Steven Levy – In The Plex

Levy, Steven (2011). In The Plex. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2011.

In The Plex

Una biografia – viene spontaneo dire – documentata e simpatetica di Google. Levy ha letteralmente vissuto per molti mesi dentro la sede di Google (il plex del titolo), con un accesso senza precedenti alla vita e alla documentazione di una delle imprese più “chiuse” e misteriose, per scrivere questo libro. Che, nonostante qualche sospetto di eccesso di simpatia (scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours o sindrome di Stoccolma?), ha davvero moltissimi motivi di interesse.

Ma la storia di Google è talmente straordinaria che il libro merita assolutamente di essere letto. Tanto più, che Levy scrive in modo gradevole e scorrevole e, di conseguenza, la lettura è molto più agevole di quanto non faccia temere il volume del volume (battuta cretina e per di più gratuita, dal momento che io l’ho letto in digitale).

Ma forse la cosa più interessante, e forse più inattesa del libro, non è la storia del successo di Google (assolutamente inaspettato e imprevedibile, dato che Page e Brin si sono letteralmente inventati un’economia e un modo di fare soldi che prima di loro letteralmente non esisteva), ma la documentazione di un modo di gestire un’impresa anch’esso innovativo, ma perseguito (nonostante qualche caduta) con grande coerenza e continuità.

Il libro ha avuto un successo enorme, almeno negli Stati Uniti. Levy ne è comprensibilmente orgoglioso (con un filo d’ironia) e ha scritto sul suo blog il 5 dicembre 2011:

It’s the end of the year, so people are compiling “best-of” lists.
Not that I’m paying attention.
I hardly noticed that Amazon selected In the Plex as the best business book of the year.
Or that Audible chose the audio version (wonderfully voiced by L. J. Ganser) as the best audio business book of the year.
Or that the Library Journal listed it among its best business books of 2011.
And Kirkus review included it in its list of best non-fiction books of any stripe. (The package links to a smart interview that Kirkus did with me about the book.)
Or that Strategy + Business a worldly publication that every year picks the class of the lot included Plex as one of the top tech-biz books of the year, with the super-smart (and sometime finicky) Michael Schrage calling the book a “superb, surprisingly comprehensive Baedeker of what makes Google Google.”
Not that I’m keeping track. Still, thought you folks should know. Just in case you were shopping for friends and relatives for the holidays.

* * *

I miei personali appunti, a volte con qualche commento (ovviamente, non siete obbligati a leggerli). Il riferimento è alla posizione sul Kindle:

[Cominciamo da una battuta che riassume in due righe tutta la “filosofia” di Google]: “That’s not the way to think,” she said. “We are focused on our users. If we make them happy, we will have revenues.” [130]

He often thought of the people in his home country, who were not just poor but information-impoverished as well. [832: una definizione implicita del digital divide, da parte di uno dei primi impiegati di Google, Anurag Acharya, indiano]

One day, while talking to Ben Gomes in the kitchen in the Googleplex at 2400 Bayshore Avenue, he [Georges Harik, uno dei primi 10 dipendenti di Google] described his concept of how compressing data was equivalent in many ways to understanding it. That concept, he argued, could be a key to algorithmically squeezing meaning from web pages.
For the next year and a half, Harik and Shazeer studied probabilistic models of things such as why people often use clusters of words in the same phrases. “For instance,” he says, “when people write the word ‘gray,’ what words are they willing to write afterwards, like ‘elephant’?” The secret to compressing web pages into themes, they discovered, turned out to be prediction: if you can predict what will happen next, you can compress the page. The payoff is that as you get better at predicting a page, you get better at understanding it. Since Harik and Shazeer had the benefit of many terabytes of data documenting the web and the way Google’s users interacted with it, they made good progress and developed ideas about identifying what clusters of words went together. Then, using machine learning, they trained the system to find more clusters and develop rules. [2075-2084]

