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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Leaving Google - part 2

This is the second post in a three post series about me leaving Google. If you missed it, the first part was Why not to leave Google. This post is about good reasons to leave Google anyway. The final instalment will be about what I am doing next.

Google thinks Big

If you pitch an idea or a project to Larry and Sergey, their feedback is quite easy to anticipate. They'll tell you you have to solve the problem in a more generic way. I tried to sell them on data communities, a place where like minded people could collaborate on structured data around topics they're interested in. The feedback was predictable: why restrict yourself to communities? And why to structured data? Come up with something that solves everything!

Thinking big sounds great, but most big ideas start small and go from there. Google itself started from the notion that it would be interesting to look at back links for pages. Twitter started out as hardly more than a group SMS product that also works online. Facebook explicitly restricted themselves at first to one university.

Wave is a case in point. Wave started with some fairly easy to understand ideas about online collaboration and communication. But in order to make it more general and universal, more ideas were added until the entire thing could only be explained in a 90 minute mind blowing demo that left people speechless but a little later wondering what the hell this was for.

At triposo.com, we use Wave extensively for taking notes and developing ideas and it works great (yes, Wave isn't dead yet). But as a product pitch, that on its own wouldn't have made it in Google. The problem with this for an individual engineer like me is that you can't work with a small team on a medium sized idea, get users and expand from there anymore. You either have to pitch something as the third coming of Steve or your idea will be relegated to being a feature of something else.

Google has a Plan

In building 43 in Mountain View, there used to be a white board with the Google Master Plan, a huge flow chart that started with hiring smart engineers and led ultimately to user happiness by way of steps like flying robots and GoogleOS. All in good fun of course, but I guess many people did suppose there was such a plan. There wasn't. Any resemblance to later Google execution was purely coincidental (though it did talk about a GoogleOS).

Google's mode of operation used to be best characterised as strictly opportunistic. There were certain principles and leading ideas, but any project that met those and where Google thought it could do better than what was out there, would be taken on.

No longer. Google now has strategies. Once you offer an online spreadsheet and an online word processor, strategy demands that you also offer an online solution for presentations, even if it isn't actually much better. And you start seeing presentations with product road maps and competitive landscapes and unique selling points.

No doubt this approach suits a bigger company better. But the engineer in me wants to go back to that whiteboard; hire smart people that exploit new opportunities that become available as technology develops to build new products and services, which in turn leads to user happiness. Having a plan easily gets in the way of doing the right thing there.

Google has a Way

There is a strong and specific culture at Google. A culture that entails that you take nothing for granted. That the fact that the world has been doing something in a certain way is no argument not to do it in a totally different way. And this has led to many innovations - from the search first homepage, to the NoSql movement, powering webmail by Ajax and many improvements when it comes to running datacenters energy efficient. And these are only the things that have been published!

But that's the thing. Being secretive is part of that culture. Google hardly ever talks about things that haven't launched yet. This allows Google internally to be really open. There are very few internal secrets and that works because the rule is that you don't talk about anything to outsiders. Living as an engineer in this peculiar world with its own technology stack and ideas about technology is very exciting especially in the beginning. There is so much to learn, so many ideas to explore.

Google has done its bit to keep the web open and to fight anybody trying to turn it into a so called walled garden. But being inside is a bit like being in a walled garden. You can't discuss interesting developments inside with people on the outside of course, but it is even hard to partake in discussions outside. And so after a few years what you learn and what you talk about seems less relevant for the real world. Over time this starts to outweigh the advantages of being on the inside.

So then...

The first two points make it harder to build exciting stuff in a smaller team than it used to be. The last point makes it less interesting to stick around. So then when the next idea comes along, it's time to jump.

In the final episode in this trio I'll explain what this next thing is!

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