Googlers going to do themselves in?

Robert Cringley writes a provocative post about Google’s 20% time and that it’ll cause problems in the future as employees get frustrated that their ideas aren’t getting implemented.

I think he underestimates what’s going on inside Google.

First, did you know that every employee has access to the source code? All of it? I don’t know of any other company of Google’s size that gives every employee access to every source code asset. For developers this is like being in the coolest sandbox in the world.

So, an employee could build a pretty darn interesting system on his/her 20% time and get buy in from the people involved. Say you wanted to build a Digg-like system for Google Reader? Well, you don’t need permission to build it. Just build it, then show it to the Google Reader team. If they like it, then they could turn it on.

Now, what if they don’t like it? Well, what, you gonna go outside and do that? No way. Google has lockin on interesting ideas that you could come up with. Forget the legal lockin too. What’s the real secret sauce over at Google? Is it your idea? No.

It’s the infrastructure!

The datacenters, the fiber, all that. Look at the troubles Technorati had earlier this week. Or that Twitter had over the past two months.

Getting your idea to work (and to be integrated with something that’d bring you large amounts of traffic) will not be easy outside the walls of Google.

Yesterday I had lunch with a VC and he said they are seeing remarkably few Googlers quitting and/or starting new companies.

My friends at Google are unhireable. Why? Cause they are happy and engaged in the mission of doing Google’s work. So, Cringley’s caution might turn out right long term. But not this year. And that built in sandbox is going to prove pretty resilient and is something that Cringley didn’t seem to take into account.

Published by

Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, Scoble travels the world looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology for Rackspace's startup program. He's interviewed thousands of executives and technology innovators and reports what he learns in books ("The Age of Context," a book coauthored with Forbes author Shel Israel, has been released at http://amzn.to/AgeOfContext ), YouTube, and many social media sites where he's followed by millions of people. Best place to watch me is on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/RobertScoble

Comments

  1. Honestly, I don’t think giving an entire org access to the entire source code tree is a good idea. It makes IP theft much, much easier, and tracking down the culprit that much more difficult.

  2. Honestly, I don’t think giving an entire org access to the entire source code tree is a good idea. It makes IP theft much, much easier, and tracking down the culprit that much more difficult.

  3. I think it’s a great idea, I just don’t see any results and it really irritates me because i KNOW people at google are doing awesome things, staggering ideas. Its just like every other company though now because they’ll never be released as the corporates dont want to scare their base.

    it’s my current pet hate as any of my readers know and i want them to release hundreds of ideas and let US pick what’s great.

  4. I think it’s a great idea, I just don’t see any results and it really irritates me because i KNOW people at google are doing awesome things, staggering ideas. Its just like every other company though now because they’ll never be released as the corporates dont want to scare their base.

    it’s my current pet hate as any of my readers know and i want them to release hundreds of ideas and let US pick what’s great.

  5. Google does pay license fees for some of the software they use.

    I don’t think too many employees have access to THE algorithm.

  6. Google does pay license fees for some of the software they use.

    I don’t think too many employees have access to THE algorithm.

  7. Robert,

    “First, did you know that every employee has access to the source code? All of it? I don’t know of any other company of Google’s size that gives every employee access to every source code asset.”

    Cisco does (did). Poses a tremendous security risk – there were newbies who did things like taking snapshots of the ENTIRE source tree and saving it on their laptops. As an ex-developer (and having worked on the OS that “powers the internet”). There was also a huge leak that had happened once (probably inappropriate to discss in a public site). I really don’t see how having access to all the source is that fascinating, personally. I felt like I had a lot of power at one point, but its juts code, you know.

    ai

  8. Robert,

    “First, did you know that every employee has access to the source code? All of it? I don’t know of any other company of Google’s size that gives every employee access to every source code asset.”

