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In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

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Written with full cooperation from top management, including cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, this is the inside story behind Google, the most successful and most admired technology company of our time, told by one of our best technology writers.

Few companies in history have ever been as successful and as admired as Google, the company that has transformed the Internet and become an indispensable part of our lives. How has Google done it? Veteran technology reporter Steven Levy was granted unprecedented access to the company, and in this revelatory book he takes readers inside Google headquarters—the Googleplex—to show how Google works.

While they were still students at Stanford, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin revolutionized Internet search. They followed this brilliant innovation with another, as two of Google’s earliest employees found a way to do what no one else had: make billions of dollars from Internet advertising. With this cash cow, Google was able to expand dramatically and take on other transformative projects: more efficient data centers, open-source cell phones, free Internet video (YouTube), cloud computing, digitizing books, and much more.

The key to Google’s success in all these businesses, Levy reveals, is its engineering mind-set and adoption of such Internet values as speed, openness, experimentation, and risk taking. After its unapologetically elitist approach to hiring, Google pampers its engineers—free food and dry cleaning, on-site doctors and masseuses—and gives them all the resources they need to succeed. Even today, with a workforce of more than 23,000, Larry Page signs off on every hire.

But has Google lost its innovative edge? With its newest initiative, social networking, Google is chasing a successful competitor for the first time. Some employees are leaving the company for smaller, nimbler start-ups. Can the company that famously decided not to be evil still compete?

No other book has ever turned Google inside out as Levy does with In the Plex.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published April 12, 2011

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About the author

Steven Levy

43 books640 followers
Steven Levy is editor at large at Wired, and author of eight books, including the new Facebook: the Inside Story, the definitive history of that controversial company. His previous works include the legendary computer history Hackers, Artificial Life, the Unicorn 's Secret, In the Plex (the story of Google, chose as Amazon and Audible's best business book of 2011), and Crypto, which won the Frankfurt E-book Award for the best non-fiction book of 2001. He was previously the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 912 reviews
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,080 reviews619 followers
October 10, 2020
I knew little about Google other than the fact that it's the name of the company that produced the eponymous internet search engine, which has gained a market share of nearly 90% as at April 2019. But I kept hearing how powerful the company was and how it formed one of the big four technology giants, along with Apple, Amazon and Facebook. It was about time I learned a little more about this outfit. In this audiobook, technology reporter Stephen Levy tells of the time he spent meeting and talking to people within the company and expands this to an overview of how Google was first founded and the key activities it undertook in the period 1998 - 2011.

Founded in 1998 by two Stanford University Ph.D students named Larry Page and Sergy Brin, the original focus was indeed on producing a search vehicle for the internet. Page and Brin were themselves brilliant computer engineers and they gradually recruited more very smart people to join them, a process that could drag perspective employees through more than twenty interviews. The growth of the business was built on the back of a focus on volume (gather as much information as possible and build huge capacity by having a massive infrastructure of servers) and exhaustive analysis of the data gathered. The culture of the company was hard working but informal and they believed in experimentation and risk taking - the phrase ready-fire-aim is one that is used to encapsulate their propensity for launching early and for preventing paralysis from the analysis of potential problems.

There are quite a few similarities between Google’s approach to getting things done and the methodology propounded by Facebook and other fast moving tech companies – in essence it amounts to don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. And this seemed to have worked really well for Google as it quickly expanded from being a leading search company to the dominating force in generating income from advertising too. There’s a reasonable amount of detail here regarding the development of both the search facility and AdWords which, in time, brought in billions of dollars for the company.

There are details of some failures too, most notably Googles attempt to be a serious player in China but also a number of smaller tech companies (mainly start-ups) they acquired who failed to gain the attention or investment that might have made them a success. But as Google grew there were other major successes too, such as: the launch of the Chrome browser, Gmail and Google Maps plus the acquisition and development of Android.

This book ends as Larry Page takes over as CEO, the founders having brought in an experienced executive in Eric Schmidt to head up the company for the previous ten years. I found this account to be a fascinating study of how the daring and brilliance of a couple of bright geeks enabled them to become amongst the most successful (and richest) businessmen in history. It’s an inspiring story which is told in a way that is both easy to understand (for non-techies like me) and riveting in the way I was made to feel a watcher as historically important technical advances were proposed, developed and ultimately brought to market. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Molly.
41 reviews177 followers
May 8, 2011
A really great read; well written and interesting, nerdy without being alienating, and the deepest dive on Google's ethos I've seen. I'm not sure it makes me feel entirely comfortable about the degree to which we're all in Google's hands: Levy seems to really believe that Larry Page and Sergey Brin want only to "do good." But like Asimov's third law, that missive is both broad and scarily subjective. They're doing good in their opinion, after all, and the unintended consequences of a beast like Google are painted all over this book. All the various players get a little thick--I love that Levy gives the unsung heroes at Google their due, but it gets to feeling a bit like a Russian novel at times with all those names. Overall, a must-read if you're in the tech industry and a should-read even if you're not. These guys really did change the world.
Profile Image for Todd N.
339 reviews238 followers
September 11, 2023
Disclosure: I worked at Google between 2003 and 2009 and consequently I own a couple of shares and if Larry Page would bother sticking around for more than fifteen minutes during earnings calls now that he is CEO the price might get high enough again for me to sell some of them.

Corollary to the previous disclosure: When I do sell some stock, you will be able to tell because the price will rise sharply right after I sell it.

Another disclosure: I know several of the people mentioned in the book, and even I interviewed a few of them and got a referral bonus for one. Quite a few I have a passing acquaintance with, and the rest of the people in this book probably saw me at one point or another on campus and thought "that tall guy looks sort of like Max Ibel."

Oh yeah, a disclosure that I almost forgot: I ate lunch at Google twice this week to catch up with some friends there. None of them had even heard of this book, which I thought was odd. The free food is in no way influencing this review, though I had this papaya and mango salad with a little bit of hot pepper that was out of this world. And I took three peanut butter cookies despite their proximity to a sign reminding me not to be evil.

