Thursday, March 31, 2011

An idea that's strictly for the birds

“You know what would be funny?” Sergey asked me five days before April Fools’ 2002. I hoped he was going to say, “Soul Search,” the joke I had written up and given to him the day before. It was about searching the sum total of a person’s existence to provide answers only he or she would know.

“Pigeons,” Sergey said with a flat declarative tone, tinged with traces of his native Russian. “Pigeons would be funny.”

Pigeons were an ongoing joke among our engineers. Gmail creator Paul Bucheit had once brought up their ability to sort and classify different items and another engineer suggested that pigeons could detect porn in our results, though that might lead to a lot of horny pigeons. Sergey wanted our April Fools joke to be about that. He offered to help. He kept an eye out for pigeons on his window sill and called me when some appeared. He suggested we put food on a keyboard so we could take pictures of them pecking.

PigeonRank” turned into one of the most enjoyable assignments I undertook at Google. I filled the copy with horrendous puns and geek references, mocked our competitors for using inferior “birds of prey, brooding hens and slow-moving waterfowl to do their relevance rankings,” parodied our resistance to spam “including images of bread crumbs, bird seed and parrots posing seductively in resplendent plumage,” and twisted the operant conditioning research of B. F. Skinner to make it seem that pigeons could execute complex tasks such as revising the Abatements, Credits and Refunds section of the national tax code.

Despite one engineer’s annoyance that it took too long to become clear the page was a joke and therefore wasted peoples’ time, most Googlers came away amused. Dennis Hwang, the Google Doodler worked up some very data intensive charts and webmaster Karen White laid everything out as if it were an actual explanation of our technology. Sergey was satisfied.

There were no complaints when PigeonRank went up on the homepage Sunday night at 9 P.M., despite more than three hundred and fifty thousand page views. The president of the B. F. Skinner Foundation sent us a personal note of appreciation for the twenty thousand visits our page drove to their site.

My favorite response however, came from the engineers at “an anonymous startup” who gushed about PigeonRank and said it made them all want to join Google’s staff. The “non-quantifiable” elements of our brand – humor and personality - had attracted the attention of engineers and made our company seem a desirable place to work. I wondered if that worked both ways - if talking about our engineers could build our brand among those not technically inclined. I would explore that idea more fully a couple of years later with a recruitment campaign that included the Google Labs Aptitude Test and a billboard that got quite a bit of attention. The results of that campaign were mixed, but you'll have to read about that in IFL.

It's late and I'm headed to bed. I want to get a good night's sleep so I'll be sharp enough to avoid getting suckered tomorrow, when the Internet will be even more full of deceit and misdirection than usual. And that's saying something.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The King of Fools

April 1 is this Friday and I'm sure Googler Michael Krantz is sitting in front of a computer somewhere sweating bullets. I hired Michael after years of searching for a marketing writer who not only understood technology, but also had a well-seasoned sense of humor. Michael more than fit the bill. After I left Google, Michael took over writing the April Fools jokes that appeared on, including Google Gulp and Google TiSP. Whatever shows up on the site this Friday will likely be his doing.

April Fools became a pretty big deal at Google starting in 2000, when I wrote a joke that we displayed on the homepage called "MentalPlex." In IFL I give the backstory about how that came to be, and the disaster it almost turned into. After that experience, I came to dread the approach of spring each year. But our April Fools jokes were not restricted to pranks pulled on Google users. Sergey, our resident jester-in-chief, loved to tweak Googlers as well. Each April first, he would unleash a barrage of "official" memos dictating new corporate policies that were to take effect immediately.

I saved some of the classics:

I have noticed we have a number of expectant mothers. I thought this would be a good time for me to share some of my personal tips and techniques for a successful, quick and easy delivery. I will be teaching a series of classes on Wednesdays at 7Pm. This week I will focus on the three pillars of childbearing: breathing, stretching, and pushing. Please RSVP to reserve a spot and bring a towel and a partner. Regards, Sergey
Fellow Googlers, Our website is an important service for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Therefore, we must go to great lengths to make sure we are as responsible as possible in posting content and making website changes. From now on, all employees who work on the website, directly and indirectly, will be subject to our new drug testing policy. Please pick up a cup in the kitchen and return the sample to Stacy’s office. Regards, Sergey 
Our company is growing quickly: Café lunch lines are long, so starting Monday, we will serve lunch and dinner as a potluck. Please bring something to share, enough for six. Also, our masseuses are overburdened, so we are putting in place an automatic buddy matching system so Googlers can give each other massages in their offices. To ease the demand for appointments with our onsite doctor, we will distribute the PDR (Physicians' Desk Reference) to all Googlers. If you have a medical issue, just flag down any fellow Googler. Thanks for your help: Sergey

