Read: In the Plex, by Steven Levy

As I read Inside Apple earlier this year I was thinking I should perhaps read In the PlexSteven Levy‘s book about Google, to see what the differences were between the two Silicon Valley behemoths.

Differences?! What did I think?! I was so wrong, and the mistake has its roots in a faulty interpretation of what the different companies stand for. Google is generally perceived as being pro open source and driven by science and innovation while Apple is viewed as closed and introverted, dominated by its Leader – most of the speculations surrounding Jobs’ demise centred on how Apple would be able to hold on to its place now the Man was gone.

In truth the picture Levy paints shows how similar Apple and Google is. The only real difference is Google’s belief that engineering excellence will solve the problem – any problem – while what has made Apple so big is a belief in simplicity. The belief of each is Belief, though, with a capital B; zealous like religious fanatics. Both companies also has grown big under almost despotic leaders – leaders who either vouch for everything or impose counter-productive rules or (dis)organisation and thus slowing down the organisation.

Reading In the Plex only underscore my experiences from a life of watching people and organisations, analysing drivers, incentive models, management models and corporate/organisational culture and society; there are so many flavours of humans out there there’s people suited for almost every kind of enterprise; it is when the leaders are indecisive, or when they stray from the path, that people starts to leave for real.

It has led me to think that successful companies are successful because of a) a distinct idea easily converted into Belief or a Creed, paired with b) strong leadership, and c) timing (or luck – chose what suits you). What specific decision a company make hasn’t any significance for the company – it is the strength with which the decision is enforced, and the dedication showed by the leadership towards the decision, that will make the REAL difference. To me as a person decision (a) OR (b) might make me stay on or leave but for the company as a whole the unity and conviction is more important.

Levy’s book reinforces this notion.

But it also asks the question of what really drives science. The decisions made by Google are said to always be based on facts rather than on prejudice, wishful thinking, fear, and whim. This is extremely unusual. In the corporate world the politics of career and personal gain rule the day, placing reason and facts not even in the back seat but the trunk. From what Levy describes Google indeed rule by facts and numbers; but who decide what numbers to look at, what facts to pursue? One of the early curators of what is known as the scientific method, Robert Hooke, famously went by instinct rather than “facts” – at least that is how I read Stephen Inwood’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – and reading In the Plex brings Inwood’s book to the fore; to what extent is facts fact? Who chooses? Against what cultural backdrop?

Personally I suspect much of the “science” of Google is mightily influenced by what might be labelled an US elite university ethos, and ameliorated by nothing much. Placing the Android User Interface guidelines besides the iOS Human Interface guidelines only emphasises this – one is driven by number-counting artisans, the other by despotic artistry, but both are driven by principle. Despite what they say to the public other humans doesn’t matter much, either way, as long as they buy the product.

Adherents to the Church of Google might object by pointing to the many innovations that has been born out of the famed “20%” – every employee can use 20% of his or her time for personal projects. But no such project gets big unless one or both founders puts his stamp on it and getting the approval of someone who systematically evades meetings and makes a point of not being open for appointments is not easy; which means employees must be persistent indeed to succeed – Levy describes how employees learnt to stalk or ambush to get the sought-after approval, spending time and energy on finding out where Page or Brin might show up next instead of doing productive work.

How this in any way is better than a defined process, I wonder.

Also, the famed 20% are often time outside ordinary work time, despite what is said, and presumably Google will own both the code, the idea, and eventual patents deriving from the project.

What that makes of the objection I leave to you to decide.

An interesting read, even if lacking somewhat in the editing department – sometimes the text felt like it had been published before, as a series of articles (which indeed is in part the case), without the proper check for consistency as the articles were merged with the book proper.

Recommended to those who work in the IT, internet and computer industries, and to business management people.


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