and the Google TV Company

Every decision Google made was central to its mission. It was a no-brainer when they decided to develop their own operating system for a telephone. They wanted to deliver their content and make their search engine available to mobile users. The result of their efforts is the Android operating system. Levy explained that this advancement put Google in the line of fire of many competitors most notably Apple and Steve Jobs. In order to be successful, Google had to hire lobbyists and participate in an FCC frequency auction.

Levy documented the development of Google Voice and its integration with Gmail and Google Calendar. I am a huge fan of Google Voice.

When Google did not believe it was worth developing a product or when someone else already developed a great product, they would purchase the product and integrate it into their ecosystem. YouTube was one of those acquisitions.

“Not a week went by without a few launches of some new Google project that rendered a traditional business obsolete or mowed down some digital enterprise that had pinned its existence on charging for its products” (Levy, 2011, p. 241).

GuGe: Google’s Moral Dilemma in China

A fascinating section of the book was Google’s operations in China. Google had a mission to freely share content with the world; however, China regularly censored information and expected Google to also censor their information. This was a trying time for Google; and after the Chinese hacked and exploited Google’s systems, Google pulled operations from China. This attempt also bumped up against Google’s value of “Do no evil.” No matter how hard Google tried, it did not fully understand the culture it was working in.

Google.gov: Is What’s Good for Google Good for Government—or the Public?

During the 2008 election cycle, many of the presidential candidates stopped in for a visit to the Googleplex. According to Levy, now President Obama had one of the most positive impressions. Googlers believe he “thought like a Googler” (Levy, 2011, p. 317). For the election, Google put together a number of products to help voters become more informed about candidates and the election process. Once President Obama was elected, the administration hired a group of Googlers. Unfortunately, working in government with its rules and antiquated systems was vastly different than working at Google. “Rules dictated that there could be no Facebook, no Google Talk, no Gmail, no Twitter, no Skype” (Levy, 2011, p. 322). I know where I will not be working soon 😉

In this chapter, Levy also outlined Google’s antitrust woes. It seems the bigger Google became, the more litigation it was involved in. Levy also detailed privacy issues that erupted during Google’s Street View project.

As Google attempted to organize all the world’s information, it ran into litigation issues surrounding copyright when it tried to digitize and index all the printed books in the world. Levy included a quote from the first book scanned that was quite telling:

Can’t you hear
A something in the distance
Howl ! ! ?

I wonder if it’s—
Yes ! ! it is
That horrid Google
On the prowl ! ! !

The project is still under litigation in appeals.

Epilogue: Chasing Taillights

Levy concluded the book with a discussion about Google’s ventures into social media. Google has been struggling because as the author noted, Google does not do well when it is chasing the efforts of others. In this case, Google is chasing the efforts of Facebook and Twitter. While Google had early initiatives with Orkut, it did not exploit them and therefore, lost an opportunity. Levy also detailed products like Google Buzz and Google Plus.

My Thoughts

I found this to be a fascinating book. I was impressed by the level of detail that it had. Levy seemed to do his homework. I was particularly interested in how each different technology was developed and was later caught up in the decisions they had to make.

If you are interested in Google, specifically, how they operate and how they developed into the company they are, I think you will find this book very interesting. I am glad I read, In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives*. It has helped me understand why I resonate with their products so much. Even though they are out to make a profit, they are also trying to build products that will add value. The products are all in line with their mission.

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (About Google).


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