Google’s engineering culture

Article in the New Yorker on Google contains a fascinating description of a product design meeting:

Page and Brin had wanted an upgrade of an existing product, and they were unhappy with what they were hearing from the engineers. At first, they were stonily silent, slid down in their chairs, and occasionally leaned over to whisper to each other. Schmidt began with technical questions, but then he switched roles and tried to draw out Page and Brin, saying, “Larry, say what’s really bugging you.”

Page said that the engineers were not ambitious enough. Brin agreed, and said that the proposals were “muddled” and too cautious.

“We wanted something big” Page added. “Instead, you proposed something small. Why are you so resistant?”

The head of the engineering team said that the founders’ own proposed changes would be too costly in money, time, and engineering talent.

Schmidt, the only person at the meeting wearing a tie,  tried to summarize their differences. He noted that Brin and Page wanted to start by deciding the outcome, while the product team focused first on the process, and concluded that the engineering would prove too “disruptive” to achieve the goal.

In many organizations, “process” issues either internal to the engineering team or to the management teams are allowed to
gerbil dominate product development. Decisions on whether to provide some capability may be made, effectively, by an engineering team leader who is intent on protecting his/her authority over engineering resources, or a sales manager who has some dimwitted idea about market segmentation or internal power struggles or …..

The huge advantage companies like Google, or the Microsoft of 20 years ago, have is that the top management have technical and market understanding sufficient to overrule such concerns. It’s grimly hilarious to hear the standard stories about “customer centric” and “shareholder value” objectives from people working inside companies that are really dominated by internal politics and the career ladder plotting of management. Such companies running into a well financed monster like Google, have about as much chance as a gerbil in the piranha tank.

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