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How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg – Review

Although interpreting the book’s title in its literal sense may lead you to believe so, ‘How Google Works’ is not a book about SEO.
It’s a bit of a long one, so sit comfy…
Running a startup is fun, inspiring, difficult and terrifying (often all at the same time).
And as a youthful team of dreamers the Silicon Valley fantasy is both prominent and infectious and, although we’re based in Southampton UK, we always try our hardest to replicate as much of that scene as we can. You know, directors’ meetings in coffee houses, table tennis in the studio and generally doing our utmost to avoid ‘conventional’ business practice (whatever that is).
You could say we’re a bit of a ‘startup cliché’ and that’s exactly how we like it.
Sometimes when our playful and ambitious working attitude starts to seem a bit too much like fun, we always fall back on the famous saying “well that’s what Google do, right?”.
So, we thought, what better way to justify our ‘Google-esq’ behavioural traits than to read all about precisely how Google works? (NB: I didn’t actually read it, I purchased the Audio book because I’m obviously far too busy to read a book…)
As a brief précis, ‘How Google Works’ is a reflective account of, former chairman and CEO, Eric Schmidt’s spell at Google from 2001 – 2011, and his ideas behind the explosive growth we’ve all witnessed in that time.
Below are my key takeaways from ‘How Google Works’ and how I feel they relate to my personal experiences with startups (all views are most certainly my own, I love Google for the record).

1) Smart Creatives & Goals

The book implies we should make goals and then hire really smart people to reach them. Google refer to these people as ‘Smart Creatives’ (so that’s smart and creative, got it? Good).
These people should be smarter than you (if that’s possible) and thrive on pressure. You should give them everything they need to achieve goals and get out of their way. Give them all the freedom they need to get stuff done.
You should keep pushing the responsibility on them because they will soak it up and get stuff done, and trust them to tell you when ‘enough is enough’. Give them complete control.
When hiring we should think Attraction, Selection and Attrition in order to build a culture that can scale as your business grows.

My Thoughts

I really like the idea of ‘Smart Creatives’ and can see how important these aforementioned traits are to driving success through the very core of a startup.
I also hear the term “goals” chucked around a lot in businesses these days but admittedly don’t adopt a goal-setting approach as much as I perhaps ought to *slap on the wrist*. However, I’ve made a concious effort to set clear business goals as part of our next strategic review and will most certainly embrace the notion of ‘Smart Creatives’ when recruiting future talent.
Speaking of talent…

2) Talent is Crucial

According to the book, when you put great people with more great people you create the perfect breeding ground for the ‘herd effect’ which is what you want, you need to hire A people to be around other A people. As soon as you let an A hire a B, that B’s going to hire a C, because B’s are threatened by A’s. So you’ve gotta start from the beginning and make sure that you just have A’s who hire A’s.
Also, Great people treat others well so, before you hire someone, ask your assistant what they think of the candidate and ask other team members that bumped into the candidate in the corridor what they think, is the candidate authentically excellent?
Aim to hire so called ‘learning animals’. These are people with a passion to want to learn new things, people with character who are interesting and engaged with the world around them; diverse people who see things differently – because different perspectives drive greater insight and paint a broader picture. ‘Learning animals’ have a growth-mindset and set learning goals rather than conventional targets. They are smart generalists who favour overall intelligence over specialisation.
We’re also advised to be wary of experience, as whilst it’s undoubtedly a credible trait worthy of great merit, it can be blinding when recruiting new talent. This is because today’s technology has made the game dynamic, like never before.
Finally, before you hire someone question yourself – could you have six hours of good conversation with them? If not, they’re not the kind of person you should recruit (for Google anyway).

My Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this section.
To me it illustrates how hiring ‘well’ is the best investment you can make and you should think more about the people than the role; that smart creatives are more important than the job role you are hiring for. Look for ambition, drive, creativity and integrity.
Personally, I can relate to these ideas.
When I’m interviewing people, I’m not overly impressed by A* grades or 1st Class Degrees. Whilst this demonstrates educational discipline, I get more excited by candidates who say “I love travelling so much I started my own blog and it gets tonnes of hits”.
The proactive drive to do something beyond ‘the norm’ is what I look for in potential new employees.

3) Be Messy

It’s time to forget everything you were taught about tidying your room and learn to love messiness; it’s a good sign (so the book implies). According to ‘How Google Works’, offices should be kept crowded with stuff and people to maximise energy, creative interaction and promote group stimulation.

My Thoughts

Okay, being a creative agency with a studio as a shop window (quite literally), we’re compelled to embrace the spirit of ‘being messy’ but our clean and minimalist approach to the office styling is a tribute to our brand values. So we have a great cleaner and endeavour to keep it tidy. True rebels. I think we’ll be okay though as we did acquire a ping pong table to help with the ‘energy and stimulation’ bit.