Sergey was also infamous within the company for his promise in 2000 to build a swimming pool for the staff when we finally booked a profitable quarter. When we did attain profitability, no pool was forthcoming. It became a running joke at our weekly TGIF all-staff meetings, until the following April first, we showed up to find a portable above ground pool in the parking lot next to the Googleplex. Chris from our operations group didn't hesitate to load his kayak into it so he could practice his rolls. When Google moved into SGI's former headquarters in 2004, we thought a full-size pool might finally become a reality. Instead, facilities was instructed to remove the bocce ball courts and install two endless pools for lap swimming in place. Evidently, the city of Mountain View required, or Google's insurance company insisted, that there be a lifeguard on duty when the pools were in use. It has to be either the most boring job in the world or a pretty sweet gig to sit and watch over two fifteen foot long bathtubs all day long.

I'll dig up some more April Fools relics for my next post, but I have no plans to post a joke of my own on this site come Friday. Thankfully, I no longer have to think up something bizarrely geekish enough to make Sergey smile and family friendly enough to actually post where it will be seen by millions of people lacking Sergey's idiosyncratic sense of humor. That's a load off my mind, and a burden now resting squarely on Michael's highly creative brain. I look forward to chortling along with you at what his over-sized humor lobes produce.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What Larry needs to fix as CEO

I found this post by Xoogler Steve Lacy very insightful. He gives a great view of what a long time Google engineer finds frustrating about the development process within the company, from an NIH ("Not Invented Here") blindspot to the myth of 20% time. A lot of the processes I describe in IFL that worked well within a small startup have evidently morphed into cumbersome bureaucratic obstacles in today's much larger corporation. Well worth a read.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Google goes electric

With the ruling against Google's boook agreement today, I thought it might be a good time to resurrect this slightly revised post from the Xooglers archive.


There's a lot in the news these days about Google Book Search. People wonder how Google could so arrogantly assume it can scan books under copyright and offer up snippets to online searchers. I'm not going into the details of the discussions that led to that decision here, but I'd like to offer my own observations on the culture that bred it.

For many engineers, and particularly for Larry and Sergey, truth was often self-evident and unassailable. The inability of others to recognize truth did not make it any less absolute. Obviously, it's a good idea to make as much information as possible available to as many people as possible. Obviously, a lot of valuable information is in books. Obviously, helping people find that information is good. Obviously, an author only benefits if people find out that his or her book contains useful information. There are no shades of grey in this. Truth is, after all, a binary function.

When truth is on your side, it's not important to slow down and explain things, because the value of what you're doing is so self-evident that eventually people will see it for themselves. That attitude was one of Google's core strengths and perhaps its greatest Achilles heel. It infused all of Google's most controversial decisions, from launching a better search engine in an already crowded field, to putting ads in Gmail, to scanning books without permission.

Recently, I heard a recording of Bob Dylan at his 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert. Halfway through the show he switches from an acoustic solo performance to an electric guitar backed by a full band. The reaction of his folkie fans is not positive. At the end of "Ballad of a Thin Man," a crowd member yells, "Judas!," to which Dylan replies, "I don't believe you!" A pause. Then with disbelief and anger twisting his voice, "You're a liar!" He then tells his band to "play fuckin' loud" and rips into a raw and wrathful "Like a Rolling Stone."

The first time I heard that, I thought to myself, that's Larry Page. It doesn't matter what the fans think, when it's so obviously the right thing to do, you just do it. Eventually, they'll understand. Even if that means for a while you're gonna be out there on your own....

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Parable of the Pompon

Kara Swisher recently mentioned IFL in her column on All Things Digital. A nice plug, though Kara doesn't remember me from her days covering Google's startup phase. I'm not surprised. The press rarely got face time with Googlers who were not designated spokespeople. Our PR team, led by my boss Cindy McCaffrey, kept a tight rein on all communications, which meant that initially Larry and Sergey were the only public faces of Google. Other names joined the list of approved representatives over the years: Matt Cutts to address the webmaster community, Alan Eustace to talk about engineering recruiting efforts, and Marissa Mayer to speak on issues related to the look and functionality of

We didn't talk about marketing at all. We wanted everyone to believe that Google had grown entirely by word of mouth rather than through promotion. That was largely true, though not entirely. I talk about the philosophy behind that approach and some of the marketing efforts we did put in place in IFL. Basically, Larry and Sergey didn't like paid advertising and distrusted those who tried to use anything other than objective data to convince people to act in a certain way. To make sure I didn’t travel that wicked path, Larry told me the Parable of the Pompon.

