Steven Levy: “In the Plex” | Talks at Google

Steven Levy: “In the Plex” | Talks at Google


>>Karen Wickre: I’m Karen Wickre from the
Communications Team and it gives me a lot of pleasure to introduce Stephen Levy, a long
time technology reporter, many of you may already know. Early fame came with ‘Hackers’
which some of you have with you today also. Anyway, Stephen writes for Wired Magazine
and undertook this large project to write a book about Google almost three years ago.
And he’ll tell you all about that. And to introduce him is our own Matt Cutts who’ll
be firing questions at him.>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]
>>Karen Wickre: So thanks. And welcome to Stephen.
>>Matt Cutts: Yay. [applause]
>>Matt Cutts: All right. So first off, welcome to Google.
>>Stephen Levy: Thank you. This is new for me.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] [audience laughter]
Roughly how many times have you been to Google, if you had to guess?
>>Stephen Levy: I – it would be tough to guess.
>>Matt Cutts: Yeah.>>Stephen Levy: Because it’s – obviously,
I’d been visiting Google before you were in this campus of course.
>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.>>Stephen Levy: But the amount of time I spent
here in the last few years has been enormous. I took – I had a place to bivouac in Palo
Alto. And one thing I did notice. I have this little route that I take from my place in
South Palo Alto and, and I pass this building. Or it was a vacant lot at first on the corner
of Charleston and San Antonio. You know they’re building some sort of giant retirement home
and community center or something. And the thing wasn’t there when I started. And I watched
the thing go up and got completed during the time I was working on this book. So…
>>Matt Cutts: Wow.>>Stephen Levy: it was a lot of time. Yeah.
>>Matt Cutts: So what’s your process for something like this? Like how — you decided you want
to write the definitive book about Google…>>Stephen Levy: Right.
>>Matt Cutts: which I think you’ve successfully written.
>>Stephen Levy: Well, thank you.>>Matt Cutts: So how do you go about that?
How do you tackle that?>>Stephen Levy: Well, what really shaped it
was the, the focusing approach that I took from the beginning which came to me during
a 2007 trip that I was invited to go along with the APM’s – with the Associated Product
Managers. It’s the trip that Marissa Mayer takes the young future leaders of Google in
different places around the world. And I spent 24-7 with them which is sort of unusual for
a reporter to get that kind of access and I wasn’t monitored all the time. I could talk
to them all the time and I was sort of immersed in the Google bubble for all that time as
we bounced around the world. Now I thought, ‘Boy this would be interesting. The way to
tell the story is from the inside out.’ From an outsider getting access to the inside and
almost like an anthropologist living in some primitive culture or something.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] [audience laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: And , and getting familiar enough to converse in the language and, and
be comfortable with it, familiar with it and have people comfortable with me and that was
the approach I took. So the ground rules were I could talk to anyone. The people could say,
‘No’ but very, very few people did. I could count on the fingers of one hand the people
who said, ‘No’. And in a couple of cases, I really wanted to talk to them so we just
worked out something where I could talk to them. And I was allowed to sit in in a number
of different kinds of meetings and gatherings and things like that. And I was able to witness
the development of certain projects which of course weren’t available to the general
public. But I agreed that if a project that I was watching had not come out by the time
the book came out, I wouldn’t write about it. I wouldn’t be the vehicle by which a Google
product would be announced.>>Matt Cutts: So did that cause you any stress
with like Emerald C or any deadlines on, on getting the book finished?
>>Stephen Levy: What’s Emerald C?>>Matt Cutts: All right. Okay.
[laughter]>>Stephen Levy: [laughs] Actually I introduced
Emerald C, I confirmed Emerald C as a code name in there and that was done with consultation
there but I — that was one project I could say in, in the walls here that I was watching
pretty closely. I was disappointed, probably not as much as people who working on Emerald
C were disappointed, that I wasn’t able to write about it in April, 2011.
>>Matt Cutts: So it seems like there’s a lot of stuff you could write about. Like some,
some topics necessarily are going to get shorter shrift. Like Google News didn’t get quite
as much coverage. How do you decide what do you talk about, what do you not talk about?
All those sorts of things.>>Stephen Levy: Well, the structure of a book
takes on its own life as you go and there were a lot of projects which I had a lot of
stuff on– on Google news for instance. I did several interviews on that and there is
a lot to say about it but for one thing, it’s been discussed pretty widely outside. But
as the book took on its own narrative drive, I hope, as I put it together – and it’s
interesting to see how the processes of writing books has changed as technology changed. My
first book I was writing just as I actually was starting to write on, on a computer then.
So probably this style in which I wrote it was still pretty much the style — you know
I’m old enough that I wrote my first stories in journalism on this thing called a typewriter
and yeah. And it changes a lot as you have the freedom to go, go anywhere. You used to
write a story — you would start on page one and go all the way through and start over
again, right? And so now things — it’s almost like a picture, a photograph dropped into
a pool of developing fluid which is something else we don’t have any more.
>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.>>Stephen Levy: And it, it, it, comes into
shape and, and as this one was coming into shape, I knew pretty much how I wanted to
do it. And surprisingly the chapters ‘In The Plex’ resemble the outline I gave to my publisher
three years ago. ‘ See, the first chapter is gonna talk about Search. The second chapter’s
gonna talk about ads. The third chapter’s gonna talk about Culture. Actually I did change
the order. And we can talk about why, when the China chapter got pushed back a little
there>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]
>>Stephen Levy: and the section was gonna be called ‘International’ originally there.
