How Google Works

How Google Works by David F. Carr

An interesting look at the technology system behind Google.

“But this is the start of the story,” he adds, part of an approach that says “don’t necessarily do it the way everyone else did. Just find some way of doing it cheap and effectively—so we can learn.”

Google was driven from the beginning by engineers that sought to do what was best. Since those engineers were the founders of the company and still run the company Google has been able to keep the focus not on what is accepted as conventional wisdom but what actually works best. Google understands when you experiment things might not work out. Google’s solution is to experiement quickly and fail early (turn the pdsa cycle quickly). That is something every organization can apply.

Still, Gartner analyst Ray Valdes believes Google retains an advantage in price-performance, as well as in overall computing power. “I buy that. Even though I’m usually pretty cynical and skeptical, as far as I know, nobody has gone to that extent and pushed the envelope in the way they have,” he says. “Google is still doing stuff that others are not doing.”

The advantage will erode over time, and Google will eventually run up against the limits of how much homegrown technology it can manage, Valdes predicts: “The maintenance of their own system software will become more of a drag to them.”

But Google doesn’t buy this traditional argument for why enterprises should stick to application-level code and leave more fundamental technologies like file systems, operating systems and databases to specialized vendors. Google’s leaders clearly believe they are running a systems engineering company to compete with the best of them.

Google is a fascinating company to read about. But they are also significantly different. You can’t copy the methods they use. Very few companies are going to benefit by writing their own file systems and operating systems. However, in those instances where your organization should pursue customized solutions can you.

The scope of those customized solutions at Google are inspiring, in part because of their scope. What most can learn from Google is that those who claim certain things are not possible or practical are not always right. Of course, there are many examples of companies that fail trying to be different so those that urge caution are not always wrong either.

A more traditional project tracking application would use a form to make users plug the data into different fields and checkboxes, giving the computer more structured data to process. But instead of making things easier for the computer, Google’s approach is to make things easier for the user and make the computer work harder. Employees submit their reports as an unstructured e-mail, and the project tracking software works to “understand” the content of those e-mail notes in the same way that Google’s search engine extracts context and meaning from Web pages.

How much of what you spend time on could benefit from thinking in this way: “instead of making things easier for the computer, Google’s approach is to make things easier for the user”? In my experience a great deal. This is something most organizations would claim they would aim to do. The difference is in what they actually do, not what they aim to do.

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4 thoughts on “How Google Works

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