I recently had the remarkable chance to catch Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, doing interview rounds with a number of journalists. He was kind enough to spare me a few minutes, especially when he saw that I brought treats. A slightly edited version of that interview is below.
Kevin Cole: Sergey, it’s a pleasure to have you here and I thank you for being willing to sit down with us for a bit.
Sergey Brin: No problem. Ilm happy to do this, especially since you guys provided such great cookies.
KC: You’re very welcome. I wanted to start with something that I think speaks very highly of Google, and that is its transformation into a verb.
SB: One of my favorite tributes to the company, I have to be honest.
KC: When did you realize this phenomenon and how did you feel about joining the likes of Xerox and Kleenex?
SB: I’d forgotten about Kleenex. I don’t actually use that expression, although I know many other people do. But yes, of course I was very pleased. I don’t remember when I first heard someone say, “just Google it” or whatever, but I imagine it was early 2000s. We already used it, naturally — I mean those of us inside Google. But when you see it in a magazine, or maybe I first heard it on television, there is just this enormous satisfaction. Also a little discomfort too, maybe. It forced me to really consider how large we’d become. Obviously I knew; it’s not like I was unaware of how many employees we now had or God! the crazy dollars we were spending on servers. But this was just another angle on that growth, a side effect that was quite pleasing. It was hard to imagine how we’d gotten all this, I mean two real geeks, had gotten all this out of a garage and a search algorithm.
KC: It seems funny, in retrospect, that none of the early search engines got “verbed” so to speak. What do you remember about your former competitors?
SB: Well early on, when the web was really hitting its stride, it seemed like there were just such a myriad of options. All of them were basically the same, when it comes down to it. At the time I think AltaVista was the dominant player, but I actually preferred an engine called Dogpile. I admired Dogpile for both technical reasons, since it was above par at the time, and for more puerile reasons. The scatological name appealed to the juvenile side of me, perhaps a side that is somewhat reflective in Google today. I mean, look at our logo. It’s a child’s concept of what a corporate logo should look like. It could only be worse if it were in Comic Sans, otherwise we pretty much have gotten away with fronting a multi-billion dollar company using something reminiscent of a hurried MSPaint job. But anyway, Dogpile was good. We were better. You don’t hear much about Dogpile anymore.
KC: I have to ask you, because some friends were bugging me about this, but what exactly is the reason for having, or had, so many Google projects classified as beta?
SB: I mean, okay, I’ll be honest: the “beta” thing is not my favorite part of Google culture. The thing maybe started with logical enough motivations. Larry [Page] and I thought, I still think, it’s ridiculous to have all these versions. You know, like version 18.104.22.168 and version 22.214.171.124 and so forth. Why not just say, “We’re still working on this [stuff], give us time,” or whatever. So we just said “Hey this is in beta” and it took some of the expectations off; people didn’t expect such a polished product even if, in the end, the product was in fact quite functional and nearly bug-free.
KC: But you said it’s not your favorite thing anymore, right?
SB: Right. It just got out of hand. You can’t say Gmail is in beta when it’s head-and-shoulders above everything else out there, when it’s the most respectable online host name or whatever. It just got a little out of hand, it was just a little too cutesy. Too precious. But we couldn’t just stop it overnight because instantly removing “beta” off everything would send the signal that maybe we would stop developing or supporting that service or product. Which we weren’t, and won’t. But I realize in retrospect that, like our logo, it was all a little mid-90s, Geocities-ish. You know, like those “Under Construction” GIFs that used to populate every webpage during that era. Hey, Google was born in that era so I knock it with some affection.
KC: I want to switch to something a bit more serious, and that is Google’s unofficial motto “Don’t be evil.”
SB: Oh God, I can already predict where this is heading.
KC: Well, it’s understandable, right? Don’t you think it comes off a little like corporate posturing?
SB: Of course I can understand that reaction. It sounds a little like cheap moralism. Like, yes, well, “posturing.” But in this case it fairly accurately captures the ethos of our company. I’m not going to pretend that we don’t, in fact, mean it, because we do.
KC: When would you say that Google has failed to live up to that standard?
SB: The standard of our motto? Well certainly, of course, there have been occasions. I’m not saying we’re the perfect manifestation or that ideal prototype of an ethical company. Let me put it in the passive: “Mistakes have been made.” But at the very least I don’t think it’s fair to fault us for aiming higher than, say, Monsanto, in terms of corporate codes of conduct. I never, and I don’t think Larry ever, when we started out, considered that we, as web specialists, would ever have to make big moral choices with regard to our company. Now, in cases I’m sure you aware of, we come on the radar of groups like Amnesty International… it’s beyond what we ever conceived. The whole company is beyond, like we were just talking about, beyond what anybody thought possible. At the end of the day our priority is delivering search results. I think that’s the bottom line. And we do that better than anyone else, by far. End of story. Is that fair?
KC: Fair enough. I appreciate your honesty, Sergey, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
[Editor’s Note: this interview never took place. It is a work of fiction, and any remarks that happen to be true are there entirely by accident. Neither Kevin Cole nor Sergey Brin approves of this post. Lawrence Page is still exceedingly jealous that a phantom interview with him did not take place.]