Shortly after the company formed, Larry decided to promote Google to an audience he believed open to messages about better ways to search. He paid a service to distribute cheerleading pompons imprinted with the Google logo at a Stanford football game. A local ad executive admonished him that the promotion was ill-conceived. Clearly, he told Larry, the fledgling search engine needed professional marketing help.

“Look at this,” the ad man said, pointing at the black and white Google logo printed on the pompons. “This doesn’t represent your brand very well and it doesn’t make your company seem very professional.”

As Larry told me this story, his normally calm demeanor gave way to agitation. “Who says the logo needs to be in color?” Larry demanded. “How can there be a ‘professional’ way to make a pompon?” The very notion that these things mattered enough to waste time discussing them seemed to frustrate him enormously. Marketing was not science – it was just – marketing. He had no faith that outside practitioners knew any more than he did about how to build the company’s awareness and he didn't trust those who made it their life's work to pursue the marketing arts. I often suspected Larry's views were based on observation of prominent industry figures such as Larry Tate and Darren Stevens. He just didn't see much value in my chosen profession. That made my role as marketing manager an exciting exercise in tightrope walking over an active mine field.

Sergey felt the same way. My group once created some sales collateral for our advertising program that featured stock images of happy, smiling business people, along with actual quotes from real advertisers lauding our system. Sergey was outraged.

"Either use photos of the real advertisers, or don't use any photos at all," he told me. It was morally repugnant to him to deceive potential clients by misrepresenting our current advertising base. Clearly we were ethically challenged to even propose such a thing, though in my experience it was standard practice.

Eventually we reached an uneasy peace with our founders about the role of marketing, but it took years. And from what I hear, things swung the other way soon after I left in 2005. I've been told there were three reorganizations of the marketing group in that time, with the latest change an attempt to get back to the way things were before the first restructuring.

Clearly Larry was correct. Marketing is NOT a science, because if it were, Google would have undoubtedly mastered it by now.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Brilliant! Love it! Now, could you change it all around?

Final installment of the Dilbert logo saga, revised and reposted from the Xooglers archive.


The script Scott sent us for the Dilbert Google doodle seemed to pick up nicely on Sergey’s suggestion.

In the first panel, the pointy-haired boss (PHB) sits next to the regular Google logo and says to his staff, "We need a new logo by Friday. Any ideas?"

The next day, the “G" and "O” at the front of the logo are screened back so that they appear much paler than the last four letters. Dilbert says, "We could drop the first two letters."

The PHB answers, "That's a no go idea."

On day three, the last three letters are faded back and Dilbert says, "We could shorten the logo to three letters."

The Boss says, "No, Goo isn't sticky."

Those three panels were easily approved and became part of the final doodle published on the site. What didn’t make the cut were the fourth panel, in which Wally says, "The logo needs more sex appeal. I'll show you..." and the fifth panel, featuring Wally standing in front of the "OO" part of the logo as if the O’s are, as Scott put it, “his gigantic man-breasts,” while Dilbert says, "I find this disturbing."

There is something inherently amusing in the notion of man-breasts. As someone whose own sense of humor runs to Mel Brooks and Dave Barry, I wasn’t terribly offended by the concept, but I suspected others would be. I was right.

After sending it around to other Googlers, questions were raised about how it would play internationally, the use of the word “sex,” and the appearance of breasts (male or female) on our signature page. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, none of those objections came from Sergey, who found the concept pretty funny and opined that we shouldn’t be afraid to take a few risks. The irony of acting like one of the clueless companies Dilbert lampoons was not lost on him.

I’d like to say that I fought for the concept and damned the shortsighted, small-minded philistines who couldn’t see the greatness inherent in Scott’s original idea. I’d like to say that, but then I would be lying. Frankly, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one nervous about where Scott was taking us. I would find it amusing to see this in his strip, but not on our branded homepage, which we were showing to millions of people around the globe. They hadn’t come to Google expecting to see slightly risqué humor. They’d come to find information.

My sensitivity to the subjectiveness of humor wasn't always as finely attuned. On more than one occasion in my career, what I had thought was funny had turned out to be less than amusing to others.