But the thing takes a narrow drive. And Google News – it just didn’t fit in there. There
is one part in one section where I just throw in a lot of projects that I have, right?
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]>>Stephen Levy: I think Google News maybe
made a couple paragraphs in that thing. For instance, I had a lot about Noll for some
reason. I know why. It’s because I was privy to the stuff that went on in that project
when it went on. But it just didn’t seem relevant to go on for just pages and pages and pages
about Noll.>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm. So once you got inside
Google behind the curtain, what was the biggest revelation or the product that surprised you
the most or what took you back the most? Like what was something that you didn’t expect
once you were really inside the Plex?>>Stephen Levy: Well there’s two things. One
is very specific and that’s the whole China thing.
>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm.>>Stephen Levy: The China thing was — really
it was an amazing story and I say ‘story’ because it really followed a track and — in
the — obviously the decision to stop censoring>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: and the subsequent withdrawal from the Mainland was like an end. Certainly
that chapter. And with the amazing characters and it wasn’t something that was as cut and
dry as some people think journalists like. To me, my approach in doing journalism is,
I have like a rule which is that the real story is always — and I mean always not just
sometimes — always more interesting than the preconception you could have about that
story.>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: Because it’s real life. I’m a non-fiction writer so ends don’t always
tie up neatly.>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: But the complications are fascinating because that’s life. So you may
not get the answer to every single question but you — if you could reflect the complications
of life while fitting it in an interesting narrative, then to me that’s the nirvana there.
And China was a great example of that. There were also unexpected important components
of that story that I had never heard before. For instance when I was in Beijing talking
to engineers and I have to say the Google Engineers in Beijing were — and the executives
there — were unbelievably frank.>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: The candor I had in those interviews probably was as open and unafraid
they were talking to a journalist than anyone not only have I talked to at Google but at
any company I ever covered there.>>Matt Cutts: Wow.
>>Stephen Levy: They were just — and they had incredibly tough criticisms in particular
of one thing — the thing that just drove them insane was the fact that the engineers
in China did not have access to the production code. It was more than a work annoyance though
it was that and something that limited what they could do. It was a sign to them that
they were second class citizens.>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: And one person told me — this is all on the record – that, that he feared
there was going to be a riot one day because they were so frustrated there. And that was
fascinating. And it sort of underlined the difficulties of going in into China there
in a way that people hadn’t expected there. This complication, this fear that because
China’s political climate was such and there could be pressure on the families of engineers
that Google had to take this step there.>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: And some people actually suspected also because of the discomfort the company
had with censorship in China that this restriction was not solely because of security reasons
but was almost a form of civil disobedience by some of the people in Mountain View who
just didn’t like the whole thing in China and were slowing them down. So people had
that suspicion out there. I really don’t know how true that was or how much people were
intentionally dragging their feet up there but that’s how they felt there. So that was
one thing. The second thing is that even though Google is much criticized in, in, in some
quarters for what is a perceived lack of coherence>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: in what it does. Even though there is some — ‘sloppiness’ is maybe too
negative a word but there is looseness.>>Matt Cutts: Mild chaos.
>>Stephen Levy: in>>Matt Cuts: Sometimes
>>Stephen Levy: Yes. Chaos. But chaos is a word that you folks use. There is an overall
coherence to what it does. You could find the root of Googleliness in stuff that happens
there and the example that I use is the autonomous cars which a lot of people seize on as this
is an example of Google just doing anything it damn pleases. So why don’t I just focus
on the Search Engine or fighting Facebook. Instead they’re doing cars that drive themselves.
I actually found that a pretty Googley project. It was AI based and Google to me, one of the
things you can say about it — this company is an AI company among other things. So that
makes sense that AI is really baked into these things and it also is really a big information
processing exercise. It takes in all its information about its local area with its little Laser
Sensors and all that and it brings back information from Google in Street View and Maps and things
like that and so I, I, I found it not a surprising product once you think about it for Google
to embark on.>>Matt Cutts: So going back to China for just
a second, it seems like the book really goes into more depth about the, the interactions
between the executives than probably even a lot of Googlers had access to. So I’m kind
of curious about how did the, how did the structure of things work like in terms of
— how many times did you talk to Larry or Sergey or Eric? How was that structured whenever
you were talking with them?>>Stephen Levy: Well in some discussions it
was interesting. One of the first times, one of the first long interviews I’ve had with
Sergey>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: was in 2002 though I met him in 2009.
>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm. Do you mean 1999?>>Stephen Levy: In 1999, 1999 — sorry. I’m
sorry. Yeah.>>Matt Cutts: He doesn’t know about the Google
time travel device, all right? [audience laughter]
Everybody keep that on the down-low.>>Stephen Levy: And we talked about China
because they just had the first unpleasant experience with China when Google was mysteriously
blocked for a couple of weeks there and we talked a bit about that and the politics of
that. And so a lot of the discussion was not directly with Sergey and Larry though they
came up on our interviews that we did have there. But just a lot of the other executives
around here and some were formal interviews and some were less formal because the nice
thing about being around here a lot is you run into people and at conferences. I’d been
talking to people and things would come out and it was a mix of going to China and talking
to the engineers gave me more information than to bring back to Mountain View and talk
to people there. And at one point, someone sort of like let it slip, ‘Oh we – yeah.
Then there was the time we fired our government relations person for those Ipods and my ears
kinda went up.>>Matt Cutts [laughs]
>>Stephen Levy: Whoa. And then, and then because that person wasn’t high executive and I’m
not giving anything away to people because these were people in the room from Google
when this is happening. I said ‘This is something I really have to follow up on’ and I did track
it down and managed to get Alan Eustace on the record about it.
