Saturday 24 March 2018

Review: Memoir: I'm Feeling Lucky: Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 by Douglas Edwards

Allen Lane, £20

To devise one billion dollar idea could be considered good luck. To come up with a second a short time later out of the blue, well, that's nothing short of genius.

Douglas Edwards was present at the conception of both ideas that turned Google from a struggling upstart in California's Silicon Valley to a money machine that went on to dominate the internet.

Edwards quit his cushy job in marketing at the San Jose Mercury News in 1999 looking for a bit of adventure in the dot-com boom. Aged 41 and with no technical experience, he landed a similar position at a curiously named start-up that focused purely on searching the internet.

Few people had heard of Google and even fewer believed it stood a chance against behemoths such as Yahoo and Altavista. Edwards concedes in this account of his tenure with the company from 1995 to 2005 that he initially figured he would be back at his old job within a year or two.

It's easy to take an instant dislike to Edwards. He speaks early on with the arrogance of one of those salesman spivs who believes the brand is as important as the product.

In addition to working inhumanly long hours as Google's first director of consumer marketing, he quickly learned that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin barely concealed their disregard for marketing shysters and anything that couldn't be proved by raw computer data.

Edwards says: " Their vision burned so brightly it scorched everything that stood in its way."

I'm Feeling Lucky is an illuminating insight into the concentrated brilliance at the Googleplex, as the company HQ in Mountain View, California, is known.

Even Edwards, the self-proclaimed Voice of Google who wrote much of the text users encountered on the search engine's website, knows the company's success had far more to do with the Sergey and Larry's cadre of overachieving software engineers.

By virtue of his early absorption into the fold (he was their 59th hire, he guesstimates), we track the company's progress from plucky outsider to €130bn corporation. It's hard to credit that for a long time the search engine tottered from crisis to crisis as it tried to carve a niche for itself.

Time and time again, Edwards butted up against the founders' instincts -- traditional media practices versus new-world computer logic on privacy, logos, readiness to launch products -- and came off second best.

More often than not, Sergey and Larry were right, a sheepish Edwards confesses with hindsight.

"Larry was so suffused with conviction that he ran towards risk without fear," says the author, explaining the two men always refused to admit anything was impossible.

By the end of the book, by which time Google had morphed into a monster to rival Microsoft and Apple, you even feel sympathy for Edwards. The real action always seemed to happen anywhere but in his office. Any compassion soon fades when he coyly relates cashing in his multi-million-dollar stock options in 2005.

His lively prose teeters on the edge of pomposity ("I could sit on the black couch, plug directly into Larry's head and get root-level access to all that I needed to know"). But he manages to convey the deep complexity of Google's operations in layman's language, even the two brilliant ideas that still pump money into the company's coffers every second.

One is the instantaneous and highly effective auction system by which ads are displayed on Google's search results. The other is the matching of similar ads to web pages other than Google's. Google a search engine? In fact, it's more accurately called an advertising giant, deriving an estimated $30bn a year from those little text ads on thousands of websites.

Ronan Price

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