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The Untold Story Of Larry Page's Comeback
May 2, 2014 11:05 PM   Subscribe

One day in July 2001, Larry Page decided to fire Google’s project managers. All of them.
posted by SpacemanStix (28 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

I really enjoyed reading this. It is as if Page is trying to create life-changing projects, and then loosely tying them to Google's search business in order to justify them to shareholders.
posted by mecran01 at 11:09 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]

Page caring about justification to shareholders is just about the last thing I got from the article...
posted by DreamerFi at 11:29 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

It's hard to read these glowing profiles of tech executives in the same light, even if couched in "see but he had to learn hard lessons too!" rhetoric, while knowing about Google's close ties with the surveillance state. Techno-utopia is a hair's breath away from a turn-key totalitarian society, and the jury is still out as to which side Google is actually on.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:45 PM on May 2 [13 favorites]

who's Larry Page? does he play for the Blue Jackets?
posted by philip-random at 11:49 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

In the Hacker News thread on this story, several self-proclaimed Google employees stopped by to dispute the firing story, saying that it was engineering-background PMs who were reassigned back to their engineering roles.

I find them plausible less because they posted on HN than that I'm sceptical of any business magazine's tale of the rogue-ish outsider savant who shakes things up a little too hard, learns moderation in exile, and returns to triumph. As an heuristic, I take any comparison to (or early mention of) Steve Jobs to signal an imminent attempt at mythmaking.
posted by fatbird at 11:52 PM on May 2 [14 favorites]

I'm going to reserve judgement until I see the rest of the gospels.
posted by Clave at 11:58 PM on May 2 [7 favorites]

What’s less well understood is that Apple’s board and investors were absolutely right to fire Jobs. Early in his career, he was petulant, mean, and destructive. Only by leaving Apple, humbling himself, and finding a second success — with Pixar — was he able to mature into the leader who would return to Apple and build it into the world’s most valuable company.

This is weird information. Yes, Steve Jobs became a CEO of Pixar, but primarily his roles were investor and deal-maker. Maybe he didn't need to be petulant/mean/destructive because the core Pixar team, whose existence back in 1975 predated Jobs, presented to/for him a dynamic different than the corporate culture that Apple had become at the time.

Without further detail, this hero's journey of humility->maturity->success/value could be interpreted more as a projection of BusinessWeek's ideology and reveals its pandering to its readership, rather than revealing any critical understanding of business or leadership. The broad analogy that the article depends on falls apart here.
posted by polymodus at 12:23 AM on May 3 [19 favorites]

this hero's journey of humility->maturity->success/value could be interpreted more as a projection of BusinessWeek's ideology

Or perhaps the editor gave the journalist the "hero's narrative" as an assignment, and the story was written to fit someone into that framework.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:37 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

What I like best about Google is you just never know what they're going to do next, and it sounds like Larry Page is the reason for that.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:52 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

What impresses me about this story (and the impression certainly is a product of the story, and hopefully the reality but I'm speaking entirely within the confines of this) is that despite all of the combativeness and "stupid" argumentation, Page and Brin seemed quite receptive to criticism, with the story peppered full of mentions of lower-level employees standing their ground without getting axed for doing so. Maybe I'm over-blowing Steve Jobs' reputation and there's a ton of contrast between the two that makes him less relevant as a basis of comparison.

The guy who installed the pop-up blocker secretly to convince Page to support his idea? Such confidence, and I can imagine that many stereotypical tech-founders would find it appalling that they didn't realize why they weren't getting popups or that something new was installed on their machine (if they were technical)or be furious that such a transgression was made to prove them wrong, and fire the guy.

I suspect Page realized that capriciously firing people over slights was grossly inefficient (duh) and that people who can go toe-to-toe with him are known quantities that have been tested by fire. Again, just the impression I got. And they seemed to recognize that they needed "adult supervision," however grudgingly (i.e. not letting the PM firings go through) and Schmidt seemed to recognize when Page was ready to re-take the helm. But also, these sorts of "come at me bro, I won't fire you we'll just fight and stuff" environments can be hostile and oppressive and there are probably plenty of people who quietly backed away and left the company, but it's heartening that Page was able to recognize when this was no longer helpful (if it was a net positive ever to begin with) and bring his teams together to completely dominate the universe.
posted by aydeejones at 2:12 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Also the whole part about "don't be a dick to young people, listen to the ideas of junior developers" is pretty interesting in contrast with today's "LOL token graybeard" situation in many SV forges.
posted by aydeejones at 2:14 AM on May 3

Page is aiming to create the Felix Felicis potion.

Imagine a technology that could search the space of all actions currently available to you, to find a sequence to reach your current goal. Google Maps directions expanded to all actions, not just walking/driving/taking the right sequence of buses. One Red Paperclip rationalized. Or in Rowling's words,

"It was as though the potion was illuminating a few steps of the path at a time. He could not see the final destination, he could not see where Slughorn came in, but he knew that he was going the right way to get that memory." [1]

[1] Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, "After the Burial"
posted by kadonoishi at 4:25 AM on May 3

"There’s artificial intelligence. Besides dominating video games, Google’s AI was also able to watch all of YouTube, learn from the experience, and draw a picture of a cat."
posted by mantecol at 6:59 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Did that article just say Tesla was Croatian?