>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.>>Stephen Levy: You know other people there
and I — there was a lot of talk with Googlers and ex-Googlers really also about the China
thing so I put a lot of work into that section because you could really see where the holes
were on that narrative and I really knew exactly where to go — it was a case of a former Secretary
of Defense said, ‘There’s known unknowns. And known…
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] [audience laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: and unknown unknowns’ and I had some known unknowns that I could track
down in that piece of the puzzle.>>Matt Cutts: Yes. So you’ve not only been
going around inside Google. You have been visiting a lot of conferences talking to a
lot of people in doing the book and then also doing the book tour afterwards. I understand
you were at Facebook yesterday?>>Stephen Levy: Yes I was.
>>Matt Cutts: Anything they were particularly interested in?
[audience laughter]>>Matt Cutts: Or [laughs]
>>Stephen Levy: There were a couple really interesting things in the Q and A section
at Facebook that I think you might be interested in. First was one person asked me a question
that took me aback. He said, ‘Why aren’t there more people from Google coming to Facebook?’
[audience laughter]>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]
>>Stephen Levy: And that really took me back especially since in the beginning I asked
how many people are ex-Googlers and a fair number of hands went up. So I thought that
was an odd question. And another question that was asked was, ‘When is Google gonna
do a rapprochement with us? When are they going to sit down at the table with us?’ I
said, ‘That’s what the people at Google ask about Facebook.’
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]>>Stephen Levy: So I thought that that was
strange. And there was some interest in Google’s social strategy. Actually there was, I made
sure that anything I might know that I shouldn’t share not get out. I, I, I kept on that but
just — and then they had, I actually took a lot of my time there when I talked to them
, talking about China because it has been reported that Facebook is considering its
own move into China. So I thought I’d give them a cautionary tale about the experience
of one company that went into China and it didn’t exactly work out as planned.
>>Matt Cutts: Um hm. [laughs] So we’re gonna, in a little bit we’re gonna open it up for
Q & A. But I wanted to ask just a few more questions. So you do a really good job. I
think a lot of books about Google end up with ‘Great. Oh, Google’s fantastic. It’s idealistic.’
And then inevitably people feel like they need to tear Google down at the end and it’s
a huge privacy problem and all these sorts of things. And I thought the book did a really
good job of avoiding that pitfall of the easy narrative but there was one part where you
were talking about where Google was defending the Google Books settlement and if I could
just read a paragraph, I wanted to get your take on this.
>>Stephen Levy: Please. I’d like to hear it.>>Matt Cutts: Good. [laughs]
[audience laughter] So the idea is basically that somebody was
defending the Google Books settlement. And then you say, “But Google’s plight was such
that arguments seemed self-serving. Google had become a company that dominated the world’s
searches, whose mirror world rivaled the physical world as a working version of reality, a company
that had knowledge of virtually everyone’s information, peregrinations, and intentions
accompanied fighting the giants in computer software, phones and television. When Google
spoke of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the words sounded hollow at best. Its flaws became magnified
and its virtues seemed calculated.” So if you were in charge of trying to get things
back to the Google Love where people felt like the words were not hollow
>>Stephen Levy: Right>>Matt Cutts: What would you do? How would
you try to change things? What projects would you do?
>>Stephen Levy: Well, I don’t know about projects but I’d say that first of all, transparency
is really, really important and one thing that was fascinating to me about Google was
how incredibly open the people in Google are with each other internally. Internally at
Google. The fact that the moment you go, everyone could see everyone else’s OKR’s and all this
information about what’s going on inside the company is available to everyone in the company
and by and large, you do a terrific job of doing that without stuff leaking as much as
you thought it would leak out on this. And I remember when I went on a trip, I learned
about Chrome and I was amazed it was a year later that Chrome came out and no one had
leaked it out. There was suppositions or something like that. The story never leaked out there.
But externally it’s not that way. To me, Google is like a lobster. It has sort of a hard shell
on the outside but inside,>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]
>>Stephen Levy: it’s softer and gooier. Right? [audience laughter]
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]>>Stephen Levy: So I think the lobster, the
— has to go. Maybe a soft shell crab might be a better way to go.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] [audience laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: For, for Google. Not letting people into everything but I think transparency
and in terms of the, the, the book search. One thought, thing that came to mind and I
don’t even know how plausible this is but it’s there. All these books are scanned and
part of the deal is that only Google gets the benefit of its scans. And that makes sense
in one sense because Google has invested all this money into scanning the books, right?
So it’s their property. But making it open to everyone I don’t think would hurt Google
that much. Even licensing, maybe get some money back from anyone else who might want
to do that. But maybe if it wasn’t exclusive to Google. That is one of the biggest complaints
about the original book search, that this was something that only Google will have there.
And maybe if it was more like a public service that anyone can get hold of, it would add
ammunition to the idea of its fair use and things like that. So I think that the original
sin in book search was not in scanning the book which in the legal system might have
been an original sin depending on how you interpret what a book scan is. Is it a copyright
violation?>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm.
>>Stephen Levy: to make one single copy of a book. That’s for the lawyers to fight over.
But to me it was when the Authors’ Guild actually came up with a suggestion, that instead of
just doing it this way, why don’t we do it in a way where it’s like a bigger project
where you’re gonna sell books. And the idea of Google being the exclusive seller of books
I think turned a lot of people who might have been your natural allies into your enemies.