I made fun of bagpiping neighbors in a radio spot for the Mercury News that brought the wrath of a lunatic Celtic rights advocate raining down upon me.

I wrote a newspaper ad headline for KQED FM that said “Ed Meese is history” during the station’s broadcast of live coverage of the Senate Iran Contra hearings. The station president didn’t buy my argument that it referred to the fact that Meese’s testimony had ended the day before and we were now covering the next witness. He seemed pretty peeved when I kept trying to persuade him to run it anyway.

And while at an ad agency, I pissed off the descendants of California’s most famous gold miner with an ad for a business school claiming that “When John Sutter found gold, he lost a fortune. He could have used an MBA from USF.”

The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle sent a personal complaint to my boss at the Mercury News during a newspaper war for subscribers after the close of a smaller local paper. He felt my flyer pointing out that there were only two Peninsula-related stories in their paper compared to the Merc’s two dozen was hitting below the belt. He seemed particularly ticked over the line, “Yesterday the Chronicle gave you two bits for your 35 cents.”

And then there was the time I wanted to promote the depth of news stories in the Mercury News online archive. I browsed hundreds of stories and came up with a piece reviewing the food at local company cafeterias, including Silicon Graphics. Turns out they had served rabbit once, so I stuck a drawing of a bunny in an ad that made reference to the menu. The next morning, PETA started picketing SGI’s headquarters. After a series of snafus in the newspaper’s composing room led to the ad running twice more after I had promised the publisher it wouldn’t, I got to write a personal letter of apology to SGI’s CEO and barely held onto my job. (Ironically, I was to eat many meals in that very cafeteria when Google took over SGI's headquarters).

So, let’s say I wasn’t all that anxious to step out on the bleeding edge of comedy again.

The upshot was that I had to go back to Scott and ask him to remove the man-breasts. He wasn’t all that happy about it, but consummate professional that he is, he was back within the hour with a modified version. In this one, Dogbert says, "The logo needs more sex appeal. I'll show you..."

The next day, Dogbert peers through the "OO" part of the logo as if they’re his glasses.

Dilbert says, "I find this disturbing."

The “sex” set off alarm bells again for one senior manager, which led Sergey to start making noises about going back to the original idea. I volunteered to go back to Scott yet again and ask for a third version. I really didn’t want to do it, because it’s never fun to tell a creative person working for free that their idea just isn’t good enough. (I’d done that at a previous job when a world-renowned ad agency wrote some pro-bono ads for me that were way out of my comfort zone).

I walked a very fine line with Scott. I told him how funny the first idea was and that we were sorry that it wasn’t appropriate for our audience. I told him the second idea was fine, but not as funny as the first, which was our fault for bringing a corporate mentality to the project. I gently asked if he’d be willing to go to phase three. He said he’d sleep on it. In the morning, he sent us the version that actually ran. He also asked that he be allowed to run the rejected ideas on his website, which was fine with me, though I’m not sure he actually posted more than a description of the man-breast idea.

Of course, everyone loved the new idea and I was once again the hero, not the goat. Well, to everyone except my boss, who didn’t think it was all that funny, even in it’s third version. And then we posted the first day’s strip. The Googlers-misc mailing list began humming like Zappa’s dynamo.

Our internal only mailing list called Googlers-misc was the place for anyone at Google to share their thoughts on any activity in which the company was engaged. There had already been an active thread proposing a homepage tribute to a soon-to-be-released science fiction movie popular with geeks of all ages when Dilbert put in his first appearance. That thread quickly became focused on the dark side of our Dilbert logo and the great disturbance it was creating among our users. Or at least, the users who happened to have friends working at Google.

The concerns varied from the fear that we were seriously planning to change our logo forever to the sense that we had sold out the homepage to promote a blatantly commercial enterprise. And the avatar of that latter evil, the cool hard ceramic proof point of that, was, yes, you guessed it: the mug.

I won’t bore you with the details of the disdain Googlers heaped upon the Google-Dilbert mug and their concerns about the message it was sending to our loyal users, but suffice it to say that it was heartfelt, voluminous and incapable of being ignored. Google was still a relatively small company at this point and any time more than three Googlers were unhappy about something, it required a response.

CNET made things worse by running a story that included the line, “Part of the fun in business is making money, of course: Google plans to sell T-shirts with the Dilbert logo, as well as coffee mugs." The t-shirt reference was untrue and was eventually corrected, but the damage was done. It cast the whole initiative as a profit-driven grab for cash.

