Technology writer Steven Levy spent over two years chronicling the rise of Google, including a summer spent interviewing current and former employees on the company’s Mountain View, Calif., campus. His book, In the Plex, is a multifaceted analysis of the popular search engine’s rise to power, an ascent that was not without its share of fumbles and eyebrow-raising missteps. We spoke to the esteemed author about his personal experiences tracing the history of this Internet behemoth.
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How difficult was it to convince co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to allow you access to the Google campus and their employees?
At about the same time that I joined Wired in June 2008, I’d already had an advantage since I was the first person in the national press to write about them. I was one of the early journalistic observers of Google, and they remembered how I wrote about them in a way that would do the most justice to the company. Of course, both were much more accessible in those early days; later on, they became much more wary of the press.
What was your impression of the younger generation of Google employees that you interviewed?
The people they hire are selected for their ambition, creative thinking and independence; they’re hired into a company that minimizes its bureaucracy. Some expressed frustration that they couldn’t do what they want to do. On the other hand, there are a lot of interesting projects that challenge them and fulfill their potential there. They love the Google infrastructure, the employee-friendly collegial atmosphere and the data-based decision-making. I learned that to be the most successful, though, you have to quit Google, work for another company, and then get hired back.
What’s the biggest misconception about Google?
That it’s totally out of control. Yes, Google isn’t shy about their creative disorganization and there’s this looseness, this degree of tolerated chaos in the company, but, people would be surprised to learn that there is a number of fairly intricate tracking and reporting systems developed which make it more like a General Electric than a Google.
What impressed you the most?
It’s the constant ambition for what they do—playing it safe is a value that is greatly discouraged to this day. Google really addresses this “3-legged stool” of virtue between itself, the advertiser and the user. They feel that if you don’t pick the user out of the equation, you will do well by them. There’s a need to serve those people alongside the advertisers; it’s the nature of their success.
In your book’s introduction, you call Google a “complicated corporation.” Why?
Because Google makes a great effort to balance its values, which is, in a sense, anti-corporation. When they went public, the company would sometimes do things that would sacrifice profits for the good of the company and for moral reasons—something a corporation isn’t supposed to do. Google thinks of itself as a smaller company, which helped them innovate, but they paid a price for that by not taking into account the threatening nature of certain aspects of their searching tool.
What do you think about Google’s censorship of its Chinese website?
That became the “original sin” in China. From an initial compromise to censor, they had to make more compromises about their employees in China who felt underappreciated, and this affected product creation and development. It was an unfortunate series of one misunderstanding and cultural blunder after another.
What direction do you see the future of the Internet and search engines going?
I think Google definitely points to it as being very much about artificial intelligence and incorporating that into the great power of its search engine. I see the future leaning toward more machine-focused learning, which will transform the kinds of interactions we have. Even within the social networks, it will become difficult to discern between the users and the social constructs that will be online right along with us.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually working on a big story about the young founders of enterprising new startup companies in the Silicon Valley. Back when I was beginning, it was all about writing “The Great American Novel,” now these people are revolutionizing “The Great American Startup Company.” Mark Zuckerberg and others like him are role models for them and many are actually dropouts from Google who are starting their own new companies right now.