    Cisco does (did). Poses a tremendous security risk – there were newbies who did things like taking snapshots of the ENTIRE source tree and saving it on their laptops. As an ex-developer (and having worked on the OS that “powers the internet”). There was also a huge leak that had happened once (probably inappropriate to discss in a public site). I really don’t see how having access to all the source is that fascinating, personally. I felt like I had a lot of power at one point, but its juts code, you know.

    ai

  9. Whoops, I cut-n-paste wrong. My comment should’ve read :

    There was also a huge leak that had happened once (probably inappropriate to discss in a public site). As an ex-developer (and having worked on the OS that “powers the internet”), I really don’t see how having access to all the source is that fascinating, personally. I felt like I had a lot of power at one point, but its juts code, you know.

    ai

  10. Whoops, I cut-n-paste wrong. My comment should’ve read :

    There was also a huge leak that had happened once (probably inappropriate to discss in a public site). As an ex-developer (and having worked on the OS that “powers the internet”), I really don’t see how having access to all the source is that fascinating, personally. I felt like I had a lot of power at one point, but its juts code, you know.

    ai

  11. Scoble said “First, did you know that every employee has access to the source code?”

    Hard to believe. They have a distributed infrastructure, so all the more reason to have bucket of code here and there without a single person having an eye on everything.

    Strategically, it would not sound very Googly to allow 100% code access to any employee. Imagine the ex-Microsoft employee scenario : an ex-Microsoft joins Google, stays long enough to learn all the weaknesses, two year strategies (some of which are in the code itself), … only then to rejoin Microsoft. Hmmmmm.

  12. Scoble said “First, did you know that every employee has access to the source code?”

    Hard to believe. They have a distributed infrastructure, so all the more reason to have bucket of code here and there without a single person having an eye on everything.

    Strategically, it would not sound very Googly to allow 100% code access to any employee. Imagine the ex-Microsoft employee scenario : an ex-Microsoft joins Google, stays long enough to learn all the weaknesses, two year strategies (some of which are in the code itself), … only then to rejoin Microsoft. Hmmmmm.

  13. “Google has lockin on interesting ideas that you could come up with. Forget the legal lockin too”

    cough, cough, I’m sure.

    The problem is that if you use part of the Google code base, even if they didn’t have legal lockdown on the IP you generate while there, they would get you on bringing their code into your project.

    Pretty much every software company will have employees sign a document that says that anything created on premises and sometimes beyond is the property of the company.

    Remember how Woz had to run the first Apple puter by HP before turtleneck TM could build them in his garage?

    I’m sure Google has that and more.

  14. “Google has lockin on interesting ideas that you could come up with. Forget the legal lockin too”

    cough, cough, I’m sure.

    The problem is that if you use part of the Google code base, even if they didn’t have legal lockdown on the IP you generate while there, they would get you on bringing their code into your project.

    Pretty much every software company will have employees sign a document that says that anything created on premises and sometimes beyond is the property of the company.

    Remember how Woz had to run the first Apple puter by HP before turtleneck TM could build them in his garage?

    I’m sure Google has that and more.

  15. From what I’ve seen, the 20% efforts haven’t resulted in anything, which is why Google is basically a buy-out company these days.

  16. From what I’ve seen, the 20% efforts haven’t resulted in anything, which is why Google is basically a buy-out company these days.

  17. First thought, after listening to Cringley’s podcast this afternoon, then reading this post a little later this evening…

    Yup, Scoble said what I was thinking.

    Then I read the comments about access to the code…

    Yup, geeks will have opinions.

    Impact for the world? Hmmm… Cool ideas and good ideas take persistence to get through. I spent 6 months or so at Microsoft as a contractor working on Hi Def videos – a very cool idea and very leading edge – 4 years ago. I have a brother who’s been there half a dozen years. It’s not that different from other big tech companies (Google). From my experience and exposure, cool ideas do get through. Cool ideas also do get lost. Persistence is required to make the cream rise to the top. Then there’s luck and timing and…

    It’s just not as easy as we’d like to think…

  18. First thought, after listening to Cringley’s podcast this afternoon, then reading this post a little later this evening…

    Yup, Scoble said what I was thinking.

    Then I read the comments about access to the code…

    Yup, geeks will have opinions.

    Impact for the world? Hmmm… Cool ideas and good ideas take persistence to get through. I spent 6 months or so at Microsoft as a contractor working on Hi Def videos – a very cool idea and very leading edge – 4 years ago. I have a brother who’s been there half a dozen years. It’s not that different from other big tech companies (Google). From my experience and exposure, cool ideas do get through. Cool ideas also do get lost. Persistence is required to make the cream rise to the top. Then there’s luck and timing and…

    It’s just not as easy as we’d like to think…

  19. Google’s 20% Time. Rejection and Defection.

    Mr. Cringley’s opinion piece on Google’s demise from within strikes me as right and wrong all at the same time. It’s thoughtfully written and mostly insightful. Think Sweet and Sour (shouldn’t work but does) or Root Beer and Ice…