So I went to Sergey with the suggestion supported by many staffers that we give the proceeds for the mug sale to charity, which we would make clear on the site. He agreed and suggested something related to cancer research. And that’s why I placed a call to the American Cancer Society to let them know we’d be sending them a check for more than $11,000.

As for the mugs, they’re no longer available since it was to be a limited time offer. I have one, as do 400 other Googlers to whom we gave them during TGIF. I took that to mean that at least some Googlers didn’t object to seeing Dilbert adorning our logo.

In the aftermath, we were approached by many artists, cartoonists and brand managers, who felt the door was now opened to promoting their products on what was becoming one of the web’s most popular homepages. We turned them all down, because we now had empirical evidence that any commercialization or even perceived commercialization of the homepage logo would be detrimental to the brand we were building.

What did I take away from this whole experience? Four things:

Brand managers are not always the people closest to the true nature of the brand, nor the best able to see what might be construed as damaging to its integrity.

Having free-flowing, unregulated communication within a company can be distracting, annoying and damaging to one’s ego, but it lets you know pretty quickly when you’ve stepped across a line you shouldn’t have crossed.

Expect that there will be unexpected ramifications from even the most innocuous seeming initiatives. That shouldn’t stop you from moving ahead, but you should be ready to respond to the weirdness and be flexible about the ways in which you do it.

Cartoons should never be written by a committee.

A postscript (2006): I watched Google launch its recent Da Vinci Code puzzle promotion with interest. I think it was handled well and avoided the dreaded Dilbert effect by making the promotion opt-in and tying it to a specific Google service (homepage personalization). The challenge also fit Google’s branding strategy of promoting puzzle solving and smart thinking, which is tied to both the brand value and Google’s recruitment efforts (more on that another time). They didn’t change the homepage logo and they didn’t sell mugs.

I’d be surprised if they didn’t get some mail about tying to a controversial story that’s banned in some parts of the world, but that’s one of those eggs you have to break if you’re going to make an omelet. With millions of users, someone’s always going to be pissed off about something.

I hope there was a Googlers-misc thread about whether the promotion marked a sellout to corporate interests and the death knell of the old Google, but that kind of debate is probably a relic of Google’s past. Still, an unmoderated discussion about core-values among 6,000 plus bright, opinionated, articulate individuals would likely be highly entertaining, as long as you’re not Google’s new brand and entertainment manager Dylan Casey.

Dylan, I feel your pain.

Monday, March 14, 2011

There's no story, yet the plot thickens

Second installment of the Dilbert doodle story, reposted from the Xooglers archive.

When last I posted, Scott Adams had just agreed to work with us on Dilbertifying Google’s home page logo. It turns out that Scott had spoken with a reporter about search engines a couple of days prior to our request and the journalist had recommended he try Google. Scott did a few searches and liked what he found. Serendipitously, we reached him when he was still basking in the glow of his conversion experience.

I don’t remember the exact wording of my original email request to Scott, but I do recall trying to walk a very fine line between fawning and groveling. Being a Dilbert fan, I knew he’d be an excellent choice for our first cartoonist logo, though I wasn’t so smitten that I didn’t reserve (politely), editorial control over what would appear on Google’s pages. We weren’t willing to pay a licensing fee, but we were willing to shower him with branded Google merchandise. (Scott was later quoted in the press release we issued as saying, "This partnership exceeded my wildest dreams… I hoped I would get a free Google shirt, and I got three of them plus a mug.")

One of Scott’s many fine qualities is that he answers his email promptly. I heard back from him the day after I sent my note and he seemed open to the idea of creating a custom logo for us, even without compensation. Sergey gave it an enthusiastic green light and Scott put me in touch with his publishing syndicate to work out the details.

I’ve yet to meet an artist or writer who enjoys having their creativity corralled to meet the needs of a corporate entity, so I wanted to give Scott full rein within some broad guidelines. I sent a note to his syndicate contact outlining some size restrictions for the artwork and letting them know that we were fine with Scott playing with the logo in any way he found amusing.

I also forwarded an idea that Sergey had for a storyline involving Dogbert as a branding consultant. The idea was that Dogbert, in order to improve the logo, would change it over the course of the week, only to return to the original at the end, while presenting a huge bill for his bad advice. This, I believe, was an accurate reflection of Sergey’s feelings about the field of brand management and consultants in general. I made sure to tell the syndicate that Scott could feel free to ignore the idea.