One thing that struck me in particular was all the people that lined up against Google
during this particular hearing or during the book settlement, one guy was a lawyer who
represented Arlo Guthrie. And I thought, ‘How did it get to the point where Arlo Guthrie
is testifying against Google?’ That seems sad.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] So it’s been many years you’ve been talkin’ about Google, writing
about Google. You wrote some of the first articles about Google. And now two or three
multiple years on the book. Are you sick of Google?
>>Stephen Levy: [laughs] [audience laughter]
>>Matt Cutts: Are you like ‘please. No Google news.’
>>Stephen Levy: Well I’m still upset they closed Andalé.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] [audience laughter]
>>Matt Cutts: Yeah. Yeah. Me too. [applause]
The burritos over there are just not quite the same.
>>Stephen Levy: The — no it — I’m I’m gonna miss comin’ over as much. It was fun and I
think that one thing they really do select for when they hire people is that, ‘Hey. We
want interesting people here’ and early on there was this joke. I think it was semi-serious
that they didn’t want to hire anyone that if Larry or Sergey were stuck at an airport
with an employee, they would be like bored by the person’s conversation, right?
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]>>Stephen Levy: So obviously the people here
are really smart. They’re really interesting. They’re fun to talk to and in a way it’s — there’s
this preconception of engineers that they’re these grinds and they’re not interesting.
And things like this authors series and people are music lovers. They’re readers here and
I think that it’s fun to be around here and certainly the technology’s pretty interesting
and it’s something I hope to continue covering there. So I’m actually going to miss not being
around as much.>>Matt Cutts: How about something where you
finish a book and then maybe a few days later, Eric decides to become Executive Chairman
and Larry’s going to become CEO. How does that change things? How does that change?
>>Stephen Levy: Well amazingly, a day before I finished the book [laughs] I actually had
the final page proofs in hand. It was the last shot I had at the book before it would
cost a lot of money to change anything and maybe push back the publication date. And
that was when that announcement came through. And I’ll tell you, if it were anyone but Larry,
this book would have been in big, big trouble. But clearly if you read it, you see Larry’s
personality here. And one thing I hope the book does forever is it distinguishes between
Larry and Sergey. A lot of people just think of them as one of a matched set of Google
guys.>>Matt Cutts: Right.
>>Stephen Levy: And that’s not the case. There’s a lot of values that they share in common.
They’re great friends. But they’re different people entirely and each had their own individual
impact on shaping Google. So I was able to get that in and it provided a nice little
end to the book there. So that’s what I was doing. I was documenting that era at Google.
>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm. That’s good. So probably as you’re touring around the country a little
bit, you’re talkin’ about Google, you probably hear a lot of misconceptions. Like I know
whenever I talk to people they say or they believe that Google was behind the scenes
picking every single result and how it should rank. What kind of misconceptions do you run
up against? Or what sort of stuff do you see?>>Stephen Levy: Well, well, stuff like that.
No one understand ads, right? But I think it’s great to explain it. People, people are
fascinated because here’s a system. You run these auctions. You’re the biggest auctioneer
in the world, but the highest bidder isn’t necessarily the winning bid, right? And the
— yeah, somehow a big factor in the bid is how good an ad is. How’s that work? Right?
But that’s a way to explain how ads fit in into the whole Google world there. And a lot
of people, I guess they just don’t get the — how driven Google is by the ambition to
take on, on, on big things. They just see it as this force that delivers search there.
So I’m happy to provide a little more explanation.>>Matt Cutts: Yeah. It’s strange how many
people don’t even realize Google has ads. So if they pick that up that’s a good take
away from the book.>>Stephen Levy: Yeah. And maybe not. Maybe
they’ll stop clickin’ on them. [audience laughter]
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] So why don’t we open it up for general Q and A. So anybody who
has a question, go ahead and line up behind the microphone and whatever you’d like to
ask Stephen Levy. [pause]>>Brennan: Hey. It’s good, good to see you
again.>>Stephen Levy: Yes.
>>Brennan: I was one of the employees that you interviewed for the book.
>>Stephen Levy: Yes I know. Hi, Brennan. [laughter]
>>Brennan: It’s good because>>Stephen Levy: You are quoted in there I
think.>>Brennan: Yes. I am actually, which is good
because [laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: Are you here taking issue with that?
>>Brennan: No. No. No. It’s just that the interview was so long ago that for the life
of me I actually couldn’t remember what I told you by the time I said, ‘Oh is this book
thing actually is going to happen?’>>Stephen Levy: That’s what my editor said.
[laughter]>>Brennan: So anyway I had sort of one question
and one suggestion. So the one question is — it seems like — the question I have is
it seems like when you write a book like this, right? you sort of have a sort of an option
about sort of, sort of how much detail to go into in a way that might be threatening
to the institution. Even if you’re not sort of a malicious person, right? So there’s always
this sort of editorial decision you have to make for yourself. What areas you’re not going
to go into because you’re basically going to burn your bridges with the institution.
So is there something you felt like other than the projects that hadn’t launched that
you, that you didn’t touch on enough in the book that maybe you would have, that you could
tell us that you wouldn’t tell the outside world?
[laughter]>>Stephen Levy: Hmm.
Brennan: And then the second thing is just more of a suggestion. You were talking about
sort of the chapter on China. It seems like to me that the sort of awareness that has
entered the public consciousness of how information security is being regularly violated by nation
states and other large institutions. That would itself be the great topic of a book
for somebody that could popularize that. In so far as — there’s a lot of misinformation
about that and it seems like — obviously my interest is in security but I’ve had all
these people ask me like, ‘Is the government of China breaking into our power plants and
things like that?’ And the answer is always like, ‘Well, maybe’.