  20. This 20% time thing is over-rated. Not sure of Google, but I do know of one other place, where this results in this “pressure” on employees to come up with something innovative with their 20% time. Results in some really lame and useless ideas/presentations, just for the sake of the 20% time usage. Of course once in a quarter, there is a good idea or two, but from folks who would have done it anyway, with or without the 20%

  21. This 20% time thing is over-rated. Not sure of Google, but I do know of one other place, where this results in this “pressure” on employees to come up with something innovative with their 20% time. Results in some really lame and useless ideas/presentations, just for the sake of the 20% time usage. Of course once in a quarter, there is a good idea or two, but from folks who would have done it anyway, with or without the 20%

  22. Why not leave, build an app that would be a great fit for Google, then sell it back to Google in a few years? It seems like someone’s chance of success would be relatively high in a case like this, since they would be intimately familiar with Google’s infrastructure.

    Could someone make $10-30 million over a few years like this? Some would like their odds of achieving this kind of return, plus the notoriety that comes from building something from scratch.

  23. Why not leave, build an app that would be a great fit for Google, then sell it back to Google in a few years? It seems like someone’s chance of success would be relatively high in a case like this, since they would be intimately familiar with Google’s infrastructure.

    Could someone make $10-30 million over a few years like this? Some would like their odds of achieving this kind of return, plus the notoriety that comes from building something from scratch.

  24. >> From what I’ve seen, the 20% efforts haven’t resulted in anything, which is why Google is basically a buy-out company these days.

    Ignorance… Google’s own hiring page makes clear that Google News, Suggest, Adsense for Content, and others are a result of 20% time. The official Google blog had a post not long ago from an engineer NOT on the Google Reader team about how he/she used 20% time to add some useful shortcuts to Google Reader.

    http://www.google.com/support/jobs/bin/static.py?page=about.html

  25. >> From what I’ve seen, the 20% efforts haven’t resulted in anything, which is why Google is basically a buy-out company these days.

    Ignorance… Google’s own hiring page makes clear that Google News, Suggest, Adsense for Content, and others are a result of 20% time. The official Google blog had a post not long ago from an engineer NOT on the Google Reader team about how he/she used 20% time to add some useful shortcuts to Google Reader.

    http://www.google.com/support/jobs/bin/static.py?page=about.html

  26. @14
    I agree that *mandating* 20% “do your own thing” time equates to pressure to come up with something brilliant, the fact is Google constantly brags about their huge number of PhDs. Google may be right in expecting PhDs to come up with something brilliant in that 20% of their time.

    I, for one, don’t have a PhD, and therefore, not being expected to invent anything, would just chill out during my 20%. :p

  27. @14
    I agree that *mandating* 20% “do your own thing” time equates to pressure to come up with something brilliant, the fact is Google constantly brags about their huge number of PhDs. Google may be right in expecting PhDs to come up with something brilliant in that 20% of their time.

    I, for one, don’t have a PhD, and therefore, not being expected to invent anything, would just chill out during my 20%. :p

  28. http://kentsimperative.blogspot.com/2007/05/lock-in-in-intelligence-community.html

    Lock-in in the intelligence community

    Our fascination with Google is well known. They are an entity entirely dedicated to the business of information acquisition, archive, and discovery – one of the few companies in the world whose primary civilian commercial business matches so many critical task functions in the intelligence community. They are also culturally unorthodox, organizationally different, intellectually driven – and widely successful.

    We have a deeply divided assessment of their current operations and future potential, particularly based on their widely reported human resources issues. But they bear watching, and are an interesting bellweather in the ever changing information tradewinds.

    Thus we note Scoble’s recent comments on yet further rumours of decline within the Googleplex….

  29. http://kentsimperative.blogspot.com/2007/05/lock-in-in-intelligence-community.html

    Lock-in in the intelligence community

    Our fascination with Google is well known. They are an entity entirely dedicated to the business of information acquisition, archive, and discovery – one of the few companies in the world whose primary civilian commercial business matches so many critical task functions in the intelligence community. They are also culturally unorthodox, organizationally different, intellectually driven – and widely successful.

    We have a deeply divided assessment of their current operations and future potential, particularly based on their widely reported human resources issues. But they bear watching, and are an interesting bellweather in the ever changing information tradewinds.

    Thus we note Scoble’s recent comments on yet further rumours of decline within the Googleplex….

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