Scott got to work as I pinged and ponged with the syndicate rep over legal terms for the agreement. Could we post Scott’s logos on our archives page? Would we put a link on our home page to their website? Would we issue a joint press release? Did we want to share the revenue from a commemorative mug they planned to offer to Scott’s fans?

The syndicate okayed our archive page, we okayed putting the link on a splash page instead of the home page and we both agreed to the press release. The mug seemed a minor issue and I gave it little thought. I figured it was a gesture to Scott’s fans and would be a fun keepsake after the fact. Sure. We’d take our small cut on sales, though processing the payment would likely cost us more than we’d make on the deal.

Everything was going swimmingly and for a day or two I rode the high of having brought together a successful co-promotion with two of technology’s best-loved brands. I began imagining a long line of great cartoonists vying to do logo treatments for us. Absolut Vodka had opened their bottle to interpretation by well-known artists and run ads featuring their creations. This would be even more integrated brand-building since the altered logos would actually become part of the product itself. I had to keep reminding myself that changing logos was bad branding strategy and that this was actually Sergey’s idea.

Then Scott’s first images arrived. There were four treatments and each was a simple integration of Dilbert characters with our logo. One was Wally and Dilbert holding the logo, one was Dogbert looking through the “o”s, one was Alice looking perturbed as the “o”s framed her chest and one was Dilbert on his back with his tie standing straight up in place of the “l” in Google. There was no narrative building over time or any other connection among them, other than the presence of characters from the Dilbert cast.

I sent them around to the UI team and Sergey, knowing we had a problem. The comments weren’t long in coming. The Alice logo wasn’t family friendly. The layouts were vertical and wouldn’t fit in our constrained space. What happened to the idea of a continuing story? And wasn’t a vertical necktie a sign that Dilbert had just been laid?

So back to Scott I went. I thanked him profusely for the wonderful sketches and explained again our thinking about the continuing story and our willingness to play with the logo and I sent him a copy of the note framing our guidelines that I had forwarded to the syndicate. It turns out that he had never received it and had been working under a set of false assumptions.

What a relief. Scott hadn't ignored our direction, he'd just been unaware of it.

An hour later Scott sent us a draft storyline for a five day doodle. It was classic Dilbert -- edgy, terse and wildly amusing. And I could see it would create problems for us. What I couldn't see, however, was that the real hot water in which I'd soon find myself would boil over from a totally different part of our partnership.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Google does Dilbert

A couple of years ago, I posted a three-part explanation of how Google came to create a homepage Doodle with Scott Adams of Dilbert fame. I've edited it some and will repost the rest of story here over the next few days.


By 2002, assistant webmaster and doodler Dennis Hwang had established a perfect tone for our Google logos: friendly and accessible without being overly cutesy. Dennis, webmaster Karen White, Marissa Mayer, and I had formed a committee to ensure that we were commemorating an appropriately eclectic range of holidays and individuals. Sergey saw the many happy emails from users and said, “This is good.” But he still wasn’t entirely satisfied.

The logos weren’t edgy enough for him. He felt strongly that we needed to have guest cartoonists come in to spice things up. And we weren’t changing the logo often enough. We needed more doodles with stories unfolding day by day over a week or more. A friend of his sent some ideas based on Little Red Riding Hood. In the last panel, the woodsman cut open the wolf, with blood spilling everywhere. Sergey deemed it sufficiently far outside the expected, but even he agreed it wasn’t a perfect fit for a family-friendly site.

So we went shopping for a guest cartoonist. Susan Wojcicki had contacted Scott Adams in 2000 and he had politely referred us to his syndicate’s licensing agent. We tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes and Gary Larson of the Far Side. We deemed Garry Trudeau too political. Bill Amend of Foxtrot declined very apologetically. And we figured fat cats, guys who dug giant sandwiches, and little kids with guardian angels wouldn’t make the edginess cut.

I decided to give Scott Adams a try again. It was two years later and Google’s audience and reputation had grown considerably. I had worked with him on a project while I was at the Mercury News (he donated an autographed drawing we deemed “The Mona Lisa of cubicle art” for a trade show event) and I knew he was willing to engage in extra-curricular activities that interested him. This time, he said yes.

And of course, that turned out to be the easy part.

Back in 2006, Scott made fun of Larry and Sergey in a week-long Dilbert series. In the story, Scott depicts Larry and Sergey explaining the workings of their evil death ray to Eric and announcing their intent to crash the space station into Dilbert’s house so he can’t start a rival search engine.

