“How Google Works” @ CHM

October 11th, 2014

Ever since my twenty-first birthday in 2011, I’ve been compelled to visit the Computer History Museum again and again. By my twenty-first birthday, I had gone through four or five different college majors before settling on the subject of my dreams: computer science. Naturally, the Computer History Museum would become one of my favorite places in the universe. Not only is it a collection of Information-Age artifacts, it’s also a hub for brilliant entrepreneurial minds. CHM is a very inspiring place to be. That’s why I keep coming back.

On Wednesday, the brilliant entrepreneurial minds happened to be Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Marisa Mayer. At least a hundred people gathered at the Computer History Museum that evening to listen to these three talk about Schmidt and Rosenberg’s new book, How Google Works.

“How Google Works” Highlights

At the time I write this, I’m only about thirty percent through the book. So far, I really like what I’ve read. As an aspiring programmer/creative, these ideas really resonate with me. “Hire as many talented software engineers as possible, and give them freedom,” says the book. I definitely aspire to be the kind of person that would work for Google and I would love to work for a company like Google someday. Wherever I go, I hope it’s a place that heeds the ideas discussed in this book. Based on what I’ve read and what I’ve heard so far, Google has a great culture full of people who really love to work (and work hard) and who enjoy solving problems (particularly problems of a computer science-y nature). Below are some of my “takeaways” from How Google Works (the talk and the book).

The “Smart Creative”

One idea that really stood out to me from the book and the talk was the concept of a “smart creative.” Basically, a “smart creative” is someone who possesses technical expertise, creative flair, business savviness, and most of all, a lot of passion. Not only is the smart creative a “jack of all trades,” s/he is master of many. (When I first got hired at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, someone joked that I was a “jack of all trades but a master of none.” Fortunately, I’ve become more well-rounded since then). In the book, Schmidt and Rosenberg say that, “a smart creative has deep technical knowledge in how to use the tools of her trade.” A couple times, the authors referred to Mayer as their model “smart creative.” Starting as one of the first engineers at Google, Mayer helped shape the company in a significant way. She proposed the Associate Product Manager position, a job that requires the assets of a smart creative. During the talk, I learned that Google hired bright and eager college graduates for this position. Basically, an APM’s mission is to bridge the gap between business clients and engineers in selling Google’s products.

Flat Management Structure

Besides hiring well-rounded and ingenious people (at least half of Google’s employees are engineers), part of Google’s success is due to its flat management structure. In a traditional top-down management structure, a few high-payed people at the top generate the ideas and then tell the people below them what to do. This model may have worked better in a pre-Information Age environment where resources where limited and mistakes where much more costly. In conjunction with Moore’s Law, as computers become smaller, faster, and cheaper, information and resources became more abundant. Schmidt and Rosenberg discuss in their book how a traditional top-down management structure impedes creativity and speed in a world that demands it. With more and more choices available to consumers, people have more discerning tastes than ever before. Therefore, in order to succeed in the Information Age, businesses don’t have time for a lot of bureaucracy.

Don’t Feed the HiPPOs

In conjunction with the flat management approach, Google also has a rule of not letting the Highest-Payed Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) dictate major decisions in the company. It may sound unconventional, but it makes a lot of sense based on what I’ve personally witnessed. A few years ago, shortly after I worked in a student-run computer repair shop as part of a work-based learning program at community college, I remember taking part in a very depressing meeting in which students and faculty had the chance to plead with the school administrators not to cut funding to cherished programs. Our little computer repair shop was one of them. Some people were in tears as they got up on the podium explaining what a mistake it would be to cut the program. Some people ranted angrily. I got up there and held up my Berkeley Lab badge, showing everyone what the program did for me and how it could give other students the practical skills they needed in the real work world. Even after all that talk, the administrators dispassionately told us that “times are hard for all of us” and proceeded to eliminate the work-based learning opportunity for the very people they claim to care about. Yes, the HiPPOs seemed corrupt to me! If actual educators and students had more influence over budgeting decisions at school, rather than these over-payed paper pushers, I think colleges would be more successful in churning out well-rounded, work-ready students (instead of broke, disillusioned ones).


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by Karlina Beringer