A "Xoogler" reveals the secretive culture inside Google

A "Xoogler" reveals the secretive culture inside Google

Summary: Software engineer Douwe Osinga spent seven years at Google and he provides some fascinating insights into the culture of the Internet giant...

TOPICS: Google

Douwe Osinga, a software engineer, recently left Google after seven years. He's written a series of blog posts explaining why he left and also describing what it was like working there, and he dispels some of the many myths about Google.

For example: The 20% time myth.


The myth might have been that you basically get a day off a week to do whatever. It is still work. And you’re still held responsible for what you do. So yeah, you can do whatever you want to, but you have to actually want it and it is still for Google...

Also, it isn’t always the next big product. Hundreds of engineers at Google spend their 20% time on mundane things like promoting test driven coding, cleaning up old code, mentoring new engineers or just helping out on another project that needs helping.

It's his description of the culture at Google that's particularly fascinating, such as the insistence by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to always "Think big."

Thinking big sounds great, but most big ideas start small and go from there. Google itself started from the notion that it would be interesting to look at back links for pages. Twitter started out as hardly more than a group SMS product that also works online. Facebook explicitly restricted themselves at first to one university.

There is a very strong culture of keeping secrets with the outside world but being totally open inside the company.

There are very few internal secrets and that works because the rule is that you don't talk about anything to outsiders. Living as an engineer in this peculiar world with its own technology stack and ideas about technology is very exciting especially in the beginning. There is so much to learn, so many ideas to explore.

Google has done its bit to keep the web open and to fight anybody trying to turn it into a so called walled garden. But being inside is a bit like being in a walled garden. You can't discuss interesting developments inside with people on the outside of course, but it is even hard to partake in discussions outside...

Over time this starts to outweigh the advantages of being on the inside.

I found this blog post via Dave Winer on Scripting News, where he writes that Mr Osinga helped him understand "the process that led to failures like Buzz and Wave."

However, as an outsider, I think the failure of the many Google services that were launched and then mostly abandoned is due to a chronic failure to understand PR and marketing.

Mr Winer comments that Google's idea of a product launch is:

just invite Scoble in for a demo (figuratively) and the rest is taken care of by the press and bloggers.

That works pretty well, Robert Scoble is great at videoing a product demo and posting it quickly, and there are lots of press and bloggers that help bring lots of attention to every new Google announcement.

But what about the day after the launch? What about the following weeks and months?

Robert Scoble and the rest of the mediasphere have moved onto the next thing, the next company, the next launch.

Build it and they will come...

Google doesn't seem to recognize the need for marketing around its products, it doesn't appear to have a marketing strategy beyond launch day.

I get tons of pitches from small and large companies about their new product launches. And then I get lots of follow on pitches for months afterwards about those products as those companies try to maintain the momentum of users and media coverage.

I never get follow on pitches from Google.

Engineers hate "marketing"

I attribute this to Google's engineering culture which looks down on marketing. Among software engineers "marketing" is widely disdained. For example, a software engineer friend of mine often criticizes Apple and its products, saying that it's "just marketing."

It's as if "marketing" can just be taken off a shelf and simply added to something, and that it doesn't provide anything of intrinsic value. It's "just marketing."

Google has good reasons for its attitude towards marketing because its search engine succeeded without the need for any promotional activities of any kind.

When I was at the Financial Times, before Google IPO'd, I'd meet with the founders and other execs and they often loved to mention the fact that they won millions of users with no marketing budget. They didn't spend a penny.

That mind set clearly continues today and is deeply embedded in the culture. I see it as the chief reason that the majority of Google's services have failed to succeed: There's no marketing strategy.

The products are good. And the launches are high profile. But if there is no marketing follow through they will die among the noisy marketing clamor of a gazillion other companies trying to gain the attention of media and potential users.

It's a noisy world

And the noise level is much higher today than when Google launched its search engine. It's a much different world, and it's one where marketing has become extremely important. It's not "just marketing." It's probably the single most important component of any product. But not at Google.

I don't see things changing. Larry Page recently took over as CEO and his reorganization of the company is strengthening the engineering culture, and lessening the influence of non-engineer executives.

This is great news for other companies. It means they have a better chance to compete against some of Google's products and carve out a profitable business.

And Google doesn't need all of its products to succeed because it makes 98% of its money from just one product: advertising. Yet it fails to understand the value of marketing. It's a delightful irony.