[laughter]>>Stephen Levy: That’s actually a good idea.
[laughs]. The first part — well nothing springs to mind really like they came up that way.
I think maybe in the deal with China there might be a couple of things that I didn’t
think were important for the reader or I can go either way on it or like naming the name
of a person who might actually be in peril by mentioning that. And I think in one case
I just described who the person was but didn’t mention the person’s name — it was a name
that would have meant anything to anyone, the general reader. So for that, okay. That,
that, that kind of thing. And I think Google, I’m sure when they okay-ed this project, it
understood there was going to be some warts revealed here and there but by and large and
this is towards that ideal transparency we talked about earlier. I think Google has been
more transparent, been a little more conscious of it here and there. You see those videos
by>>Matt Cutts: Sometimes, yeah.
>>Stephen Levy: by Matt and some by Hal about — which sort of explain what some people
call and I know you guys don’t like the term ‘black boxes’ over there. So, you know.
[pause]>>Male Audience Member #1: Thanks for coming
here. My question’s kind of similar. First when you started being a part of these confidential
meetings at Google, was there something that you said, ‘Whoa. I didn’t know this.’ And
the second part of that question is, was there ever a meeting you were in and you said, ‘Whoa.
Whoa, whoa. I want to write about this but then they’re not gonna let me?
>>Stephen Levy: But then what?>>Male Audience Member #1: They’re not gonna
let me. Was there anything now that you’re here?
>>Stephen Levy: Actually there were things in some meetings that I attended they said
if they had one of those memory wipers like ‘Men in Black’,
[laughter]>>Stephen Levy: they they would have used
on me. [laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: And Kent Walker before one GPS told me, like he freaked out and said,
‘Whoa. He’s in the room.’ And basically told me in no uncertain terms all the different
limbs that would be broken [laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: if I revealed what was on the slide at a given time which I did not
reveal. [ laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: So I still have my limbs, Ken.
[pause] [audience laughter]
>>Male Audience Member #2: Hi.>>Stephen Levy: Hi.
>>Male Audience Member #2: You are in somewhat of an enviable position of having written
two books about Apple and one about Google.>>Stephen Levy: Apple’s older.
>>Male Audience Member #2: Yeah. Yeah. My question is and you touched upon that. I was
first of all curious if you would talk a little bit about how it is to write about Apple versus
how it is to write about Google because people probably assume that Apple is more closed.
Google is more open. Blah, blah, blah. But there is probably more depth to it. And a
related idea — Brian just had a suggestion and I was going to steal his idea of having
a suggestion. I would love it if you could write a book about stuff like that. So corporate
culture in Silicon Valley — Apple. Google. Well, Microsoft’s not Silicon Valley technically.
[laughter]>>Male Audience Member #2: I think it would
be fascinating even just tracking Apple from 1970 – whatever until to today.
>>Stephen Levy: Okay. Well, another interesting suggestion there. So I don’t think it would
have been possible for me to do this kind of book about Apple. I just don’t think that
anyone and it’ll be interesting to see what kind — I know that Walter Isaacson is doing
an authorized biography of Steve Jobs. Actually got a certain degree of access to the meetings
at Apple and things like that. I don’t know if he was interested in pursuing or was able
to pursue something like a project like where he talked to people like Matt. You know other
people I see in the room. Multiple times there. To get down and really understand how that
stuff works there. The one part of Apple that they’ll let no one in — maybe they let Walter
in – was the Design Studio or things like that. But the books I wrote about Apple were
sort of, sort of after the fact things that were sort of based on some of the products
there. So even though I have a pretty good relationship with Steve Jobs, I haven’t had
much success in asking him to spend time with the rank and file there. It’s something that
they don’t like.>>Male Audience Member #3: So you mentioned
about transparency. And I’d like to maybe visit that a little bit more. If you put on
your journalist hat and take the other side of the story, what would, what would you criticize
the most about Google and what would be the things we could do to combat that besides
more transparency?>>Stephen Levy: Besides more transparency?
Well I mean , so I mean one thing that I think that Google and I — I am a little critical
of this in the book particularly in one of the sections. Sometimes you guys come up with
really good products. Then you don’t support them well enough. And I know that this is
a conscious thing. So I was a little surprised even when after Wave last summer and this
— this wasn’t at an interview. It was a press round-table at a conference last summer. And
I asked Eric, ‘Well, what about Wave? Do you think that in retrospect that you should have
given Wave more attention because it seemed to me the kind of product — it was almost
like Lotus Notes — it needed more hand holding there.’ And Eric was adamant in saying, ‘This
is not the way we work. We, we put out products and if they are not taken up by the public,
okay. We tried. And that was it.’ So he wasn’t saying we didn’t, we screwed up. It was more
like ‘What we do is we take risks and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.’ So I
thought it was kind of interesting because if you look at the way the technological infrastructure
of Google is, down to the data centers and some of the software, internal, software there.
Google builds around failure. Right? You buy this stuff with cheap components and you’re
able to — I actually write about this in there even though it’s sort of a general audience.
But there’s ways that you optimize a system to — you could easily move things out if
they fail and it turns out to be more efficient and, and expedient and in the long run there.
So it’s interesting that both the under the hood kind of stuff at Google kind of accommodates
failure. And the stated way that you introduce products from the top of the stack also accommodates
failure there. So in a way you can say Google is a culture of failure.
>>Matt Cutts: Well it does seem like we’re willing to throw more things at the wall and
understand that some of it won’t succeed.>>Stephen Levy: Um hmm.