The series demonstrated two things: Scott really is not a great caricaturist (Larry is kind of recognizable but Sergey looks like an anorexic Charlie Brown and Eric could pass for Tom DeLay) and you should never piss off a guy who has a daily comic strip that runs in 2,500 papers worldwide.

In my next post, I’ll explain why Scott might have wanted to tweak Google’s management and why no other cartoonist was invited to do a guest shot on Google’s home page for many, many years.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

No talent for talent

Nice piece in the NY Times on Google's HR metrics and the effort to build a better boss. I have a section in IFL on one attempt to restructure management and the fallout from that experiment. There was definitely a bias in favor of tech knowledge over touchy-feely management sensibility, which worked better for some people than others.

The company was always trying to reduce the human resources puzzle to a solvable equation, and introduced metrics that were supposed to evaluate our skill as talent scouts by tracking the performance of candidates who were hired based on employee referrals. Presumably, if someone you recommended received good reviews once on the job, your opinion should be given more weight in the hiring process. Since no one I recommended ever got hired (not an uncommon occurrence), I suppose I could claim to have a perfect record on that front.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Snack attack

Not much to say about this clip of Google's first micro-kitchen, other than it was pretty distracting to sit at my desk knowing that as soon as I hit writer's block I could get up and stroll twenty feet down the hall to enjoy free snacks until my creativity returned or my stomach hurt. I favored peanut M&Ms, red licorice vines and Starbucks Frappucino in chilled bottles. Sometimes Charlie would bring up leftovers from lunch (like the pie seen in the clip). It didn't enhance my productivity.

Hanging out in the micro-kitchen was fun though, and I'd often sit there eating cereal, reading the paper and sipping coffee in the early morning hours as my coworkers straggled in. It gave the place a very homey feel, especially once we started adding custom touches. George Salah, the facilities manager had the Coke logo on the drink cooler replaced with a backlit Google sign, I put some word magnets on the fridge to encourage free expression and Jim Glass, the assistant chef, and UI designer Joe Sriver replaced all the cereal labels with Googlified versions. There were “Larry-O’s” featuring a Photoshopped version of Larry Page as Robin Hood holding a baby Larry Schwimmer and “Raisin Brin” with Sergey beaming from the yellow sun on two scoops of raisins. There were Cindy Charms honoring my boss, “Honey Nut Angie-O’s” for our facilities coordinator Angie Frische and “Porn Flakes” honoring Matt Cutts who was responsible for creating filters to screen out adult content.

As Google grew, the micro-kitchens (and full-service cafes) proliferated to ensure no Googler was ever more than 150 feet from a food source. Google eventually ditched the high-calorie snack foods for healthier fare, but while it lasted, life in the Googleplex was sweet indeed.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The café life

More memories triggered by video of Charlie's cafe in the 1999 Googleplex. These anecdotes didn't make the final edit of the book, though plenty of other Charlie stories did.

When the weather turned nice I’d join the race to the café’s patio, where wooden benches and picnic tables were crowded in as tightly as possible to accommodate the demand for space in the sun. I’d settle onto a rickety seat, squint into the light, and work at downloading a natural glow to upgrade my fluorescent tan. A small waterway wound around the deck and provided refuge for a family of ducks who grew fat on scraps tossed their way. When they disappeared, there were rumors. I scanned the menu for canard a l’Orange for two weeks until the ducks reappeared. It wasn’t unreasonable to suspect Charlie of fowl play, given his fetish for local ingredients and unorthodox procurement methods.

I became as accustomed to meat substitutes seitan (wheat gluten) and tempeh (pressed-tofu) as I did the constant wailing of the Dead blaring from speakers in the kitchen. I also learned to live without ketchup. Charlie wouldn’t serve commercial brands, but eventually he had an assistant chef make it from scratch. He fought bitter email battles over the benefits of organic vegetables and the evils of their nutrition-free agribusiness counterparts.

“Well, I for one * like * iceberg lettuce,” a staffer told Charlie once, perhaps as part of a bet to see if Charlie’s brain could be made to explode.

“Iceberg lettuce is to food as polyester is to pants,” Charlie shot back, “and they’re equally nutritious.”

Still, his antagonist foolishly refused to recant her love of sallow green produce. When she walked into her cubicle the next morning, it was adorned with a dozen heads, each with a kitchen knife or a pair of scissors or a ball point pen protruding from it in a grisly display reminiscent of the horse-in-a-bed scene from “The Godfather.” Charlie had broken his own rule and bought iceberg lettuce, just for her.