With these disclosures out of the way, I will now start my review.

But first, one real quick disclosure: Since leaving Google I have been making a living by helping companies increase the qualified organic traffic to their web site or sites. In other words I help them show up in Google (and Bing) search results for keywords related to their businesses. For lack of a better term, this is called search engine optimization or SEO. Despite the many defects in my character and many areas in which I am lacking knowledge, I am quite good at this for some reason.

I tend to focus on the technical implications of a web site's architecture, and in doing this I always stress strict adherence to established web protocols and the webmaster guidelines laid out by Google and Bing.

(Aside: In SEO argot this is known as "white hat SEO," as opposed to "black hat SEO." "Black hat" SEOs, who try a panoply of tricks to help sites rank higher than they really deserve to for certain keywords, in turn have taken their name from people who break into computer systems to commit crimes. Adopting this terminology allows the so-called "black hat" SEOs to pretend they are super leet -- like Jeff Goldblum uploading a virus into that alien ship in Independence Day -- as they buy links from a pimply-faced Estonian kid with a network of splogs.)

Here's a disclosure that you will probably wish that I could undisclose: As I write this I am wearing only a pair of sweatpants.

So anyway, my review: Matt Cutts tweeted that people who say that Google is just a media company are saying more about themselves than about Google. At the time I thought that was pretty snotty, especially coming from Matt who is an incredibly nice person, but after reading this book I now understand what he meant by that and completely agree with him.

To understand Google you have to get inside the spectrum-y head of Larry Page. I'm pretty sure that the ghosts of Nikola Tesla and Alan Turing and Edwin Armstrong (the inventor of FM who killed himself after RCA basically stole his patents) are using Larry Page as an instrument of their revenge on the world. He is an inventor and an idealist who has managed to amass enough money and the right team to carry out his don't-be-evil plans. There are two other guys who help run Google, but I forget their names.

One more disclosure: I peed one urinal over from Larry Page at the 2008 sales conference in San Francisco.

Whenever you read an article tsk tsking about how Google is being "distracted" or doing something as a "distraction" -- stuff like building self-driving cars, working on several operating systems, releasing entire computer languages into the public domain, funding contests to land probes on the moon -- you are actually reading about the real Google.

The multi-billion dollar revenue machine is certainly nice, but after reading this book I am more certain than ever that it is not the heart and soul of Google. This business is run very carefully by some very smart people, which enables Google to hide its deeply subversive nature from the world for the most part.

Read the Google story and see how deeply subversive enlightened capitalism can be: It's possible to make money and make the world a better place; technological advances can be used for more than just squeezing productivity out of workers; proper values and a focus on the long term turns out actually to be fiscally responsible too.

Compare that with the current M.O. of most of today's businesses, especially in finance, which appears to be this: Descend on anything and everything like a swarm of locusts and extract all possible value as quickly as possible. Leave as little as possible for future generations. (Please read Griftopia by Matt Taibbi if you disagree with this assessment.)

No wonder Wall Street keeps trying to punish Google. They are a threat to the status quo. And in this way Tesla will finally get his revenge, laughing as he glides to heaven on a space tether.

Disclosure: I always like to end with several complaints:

(1) Mr. Levy mentions a particular product manager as single-handedly saving the company several times by acquiring companies or launching certain products, usually against Larry Page's wishes. It made me wonder just how credulous this Mr. Levy is. Dude, you got handled.

(2) The book starts with a story about an APM (associate product manager) trip to Africa. I was very disheartened to read this because this is the kind of inconsequential b.s. that the press latches on to and makes a big deal out of, and I sure as heck wasn't going to read a whole book of it. These trips are more for the press than for the APMs. So just skip that part and then book is completely awesome. (We learn that most of those APMs are gone from Google in a few years anyway. This jibes with my experience that most of the non-technical people joining Google these days are joining so that they can get into a good business school and then maybe, who knows, ultimately run a hedge fund or something. There's not much monetary upside left at Google, but it still looks awesome on a resume and/or grad school application.)

(3) I wish I had this book to read while I was still at Google. Working at Google, especially for someone with a lot of previous industry experience, has some very quirky aspects to it, and I think Google would have made a lot more sense to me if I had access to an objective reference like this.

(4) Really??? Scraping Baidu???? This is some SEO inside baseball, but I about fell off my chair when I read that Google was scraping Baidu's results to figure out what to censor in China. Please someone tell me this isn't true. And Mr. Levy, that is not an "elegant solution," as you put it.
Profile Image for Bojan Tunguz.
407 reviews162 followers
April 14, 2011
Ever since its inception, and in many cases even before it became incorporated, Google has been referred to mainly in the superlatives. The briskness with which it became the dominant player in online search, the sheer size of its operations and the infrastructure, the incredibly short time within which it became one of the largest companies in terms of market capitalization - all of these are the stuff of legends. It is unsurprising then that Google would attract a high level of media attention, and there are literally hundreds of articles written about it every day. (I know this because I just did a quick search for Google in Google News.) Over the years there has also been no shortage of books on Google. However, in terms of the depth and breadth of its research, as well as the amount of first-hand information that it provides, Steven Levy's "In The Plex" stands in a category of its own.

In the minds of its founders and most of the early employees, Google is first and foremost a technology company. The business model of online advertising came about almost as an afterthought, and one continuously gets the sense that its purpose is to pay the bills so that Google geeks can have a free reign in pursuing their latest techie interest. This attitude is an integral part of Google's DNA, and any book that aims to provide the reader with a better sense of what Google is all about needs to get this point across. Unfortunately, there have been several books in recent years that were more concerned with all the intangible aspects of life in the age of Google and had almost completely missed this point. "In The Plex," I am happy to say, did not fall in that trap. Steven Levy comes across as an extremely competent and well-informed technology journalist who clearly relishes the opportunity to write about all the intricacies of Google's engineering prowess. In this respect as well, this is a quintessentially Google book. If Google were a person, this is probably what its autobiography would look like. Levy, who currently works for Wired magazine, literally embedded himself deep within Google and over the course of two years or so interviewed hundreds of Google employees. The result is a very comprehensive book on almost all aspects of Google's technology and business.