>>Matt Cutts: And that’s how you get a lot of these products like Gmail or Ads or Adsense
that really do succeed. And it seems like — I always love when people say, ‘Oh Google
had Wave’ or ‘Google had this product’. It’s like unless you’re trying, you’re not going
to figure out whether that’s successful.>>Stephen Levy: Yeah. But it, but it, but
it, but in some cases before you get the hook, maybe you could let the timer go on a little
longer.>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]
>>Stephen Levy: Yeah.>>Male Audience Member #4: Thank you again
for coming. I grew up in the East. Manufacturing was big when I was young. Kind of like here.
And what would you, if you went to Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Chrysler. They were,
the, companies when my parents were young, when I was young. That’s where you wanted
to work. A lot of innovation happening there. But now it’s the Rust Belt. It seems like
it’s dying.>>Stephen Levy: Um hmm.
>>Male Audience Member #4: If you were invited there what you learned both at Google and
Silicon Valley, what would be one thing you would tell them to change to do better than
what they’re doing?>>Stephen Levy: Some of the lessons that I
hope that any person who’s interested in management and, and issues like that can draw from Google,
the way I describe it is, I guess on one hand, it’s reliance on data to make decisions. Google
works on this data and testing which is something you all know. But that’s something that’s
really not as well known at least to the extent that you do it and how you do it. And I was
fascinated to learn about some of the ways that you — in terms of things like — the
almost cap and trade system you have for speed. Like how people trade those things off and
things like that. And they have an auction kind of bidding system for resources. The
data centers . How that’s really baked into the system. I think that’s very interesting.
But I guess even more important, just the core of it is the idea that these, the decisions
made ideally at Google aren’t personal decisions but they’re made on the basis of what data
the information you can bring to the table to bring things your way and the way in product
groups — how the product managers can’t boss the engineers around but have to basically
convince them that their direction for a product might be the right direction. That’s, that’s
kind of interesting. And elevating engineers. And I talk about this — how Google really
is a company where the engineers, the technical people really rule. And if you are not a technical
person, you just have to accept that. You have to accept your place in that, that, that
world there. One guy who was one of the top sales guys told me he learned early on that
basically Larry and Sergey – and these are his words – ‘ don’t give a rat’s ass about
people like us. Maybe we’re useful in the overall sense of things but it’s really the
engineers who are on top.’ And actually I think you get more done that way. I like makers
and I like — I wrote ‘Hackers’. I like those people. So one thing I talk about is some
Googlers who go to Washington and they’re appalled that there’s none of that mentality
there. [laughter]
That one person who left Google told me, ‘I’ve been in the White House for six months. I
haven’t met one engineer.’ [laughter]
>>Stephen Levy: And this is actually a good and valid criticism about government. Seeing
where we are. This is a country run by lawyers, right?
[laughter]>>Stephen Levy: And Google they have a lot
of lawyers but the lawyers are actually told, ‘Your job isn’t to say no. Your job is to
figure out how to work out, how we can get done what we want to get done.’ As someone
who has dealt with lawyers personally, I think that’s pretty good. So those are lessons that
I think can be drawn from that.>>Matt Cutts: So do you think that — I think
relying on data overall is a huge strength for Google and it helps us make some really
hard decisions. Do you think it also gives us a blind spot in areas with like Evan leaving
to go do Twitter and Paul Buchheit leaving to go do Friend Feed and Four Square? Do you
think that our emphasis on data creates that vulnerability in some areas?
>>Stephen Levy: Well, in those cases, I don’t think it was the emphasis on data. It was
just a question. It gets to be a bigger company and Google is a company that in the hiring
process selects people who have a low tolerance for bureaucracy. That’s the kind of person
that Google wants to work here. An ambitious person who’s gonna get really annoyed when
some corporate rule prevents him or her from doing what he or she wants to do. So a certain
amount of bureaucracy is inevitable in a company that’s 24, 26 — it’s like the debt clock.
It keeps going up as we speak. [laughter]
And how many people who are here? So that’s a natural force to drive the people who are
core Googlers away from Google. And the big challenge is how you stop that? How you minimize
what the inevitable forces of bureaucracy or how do you do this thing that has to be
done. How you keep things really interesting for people and allow them to work on the interesting
things they want to work on which is sort of the Montessori ideal. We haven’t talked
about that. And so I think that — I’ve talked to, to, to Paul. Maybe it’s a different kind
of case because Google took his product and maybe didn’t do with it what he had in mind.
But that, that, that, that to me is a key. You’re always gonna get good applicants but
the really kind of applicants that are the Googliest people, it gets tougher and tougher
as the company gets bigger.>>Male Audience Member #5: As a journalist,
what do you wish Google were doing to help save the news industry?
>>Stephen Levy: I’m not a big finger pointer at Google itself as, as some places it’s tanked
the news industry. I think Craig’s List is — I know — Craig’s a nice guy and all
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]>>Stephen Levy: it has done more to erode
it. But I think there’s probably things that Google could do more though I think it’s putting
a reasonable amount of effort into it. A lot of journalists are like really – maybe give
more coverage to that related to other things than one might see. I think that one thing
Google could do and I don’t see that as much. Maybe Panda could help in this but it wasn’t
a specific goal of Panda is that I would just love to see the results in both Google News
and Search to make sure you get the source of a story as opposed to whoever aggregated
it. It just galls journalists who produce a story that the Huffington Post description
of a story winds up way high when your original story that they’re stealing from — and I
think it is stealing — is on page three . How can that be? And isn’t there a signal for
that?>>Matt Cutts: So you would even want to see
like not just the original story ranking but like some way to know that this is this person
— they really wrote this story.>>Stephen Levy: That would be good too but
I’m just thinking. To me –>>Matt Cutts: Get it right.
