Insights into what really happens at Googleplex

Douwe Osinga, a software engineer, recently left Google after seven years. He’s written a series of blog posts explaining why he left and also describing what it was like working there, and he dispels some of the many myths about Google.

For example: The 20% time myth.

The myth might have been that you basically get a day off a week to do whatever. It is still work. And you’re still held responsible for what you do. So yeah, you can do whatever you want to, but you have to actually want it and it is still for Google…

Also, it isn’t always the next big product. Hundreds of engineers at Google spend their 20% time on mundane things like promoting test driven coding, cleaning up old code, mentoring new engineers or just helping out on another project that needs helping.

It’s his description of the culture at Google that’s particularly fascinating, such as the insistence by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to always “Think big.”

Thinking big sounds great, but most big ideas start small and go from there. Google itself started from the notion that it would be interesting to look at back links for pages. Twitter started out as hardly more than a group SMS product that also works online. Facebook explicitly restricted themselves at first to one university.

There is a very strong culture of keeping secrets with the outside world but being totally open inside the company.

There are very few internal secrets and that works because the rule is that you don’t talk about anything to outsiders. Living as an engineer in this peculiar world with its own technology stack and ideas about technology is very exciting especially in the beginning. There is so much to learn, so many ideas to explore.

Google has done its bit to keep the web open and to fight anybody trying to turn it into a so called walled garden. But being inside is a bit like being in a walled garden. You can’t discuss interesting developments inside with people on the outside of course, but it is even hard to partake in discussions outside…

Over time this starts to outweigh the advantages of being on the inside.

I found this blog post via Dave Winer on Scripting News, where he writes that Osinga helped him understand “the process that led to failures like Buzz and Wave.”

However, as an outsider, I think the failure of the many Google services that were launched and then mostly abandoned is due to a chronic failure to understand PR and marketing.

Winer comments that Google’s idea of a product launch is: “just invite Scoble in for a demo (figuratively) and the rest is taken care of by the press and bloggers.”

That works pretty well, Robert Scoble is great at videoing a product demo and posting it quickly, and there are lots of press and bloggers that help bring lots of attention to every new Google announcement.

But what about the day after the launch? What about the following weeks and months?

Robert Scoble and the rest of the mediasphere have moved onto the next thing, the next company, the next launch.

Build it and they will come…

Google doesn’t seem to recognise the need for marketing around its products, it doesn’t appear to have a marketing strategy beyond launch day.

I get tons of pitches from small and large companies about their new product launches. And then I get lots of follow on pitches for months afterwards about those products as those companies try to maintain the momentum of users and media coverage.

I never get follow on pitches from Google.

Engineers hate “marketing”

I attribute this to Google’s engineering culture which looks down on marketing. Among software engineers “marketing” is widely disdained. For example, a software engineer friend of mine often criticises Apple and its products, saying that it’s “just marketing.”

It’s as if “marketing” can just be taken off a shelf and simply added to something, and that it doesn’t provide anything of intrinsic value. It’s “just marketing.”

Google has good reasons for its attitude towards marketing because its search engine succeeded without the need for any promotional activities of any kind.

When I was at the Financial Times, before Google IPO’d, I’d meet with the founders and other execs and they often loved to mention the fact that they won millions of users with no marketing budget. They didn’t spend a penny.

That mind set clearly continues today and is deeply embedded in the culture. I see it as the chief reason that the majority of Google’s services have failed to succeed: There’s no marketing strategy.

The products are good. And the launches are high profile. But if there is no marketing follow through they will die among the noisy marketing clamor of a gazillion other companies trying to gain the attention of media and potential users.

It’s a noisy world

And the noise level is much higher today than when Google launched its search engine. It’s a much different world, and it’s one where marketing has become extremely important. It’s not “just marketing.” It’s probably the single most important component of any product. But not at Google.

I don’t see things changing. Larry Page recently took over as CEO and his reorganisation of the company is strengthening the engineering culture, and lessening the influence of non-engineer executives.

This is great news for other companies. It means they have a better chance to compete against some of Google’s products and carve out a profitable business.

And Google doesn’t need all of its products to succeed because it makes 98% of its money from just one product: advertising. Yet it fails to understand the value of marketing. It’s a delightful irony.



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