The book is very informative, probably more so than all the other books on Google out there combined. Even some of the already widely familiar stories about Google's origins and early years have been given new details. The book is also remarkable in that it provides a lot of information on some very specific technical details and innovation that Google has accomplished over the years. Granted, much of it is many years, or even over a decade, old, but for the longest time Google has been extremely cagey about revealing any of that information to the wider audience. The fact that most of the information in this book has been obtained directly from Googlers, including the notoriously secretive founding duo, may signal that Google has come to the point where it has become confident in its own strength and comfortable with the idea that revealing certain information about itself will not jeopardize its business model.

I relished the opportunity to find out more about some of the Google's early "magical" features and projects. For instance, even though I had been relying on it for years, I finally understand how Google's famous spell-checker works. The reader can also learn more about the early days of Google's book scanning technology, the development of its massive data centers, the rise and fall of Google video, and several other Google projects and initiatives that have been undertaken over the years. All the stories are to the point and are not laden with techie jargon.

The part of the book that I liked the most was the one that dealt with Google's abortive efforts to gain a foothold in China. China's government is notorious for its online censorship and the very restrictive measures that it used when dealing with foreign companies on its soil. Nonetheless, it was very hard for Google to forgo the world's second largest economy (third at the time) and the world's most populous nation with well over billion and a half of inhabitants. Google tried to compromise and work out some sort of rapprochement with the Chinese government, but this attitude was so antithetical to almost all of Google's core beliefs and business practices, that it was doomed from the get-go. One person that was particularly uncomfortable with the whole situation was Sergey Brin, who immigrated with his family to the United States from Soviet Union when he was just six years old. His family's experience with totalitarian regime shaped his thinking, and it proved decisive in the long run. What finally triggered Google's pullout from China was a Chinese government's hacking into Google Chine's servers and accessing of some highly classified information. The showdown with China reads almost like a spy thriller, and it highlights all the complex interconnections between business, technology, policy and politics that will dominate life in the twenty-first century.

This book's laser-like focus on Google is actually one of its weaknesses. Many of Google's main rivals are mentioned, but mostly just in passing. There is also very little discussion of Google within the larger online economy. All of this has an effect that it is sometimes hard to put many of the interesting facts and stories in this book within a larger context. Another one of the book's weaknesses is the lack of critical assessment and analysis of various products, projects, policy decisions, and inevitable failures. The author appears a bit too eager to present Google's version; any criticism remains of the mildest variety. One gets a sense that this book was thoroughly vetted by Google's PR department. I guess that is the price one has to pay for having unprecedented access to Google's own internal information. However, for the most part it was worth it.

One thing that did surprise me with this book was the very limited attention that it gave to some of the most headline-grabbing issues that currently grip Google: Android OS and social networking. Android is mentioned in one of the earlier chapters, but only in terms of its early development and the fallout that it engendered with Google's relations with Apple. Since those early days Android has become a major player in its own right, a very viable alternative to iPhone, and very likely the dominant mobile operating system in the near future. And as was hinted at one point in the book, it also brings in very healthy revenue. Social networking fares even worse than Android. It has been relegated to the epilogue, even though companies like Facebook and Twitter are threatening the very model of the web that is at the core of all of Google's services.


This is by far the most thorough and informative book on Google that is currently available. If you are interested in learning more about Google and are going to use just one source then this book should be it. It is well written, interesting, and free of puff pieces. It has a few shortcomings, but overall they are insignificant compared to the amount of material that one can glean from it.
Profile Image for Liz Licata.
319 reviews12 followers
August 11, 2015
I expected In the Plex to be an objective history of Google and its various endeavors. As it turns out, I was only half right. It is, indeed, a history of Google.

This is not to say that Levy did a poor job researching the book. As far as I can tell he did a fairly in depth job. But when you describe saying to a developer, “I’d rather be doused with gasoline and set on fire than use your product” as “tough love” (171), I’m going to say you are a teensy-weensy biased.

Not only was this work less critical than I would expect of a journalist, I found that there were many times Levy seemed to actively avoid looking at things objectively. At the risk of crit-fic, I’ll say that Levy is fairly obviously enamored of his subject. He almost never said anything negative about the founders. Only positive things were allowed, apparently.

To that effect, he spends a disproportionate amount of time on Google’s successes and barely mentions its failures. I have no problem with the author examining Google’s success. But seriously, not everything it touches turns to gold. Looking at what didn’t work and why really would have been helpful. But no. No, that would make sense. Instead, let’s just gloss over all that.

The writing itself was fine but repetitive. I lost track of the number of times I read “they quickly set up a war room”. I get it. War rooms happen. On the plus side, Kilroy was mentioned, so that happened.

If given the choice between this book and being stranded on a desert island, I’d pick the book. But I wouldn’t take it to the desert island.
Profile Image for Karen.
963 reviews9 followers
October 24, 2011
It's a rare day indeed that I don't use a Google product, what with my Android phone and search and maps and Gmail and Google Docs and now Google+, and I work for a company that delivers our product over the internet, so I found the subject matter of this book quite interesting. I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot about the company. The only problem I had was keeping some of the players straight in my head; I think the author could have added a few reminders when people popped up again many chapters after they'd first been introduced.
Profile Image for Danny.
656 reviews10 followers
September 19, 2011
As an information professional, I read this book as a way to better know our future information overlords.

I'm not anti-Google, but I do think that having one company in charge of all the information will inexorably lead to that company being EVIL, despite Google's cute little "Don't Be Evil" motto.

That said, I was most troubled in the book during the discussion of privacy, which as a librarian I've taken a blood-oath to defend. (No actual blood was spilled during the taking of this oath. Also, no actual oath took place.) And I think that's important! Privacy and the protection thereof, that is. But Google through all their creepy spying and data-mining actually is improving our lives in various ways, making things easier, and making sense of reality bit by bit. Of course, this is all in the service of targeted advertising, which I think does throw a bit of a wrench into the works, but then again everybody's got to make a living and knowing the auto shop down the street is having a special on brakes could help out, even if it is creepy that it shows up to the side of an e-mail you're sending to a friend about your ruined brakes. But still, this use of personal information is...useful!