>>Stephen Levy: if I’m just looking for a story the most relevant result would be the
original story and not the way some Huffington Post or Newser or someone else or blogger
encapsulated it in a way so that people won’t go to the length to go to my story.
[pause]>>Matt Cutts: Um hmm. Cool.
>>Male Audience Member #6: I am fascinated by the four products you mentioned in the
book and also their success or failure. The first product is Gmail — it came from a Google
20% project. Its success might say from the book that it caught the attention of Larry
and Sergey because it helped them to solve the e-mail problem. It was a success. But
then the OKR because no one in Google understands it and never got the resource and it fell
flat. Then there’s external purchase — the Dodge Ball. Still the fate is nobody understands
it in Google and never [pause] got the resource it needs.
>>Stephen: A Dodge Ball fan, there.>>Male Audience Member #6: Yeah.>>Matt Cutts: Facebook’s in the back. Microsoft’s
in the back.>>Male Audience Member #6: And the last example
is the internal product – Google Video — where we have lawyers know too much of the industry.
>>Stephen Levy: What was the final product?>>Male Audience Member #6: The Google Video.
>>Stephen Levy: All these are discussed in the book by the way.
>>Male Audience Member #6: That’s right. Did you draw parallel or comparison between these
four product failures and success either internally or externally? Do you think Google will become
a big company and because of the constraint or lack of familiarity with subject matter
constrain Google finding new product area where it gets a successful funding, assuming
it’s a start up where YouTube or Dodge Ball get funding from VC instead of internal policy
maker>>Stephen Levy: Right
>>Male Audience Member #6: understanding or not. What’s your suggestion on that?
>>Stephen Levy: Well it’s interesting. Of all the products, I don’t think there’s one,
necessarily one thread between all those things you mentioned. One thing where bigness definitely
had a, a, an effect on was the Google Video thing. One thing, point I make in the book
and this became very transparent because all the e-mails from the early days of Google
Video and the early days of YouTube became open to the public when the Viacom filed suit
there. So you compare the e-mails of Google video to the e-mails of the very small YouTube
team over the pizza shop. Right? And Google video — there was a lot of energy being spent
doing slide shows for the GPS and talking to lawyers about what they could do and how
to do the right thing in copyright. And at YouTube, they were just saying, ‘ Hey. Let’s
just do it all. We’ll let it all shake out later. We just want videos up, videos up,
videos up.’ So it’s not surprising given that that YouTube whipped Google video to the point
where — to its credit, Google recognized, ‘Whoa. If we want to play on this playground,
we’ve gotta get these guys’ and they overpaid. Eric said, under oath, that they overpaid
a billion dollars but that looks like a pretty good deal now. I actually said as a thought
experiment on Twitter a couple weeks ago. ‘If you had to buy either company now and
YouTube were standalone, which would you buy? YouTube or Groupon?’
>>Matt Cutts: Hmm.>>Stephen Levy: And I think most people would
say ‘YouTube’. I would say, ‘YouTube’ though the word is that Google offered six billion
dollars for Groupon. Right? So maybe now, I don’t know how much YouTube would be worth
in the open market. But I just thought it’s an interesting comparison.
[pause]>>Male Audience Member #7: Can you share with
us what you’re working on next? Your next book?
>>Stephen Levy: If I knew, I would happily share.
[laughter] I actually — during the whole time I was
working on this, I was also holding down employment at Wired Magazine and at some, a few times
the two tracks converged and I with Google’s understanding, I wrote stories for Wired that
were drawn from, from my research on, on, on the book and I wrote other kinds of stories
also for Wired. So I was workin’ pretty hard. So I’d like the next few months at least just
to work at one place. It would be almost like a vacation.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs] [laughter]
>>Male Audience Member #8: So first I would like to say thank-you very much for writing
‘Hackers’>>Stephen Levy: You’re welcome.
>>Male Audience Member #8: In a lot of ways that book influenced
[applause] my choice to come here.
>>Stephen Levy: I hope one day you thank me for writing ‘In the Plex’.
>>Male Audience Member #8: I’m only three quarters of the way through it.
>>Stephen Levy: Okay.>>Male Audience Member #8: Second, we’re a
steward of an extraordinary amount of personal information, search habits, e-mail, etc. and
we can often imagine products that would be very useful for people and that a lot of people
would want to adopt. But there would also be component of the community that would find
it just downright creepy. And it’s hard for me oftentimes when I look at a product to
decide. This is gonna creep people out so much that there will be a massive negative
reaction and we will never be able to release the product. How can we expose these features
to people in the community and get comfort and confidence in the users so that we can
actually make these things available?>>Stephen Levy: That’s a real tough question
and I do mention the time and it happened at a GPS when it was decided not to put face
recognition into Google Goggles. And the reason was technically it was impossible but that
would be too radioactive to do and I think it just came up again recently and I think
the feeling was we’ll also wait for someone else to do it first there. It’s a tough question
but a couple times Google’s done it. I did sit in, I really lobbied hard to sit in to
a meeting of the Privacy Council that takes place and looks at the products in terms of
a privacy lens. And the top, the product under discussion then was a feature in Latitude
which tracked people’s whereabouts which was a potentially creepy thing. But there was
all sorts of extra reminders to people that it was totally opt-in and reminders to people
that ‘You’ve opted in’ and every couple of months it was decided you’d get a further
reminder. ‘Hey you’re still opted in with this. You’re still leaving bread crumbs everywhere
you go’. And that came out and I was really curious to see if there was any push back
and there wasn’t there. So it is possible to — in a way — to let people know exactly
what you’re doing. If you’re really up front about it and you’re really clear about that
you built in these safeguards that only people who want, understand and want to use it are
using it, I think things, things, things could work there. I think that in interest based
advertising when Google rolled it out, Google did a very good job of priming the privacy
groups and that came out with very little flap. Larry told me once, that he said it’s
really almost random what products come out and people go crazy about a privacy aspect
of it. He said it’s almost like you can’t predict it. Some headline writer’ll write
that it’s creepy and people will, will, will go nuts there. It’s true to a certain degree
but I think there’s plenty you could do by being vigilant and then by getting ahead of
the game and being really up front about it.>>Matt Cutts: And it was interesting when
gmail launched, somebody registered gmail is too creepy dot com and yet people were
talking about making g-mail illegal. And now, if you try to take away people’s gmail, there
might be riots.>>Stephen Levy: Right
>>Matt Cutts: Where people got really unhappy about it. So it seems like there’s a little
bit of both. Sometimes you can predict.>>Stephen Levy: Right.
