Notes from “I’m Feeling Lucky”

I found this book fascinating, as it not only contains stories from the earliest days of Google, but does so from the perspective of someone in a creative role–Doug Edwards, Google’s first head of marketing and a person who helped set the tone of Google’s design and communication.

His insights are remarkably similar to what it’s like to design products there today–both the good and the bad. Fortunately, having Doug’s stories to draw on really help me understand the culture better and hopefully improve my work. I only wish I had read this book (and his blog) 6 years ago!

Notes and quotes (with Kindle locations)

“Your greatest impact as an engineer comes through hiring someone who is as good as you or better,” he exhorted everyone who would listen, “because over the next year, they double your productivity. There’s nothing else you can do to double your productivity. Even if you’re a genius, that’s extremely unlikely to happen.” – 776

“That’s because marketing likes to lie,” Larry let slip. He smiled when he said it, but I sensed we were being held to account for everything engineers hated about the nonquantifiable world, with its corrupted communications and frequent flyer programs. God help anyone who offered a marketing opinion as if it were a scientific fact. – 815

“Let’s do a gap analysis,” I used to say at the Merc. “What’s the unmet need? Where’s the market opportunity? How much share can we gain?” Engineers hate that kind of thinking. If you’re an engineer with a brilliant idea, seeing it dumbed down or abandoned because it doesn’t test well is like watching a bully pull the wings off a butterfly. The right thing to do is build it regardless, to prove that you can and because building cool things is—well, you end up with cool things. – 1055

Google’s official office dress code was “You must wear clothes.” – 1620

A week later we changed the label back to “cached” and I plotted three new data points on my Google graph: Nothing was final until Larry said it was. Larry communicated directly to the people who could implement his decisions. Larry erased what he had etched in stone if the walls crumbled around him. – 1792

The madness was not without method. Not only did Larry and Sergey’s hyperbolic proposals force us to reason more tightly, but starting at the ideological antipodes exploited the full value of the intelligence in the room. After Larry or Sergey made one of their outrageous suggestions, nothing that followed would seem inconceivable. – 1945

Larry even hated the stiff black cardboard that agencies used to present creative campaigns—each concept perfectly center-mounted to convey greater gravitas. To Larry, a good idea was self-evident, even if scrawled on a wrinkled napkin in blotchy ballpoint. Ad agencies, he hinted, were full of bumbling simpletons and evil dissemblers. – 2495

“‘An order of magnitude is qualitative, not quantitative.’ When you go up by an order of magnitude, the problem is different enough that it demands different solutions. It’s discontinuous.” – 3008

If you want to make a killing trading tech stocks, find a friend in the t-shirt business between San Francisco and San Jose and ask to be alerted any time a rush order gets placed. – 3150

“Larry and Sergey had certain things they wanted worked on,” Gmail creator Paul Bucheit explained, “and there were these standing groups that were making up their own things and not doing whatever it was Larry and Sergey wanted.” – 3984

“So … what I underestimated,” he went on, “is that managers always make judgment calls. They have to in order to function. If you’re in a highly technical area, you can’t make good judgment calls if you’re not highly technical yourself. We changed at that point our strategy for hiring managers—away from coordination to saying that what matters most is technical leadership.” – 3994

Part of the power of Google’s brand was the cluelessly geek chic it projected, as though a site serving millions of users around the globe were being run by a handful of nerds who didn’t know any better than to put whatever struck their fancy on the homepage. I think I had a pretty good ear for that nerd voice and was able to channel it into the communications I crafted, but I also know that I always wanted to smooth out the rough edges and make things flow a little more nicely across the screen. It was the English major in me. Sand down too many protruding bits, though, and you end up with a perfect sphere that’s not terribly interesting. – 4322

Does design do the same thing?

When users posted multiple correct translations, they earned editorial power to overwrite awkward or incorrect submissions made by others. – 4502

My role still had value, because I worked on the language that went into the product itself. But thinking about how users perceived the product, and the company as a whole, was a low priority. The product would speak for itself, so what mattered most was the technology and the cool things that could be done with it. – 4940

The day after the deal went live, John Bauer added code that boldfaced the keyword a user had searched for when it appeared in an ad, making it obvious that the ad was relevant. That single improvement increased clickthrough rates by four hundred percent. One engineer. One change. Four hundred percent. – 5296

For the rest, they gave the okay to go ahead. I quietly rejoiced. I had sold a branding campaign from the nation’s hottest ad agency to two guys who hated anything to do with marketing. It had taken four years, but I had figured out a way to work the system. – 6155

When I first arrived at Google, I felt strongly about things and was often wrong. Fortunately, Larry and Sergey ignored my ideas. I had learned from that experience. Now I felt strongly about things and was often right. Unfortunately, my ideas were still being ignored. I wasn’t sure which slight was more painful, but I suspected it was the latter. – 6340

To launch a radically new product from an established company, Paul asserted, you needed someone who not only believed in it but also was able to make the organization “do the right stuff.” – 6359