- - -

Douwe Osinga's Blog: Leaving Google - part 2

Scripting News: Understanding Google

Topic: Google

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  • Another irony

    In their core (search/advertising) business, Google use a business model that goes completely against the spirit of the GPL, and have created one of the most closed cultures in existence. Nevertheless, they not only use GPL'd software, but even manage to attract considerable support from an open source community who will never have a chance to see how any of Google's core software works -- much less see the code. It's terribly ironic.

    The key is that Google figured out how to use GPL'd software without sharing any of the important code: distribute services instead software. I've no problem at all with Google doing that -- it's clearly the best choice from a business perspective -- but I do find the irony quite lovely. Open source developers can't even clone Google's software stack (the way they cloned Unix, and have tried to clone Windows), because they've no idea how it works.
    • RE: A

      @WilErz The act of making money always seems to be at odds with the spirit of GPL
    • RE: A

      These are really awesome. Thanks. <a href="http://www.classicchanelbags.org">chanel bags</a>
  • How do they make $$$

    My question is how is Google going to make money? I use Gmail, blogger, maps, docs (personal stuff) but I've never paid ONE cent to Google. On the other hand I've bought 100's of songs from iTunes, rented video content from Apple, bought 4 ipods, 3 iPhones, and next week I'm getting an iPad 2. My main PC's are home are still MSFT but of course I'm also looking at Mac's now (more $$ for Apple).

    Again, Google gives everthing away for free... and don't tell me ads because I'm too smart like most people to ever click on an ad.
    • RE: A


      You are right. Advertising on Google doesn't work. Google makes no money and they really don't exist. They are just a figment of our collective imagination.

      Really? You really don't think ads make Google money? Really?
      • RE: A

        so in essence Apple could buy Blekko and do the same thing? then what? google will still be losing $$ in the end..
    • RE: A

      @Hasam1991 The unfortunate truth is, "smart" doesn't apply to "most people." The same way viruses and malware propagate is the same way Google can make money through ads. There are far more "click-happy" users of nearly everything than not.
    • RE: A


      Like a first rate stage magician, Google has you distracted by worthless ads on sidebar while you unwittingly click on the real ads. Have you ever selected links that come up on the first page of your search? How do you think they got on the first page without someone paying to get them there?
    • RE: A

      @Hasam1991 They make money based on impressions as well as clicks. Every time you see an ad, they make a little bit of money. Less than a click, but when that happens billions of times a day it adds up.
      • RE: A

        @vel0city Hasam1991 made this faux pas on another article as well. I guess he just doesn't understand how online advertising works. It's not all about the CTR, man.
  • RE: A

    Marketing does not create value, good thing someone finally realized it! It creates bubbles, like FB.
    Tommy S.
    • Sometimes it does

      @ Tommy S.

      Marketing that informs people about new or better products that they prefer to the ones they knew about previously does create value. Most Google adverts don't do that, and I think a lot of their profit comes from advertisers preying on naive users, but not all marketing is rubbish.
      • RE: A

        @WilErz and Tommy S.

        Is it possible that marketing promotes value and educates the prospective consumer about that value ? Value is built into the product or service by its creators, it just has to be revealed to the consumer, hopefully in an honest and sincere way.
      • RE: A

        @ ion_tichy

        Marketing can actually create value. To understand why, you have to first accept that value is largely subjective, and not based entirely on objective measures like production costs or labour inputs, as some obsolete economic theories supposed. For any given market price, there will be sellers who'd be willing to accept less, and buyers who'd be willing to pay more.

        Marketing creates value by promoting mutually beneficial market transactions: producers sell goods for prices above their valuations (e.g. production costs), earning positive producer surpluses (e.g. profits), and buyers buy goods for prices below their valuations, earning positive consumer surpluses. The sum of the producer and consumer surpluses from transactions which would not occur without marketing, less the cost of marketing, comprises the value created by marketing.
  • Engineers vs marketing pukes

    I've been burned so many times by the Marketing / sales @$$
    who pops in to say: How soon can you build this great product I just sold?

    That is why there is no respect for marketing in an Engineering culture.

    When a client and a salespuke get into a " brainstorming session " watch out. Your company bottom line WILL be affected!
    Old Timer 8080
    • RE: A

      @Old Timer 8080 Sorry to break it to you but engineering isn't all that better. I am not in marketing but have been burned by engineering more than a few times due to them taking the lazy route in selecting components, not caring the least about cost or availability. There are going to be those that only think about themselves in any part of the chain, just a fact of life.
  • A Xoogler reveals the secretive culture inside Google

    I think part of the problem is that Google is starting to think they walk on water.
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