Thursday, December 29, 2011

Humble brag

UrbanDictionary. com defines the term humble brag as, “A form of self promotion where the promoter thinks he is bragging about himself in the context of a humble statement.” This definition more or less sums up what Douglas Edwards achieves through his book I’m Feeling Lucky on his former employer Google (more on this later).

Edwards was Google’s 59th employee, was involved with the company in 1999 when it was virtually based out of a garage in Silicon Valley and he left it in 2005. Backed by seven years of solid marketing experience for the San Jose Mercury News, 34-year-old Edwards felt he deserved a tiny bit of the technology pie in Silicon Valley. He acquired the vague designation of director of consumer marketing at Google, and quickly realised it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Here was an organisation that is as flat as it can get. He had carte blanche over various decisions and in the same way anyone could overrule his decisions as long as the alternative made sense.

With headlines inspired from the satirical website Onion (“I Go Logo Loco and Learn Good Enough Is Good Enough”, “Rugged Individualists with a Taste for Porn”, “Managers in Hot Tubs and in Hot Water”), Edwards charts the all-too-familiar history of Google, albeit with in-house jokes and anecdotes hitherto unknown to outside world. Whether this Google-y humour will make those unfamiliar with Google’s zeitgeist smile is a contentious issue but the writer deserves to be commended for the perennial undercurrent of light humour in the book. One of the chapters, “Is New York Alive?”, has the sweep of a disaster epic novel. Edwards displays all his literary chops when he describes how Google went about covering 9/11. The spot ethical decisions that Google made at that juncture demonstrate that it at least strives to live up to its credo of “Don’t Be Evil”.

Edwards’ reverence for Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page shines through the pages. All sorts of fawning adjectives are used to describe their intelligence and ingenuity. They may be valid but it would have been better if Edwards had exercised some restraint. The book’s subtitle is “The Confessions of Google Employee 59” but this is hardly a tell-all memoir. If anything, it’s a safe one. Where is the bite that was seen in, say, Stephen Levy’s In the Plex? Google’s disdain for non-engineers is legendary and an open secret, but Edwards gives this issue cursory treatment. And that’s quite discombobulating considering he was told this when he was sacked in 2005: “I’m having a hard time slotting you. I don’t really see where you fit. There doesn’t seem to be a place for ‘brand management’ in the organisation as a functional role.”

If Edwards didn’t want to burn bridges, he could have at least loosened a few screws and provided an insight like Eli Pariser did with his book The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. If Google really purports to not be evil, why is it that search results change depending on the geographical location of a user? The only mild criticism that Edwards had was the company’s attitude towards Orkut, a social networking site. Edwards thought that the site had great potential but it was nipped in the bud because Google’s “tech snobbery” came in the way. “Because Orkut had been written using Microsoft tools, Google’s engineers deemed it not scalable. They turned their noses up at it and … they just let it die,” reminisces Edwards.

Edwards himself doesn’t have any earth-shattering contributions to speak of. Apart from coining AdWords and writing the documentation in corporatespeak (he has studied English literature at college), Edwards wasn’t a great employee. Even though he was a bit player, he invariably found himself in the enviable position of fly-on-the-wall during Google’s most momentous occasions. That is why the way Google pipped its then competitor Overture for a contract with AOL is written with a panache that will keep the reader hooked.

Coming back to the humble brag part, I’m Feeling Lucky is a litany of complaints and Pyrrhic victories that Edwards writes about in meticulous detail. Be it his tiny ego battles over inconsequential things with his superiors or an argument that he wins after intense wrangling, Edwards doesn’t let anything slip away in the ether of time. It’s not even his delusions of grandeur that let down the book; what really prevents it from being a page-turner are the useless details with which he peppers the book. Instead of providing the true insider’s lowdown on Google, Edwards dedicates pages to the canteen food and the facilities in the recreation room.

Pardon the feeble attempt at humour, but as a reader I didn’t feel lucky having to review this 400-page puff piece.

Douglas Edwards
Allen Lane
401 pages; £20


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