What it was like working for Larry and Sergey during Google’s pioneering first years.
“Larry and Sergey,” Edwards writes, “for all their opacity and all their antipathy to traditional thinkers, were easy to approach and easy to like.” Okay, but Edwards doesn’t expend very much energy capturing them in their “easy to like” mode. Mostly he portrays them as iconoclasts, highly demanding and willing to use applied anxiety as a management technique. To their credit, Edwards never depicts them as mean or abusive, which bosses so frequently can be, but they do display the overweening self-confidence that high school quarterbacks, teen heartthrobs, mid-level royalty, and others who have never known defeat often possess. There’s the moment, for instance, when Edwards, after a contentious debate with his bosses, said, “Larry, I realize that more often than not you’ve been right about things,” and Page, with the uninflected tone of a robot encountering data that does not compute, responded, “When were we ever wrong?” There’s Edwards’s introductory interview, in which Brin—who was wearing roller hockey skates at the time—not only asked Edwards his college GPA but, for the decisive query, challenged him to take five minutes and then “explain something complicated to me that I don’t already know.” There was the time Brin had his secretary summon Edwards to help load the boss’s scuba gear into his car, and Brin and Page’s habit of praising an idea with the withholding phrase “That doesn’t seem too sucky” and of rejecting an idea with the alienating phrase “That’s not very Googley.” There was the time when Google CEO Eric Schmidt was conducting an off-site meeting with mid-level managers in a country club conference room while Brin, wearing spandex bicycle shirt and shorts, periodically attempted to make a battery-operated remote-controlled flying saucer hover over Schmidt’s head; there was also the time a staff engineer came up with Gmail, and they insisted on releasing it on April 1 because it would be amusing to see the press grapple with whether or not it was a joke.
Perhaps they had poor upbringings; perhaps it comes with being visionaries. The good news is that there is hope for Brin and Page. For example, if you Google the phrase “Am I being a jerk?” you get about 33,900,000 results in a tenth of a second; presumably at least of few of them would be useful.
“I’ve been asked if Larry and Sergey were truly brilliant,” Edwards writes. “I can’t speak to their IQs, but I saw with my own eyes that their vision burned so brightly it scorched everything that stood in its way. The truth was so obvious that they felt no need for the niceties of polite society when bringing their ideas to life. Why slow down to explain when the value of what they were doing was so self-evident that people would eventually see it for themselves?”
Virgin spaces are seldom settled by the mild-mannered; they need zealots, criminals, and iconoclasts who are willing to go where no one has gone before and hew out of the jungles and deserts the neighborhoods the rest of us will live in. It is a good thing that they have confidence in their visions, and we ought to offer them honor and gratitude and reward. But we should also be careful. John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the Arabella in 1630 and calling for the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be “a shining city on a hill” would recognize a kindred spirit in Google’s “Don’t be evil.” But within six years, rivalries with other settlers and various tribes led to the death or captivity of 700 members of the Pequot tribe. Sooner or later, somebody goes too far.
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