>>Matt Cutts: And yet it never hurts to over-communicate.>>Stephen Levy: Right. Well gmail is an interesting
case ’cause I think that’s where Google got thrust really into the privacy spotlight.
And it’s surprising it went that long without it because there have been sort of this building
discomfort with the effectiveness with which Google could pluck un, un, unsavory items
about people and put them high in search results and people were unhappy with that all along.
I think that’s a continuing privacy concern for Google even though Google wasn’t, isn’t
responsible directly for those things appearing on the Web, Google is the means by which most
people see that. So I think that Google should take ownership of that problem and somehow
do a better job of, of, of not making people go to places like Reputation Defender having
to spend thousands of dollars to fix their Google results.
>>Matt Cutts: Do you think that privacy will always be Google’s Kryptonite? Like when we
rolled out or tried to roll out free wi-fi in San Francisco, people were like, ‘Oh Google
might know what you’re searching for on the free wi-fi’ and now that’s dead. It seems
like no matter what..>>Stephen Levy: Is that what killed it? Do
you really think so?>>Matt Cutts: Oh I– there were at least people
who were speculating about that back in the day like Vern at the San Francisco Chronicle
wrote a whole article about that. Do you think anything Google launches people are always
going to be looking for that privacy angle or?
>>Stephen Levy: Oh of course they’re going to be looking for it but it’s possible that
you could get around it. I guess one, one, one thing is the amount of work you have to
do can be underestimated like in gmail, I think the problem was, the assumption was
that once people understood that you really weren’t sitting in a room and reading their
mail, they would say, ‘Oh. Okay. I’ll just go away.’ But actually it just uncovered the
larger issues of privacy there and put Google into the era of privacy scrutiny which I think
is appropriate to Google and any company which deals in this stuff should be scrutinized
for what it does in privacy.>>Matt Cutts: So I think we’ve got time for
one more question and then Stephen, you’re willing to stick around in order to…
>>Stephen Levy: I’ll sign every book if you bring it up there.
>>Matt Cutts: Whoever wants it.>>Stephen Levy: I’m here. ‘Cause I don’t want
to leave this place. [laughter]
If you open Andalé  , I’ll sign them twice. [laughter]
>>Matt Cutts: [laughing] And Stephen will be outside by the micro kitchen out there.
So go ahead.>>Male Audience Member #9: Having closely
observed the top management here, were there instances where you felt something didn’t
make sense the way they’re working? I could do a better job than most of these people
are doing? [laughter]
>>Male Audience Member #9: It happens to us when we look at others. And did it turn out
that after a long time it made sense that what they did was right, or did it turn out
that yes I was correct, these people screwed up?
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs]>>Stephen Levy: Was that a comment or a question?
>>Matt Cutts: That’s a question.>>Stephen Levy: Yeah, yeah. How do I?
>>Matt Cutts: What would you consider something where you second guessed Google and were you
right or not? You know, were you wrong?>>Stephen Levy: Oh right. Let me think. Umm.
[pause] I think where I was right and they weren’t — umm.
>>Matt Cutts: Where you said, I can’t believe Google’s about to do this bone-headed thing,
did it turn out to be bone-headed?>>Stephen Levy: It sounds familiar to me.
>>Matt Cutts: [laughing]>>Stephen Levy: I know I’ve thought it somewhere.
[laughter]>>Stephen Levy: But I’m blanking on the circumstances.
Maybe in terms of the, the deal with Yahoo. I knew that was big trouble.
>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm.>>Stephen Levy: I knew that was big trouble.
And as it turned out, it was big trouble because you came within a few hours of a company being
ruled as a company in violation of the anti-trust rules.
>>Matt Cutts: Umm hmm.>>Stephen Levy: So that was a problem.
>>Matt Cutts: Good.>>Stephen Levy: So there you go.
>>Matt Cutts: Okay. So one last fun one before you go. If there were a Google movie, who
would you want to play..>>Stephen Levy: Oh no.
>>Matt Cutts: Larry and Sergey? [laughs] [laughter]
Anybody in particular?>>Stephen Levy: I don’t know. Let’s see. Um.
For the young Larry and Sergey, right. So you get Michael Cera as…
>>Matt Cutts: [laughs loudly] [audience laughter]
>>Matt Cutts: Oh. Oh. On that note, thank you very much. Stephen Levy. [laughs] Great.
[applause]>>Stephen Levy: Thank you all for cooperating
with me.

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