Book Review

An eye-opening peek at Google, behind the scenes

By Jesse Singal
July 19, 2011

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One company is powering the word-processing software I’m using to write this, the e-mail program I’m keeping open as I do so, and the Internet search I’m using to procrastinate. It’s the same company that lets me say my destination into my phone, guides me there turn-by-turn, and handles the details of my personal schedule. All these services are free.

You could not make up the story of Google if you tried. While Microsoft, by certain measures, controls our computing lives more than any other company, even that Redmond, Wash., giant now finds itself playing catch-up to the upstart 850 miles down the road in Mountain View, Calif.

Given its status as a ubiquitous juggernaut that feels as if it has been around forever despite that it’s not quite a teenager yet, it’s no wonder Google is a source of constant fascination. Anyone who wants a peek behind the sleek user interfaces and the cute holiday logos should read Douglas Edwards’s “I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.’’ It’s a detailed history of a key period in the company’s growth and a useful meditation on management and leadership in what can only be described as an extremely demanding business environment.

Edwards left the San Jose Mercury News, where he worked as an online brand manager, to work at Google in 1999. He stayed until 2005, a period of success and expansion likely to be written up in business textbooks for decades to come. While Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, hewing to Silicon Valley tradition, went out of their way to avoid many of the trappings of traditional companies - like hierarchies of well-defined management responsibilities, for instance - Edwards’s main role was to figure out what the Google brand meant and how to strengthen it. His tenure with the company brought with it various triumphs and endless predictable frustrations.

Edwards does an excellent job of telling his story with a fun, outsider-insider voice. The writing is sharp and takes full advantage of the fact that Edwards was in a unique position to gauge Google’s strengths and weaknesses, coming as he did from an “old-media’’ background. He was neither a software engineer with no patience for process and delegation, nor one of the company’s wunderkind founders, who even during presentations to potential investors as Google prepared to go public never bothered to put any effort into the drudgery of Impressing Important People (much to the chagrin of stockholding employees like Edwards, who stood to make or lose millions on their performances). He was just a smart guy in a tough job, observing the characters around him.

Part of what makes the book so rewarding is Edwards’s endlessly nuanced take on his former company and its employees. There’s little question Edwards is enamored with Google, but he has no problem relating the organizational difficulties that so often slowed down the enterprise.

Many of these problems stemmed from Page and Brin, who, like many brilliant people, do not have huge appetites for managerial processes. One gets the sense that as successful as Edwards’s time at Google was, for much of it he didn’t know exactly who was responsible for what, and was often frustrated by the capriciousness of the founders, who would make sudden changes to plans that had been months in the making. Both suffer from a hubris that has been misinterpreted, Edwards argues, as potentially malevolent by skeptical observers who fear the company’s growing influence.

Even though “I’m Feeling Lucky’’ is rife with lessons about communication and teamwork, perhaps what makes it so gripping is simply that Edwards takes us inside Google, inside a place where some of the smartest people in the world work ridiculous hours to do impossible-seeming things. And they pull it off beyond any of their wildest dreams.

Jesse Singal can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jessesingal.


The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59

By Douglas Edwards

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 418 pp., $27