In n’ Out Burger proved too much of a temptation for some Googlers. They’d sneak out for fast food before lunch and show up afterward in the café for dessert. Charlie always noticed if they did. He expected us to be at lunch and he took it personally if we weren’t.

“Is that a burger I smell on your breath?” he’d ask. “Don’t expect me to cater your funeral when your arteries give out.”

Charlie also had strict rules about servings. Engineer Chad Lester was famous for the prodigious quantity of calories he could tuck into his corn-fed Midwestern frame. He was the perfect eating machine – an avid bicyclist who burned off everything he ate and ate everything he could. But nothing stoked his furnace like meat. Charlie appreciated Chad’s appetite while keeping a wary eye on him as he pushed his tray past the entrees.

“One per customer,” he’d admonish with a low growl as Chad reached for the filet mignon. Leftovers didn’t exist in ChadWorld, but sometimes a Googler just couldn’t finish a chunk of expensive meat. I knew to hide uneaten bits under my napkin, because when he was done serving, Charlie hovered around the garbage bins to see what was hot and what was not.

“What,” he would snort at blatant wasters. “You didn’t like the veal? Don’t take so much next time.” The flip side was that when Charlie overestimated, he would aggressively market the leftovers.

Sometimes he’d show up at our desks mid-afternoon with cookies that had gone unconsumed or smoothies he’d made from leftover fruit. I only avoided gaining twenty pounds by limiting myself to one plate of food -- piled as high as a fourth grader’s papier mache volcano.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Masterminds and a Master Chef

There hasn't been a day since I left Google that I've regretted my decision to retake control of my waking hours and how I spend them. There have been many times, however, that I've thought back fondly to the people with whom I worked and the collegial atmosphere I enjoyed as a Googler. The Google cafe (later known as "Charlie's") was central to that - a gathering place where we shared meals, conversation and laughter.

I dedicate several pages in my book to that experience and to the incredible food Chef Charlie Ayers served up on a daily basis. When the longing for days gone by overwhelms me, I sometimes wrangle an invite to return to the Google campus for lunch. The food is still great, but the atmosphere is no longer the same. A company that employs 20,000 people just doesn't feel like one that employs 60. There are lots of cafes, each with its own specialty and if I recognize one or two of the Googlers populating the lunchroom, it comes as a pleasant surprise.

So instead, when I'm hungry for a taste of Google's good old days, I head over to Charlie's new place in Palo Alto. The food is just as I remember it and I often run into Googlers or Xooglers with whom to reminisce. And of course, after five years of watching me parade my tray down the lunch line, Charlie knows just what I like and just how to fix it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Two guys walking

Another bit of Google video vintage 1999. The space shown here was pretty much the entirety of the company excluding the Annex, the lobby, and the micro-kitchen. Engineering occupied the glass offices with windows and HR, Finance, and Facilities owned the middle space.

The first cameo is by Salar Kamangar (in the red shirt), who read in the student newspaper that Google (then known primarily as a Stanford project) was going to be on campus recruiting. He sought out Sergey Brin, who was staffing a table in the middle of Stanford's White Plaza, trying unsuccessfully to attract engineers. He convinced Sergey over the next couple of weeks to put him on staff as "a helper," even though his background was in biology, not computer science.

His first job helping the founders was to write a business plan for Google to take out to venture capital firms to get them to invest. It went over pretty well with Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital, who invested a total of $25 million in the company. Many of Salar's other endeavors since then have met with equal success. He's now the guy in charge of YouTube.

The second appearance is by Larry Page (in the blue shirt). He was Google's CEO at the time and recently took on that role again. I wasn't surprised by his moving back into the top slot, because he always had strong opinions about how the company should be run. The board convinced him it would be a good idea to have someone fronting the company that Wall Street could relate to as "an adult" and Eric Schmidt was one he was comfortable with. I think Eric did a good job in that role and he helped me on more than one occasion when I disagreed with the founders, but Larry built Google with Sergey and I'd put money down that he will run it til the day he dies.

(begin mandatory product placement)
In my book, I talk about one of the challenges Larry faced as CEO before Eric came on board and why it created some tensions within the company. I think he learned a lot from that experience and from watching Eric over the years. I don't doubt he'll be a kinder, gentler CEO as a result.
(/mandatory product placement)