Google employee No. 59 on the search giant’s early days
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Kai Ryssdal: First of all, thanks for all the Google+ invites. As soon as I figure out how to use it, I’ll let you know. Also — and on a not unrelated note — do we really need more Google in our lives?
Way before Google became a verb, Doug Edwards joined what was then a humble search engine startup as employee number 59, which is the subtitle of his new book. He was hired in 1999 to do brand management for a company that didn’t really know what brand management was yet. So when we talked, I asked him how a three-word slogan — “Don’t be evil” — became synonymous with Google’s early image.
Douglas Edwards: Well “don’t be evil” came out of a corporate values meeting that engineer Paul Buchheit was in with a dozen other employees early on. And Paul is a coder, he’s an engineer. He thought it was ridiculous to have all these explicit rules because that’s bad coding hygiene. If you can write one rule, why would you need 10 or 12 rules? And the one rule that he came up with was “don’t be evil.” And it became hard to avoid within the walls of the Googleplex.
Ryssdal: You know, I did an interview with Eric Schmidt a couple years ago, the former CEO. And I asked him about data use and he basically said, ‘Listen you just got to trust us that we’re not going to do bad things.’ Really?
Edwards: It’s a hard position to accept, but as a corporation I don’t think that the direction from the top-down would ever be OK, now we’re going to go evil. I mean, it’s a very complex issue. Privacy is something that’s not as easy as OK, you do a search and we won’t keep track of it. I knew the people involved and I do trust that their ethics are solid.
Ryssdal: You’re a communications guy, you’re a branding, you’re a marketing guy, you go into this new dot-com company. Did they have an appreciation for what branding and marketing was, or were you kind of appendage?
Edwards: They did not like to use the word branding in the first couple of years. If I mentioned branding, Larry would kind of wince or Sergey would kind of groan.
Ryssdal: Yeah, this is Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders.
Edwards: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, yeah. It was really a focus on technology and the engineering. So what I came to understand is that ultimately the product itself was intended to be the brand builder. I could contribute by working on the language that we used to build a more human interface for Google.
Ryssdal: That’s actually interesting because one of the iconic things about Google is that plain, white home page with, what is it, like 27 words by edict of the co-founders, and on there is this phrase “I’m feeling lucky,” which wound its way on the title of your book.
Edwards: Yes. That is an element that is not something supported by logic. It was put there be Sergey because he wanted to show how the technology would deliver the answer you wanted on the very first result. What that means is from a revenue standpoint, you don’t see any of the advertising that Google would like you to click on. So it doesn’t make sense for Google to have it there, and yet it’s lasted a long time. And part of that is because I think it adds a touch of humanity.
Ryssdal: Does the broader web-searching public really understand Google? And I guess that’s kind of a metaphysical question, but do we get it? Do we understand it?
Edwards: Well, Google is probably deeper than most people understand. So I think most people just get a sense of it as it’s a very convenient website to use, it’s a great tool. But it goes deeper than that — at least in the minds of the founders about what it should be and what it can become.
Ryssdal: Is it too successful, do you think? Is it too ubiquitous?
Edwards: I don’t think it’s too successful because I think it works. If something else came out that worked better, most people would switch. So it’s hard to argue that they’re too successful because they’re too good.
Ryssdal: Douglas Edwards was Google employee number 59. His book about that company that we all know and either love or hate is called, I’m Feeling Lucky. Doug, thanks a lot.
Edwards: Thank you for having me on the show.
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