Yesterday Google celebrated the opening of a larger Cambridge, Massachusetts office, which takes up a substantial part of a building right next to the Kendall/MIT subway stop in the higher-than-high tech area of East Cambridge. I got a look at their new Friend Connect service (covered in a related Radar blog) and heard some fascinating comments that the staff kindly let me reproduce here.
Google staff certainly know how to say the right things and react in ways I approve to the situations Google finds itself in. More and more people I know (including authors) are Google employees, which is statistically predictable because more and more people in general are Google employees. The Cambridge office has been growing wildly since it began with the purchase of the company that created Android. And this office is one of 45 Google offices around the world.
This raises the question of whether the empire can be supported through continued sales of advertising, and whether Google’s stated openness carries through to employee behavior on the ground. I explored these questions with managers and staff at the party.
The resilience of advertising incomeI mentioned to an advertising manager my observations on Chris Anderson’s “Free!” article. The manager backed up my assertion that advertising could accomplish more with less money as services such as AdSense made it more effective in reaching targeted viewers. However, the manager was confident that Google could depend on continued ad income, because advertisers will keep up their investment in advertising, simply spending the same amount to accomplish more.
I suppose that competition will drive advertisers to advertise as much as they can. I fear the increase in consumption that this implies, because the earth can’t tolerate more material depletion. What we need is advertising that encourages affluent people to spend money helping people who don’t have enough money. This can actually be more satisfying (as psychologists have found) than throwing money into personal accessories.
Why open source developers can be more productive employeesOne staff person said Google likes hiring programmers who contribute to open source projects because they’re more self-motivated. On open source projects, volunteers may be assigned tasks, but often they recognize a need and propose to fill it. The staff person didn’t seem to be grand-standing or trying to look hip by saying this. It just seemed like a reasonable observation that drove recruitment.
Google occupies an odd place in the open community because its code seems divided between two extremes. At one lies secret algorithms that it guards as secretly as a defense agency; the area where it is being challenged by the open Wikia Search project. All other code Google seems willing to release under open source licenses. This is another way of saying that Google understands better than most companies where its competitive advantage lies.
Just as a thought experiment, I imagined what would happen if Wikia Search became popular using open search algorithms. The effect would be similar to what Google does now. SEO experts would constantly implement ways to game the Wikia Search system, and Wikia Search supporters would race to close the holes in the dikes. But because the Wikia Search activity would be open source, multiple solutions would be available at any time (remember, I am totally fantasizing here).
Most likely, volunteers would offer various changes to Wikia Search every morning, and it would be up to the user each time he or she logged in to decide whether to accept the changes. After all, each optimization could cause a degradation in some other aspect of search. Intermediaries would emerge who would evaluate different changes and ask ordinary users to trust their choices.
Innovation is bottom-upAlong the lines of self-motivated employees, I asked a manager whether most of their new products came from the individual employees or from management. He expressed the conviction that most innovation in most companies comes from individual employees. Where management can help is in finding effective places to fit new features into the organization and product line.
Google found that releasing too many products prevented the public from learning about them and adopting them. Adding a feature to an existing product such as Gmail or Blogger could mean that millions of people adopt it, whereas releasing it as a stand-along product might limit adoption to a few thousand.
Choice of licenses for Android applicationsAn Android manager defended the choice of an Apache license for Android’s code. People answering the Android application challenge don’t even have to provide their source code. (There would probably be ways to achieve this same flexibility using a GPL’d base, but companies might feel afraid to trust it.) The manager said it was crucial to pull in companies who expect to make money licensing applications. And he said that Google could still prevent forking and fragmentation by showing the benefits of using a common, open base.
Why Google is in BostonThe central topic of the party was, of course, Google’s choice to come to Boston as well as dozens of other cities around the world. There were two justifications for this: not all the people you want to hire are willing to move to the Silicon Valley, and having most employees in one location limits their understanding of the needs of other people around the world. This endorsement of diversity was echoed by a university programs specialist who is responsible for promoting interest in computer science programs and recruiting for Google.
Google isn’t going as far as MySQL AB, which allows a lot of one-person offices. But MySQL AB has much more narrowly targeted hiring needs. Google tries to provide enough of a variety of projects in offices such as Boston to provide a place for people who could benefit the company, while trying to avoid splintering its development in too many places.
Privacy initiativesWhen a scandal erupted several years ago from a US Justice Department request for data from leading search engines, a number of search engine companies and other interested parties joined together with the goal of promulgating standards for privacy. I asked a Google manager how this was progressing, and he said they were having trouble reaching consensus.
Although Google servers contain a lot of data (including all the contents of the email messages that Gmail users send and receive, and all the documents they store in Google Docs), Google feels it’s on the right side of the privacy debate. They never ask you to explicitly provide personal information, which you automatically give away to dozens of other companies when you pay with a credit card or enter your address for shipping or billing purposes. Many participants in the privacy forum show less concern for privacy and more interest in collecting user data.
I asked whether it would be better for organizations such as EPIC and search engine companies willing to take strong privacy stands to put out standards and start acting on their own. Hopefully, modeling good behavior will provide pressure on other companies to go along.
Transparency comes homeFinally, I had an amusing conversation with a friend who claimed he doesn’t join social networking sites at all. I recommended Dopplr, which I like because it facilitates face-to-face meetings instead of just more online chatter. He worried that exposing all his travel would lead to constant pressures from acquaintances: “Why didn’t you come visit me when you came to…?”
Well, that’s the effect the Internet has. If we benefit from having information at our fingertips, it means we can’t use white lies and silent omissions to accomplish our goals. We all have to be more candid and most explicit. And this is precisely the privacy issue Google faces: giving people information without constraining their options.