4) Create An Innovation Bureaucracy

A beautiful oxymoron.
“Innovation can’t be owned or ordained, it needs to be allowed. You can’t tell innovative people to be innovative, but you can let them,” Schmidt, Rosenberg, and Eagle write.
We should aim to set audacious, unattainable goals and “fail well” When it comes to products and services; don’t take your direction from the board or executives. “Listen to the lab coats, not suits.”
The above sums it up quite nicely.

My Thoughts

When you witness first-hand the detrimental and potentially devastating stifling effects that a regimented bureaucratic environment can have on both creativity and innovation, you make it part of your DNA to prevent it ever being a part of something you create in business.
In order to truly innovate you need to be given the freedom and support to act on it. Having the idea is great but it’s worthless if you can’t execute it because you’ve hit a roadblock as the ‘key players’ are too busy twiddling their thumbs over ‘higher priority’ items (it’s a sore subject).
Trying to ‘make the boat go faster’ is useless if the boat’s taking on water, the engine is knackered and the captain doesn’t know where he’s going because the navigator is asleep. Sometimes you just need a new boat with a better crew and a clear destination. Then you can think about speeding up the boat…

5) Default to Open

This means involving everyone in company policies and strategic visions. How much money you earn and what your targets are. Make your employees a part of what you do (sounds scary right?).
The book tells how the directors at Google only left out the most sensitive data (upon orders by lawyers) in emails sent to the whole company. They wanted to be complete open about everything. It was part of their culture.

My Thoughts

Transparency is at the core of our business culture. We have employee meetings each month to review and reflect on our revenue goals, everyone knows what’s going on and everyone is incentivised to achieve.

6) Make Tremendous Failures

“To innovate, you must learn to fail well. Learn from your mistakes:”
― Eric Schmidt, How Google Works
The book builds on this idea. I won’t.
Let’s just say we’ve heard this lot since the startup boom over the last decade.

My Thoughts

The whole ‘making mistakes in business is a good thing’ saying that has become so commonplace in the last few years is probably better served as a quote on a poster than a business strategy, in my humble opinion.
I think this because making mistakes (or big failures) can cost loads of money and have severely detrimental effects for your brand reputation, so I’m always a little reserved about statements like this. If you don’t have an endless pot of cash at your disposal (which let’s be honest, most startups don’t) then the idea of literally embracing failure seems utterly ludicrous.
Okay, so making mistakes isn’t the end of the world but unless you have the infrastructure to support them, I would probably try to avoid them (maybe I’m just not getting the ‘Google psychology’ on this bit).
Having grumbled, we once made a mistake (or didn’t do something the right way), our startup failed and we lost about 15k. But now we’re here today and things have never been better…did that mistake bring this business fortune? Who knows…

7) Focus on the USER

Does this benefit the user?
Ask yourself this question before you think about building something new.
The book explains how in one instance Google worked on a new feature which was sure to benefit the user but had no idea how it would effect the bottom line or increase revenue; that was a mere bi-product of the feature, it was going to make the users life easier and that’s what ultimately mattered to them. So they did it.

My Thoughts

At BrightByte, this is a lesson we’ve been fortunate enough to learn quite early on with product development, so we try to make everything we do about the user. We build, ship and iterate as quickly as our resources will allow us to do so.

Closing Thoughts

It’s difficult to determine the authenticity of the ideas portrayed throughout this book and, trying to be balanced, I can’t help but feel that ‘How Google Works’ is a little breezy in its account of how Google actually works; like we’ve received a sugar-coated, airbrushed version of events – a half truth perhaps…maybe it’s a perfectly executed PR exercise that only Google could pull off? Who knows.
Plus, some of the stories seemed a little laboured and I was desperately urging the punchline to arrive so I could ‘get the point’ of it but, all cynicism aside, I enjoyed it overall. It inspired me and I’m writing about it now. I’ve only covered snippets of detail within this post (perhaps that’s not a terrible thing).
That said, it’s certainly aspirational brainfood for the ambitious startup founders out there and it did offer some practical tips for real world application, especially on hiring and talent. Also, let’s be honest, you can never really consume enough motivational content when you’re trying to build something amazing, so it’s certainly worth a read/listen for that reason alone.
If you’re reading this, I do urge you to check it out and pass your own judgement; post a comment below and let me know what you thought of it (or just say hello).
How Google Works – Amazon Book
How Google Works – Audible
Thanks for reading.
P.s. I almost forgot, Google also said “Don’t be evil”, interpret that as you will…