synthetic zero


July 19, 2008

I just started a new job at Google --- I have to admit, before I started this job, I was a bit doubtful that Google was really that different from other companies. I mean, sure, I expected it to be a reasonably cool place to work, laid-back yet intense, filled with bright people and interesting projects, etc. But --- when I told friends I was starting a job there, for the most part they reacted with tremendous enthusiasm, as though I'd won the lottery or gotten into some exclusive club --- enthusiasm far beyond what one might expect in response to any other "I'm starting a new job" announcement. But --- I don't like to buy into the hype about any company or institution --- though I was of course curious about what it might be like at Google, and I certainly was looking forward to starting there (or I should say, here ... since I am now a week into it), I was still skeptical it was really THAT different.

But, imagine my surprise... sure, I have only been here a week, but I can say with a fair degree of confidence: Google, it turns out, really is different. For most of my professional career I've developed various ideas about how one ought to run companies --- decentralized management, structure created as needed, but as minimal as possible, ideas coming from the bottom-up as well as from the top down, etc. Intense, creative destruction, chaos with order, dynamic reconfiguration of resources as new needs arise, a committment from management to support the people below them, and a structure in which people from the bottom to the top of the organization are treated with respect and given autonomy, balanced with the need for intelligent and effective product/project management. I developed these ideas based partly on my own experiences working with and managing teams, partly on theory, partly on case studies of other effective organizations, and partly just on the golden rule: I want to create an organization that I'd like to work for myself.

But throughout my career I've been confronted with skepticism and resistance from various directions when I attempted to implement some of these ideas. The skepticism rarely if ever came from within my own team --- instead it came typically from management, though rarely from managers who themselves had any expertise in developing software --- it typically came from people who were paying for the work or who started the business but who themselves had never directly managed anything technically complex. The resistance tended to come in a particular form: they thought my ideas would lead to chaos, were tantamount to anarchy, would lead to insubordination, or would cause workers to lose faith in their managers, because their view was people respected managers who told the people under them what to do and how to do it. Their view was, typically, that management should micromanage, should come up with most of the ideas, to prove that management knows what it is doing.

Naturally, I think such ideas are very dubious and have always thought so, which is why throughout my career I've tried to remain largely independent of such pressures --- which I've often been able to maintain, but at some cost. When faced with a customer, internal or external, who insists on holding these views, there was only so much I could do to shield my team from the corrosive effects of those opinions --- and I have been largely successful at doing so, I think, but not without a fairly big effort.

Which brings me back to Google. Google is, for the most part, as I've discovered now that I'm "here" --- an extreme version of all the management principles I've long held dear. Sure, this doesn't make it a paradise --- I can detect internal politics and issues here as anywhere, and things don't always run smoothly. And sure, many West Coast software startups have a similar vibe. But Google really formalizes this in a way that is a bit more radical than I was expecting.

Yes, there are managers at Google, and lots of strategy comes from the top. But I'd say by far the most obvious difference is that at Google, the expectation is that most ideas will originate from the bottom and percolate up. Google isn't so much a company as a society, filled with many individuals, teams, alliances, and so forth --- it's a place where ideas are, by design, not just solicited by management from employees, but often simply started by employees, largely bypassing management at first. It's not just that management listens to the staff, but management gives the staff time and resources to explore ideas on their own. When I first arrived, at orientation various people discussed a lot of Google processes and policies --- so I asked one coworker --- how did these things evolve? She told me that, in most cases, they began by an employee coming up with the idea, on their own, and starting off with it --- and only later management adopted it as an "official" Google process. Another engineer (my "mentor" -- every new hire gets a mentor, which is another Google process that started at the bottom) told me that it took her a while to get used to the fact that she had the power to say "no" to a request coming from a manager or anyone else, and that she was expected to decide for herself what she wanted to work on and focus on.

It's obvious why this sort of policy has made Google so successful. It means the organization is inherently drawing upon the expertise of all of its staff, not merely the creativity and intelligence of its managers. Sure, management does set priorities and does approve resource allocation at the larger level --- it's not a total free for all. But through programs like 20% time, Google explicitly endorses the idea that engineers should be able to start new projects on their own, and by allowing engineers to switch projects as desired, Google ensures a degree of autonomy that is beyond even what I'd ever imagined. It's both extremely validating to see a company doing so well employing these ideas and inspiring to see that they've gone beyond what even I what I might have done on my own, and see it work very well indeed.

I'm sure there are many issues and problems with the company which I'll come to understand in greater depth, over time. What company doesn't have problems, or make mistakes? But I can say with certainty that what it has managed to do, so far, really is quite groundbreaking and it's proof that some seemingly crazy, anarchic ideas can, it turns out, be immensely successful. After working for two and a half years at my previous job (which was a love/hate affair through and through), I can only say I feel very much in my element. And, really --- I've decided --- I pretty much already had decided even before I started this job --- I will never put up with pressure from my bosses to implement policies or procedures which I know will hurt both my employees and my coworkers, as well as the company, ever again. In the past, I would fight to hold the line, grit my teeth, and protect the employees from the worst of it --- but in the future I will simply not put up with such pressures at all, period. Not for a second. Life is too short for that.

July 8, 2008

Design: conveying things clearly and cleanly --- it reminds me a bit of the Moholy-Nagy quote that Miranda liked, which I referenced long ago:

People are taught that the best way of living is to buy another person's energy, to use other people's skill. In other words, a dangerous metropolitan dogma developed that the different subject matters are best handled by experts... through the division of labor and the mechanized methods not only the production of daily necessities and goods has passed into the hands of specialists, but almost every outlet for the emotional life as well. Today the artist-specialists have to provide for emotions. They are paid--if they are--for that. The sad consequence is that the biological interest in everything within the human spheres of existence becomes suffocated by the tinself of a seemingly easygoing life. People who have biologically the potential to comprehend the world with the entirety of his abilities, to conceive and express himself through different media, the word, tone, color, etc., agree voluntarily to the amputation of these most valuable potentialities. Nothing proves better the lost feeling for the fundamentals of human life than that it has to be emphasized today: Feeling and thinking and their expression in any media belong to the normal living standard of all people.
It's easy to think that design ought to be done by professionals, and the rest of us merely toil with the prosaic tools of the amateur. But in fact, we all ought to become designers, conveying ideas, difficult and ineffable, using the best tools, metaphors, visual aids, and language we can muster. Certainly, we ought to respect the expertise of the professional, but also learn from them and use their ideas in our own communication.

July 7, 2008

They've brought back Sweet Tarts in movie theaters! This is an extremely exciting development.

I want so much to share something with you. But I can't seem to find the words. It's stupdendous, though. All I can say is, it has to do with paying attention, not buying into a story (any story), and being open to endless possibility. You can't structure it, or encompass it in a simple picture. It is radically outside any picture, yet even more radically present here and now. It doesn't require anything extra, only removing the idea that we need to add something to it: just this, as it is. It's ultimately, simple, intensely rational, yet beyond conceptual understanding. This sounds like a riddle, I know, but it's not something you can "figure out". It opens up endless brilliant sparkling worlds, and yet it doesn't change anything at all about who and what you are right now. It's both incredibly valuable and endlessly available.