By Jackson Holahan
“When were we ever wrong?” Google cofounder Larry Page once asked Douglas Edwards, Google’s online brand manager and its 59th employee hired.
Born in a rented garage at the height of the technology boom in September 1998, Google emerged at a moment when everything seemed to be right in Silicon Valley. The collapse of the dotcom bubble in March 2000, however, left many techies out of work, and worse, out of money. But Google marched boldly through this — and many subsequent — storms. Today the company occupies the rarefied strata of firms boasting multibillion-dollar profits. Was Page’s audacious boast accurate? Was Google really never wrong?
Edwards has written "I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59" about the six years (1999 to 2005) he spent working as a marketer for the company. The author had the dubious distinction of being one of the first nonengineers to crack into the playing roster of a company that continues to be driven by a technical mindset. Far from being a computer programmer or software engineer, Edwards was hired because he understood brand management and public relations. Or at least, before coming to Google, he thought he did.
Edwards joined Google early enough — and remained long enough — to witness a meteoric rise almost unparalleled in corporate history. When he was first hired by Google, at age 41, he was a sage parental figure (driving “a station wagon that smelled like baby wipes and spit-up”) in a company dominated by 20-something techies fresh out of Stanford University.
He quickly found that at Google, age and work experience — especially time spent at other companies — didn’t matter much. His previous jobs had done little to prepare him for an office in which fellow employees scarfed down bowls of free M&Ms and slept (sometimes with their pets) on the furniture. And his belief in himself as a marketing professional was jolted by out-of-left-field proposals, like Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s idea to “take the marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera.”
Edwards is painfully honest about the successful Google decisions he opposed (the adoption of the famous Google Doodle, for one) and his struggles to create a “geek chic” corporate voice that was sufficiently “fun and Googley” to satisfy Page and Brin.
But Edwards eventually found his way at Google and helped develop the concise, honest, and witty tone that has come to typify the company's public image. Edwards’s memoir is largely admiring of his former employer and the lessons he imbibed there. “I learned that obvious solutions are not the only ones and ‘safe’ choices aren’t always good choices,” he writes.
“I’m Feeling Lucky” makes an intriguing corporate biography, diagnosing the leadership styles, daily activities, and often unique ways that a small Internet search company run by a pair of visionary leaders conducted business.
In its infancy, titles at Google were irrelevant, perceived as creating a bureaucracy that would limit communication and hinder innovation. Until the employee roster reached well into the hundreds, Page and Brin interviewed every job candidate, from chef to masseuse to senior programmer. The vision, personalities, and idiosyncrasies of this exceptional pair directly shaped the company’s rapid rise to online prominence. “I’ve been asked if Larry and Sergey were truly brilliant,” writes Edwards. “I can’t speak to their IQs, but I saw with my own eyes that their vision burned so brightly that it scorched everything that stood in its way.”
Edwards was sometimes at odds with his immediate boss, as well as the Brin-Page duo, but today finds himself largely in awe of Google’s ability to get it right — albeit in its own eccentric fashion — so much of the time. (The author’s large number of matured stock options were probably also helpful in convincing him that Google’s decisions were sound.)
In 2005, some months after Google went public, Edwards decided his time with the company was done. Now an organizer of the blog xooglers.blogspot.com, Edwards returns to Page’s question: Has Google ever been wrong? “Not often,” he concludes.