Anil Dash wrote a great piece about Google recently, and I think all Googlers should read it. Anil makes several good points, including this one:
I doubt Google’s internal self-image as an organization has changed to reflect this new reality. “We’re not like some giant company with flashy TV ads — we’re just a bunch of geeks in Mountain View!” And while that might be true for the vast number of engineers who define the company’s internal culture, the external impression of Google being just another tech titan like Microsoft will gain footing, making the audience for Google’s messages less tolerant of ambiguity and less forgiving of mistakes.
This absolutely rings true in my opinion. One of Google’s core values is “Don’t be evil.” [Note: it's not "do no evil." Why not? Personally, I think it's because it's impossible to exist in this world without someone, somewhere perceiving some action you do as evil. As a Bloom County cartoon pointed out several years ago, even walking or breathing kills lots of organisms.] We still use “don’t be evil” as a guiding principle inside Google, but I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people outside Google mentioning the phrase. That raises the worrying possibility that people are starting to think of Google as just another big company.
“Don’t be evil” sets an incredibly high bar for Google’s conduct. It can be frustrating to get called out for not being perfect when other companies aren’t doing things as well as Google, but that high standard helps keep Google on track. Take for example the recent letter asking that Google offer HTTPS more broadly. Gmail already offers an “always use HTTPS” option, which is more than other large email providers, but the letter was sent to Google because people expect more from Google. If people stop expecting more from Google, it’s more likely that the company will go off track.
Anil goes on to say
Worse, because most of the dedicated detractors of Google have been either competing companies or nutjobs, it’s been hard for Googlers to take criticisms seriously. That makes it easy to have defensiveness or dismissal of criticisms become a default response.
Too true. I’ve already seen some people disagree with some of Anil’s points, both inside and outside Google. It’s easy to argue with the specific examples that Anil gave. But in my opinion the right reaction isn’t to argue, it’s to look for the crux of feedback that we need to hear. Remember when Danny Sullivan wrote 25 things he hated about Google? Too many Googlers take posts like that as criticism instead of constructive feedback. You’d normally pay who-knows-how-much to get the kind of feedback that Google gets from the web every day? But we’ll continue to get that impassioned feedback only if we’re willing to take it and use it to improve.
Anil concludes with
Google has made commendable steps towards communicating with those outside of its sphere of influence in the tech world. But the messages will be incomplete or insufficient as long as Google doesn’t truly internalize and accept that its public perception is about to change radically. The era of Google as a trusted, “non-evil” startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over. …. Google is entering the moment where it has to be over-careful not to offend, and extremely attentive to whether they are treading lightly.
And this is the heart of the argument. Many Googlers, especially old-timers, still think of Google from early days, when we were the underdogs in search. But many people outside the company perceive Google as a huge company with an outsized shadow. We can scare people, even when we’re trying not to.
After the IPO, lots of people assumed that Google would become just another big company. We need to fight that trend for as long as we can. If you’re a Googler, think back to some of the moments that made you proud to work for Google. When we decided to send all DMCA requests to Chilling Effects, I was proud to work at Google. When we decided to do an IPO that anyone could buy into, I was proud to work at Google. When Eric Schmidt said “We would never trap user data,” I was proud to work at Google.
Those are some of the biggies, but there’s been so many small moments where I’m proud too. Here are two small moments: I’ve been biking into work this month. I just found out last week that when I bike into work, I earn points that I can use to donate to charity. Google gives money to a charity when I bike into work–that’s pretty cool.
The other small moment of pride happened at the Real-Time CrunchUp this past Friday. I saw Googlers Brett Slatkin and Brad Fitzpatrick present PubSubHubbub, a simple, open protocol to turn slow RSS/Atom feeds into real-time streams. That was very cool, but the moment of pride came when Brad said “Nothing in the protocol hard-codes Google as the center of the world–I hate that sort of crap, too.” (If you want to see the presentation, go here and click to 56 minutes in.)
Now: Googlers, ask yourself how you can help make another one of those moments where you’re proud to work at Google. I think those moments are a great way to keep from becoming just another large company. And if Googlers are open to posts like Anil Dash’s, the web is tell us tons of things it wants us to do, or how to do them better.