Archives for July 2009

Why Googlers should read Anil Dash’s post

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.

Making a John Q Public account on Google

One of the advantages of working at Google is that you get to see neat products and features before the rest of the world does. But that can also be a disadvantage. Sometimes I’d like to talk about a fun Gmail Lab or a new Calendar feature but I’m honestly not sure whether the outside world can see the new feature. I don’t want to leak something that the outside world can’t see, so I usually I play it safe and end up not talking about any Gmail Labs, for example. I’d enjoy giving more Gmail tips but I also don’t want to show my actual email that might contain secret stuff.

I think I’ve figured out a way to solve this issue. I’ve created a new Gmail account, siliconvalleyuser (at) gmail.com. Let’s say it belongs to John Q Public, a power user living in Silicon Valley. Feel free to send John non-Google-related emails about fictional events: “Hey John, want to come to the party on Saturday?” or “John, here are those pictures from the fireworks this past weekend.” or “Hey John, I saw in the newpaper that you won the California lottery–congratulations!” Then when I want to do a screencast or demo some power feature of a Google account, I’ll have some realistic email to show.

Just one note: please don’t email anything to John about Google. I get way too much email about Google already, and the purpose of this account is to show different features of Gmail or Calendar. To keep this email address completely separate, I created a filter that deletes any emails that mention Google or me:

Silicon Valley User

Again, please don’t email about Google-related stuff, but feel free to email John about interesting fictional things at siliconvalleyuser (at) gmail.com! I’m hoping that I can do some blog posts or videos with good tips. 🙂

30 day challenge begins: biking to work

The overwhelming winner in my 30 day poll was “Bike to work” so that’s what I’m doing during the month of July. In the third week of July I’ll be out in Boston to speak at SIGIR, but any time I’m heading into the Googleplex during July, I’m planning to bike there.

Is there something good for yourself that you’ve been meaning to do? Why not try it for 30 days this month? The month will end whether you try something new or not, so why not tackle something new?

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