Which puts me in a quandary because I also think it's important that there are people out there arguing that we should be more careful with our information. Why doesn't the library keep a list of every book you've ever checked out? Because if the government ever comes looking for that list we don't want to be able to give it to them. (The government has and will do this.) If you think that's bad, then the government already has your brain in a jar, and I'm sorry for you. Because we should all feel free to look up whatever information we like at the library without fear of government reprisal. Want to know about communism? Go to the library! Want to find internet sites on bomb-building? Go to the library! (But don't build bombs, mkay? That's bad. Even so...you know, freedom!)

So that's why the library is all about privacy. Google, not so much. And what would Google do if the government came asking for a person's search history? I dunno. There's probably precedent I could research. But anyway. There you have it. Privacy is the thing I noticed most.

Also Montessori school, which both of Google's founders attended, which you'll hear about over and over again if you listen to the book.
Profile Image for Loraine.
253 reviews17 followers
March 16, 2014
Here are the highlights for me:
First there was Search. How did Google Search get to be the best, the fastest, the most reliable? Why did the other search engines at the time not have the vision to do the same? We get that fascinating story in the first chapters. It's not technical, but I think you have to connect with your inner geek to enjoy it. (Go ahead, we bookworms all have some of that in us.)
Google in China! I learned, finally, about Google's venture into China, an intriguing story often alluded to in the media. I was not disappointed.
Geeks are funny! All throughout the book, there are these funny bits, about the geekiness of the founders, like this one: “They sent out the map in ASCII characters, which looked cool but was of no help to those unfamiliar with the Stanford campus. The meeting had to start late because some of the reporters couldn't find the building." Then later I learned what "dog-fooding" is in Google culture, and about porn cookies. Neither are what you would expect them to be.

I Google my way through life with things like “yams vs sweet potato” and I have learned to expect the answer I need on the first page of results. I never asked how Google search knows exactly what I want or how it knows that "hot dog" is not equivalent to "boiling puppy". I can't read a book without Googling images of a place or person. Once I accompanied my niece to school where she showed me all the points of interest on the way. We were in different countries, sharing a trip in Google Map's street view.
Google makes my life better all because the Google founders had the audacity to dream big, to set standards of excellence and ethics in all areas of their business. For them, thinking less than global and less than ten years down the road is thinking small. The money would follow and be used to do more good and audacious stuff. Google is a phenomenon where energies combine to become more than the sum of its parts, like the Beatles or Oprah. It's a great story. I remember Copernicus, Excite, and Alta Vista, all could-have-beens but never were.
Audio narration is excellent.
Profile Image for David Buccola.
91 reviews11 followers
May 13, 2018
This is essentially a long article extolling the genius and innovation of Google. Criticism is almost completely absent. Larry Page and Sergei Brin are put on such a ridiculous pedestal it’s hard to take the author serious.

Missing from the glorious account are the enormous government subsidies that gave rise to Google. For instance, Stanford University, where Page and Brin start google, gets about $100,000 per student, per year in government subsidies. Couple that with the high powered internet that they had access to for free and the access to other state developed and funded tech like the high speed internet and we have the story of most of the high-tech sector. But sadly this author doesn’t even mention any of this.

More of the author’s blind spots can be seen when he details Google’s entry into China. China is a big bad authoritarian government we are told. Steven Levy goes to great lengths to illustrate the ways in which China sensors the internet. Strangely he doesn’t seem to understand that also happens in the so-called free West, though in different ways. Any search engine is going to be biased in certain ways in how it weights various sources. Google is no different regardless of where one uses it; we are going to be driven to the larger corporate websites time and again, specially for news. No matter how biased the New York Times may be it’s going to win the allegiance of Google’s algorithms time and again. That’s a form of censorship Levy never discusses in the book.

This book is anything but objective. Page and Brin clearly aren’t comfortable speaking to real journalists in an open way. And they certainly aren’t comfortable talking with people who don’t agree that they are geniuses. This author was given access because he is real “Googly” and has swallowed the Google Koolaid.
Profile Image for Irena.
398 reviews85 followers
October 27, 2013
I am a fan of WIRED and when I saw a book about Google by one of their writers, I had to pay special attention to it. I joined this course about understanding media by understanding Google on Coursera and it's been an eye-opener.
Among all the recommended course readings (Vaidhyanathan, Auletta, Battelle, Pariser, Jarvis and more), this is definitely the book you want to read before all others.
Insider stories from Googlers, detailed information about how certain projects came to be or ceased to exist, as well as direct comments and opinions on matters from the Google's founders and superstars.

It does not offer critical thinking like Vaidhyanathan, for example, but it does offer all sides to stories and then leaves it up to the reader to form their own opinion about which side of the story is the righteous one.

Anyone who is using ANY of the Google products - READ IT - so that when you see things like "Google admitted they don't care about their users' privacy" in the news you will know how they took a snippet and turned it into an ultimately negative story.

It's digital humanitarianism versus ignorant people shouting "privacy, privacy, privacy!"
Educate yourselves first. Read.
Profile Image for Alan.
12 reviews4 followers
September 2, 2017
Reading this book reminds me to understand the background of the author. Are they a journalist, academic, business exec etc? How has their context shaped their presentation of ideas within their book?

In this case I think that Steven Levy shows his journalism background. He paints a picture of a company obsessed by the numbers but not necessarily willing to understand perceptions. And he does it by a series of parts and chapters based around a specific topic or idea that you could easily imagine having been a series of articles in Wired (this is where some troll comments that this WAS the genesis of the book!).

Not that this approach detracts from the reading. Each part is pretty much a self-contained essay, making it possible to dip into a particular subject (such as how Google makes its money in part two) without having to read the preceding or following sections. There is some underlying detail that links between the parts, but there is also an appropriate amount of repetition so you don't have to refer back to an earlier section.