Now we're in trouble.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:05 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Man, as much as I know Nick Carson loves to exaggerate and blur the facts to suit his purposes, he is a damn good storyteller at the end of the day.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:41 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I joined Google soon after the engineering reorganization (or "disorganization", as I called it) described in the article. As Fatbird notes, the article's saying "Larry Page decided to fire Google’s project managers" is probably incorrect. I wasn't there at the meeting but talked to a lot of people about it a couple of months after it happened. The impression I got was that it was confusing what their status would be but, in fact, they were simply reassigned to new roles. Most stayed for several years and were reasonably successful at the company.

The article corrects itself further down, "the layoffs didn't stick". I assume leading with "fire" was a way to get page views.

The driving reason for the reorganization was Larry and Sergey wanting more direct input with the engineers. The early company had a very strong ethos that management was overhead and bureaucracy, that small groups of engineers could mostly manage themselves with Larry and Sergey benevolently guiding everything. And Wayne Rosing being the VP of Engineering, at some point with 300 direct reports. It kind of worked and was kind of crazy. It was probably better than the alternatives. The company shifted radically once it grew past a certain point and started explicitly hiring lots of middle management engineers.

I think the rest of the article is quite good. It gives a good feeling of Larry's skills and impact at the company. There's some other factual points I'd disagree with, but the broad picture is insightful.

This article should be read as a companion to Calrson's other tech hagiography, The Truth About Marissa Mayer: An Unauthorized Biography.
posted by Nelson at 8:55 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

this hero's journey of humility->maturity->success/value could be interpreted more as a projection of BusinessWeek's ideology
Or perhaps the editor gave the journalist the "hero's narrative" as an assignment, and the story was written to fit someone into that framework.

One might reflect on the editor's history here.
posted by rhizome at 10:11 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I had a few paragraphs here about my experiences with Page, but I thought about it, and I don't want to contribute to the gospel of Larry.

All I can say is that my work at Google was very rewarding. I worked with tons of very smart people who really thought about the social and cultural impact of their work. Profit was always a motivation, but not the first one.

I was a tiny cog in the organization, and could still see my work making the world a better place. One of the few jobs I can be really proud about.

I just spent half a week hunting down my mothers birth certificate in remote towns and small cities in the sierra in western Mexico. Google and its maps were invaluable in an area where street names are maintained in a strictly oral tradition and highway signs are stolen for roofing. I know my work has helped people in similar ways.

I am really excited to see what is going to come out of theoonshot initiatives.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 11:01 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]

Larry Page once killed a man, but it didn't stick. In the end he had only forgotten to put milk in the man's coffee.
posted by GuyZero at 11:31 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Just to watch him die.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:47 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I was close to a few people worked at Google during this period. One thing I got from them was that the actually existing flat self-management ideal became frustratingly sclerotic and disorganized after a while, such that unless you could curry favour with the "Friends of Larry" or "Friends of Sergey" princes then your projects and your career were basically stuck in neutral. The People Who Mattered had so many theoretical direct reports that unless you were "in", you would just be lost in the crowd.

The other was a plan that was mooted by Page to ensure every few desks had a printer that would output his missives in hardcopy because he was miffed that people did not appear to be reading his stuff promptly.

Overall it sounded pretty dysfunctional.
posted by meehawl at 12:33 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I have not seen a "flat management" structure yet which isn't an unrealistic cover for an unspoken hierarchy, sadly. Of course, many hierarchical structures don't match the actual power structures, either, so they're not necessarily any worse.

With respect to the NSA cooperation article - I can't remember the last time I saw a google article that even mentions their once famous "don't be evil" guiding principle. I suppose the public consensus is that it is long past the point of mentioning the irony.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:50 PM on May 3

Flat management structures do tend to suck in the ways described.

Shallow management structures, however, seem to do pretty well in my experience.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:14 PM on May 3

With respect to the NSA cooperation article - I can't remember the last time I saw a google article that even mentions their once famous "don't be evil" guiding principle. I suppose the public consensus is that it is long past the point of mentioning the irony.

Complaining about "don't be evil" is rather trite. It's amazing that it was ever part of their corporate culture in the first place. I think a better metric is "maintain an evil/#employees ratio that is as low as possible". No large company lacks evil. It's utterly impossible to group 10,000 people together and not have lots of evil in that group.

It also doesn't help when NSA and friends makes it against the law to not be evil.
posted by HappyEngineer at 3:40 PM on May 3

Some PR firm hired by Google or Page himself created this story to feed a narrative of what they want to say about Google's last ten years. This is propaganda, not scholarship. The insights come in looking at the narrative Larry wants us and investors to believe about Google. This article suggests that Google thinks investors are looking at all the money Google has spent over the last decade on things other than search and wondering if that money has been well spent. By casting it as a lost decade; the CEO gets a mulligan. It is admitting that too much was spent on day dreams and that many attempts to compete outside search failed because of lack of focus. Don't worry though, now Larry is transformed; so investors should allow him to continue to spend freely because the new money will be spent wisely with discipline and care. Today Larry is a man.
posted by humanfont at 5:01 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]

Exactly 600 milliseconds, my ass.
posted by borges at 5:21 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]

By casting it as a lost decade; the CEO gets a mulligan.

It wasn't a lost decade - Eric Schmidt was the CEO. And he did a very good job.
posted by GuyZero at 8:28 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

On the screen, there was a video-game boxing match. One boxer had the other trapped in a corner and was mercilessly wailing on his opponent.

The winning boxer was being controlled by an artificially intelligent computer program created at Google.

This, Page explained to Rose, was the future of Google.

Not a great I-understand-humans choice for an AI demo there, Larry.
posted by ignignokt at 4:43 PM on May 5

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