May 312011

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

There are few things one can have recognized just about anywhere on the planet. Coca Cola is one. Google is another. This book traces the history of the Internet search Goliath, from its beginnings as a college research project through its exit from China and leadership change earlier this year. Levy offers insight few have had before, nor been allowed to share publicly.

Steven Levy is a senior writer for Wired and past technology writer for Newsweek. Over his years of covering the tech industry, he has gained the trust of some of the most tight-lipped CEOs, including Steve Jobs and, in this case, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the whiz-kid founders of Google. Levy provides a view inside the walls of Google and explains who they are, why they do what the do and how they think.

He begins by explaining the Google business model, revealing the revenue engine that allows the company to do incredible things. I was entranced by this explanation. For the first time, I understand how Google Adwords works, the heuristics behind the search engine and what makes them unique in the market. Levy beautifully explains some of the most complex Internet concepts that have eluded me for years. I can see how Google can afford to appear to give everything away. Services like Gmail, Google Docs, Blogger, Voice and Picasa, while free, all drive the same model of providing advertisers the unique ability to know a very specific audience and target the “more likely to buy” than ever before.

Levy goes on to explain the many paths Google has trod, including their legendary hiring practice (always hire above the median intelligence), how engineers rule the company (salesmen struggle to survive) and how Page and Brin built a culture that thrives on innovation and special projects. While many companies may try to copy their techniques, without the unique personalities of Page and Brin, I would venture to say it won’t work outside of the Googleplex.

Much has been made of the “Don’t be evil” mission statement of Google. Levy explains how it came to be (it wasn’t intended to ever be known outside the company) and how, now that is out in public, it is used as a bludgeon anytime Google does something someone doesn’t like. Who decides what is evil? That would be Sergei and Larry. After reading he book, I am more unsettled on this than before. Their lens of morality is very different than mine. They believe in a much more liberal sense of public good than I do. They don’t have a problem with sacrificing personal privacy for the “greater good.” They are perplexed when someone disagrees with them on issues such as Google scanning mail in order to provide more relevant ads. Resistance to scanning and indexing all the books in the world caught them completely off guard. They couldn’t understands why authors didn’t like the idea. Even while the lawsuits are pending, they continue to scan books at an ever increasing rate.

The stories about Page and Brin have left me more than a little concerned about them at the helm of one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies. They do not like oversight or people telling them what they can or cannot do. They act like spoiled children, warping morality to their own way of seeing the world. Opposing views are not to be investigated, but dismissed as naive. They keep their investors in the dark, sometimes refusing to answer questions stockholder meetings. “If they only understood…” is a phrase to commonly used.

Levy offers a fair and unbiased opinion of Google’s actions. He details Google’s most controversial exploits, including their compliance with censorship in China, laying out the story and the facts that drove their decisions. He leaves it to the reader to decide if Google is the victim or the evil on in these cases. This unbiassed approach is very appreciated by me in today’s world of tabloid exposés.

Have I cancelled my gmail account? Not yet. I still use Google products because they are simple and easy to use. Will I change at some point down the road? Perhaps. I am still pondering that decision. I trust Google less after reading this fascinating book. I just don’t know who else I could trust to not be evil.

May 262011

Last night I watched the documentary Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. The movie details the making of a Steinway concert grand piano, a year long journey by many craftsman. Steinways are still each created by hand with very few power tools. Each step of the process is documented in this film, with numerous interviews of both the craftsmen (and women) and the artists who eventually play them. I found it fascinating every step of the way.

I am a musician and have always marveled at how a piano works. They haven’t really changed for hundreds of years. Now, as a woodworker, I am completely amazed at how they put one of this behemoths together. Every piece is adjusted by hand so it works perfectly. The tolerances are exact. A piano has to respond both quick and slow, hard and soft, delicate and powerful or however the artist demands. There are 88 keys, nearly three times that many strings and hundreds of moving parts that all must work precisely all the time. If something is 1/100th of an inch of, it won’t work. All these adjustments are made by hand, with simple hand tools, such as planes, scrapers, sandpaper and awls.

Each instrument has its own voice and characteristics. At the main Steinway showroom, they have nearly 50 pianos in a basement room. Professional artists regularly come by to choose an instrument for a particular performance. I found it riveting to listen and watch the performers went from piano to piano, playing each in rapt attention to understand how each responds. They put hours into the decision. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell the difference between the pianos, but they could. And they have the vocabulary to describe it too. The Steinway consultants would listen and knew which piano to shepherd them to next. “This one is more fruity with a very bright high register.”

Getting back to the craftsmen, it warmed my heart to see how they worked. Everyone was immensely proud of their craft and poured their life into each piano. They knew each piano was special and wouldn’t let it pass to the next step without their addition honed to perfection. After all, if each added 1/1000th of error, by the end of the year, it would compound into 1/10th and ruin everything. Each craftsman usually worked alone. Yes, there were managers, but they didn’t show up in the film very much. They were largely left to themselves to do their magic.

I was fascinated by the admission by the managers their biggest problem was finding talented craftsman. By and large, everyone working at Steinway had started early in life and worked their way through to their favorite skill. They have been growing their own craftsmen. Occasionally someone shows up from Europe with special skills honed elsewhere, but by and large, it is handed down, one generation to the next. Hand tools to hand tools. Even the tuners refused to use electronic tuning devices. Of course, they tuned by ear and a tuning fork.

What did I learn? Quality is not accidental. It is a conscious decision by every person involved. Each craftsman depended on everyone else to be nearly perfect in their execution. No one would let anyone else down. They knew the goal and worked diligently toward it. They don’t make as many pianos each year as other manufacturers. But there are very few pianos in the same league as a Steinway. That is what they strive for and so should I. This is what I need to push my team to do.

If you want to watch this wonderful documentary, Netflix currently has it on instant play. If you love classical or jazz piano, go watch it. You will never feel the same way about a piano again. Watching Harry Connick Jr. and Pierre-Laurent Aimard explain their love affair with the piano is worth it alone.