Varian was uniquely qualified to vet Google’s approach to making money online. He’d been thinking like an economist ever since he was twelve, when he’d read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and become enchanted with a character who constructed mathematical models to explain societal behavior. [2425: sì, me n’ero innamorato anch’io, ma poi ne sono venuto fuori. Mannaggia]

It’s like the census data, he would say, only Google does much better analyzing its information than the government does with the census results. [2483: Qing Wu sull’analisi dei click-through rates]

Early in its history, Google instituted a “20 percent rule,” stating that employees can devote one day a week, or the equivalent, to a project of their choosing, as opposed to something imposed by a manager or boss. [2568: una regola che, se ne avessi il potere, introdurrei immediatamente nella struttura di ricerca dove lavoro]

Page once said that anyone hired at Google should be capable of engaging him in a fascinating discussion should he be stuck at an airport with the employee on a business trip. [2864]

Page was showing his mother around Google one day, and he introduced her to Rosenberg. “What does he do?” she asked Larry. “Well, at first I wasn’t sure,” he told her. “But I’ve decided that now he’s the reason I sometimes have free time.” [3332: sostanzialmente, sul ruolo dei product manager in Google]

[Sugli OKRs – Objectives and Key Results, il metodo di valutazione dei risultati in Google. Levy si chiede anzitutto se sono un segnale di] Dilbertization at Google, an annoying program that diverted energy from real work. [Ma si risponde che, al contrario, sono profondamente radicati nella cultura Google] Even worse than failing to make an OKR was exceeding the standard by a large measure; it implied that an employee had sandbagged it, played it safe, thought small. Google had no place for an audacity-challenged person whose grasp exceeded his reach.
The sweet spot was making about .7 or .8 of your OKR. (Geekily enough, the metric was measured by a decimal representation of how close an employee came to the OKR, with the integer 1 being an exact hit.) [3399-3403]

The company was an information lobster, hard-shelled on the outside but soft and accessible on the inside. [3423]

Even though storage was increasingly inexpensive, the information technology (IT) people in charge of the corporate systems policed disk space as if it were made of platinum. [3502]

Principles always make sense until it’s personal [3634: commento di Denise Griffin, di Google, su un incidente in cui si decise di non “oscurare” un’informazione emergente da una search su Google su Eric Schmidt]

The implicit message was that the only thing that should be deleted was the concept of limited storage. [3696: sulla mancanza del bottone delete in Gmail]

(A Code Yellow is named after a tank top of that color owned by engineering director Wayne Rosing. During Code Yellow a leader is given the shirt and can tap anyone at Google and force him or her to drop a current project to help out. Often, the Code Yellow leader escalates the emergency into a war room situation and pulls people out of their offices and into a conference room for a more extended struggle.) [3669]

[…] if you want to transform an economy from manufacturing to information, you’ve got to pull fiber […] [4004]

It was the familiar model of giving away the razor and making money on the blades. [4441]

[…] since Google’s organization was so flat, promotions were always hard. [5387]

[…] I’m a big believer in reason and fact and science and evidence and feedback […] [6532: dal discorso di Obama al Googleplex in campagna elettorale].

Ten years earlier, Larry Page had felt the world would be better when people had instant access to the truth. Google had delivered the means to do this, but it didn’t seem to matter a bit.
[…] I’m a vegetarian trapped inside the sausage factory […] [6742-6745: sulla delusione dopo l’elezione di Obama]

Ideas, he [Mike Jones] explained, were like babies—everything about their environment said they shouldn’t exist. But they do. You can’t dwell on problems too early, or they will swamp the virtues and you will decide not to do the project. [7046]

[Il motto di Joe Kraus, un altro di Google:] “go fast alone, go far together.” [7730]

[…]] skunkworks. (That appellation, first used at Lockheed aircraft during World War II, is a generic term for an off-the-books engineering effort that operates outside a company’s stifling bureaucracy. The fact that Google needed a skunkworks was telling in itself.) [7852]