I enjoyed this book as it presents Google's perception of itself through quotes from current and former employees, and then tempers this with some (possibly too) gentle critical analysis of this perception. A good book that helped me understand an advertising colossus that happens to have a high tech heart.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,583 followers
December 26, 2011
This is a fascinating look into the inner workings of Google. The book is well-written, and well-organized, with each chapter covering a theme. For me, the most interesting chapter is the description of the building of the search engine, and all the issues surrounding it. It is also very interesting, how the Google higher-ups did not anticipate all the controversy behind some of their recent projects, such as their foray into China, Google Print, Google Street View, and "Buzz". They just do not understand why outsiders might view differently all the copyright, privacy, and moral issues involved.
Profile Image for Daniel M..
Author 1 book29 followers
August 18, 2011
Without a doubt, the best book (or coverage of ANY kind) on how Google really works. I work there, and it rings pretty true. Best recommendation of all: Even though I work there, I learned a few things *I* didn’t know (back story, etc.).
Profile Image for Richard.
314 reviews33 followers
April 10, 2012
Interesting, entertaining, and rather thorough for a mass market book. Lots of things I didn't know about Google. Other things I did know but only shallowly. There are a lot of things one might criticize Google for. Levy isn't much into criticism here, but he does present the information and the reader can draw his own conclusions. There are a few gag-inducing sections regarding President Obama and his administration that I read as expressing Google's corporate view of Obama, as opposed to an objective treatment of Obama himself.

Levy doesn't really get into it, but in a way, this book shows the disconnect between liberal and conservative Americans. As liberals, Brin, Page and other Googlers are thinking about the good of humanity, of the collective. They can't comprehend that if they would have their way about certain things, even though they themselves believe they are good, people have no protection if later someone uses what they built for nefarious purposes. In essence, they don't understand why our country (used to) enshrine individual liberty. To them, the inefficiencies of some constitutional or legal protections aren't worth the cost. They are utopians, and that accounts for their success in some measure.

Sometimes, they don't get nuances of society, and their life experiences can be rather constricted. For example, in Google Buzz, no one considered that a user might not WANT every contact to see that user's every other contact, and why that might be. Googlers also have trouble comprehending that different people can look at the same facts and draw different conclusions.

Because of the subject matter, this is one of those books you should read NOW or don't bother. In a couple of years, time will have moved on and the big issues will almost certainly be different.
Profile Image for Rick.
Author 5 books74 followers
June 7, 2011
The first half, the early years, is super interesting and had lots of things I didn't know. And I do admire how this thing went right to the current time - it touched on all of the recent anti-trust stuff, etc. It's a pretty friendly account of google, but it frankly talks about the problems. There were some pretty choice passages in there that made me chuckle about some stuff. And it was funny to see a little Foursquare mention. The Google Books saga was SO interesting. So was the China stuff.

The two things that struck me: that transparency and openness are one half of google, the other being absolute secrecy. And the other is the weird blind spots they have in their data-driven life. Google is that einstein quote exemplified: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be measured." They don't believe that. And when they get data that proves that other data isn't that valuable, they ignore it - like when they kept at using SAT scores even after they developed their own data that SAT scores were not a good employment measure. The latter data conflicted with their belief in data, so even though it was data, they ignored it. It's fascinating to me. You see that happen time and time again.

The final thing that was eye opening was the DoubleClick cookie integration. I did not know about that, and I can't deny I feel a little squeamish knowing it now.
Profile Image for Gina.
89 reviews4 followers
July 5, 2012
I have been a fairly close student of things Google, but learned a great deal from Levy's book--which makes perfect sense given his unprecedented access to Googlers (that is, those who make up the company, not those who use their products) and his exhaustive research (over 200 interviews, not to mention many hours spent in the Googleplex, the Mountain View headquarters of what, by the time of publication, was a company earning some $28 billion annually). Levy gives lucid explanations of the key programming and hardware advances that enabled Google to go from a Stanford computer science doctoral project and a Palo Alto garage to an international corporation with a lock on search, internet advertising, global mapping technology, digital books, and whatever comes next (self-guide cars? solar power?). He deals with successes as well as missteps (like Google's foray into China), and manages to make one admire and even maybe believe in the commitment of Google's founders to making the world a better place (a la Diderot and D'Alembert), while simultaneously suspecting that they are not as un-evil as they would like to be. Given how generous the upper echelon of Google was to Levy in providing him with their thoughts and resources, one understands why he pulls his punches in his accounts of its overreaching (as with the Google book scanning project and the myopic-about-privacy-issues Buzz project), while somehow wishing he didn't.
Profile Image for Josh Steimle.
Author 3 books218 followers
October 31, 2011
A decent biography of Google's history up to the beginning of 2011. Having read The Google Story previously, I prefer a narrative that is entirely chronological, whereas this book is divided by topic with each topic developing from the founding of Google up through the modern day. This results in a bit of confusion during the reading since one is not always entirely sure where one is in the timeline, nor how the events in one area of the business match up with the events in another area of the business.

There were also areas of interest to me in The Google Story (more in-depth exploration of the culture of Google, especially relating to the cafeteria and food provided for employees) that were barely mentioned in In the Plex. I don't see this as a fault so much in In the Plex, but rather I see it as a reason to not refer to In the Plex as the ultimate or comprehensive history of Google, but rather as one point of view that is helpful along with others.
Profile Image for Aaron Canaday.
9 reviews3 followers
May 24, 2011
This book is a must read for anyone who is interested in technology and where the internet is taking us as a society. In many ways it is Google that is driving us there. Levy provides a surprisingly detailed perspective on the inside of Google which helps demystify the company a lot. It's great to see what is true about the company and what isn't. I was also surprised how balanced the book was. I assumed since Google allowed him to be an embedded reporter that the book would be skewed a bit and let Google off the hook for certain things. I was happy to discover my assumption was wrong. The author still comes off a bit as a Google fan, but he does not shy away from the big issues that face the company.

The most mind-blowing aspect of this book is coming to understand how insanely ambitious Google's co-founders are and how intensely they value data. They find like minded people to welcome to the fold and their unified fanaticism takes on a nearly religious tone. I have no doubt that these people at Google will continue to change our world in very dramatic ways (perhaps for good, perhaps for worse). Changes like self-aware computing, assisted human cognition, these advancements are surely coming, this book just convinced me that it will most likely be Google taking us there.

Profile Image for Tac Anderson.
Author 2 books91 followers
January 21, 2012
I really enjoyed this book. It took me a while to read because I kept letting other books pull me away so it's not a page turner in the sense that you can't put it down. But working in the tech industry it was really good to find out the back story behind all the changes and growing pains of Google.

It's also a really good story for anyone who's entrepreneurial minded to see what Larry Page and Sergey Brin went through to build a World changing organization from their dorm room.
59 reviews5 followers
January 3, 2012
In The Plex was good but it was a little long and wasn't especially focused. Google is super important and interesting though, so I'm glad I read it. Some thoughts:

1. Google is the company most likely to invent real Artificial Intelligence. It's an explicit goal and they have the data and computer power to do it. "From the very start, it's founder saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence." Google is the largest manufacturer of computer servers in the world and they are all linked together using Google File System. Larry Page is a supporter of Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity University. They even say that they see the future of Google as an implant in your brain. They have become super paranoid about leaking details about this kind of thing though, especially after some of the recent PR failures around privacy.

2. Google is incredibly fucking full of itself. They alllways see themselves as the underdog, which makes them defensive. Tim Armstrong tells a story about how they tried to sell ads to GM in 2005 and they said "Who does car research online?" I mean it is possible GM was that dumb, but by 2005 I think the internet and Google were pretty widely known and even someone at GM would have been embarrassed to have zero internet strategy.
They are also rude and almost a parody of bratty internet entrepeneurs. There is a story about Larry going to a formal dinner with Prince Phillip and then eating the souffle incorrectly. When Marissa politely tells him he's doing it wrong he tells her "Who says?" Seriously? Grow the fuck up. Also: Larry and Sergey made the building engineers redo the air filtration systems because they are "very sensitive people" and "they smell things most of us don't smell." It is possible if everyone had this advanced sense of smell we would all realize that Google's shit actually doesn't stink.
They also seem to ignore people that don't look like them - engineers from traditional prestige schools. It takes everyone to run that company and failing to recognize that just makes it harder to achieve your ultimate goals. They even kept asking people for SAT scores even after their own internal data proved that it had a poor correlation with success at the company, which was the only time I can remember in the whole book when they explicitly over-ruled a piece of data. This leads to embarrassing problems during the dogfooding process - like when they released Chrome and nobody realized it didn't work with Hotmail, or when they released Buzz and didn't realize people would freak out if their top email contacts were made public.

3. Building a search engine is really hard and Bing, etc will have a tough time catching up. "Crawling, indexing, relevance of results and speedy delivery" are the four core steps in a search and they are really hard to do right and take a ton of computer resources to do. I wish it had actually gone more in depth into exactly how this works, but Google has a huge lead because the more searches you process the more data you have about what people click on and the more you can improve your results. You need a ton of these searches to get anything meaningful. Even then, 1/3 of all searches are virgin requests.

4. Lessons for Newsroot: Google focuses on data, simplifies things in the minds of 1) consumers and 2) its own engineers. The initial Google layout succeeded partially because it was so simple and clear and it had a great brand. Internally, its very clear what people should be trying to improve - speed and the "long clicks" that indicate people have found what they want. When Google gets away from easily measured results like in +1, Orkut, Buzz, Wave, etc it does a lot worse. Give people simple, clear goals that are measurable with a single number and they will continually improve.
They designed their offices for human density, like a trading floor or a successful city. They use the "corporation as housewife" model - they take care of people's laundry, etc as much as possible to recreate the dorm because they view the American university system as the greatest incubator of innovation in history.
People want to be managed. They like it when they have direction and goals. Google thought people didn't and tried to implement that in their organizational structure but it failed.
Being born of the web and focusing on that is a huge advantage. It helped Google beat Microsoft. It will help us.
Speed is a feature, and something that is even a little faster will often feel better and win users.
Don't get ahead of yourself - Google had GDrive, which sounded like an awesome Dropbox competitor, but killed it because they thought everything should be on the cloud and nobody would care about individual files. Don't kill something that's good now because your philosophy says people shouldn't like it.
"You don't want to buy companies that want to sell."
"Freshness" of search results is huge.
Recruiting people: everyone wants to work on changing the world and where their product and ideas can gain traction and affect people.
Profile Image for Sony Mathew.
30 reviews2 followers
August 24, 2021
Well-written, amazing, story of Google. This book talks about the days of inception, all the way to the tech giant that we see today. What makes this unique and interesting is that this is written from multiple peoples' views and experiences rather than just one.
Profile Image for Charles.
48 reviews1 follower
January 1, 2012
In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

Levy is one of the best informed and best connected journalists writing about tech companies, and this book is the result of more than two hundred interviews with Google staff past and present and his following of the company since 1999. It is, therefore, a uniquely authoritative account of the business and the key people behind it.

Levy paints a picture of a relentlessly rational company - a culture in which you'd be best advised not to make any assertion without a set of numbers to support it. But Google is also a company with imagination, reinventing American corporate conventions unless they can be proved to be a good idea. So, for instance, there was a move to do away with management altogether until it was found, to the surprise of founders Brin and Page, that people actually like to have someone as their boss: it gives structure, and allows them to understand how their work and their problems are part of the company's wider ambitions.

Of the founders, it is Page who emerges from Levy's profile as the surprising natural leader. Introverted yet almost unnaturally ambitious, he is prepared to consider any project as long as it seems impossible. How about harnessing the content of all books ever written? Sure, let's take a quick guess at the numbers says Page: supposing there are 30 million books. Page and senior Googler Marissa Mayer try scanning one as an experiment: 40 minutes for 300 pages. Back-of-an-envelope cost: $10 a book. Total cost: $300m. As Levy puts it: "that didn't sound like too much money for the world's most valuable font of knowledge."

There are wonderful insights like this on every page. Levy is also great on the political and legal problems - with the copyright of books, Google's tortured dilemmas over its presence in China, and over video rights for Google Video and YouTube. And there's an interesting section on how Obama and Google found themselves strangely compatible. But Obama and the ex-Googlers who had joined him in Washington after he became President found that Google's rational approach to problem-solving didn't translate into Washington life as easily as they had hoped.

And for anyone using Google, there are many interesting titbits. You might have already known how Google's initial breakthrough was the PageRank mechanism whereby search results are weighted by the 'authority' of a page as measured by the number and authority of the pages that link to it - like a kind of academic citation measurement.

But the book explains how that is only the start of Google's ever-expanding knowledge about its users and the websites they are searching for. So, for instance, Google assesses the success of its own search results by noting how long it takes each user to click on a result, where it is in the list presented, and whether the user comes back to try another link from the list (which shows they weren't satisfied with the first one). Through such self-educating mechanisms, Google continually improves its performance and makes it harder and harder for rivals to catch up.

Since Google has become so central to our lives, In the Plex is a kind of instruction manual to the modern world. If you don't want to understand the company that has all but succeeded in its ambition to "organise the world's information and make it useful and accessible" you aren't really showing an interest in where we are, and where we're being taken, for better or worse.

View all my reviews
Profile Image for Nicholas.
56 reviews1 follower
January 1, 2012
Fascinating. I tore through this one this week. Partly because I had the time and partly because it was so interesting. This book presents the history of Google from inception to today. But it does so by 'vertical' as opposed to a linear history. Thus, the first section is about Google Search, the second about Adwords. There is a section about Google's culture, the shift toward data in the 'cloud', even a section on Google relating to government (primarily about anti-trust legislation and head-butts with privacy advocates).

If nothing else, I have a greater appreciation for how Google has shaped the world of the internet over the past fifteen years. Reading some of the early chapters was like a walk down memory lane (into the dark ages technologically speaking) as I encountered such words like Altavista, Lycos, Infoseek, and other pioneers of Search that Google systematically made irrelevant through constant improvement to their search algorithms that had the effect of actually giving people what they wanted.

Pair that methodology with advertising and it is no wonder they make billions per year. They singlehandedly changed the way internet ads are done. The previous conventional wisdom was to show an ad to as many people as possible to get them familiar with brand even if the brand had nothing to do with the content. Google said no, lets use our algorithms to show people stuff they might actually want based on what they are searching for. And people actually started clicking on the ads and buying things.

Two thoughts:
1) I am grateful for a lot of what Google has done. They have made the internet better in many ways. They have made data more accessible. This book heightened my appreciation of what Google has done.
2) If ever there was a place where the centralization of data and artificial intelligence would culminate in the creation of Skynet (a la The Terminator movies) it would be at Google. If you read the book you will see what I mean.

Why not 5 stars?
1) The book covers about 15 years in the history of the internet (a lifetime or more in tech terms). It is extremely relevant and interesting today. But will probably be only a novelty in a year or two. No longevity.
2) There were a couple of sections that seemed to end abruptly. Most notably the section about Google Print. The book is discussing proposed settlements about this product and then the section just ends with no word of the outcome. A quick wiki search revealed that the settlement still isn't finalized. A quick "No settlement has been reached at the time of this writing", or something similar would have been very helpful in these situations.
21 reviews6 followers
August 4, 2011
This is a very well written book. Steven Levy's prose is crisp, concise and clear and he carries the narrative along at a good pace, all the while maintaining a really fascinating almost-but-not-quite insider's look at Google. He clearly had access to Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt whenever he needed it and he also had lots of access to the other rock stars in the Google Experience, most notably Matt Cutts, Marissa Mayer and Vic Gundotra. There are plenty of direct quotes from everyone who did something that Levy recounts.

This is a primer for anyone who wants to know anything about Google- how it started, what its successes were, what its failures were and what Google the company is all about. Levy is not a cheerleader and this is not a fawning biography of Sergey and Larry. He gives failures the same treatment as successes and he never falls back on any inevitability arguments or implies in any way that something just happened- he always provides good background and solid insights on each of the sub-stories told throughout the book.

Sergey and Larry aren't treated as heroes but as the complex men they are- you get a good sense of what they are good at it and what they are not so good at. They disastrously tried to eliminate managers from their engineering force at one point in Google's history for no better reason than they didn't like managers stifling the creative capabilities of their engineering team. But the author also gives them credit where it is due to them- where they saw value that no one else saw, where they pushed relentlessly for ideas that others told them they were crazy to pursue or where they stuck with their instincts and made good, sound business decisions.

The last couple of chapters and the epilogue devolve in to a little unfocused criticism of the company in that almost every thing that Google did in 2009-2010 was riddled by the once formerly search giant being no longer nimble enough to get out of its own way. You get the sense that Levy has bet on the hunch that Google is destined to fail because the things that made it so successful in the early part of the decade were the things that cursed it in the later part of the decade. That remains to be seen and may ultimately determine where this book places in history. If Google does indeed fail over the next ten years- Levy's book will be part one of the primer on the lesson of Google. If it does not, this book is still valuable in terms of the great writing and the excellent story telling that Levy does throughout.
Profile Image for Caroline Gordon.
153 reviews7 followers
December 4, 2011
I don't know where I was for the past 10 years, but it turns out Google has redefined computing. Sleepers wake! The future will be very different from the past. I had no idea that they have millions (well the number is not public) of servers and have redesigned data centre technology. Who also knew about mapreduce and the datcentre as a computer concepts? The democratisation of data and computing is here, how this will play out over time will be as fascinating as the story so far. This is certainly all just beginning.
I see the zeitgeist of the power of data and mathamatical computation everywhere. Ayn Rand inspired billionaires are building the future right now. I saw a web site lately for setting rents for landlords using algorthims and databases, we don't seem to have been burned by the GFC at all, this idea that analystics can give us the answers is seductive. It's true we can become blinded by irrelevant factors, see the movie Moneyball for this at work in sports of all places. We want to trust our gut when the data may be a better place to look. Google have taken this idea to an extreme and have made so much money doing it that they are able to fund all these other information rleated applications.
Of course none of it would have happenned if they didn't hire the smartest people on the planet and redfine computing by questioning the basic ideas we have been building on in IT for the last 20 years. Is it the death of enterprise computing, supplied by global giants, maybe not but the names will change and the driver wil be the removal of barriers to delivering large scale ubiquitous applications. It's a gold rush!
The Google management systems are also delved itot, but there is frustrating little detail on them. There were experiments with 'no managers' but in the end this was abandoned for a still very flat lean approach. People have KPRs (may be wrong with the acronym there) that are shared, transparency and openness create the environment where individuals can excell.

Sorry for any remaining typos, tying text in an android tablet is an exercise in frustration, back to the laptop for book reviews.
Profile Image for Brian Kirby.
18 reviews
September 7, 2011
As a huge fan of Google I was really excited to see this book at my library. I picked it up and read it in about three or four large blocks. I found that it was easy to read other than a few specific places. I enjoyed it and feel that I learned a lot about Google and tech culture. I only had two difficulties with the reading and I feel that these are very small complaints.

My main complaint about the readability is based on the sections of the book that describe how Google makes money from advertising. I felt that the book could have done a better job in explaining the monetization of ads on the internet. I should say that I do not have any clue how internet advertising is done which didn't help the cause.

It also go a little murky with the huge amount of names that were mentioned. I know it's Google, and it was important to note who was doing what, at what time, in the company. With the book jumping around a bit time-wise, I couldn't keep up with the names as much as I wanted to and felt that I missed out on some revelations that the book made.

Overall though, I enjoyed the book. My favorite parts were when any time a product was developed or a significant event occurred at the company and I could remember how it affected me personally. For example: The book mentions how the Chrome browser, when it came out, failed to work with Microsoft Hotmail which caused Google some trouble. I remember having that problem and shying away from Chrome because of it.

It was nice to have a little personal connection to the events mentioned in the book. I don't know if I can say the same for everyone who reads the book. In my opinion though, most people who are going to read this book have had a Google product in their lives at some point and will experience the same "I remember that" moments.

As mentioned, I do recommend this book to people who are interested in the history of Google, in the reasoning behind Google's products or interested in learning about technology culture in general. Four stars!
Profile Image for Justine.
52 reviews2 followers
June 4, 2011

Steven Levy did a phenomenal job of making a topic, that I new virtually nothing about, personally interesting and relevant. He did an excellent job painting the early atmosphere of Google the start-up company and it's gradually rise to the multi-billion dollar business giant it now is. However, there were two things that prevented this book from being worth 5 stars: 1. There are so many people in this story that it's honestly difficult to keep everybody straight. Levy did a pretty good job of reminding the reader in short blurbs about each person's previous influence in different parts of the book, but still it was a bit overwhelming. 2. Related to that, Levy chose to break his book into distinct sections dealing with specific products or fields of business ventures. This didn't particularly trouble me until I was about halfway through the book and realized that some of the things that were being discussed at the end of the book actually developed at the very beginning of Google's history. I actually felt demoralized towards the end when it became clear that I really had no solid conception of Google's history in realtime. That being said, if Levy had included a short timeline and character list somewhere in the index, I would have personally enjoyed the book more (though, going into it, I wouldn't have thought it would be necessary and therefore, possibly, didn't pay the most attention to his initial descriptions). However, like I said, I'm a complete novice in this field. It's entirely possible that readers who are already actively engaged in the tech industry might not need all the study guides I would have viewed as helpful and it certainly only marginally deflected from the great work he otherwise accomplished.

Then again, maybe I should have just used Google to figure it out?

Profile Image for David.
277 reviews5 followers
July 14, 2011
If you have an interest in finding out how Google ticks, this is the book for you. Steven Levy provides a very well balanced explanation for both the personalities and the corporate psyche for Google. We all know what Google has done, but when Levy pointed out the trials and tribulations of the small company trying to do good things, and later, the big company trying to do good things, I found it fascinating that the size of the business had such a big impact on the difficulty of the company to do what it believed to be good deeds.

From AdWords and AdSense to the “China syndrome” problems that Google had in that country, Levy provides what seems to be an unbiased perspective on how the company dealt with their financial windfalls and the political minefields. At its core, according to Levy, Google acts like you would expect its two Montessori raised owners, Page and Brin, were trained to act: Question the status quo and ask how a good project can be done, rather than why it cannot be done. Just the interplay between Larry Page and Sergey Brin and the slightly more senior Eric Schmidt was eye opening.

I finished this book on the day that I received an invitation to Google+. With Search, Gmail, Books, News, Maps and now Google+ Social Networks (far superior to the interesting, but confusing Wave), Google seems to have a few more tricks to play. I give “In The Plex” a good read.
9 reviews
December 5, 2018
This book focuses on lots of details which add up to the story of how Google developed to the point where its tentacles touch all of us internet users. I had to take a break from the section on how Google "learned" to make money from advertising--so much data data data and money money money--but I think the part that really made me step back was realizing how I had watched it develop on the sidebar of my computer monitor, day by day, week by week, as it came to "know" more and more about ME and what I would likely look up/buy/spend my time doing etc. It's still creeping me out, actually, but now I am reading about how Google developed Android and got into the phone biz, and about its relationship with Apple. This is obviously topical right now as Apple/Google/Facebook face off on various competitive endeavors. It's sometimes more info than I want (as an avid user but not very geeky) but for all the times it's addressed the questions, How/when did THAT happen? it's been very satisfying. Google and the internet seem like they've always been there, hard to imagine life without them. But in fact, showing my age, I remember the days of competing (in our teacher offices) for the one electric typewriter. It's creepy to think about how much the networks "know" but they're so much a part of the texture of modern life, I figure it's better to understand how we got to be where we are and who the movers and shakers have been in that realm.
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