Book Review: In the Plex by Steven Levy

I have recently finished reading In The Plex, a book written by Steven Levy which traces the history of Google right from its early days to today.

It was an incredible read, especially the first half or so that talks about the early days of Google when it was still a small and relatively unknown company, and talks a lot about the founders in those days, and how they took decisions and what things they valued and steps they took to grow the company.

Steven Levy describes the brilliance of Larry Page and Sergey Brin at several points, and they sound like mad geniuses who have a vision, intelligence and understanding about the internet and things around them that isn’t matched by anyone around them.

These are both big picture things like Larry Page thinking about the Google Books project while he was in Stanford itself, and also minute details like him being able to discern delays of 600 milliseconds!

Here is a small excerpt that illustrated this:

Buchheit remembers one time when he was doing an early Gmail demo in Larry’s office. Page made a face and told him it was way too slow. Buchheit objected, but Page reiterated his complaint, charging that the reload took at least 600 milliseconds. (That’s six-tenths of a second.) Buchheit thought, You can’t know that, but when he got back to his own office he checked the server logs. Six hundred milliseconds. “He nailed it,” says Buchheit. “So I started testing myself, and without too much effort, I could estimate times to a hundred milliseconds precision—I could tell if it was 300 milliseconds or 700….

What would have been super fast for most people was called slow for Larry Page. It’s quite amazing to think how high his standards are when it comes to user experience.

But, the book is not a story about how brilliant the founders are. It makes you feel that though the founders had a great role to play in the development of Google, there were many other brilliant people working with them who allowed the company to do the wonderful things it did.

These are not just stories about Eric Schmidt or VCs, but also about lesser known engineers who developed great products while in Google, but hadn’t got much press or publicity and are largely unknown outside Google.

These stories give a good glimpse on the attitude and culture at the company (at least in its initial days) and I’m excerpting one such story that I really liked about the engineer who developed the Google Toolbar.

Chan realized that users were ignoring the Toolbar because it provided no value to them. His idea was to implement a feature that would allow people to block annoying pop-up windows, which at the time were a plague on the net. But when he presented the idea at a meeting, Brin and Page, who had tied water bottles to the venetian blind cords and were playing a game of water-bottle tetherball, nixed the idea. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” said Page. “Where did we find you?” Chan built the pop-up blocker anyway, and surreptitiously installed it on Page’s computer. (“He’d leave the computer on in his office,” says Chan.) Not long afterward, Page remarked that his browser was running faster. Chan told him that he’d installed the pop-up blocker. “Didn’t I tell you not to do that?” asked Page. “Oh, it was a 20 percent project,” said Chan. Page dropped his suspicions and okayed the feature, which helped spur millions of Toolbar downloads.

This was a great example of some really clever thinking by a Google engineer, and a good example of the brilliance that flows through Google.

Steven Levy has by and large nice things to say about Google but the book is not a mindless glorification of the company. He talks about several things that Google did which were inconsistent with their philosophy, and instances that show Google bent its views to suit its commercial position.

The best example of this is Google’s stand on Microsoft’s proposed takeover of Yahoo!

Here is the relevant excerpt.

Microsoft’s $48 billion offer included an aggressive 62 percent premium over the struggling target’s share price, and so observers assumed that the merger was sealed. But Yahoo’s chairman, Jerry Yang, resisted, and his efforts to thwart the takeover were aided by Google. Within days of the offer, Eric Schmidt called Yang and began talking about a partnership that would help the weaker company. Google also began contacting legislators and regulators about the antitrust implications of the Microsoft deal, a rather odd stance considering Google’s previous insistence that the search marketplace had no lock-in and thus wasn’t a valid candidate for antitrust action.

This is a great book, and I really loved reading it. My only criticism is that the pace slows down quite a bit from the first half to the second. The part about the young Google is a lot more exciting to read than the latter half of the book, and I found I couldn’t quite breeze through the last half of the book the way I did the first half.

That said, everything else about In The Plex is great, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *