Books about corporations tend to stick to a few tried-and-true formulas. Many read like sports stories: Companies win with visionary leadership and by being smarter and showing more gumption than their competitors. Some of these accounts are anthropological treatments—thick descriptions of what it’s like to work within the unique culture of a firm. Then there are the angry tirades about the damage companies do.
Google, in many ways the most significant company of our time, has been the subject of books in each of these genres in recent years. Ken Auletta told the “great man” story of the business’s triumph in his weighty 2009 book, Googled; this year, Steven Levy got inside the culture of Google’s most brilliant engineers with In the Plex, and conservative pundit Scott Cleland issued a shallow indictment of Google’s “hypocrisy” with his unsubtle and uninteresting Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.
Now, I’m Feeling Lucky, by former Google marketing chief Douglas Edwards, promises to be a juicy exposť. Alas, rather than a tell-all, Edwards delivers a series of anecdotes that reveal his talent for self-deprecation and modesty. He comes off as charming, with a wry (if sometimes forced) sense of humor about the long, strange trip that his six-year tenure at Google was.
Throughout the book, Edwards portrays himself as a fish out of water. He’s a middle-aged employee working in a company dominated by young people. He’s a man working in marketing and public relations, a sector dominated by women. (By all accounts, Google is aggressive about recruiting, retaining, and promoting women.) A former manager at the San Jose Mercury News, he’s an “old media” person at the newest of “new media” companies. He’s a spouse and father among single, childless insomniacs who indulge in practices and substances responsible parents tend to eschew. And he’s one of the few “writerly,” humanities-educated employees at a company devoted to scientific, data-driven experimentation and judgment.
While stories in which Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, make mistakes, take liberties with users, or stumble over their prominent egos have been documented in the media and in Auletta’s Googled, the only “confessions” Edwards divulges are personal ones. His wife and children suffered because of his long hours and weekend trips. He took a major salary cut to work for a start-up just before the dot-com crash of 2000, and worked there for many years before that paid off when his stock options swelled after Google’s initial public offering in 2004. Ultimately, Edwards is too grateful to the leaders who taught him how to think “new media” (and made him extremely wealthy) to share anything that could be used against them. Or, perhaps, Edwards is still so committed to Google’s “brand management” that he refrains from undoing the good work he did in that capacity.
On the few occasions that Edwards does give us a sense of the casual eccentricities that come with a Google job, he offers little analysis or reflection about what they suggest for the company or for the users of its powerful and ubiquitous services. What does it mean that Google’s founders and its former CEO are regular attendees of the Burning Man festival in the desert of northern Nevada? What does it matter that Brin and Page were both faculty brats, raised within the culture of academia? Or that Brin and Page are not just engineers but visionaries who (according to Levy) subscribe to the inevitability of the “Singularity,” the goofy quasi-religious prophecy that humans and machines will achieve a unified consciousness and hyperintelligence that will transcend the limits of our current atomistic existence?
There are likely to be a dozen more books in coming years that will answer these questions and analyze the effects of Google as a global phenomenon. We might even get a revealing insider’s confession someday. Until then, Edwards’s book is a breezy tour of the early years of Google. But it leaves readers grasping for any real insight into what it is like to work for the secretive company—let alone any sense of what Google’s global dominance means for the rest of us.