The Google story

Hammad Ali
Published : 25 Sept 2013, 10:14 AM
Updated : 25 Sept 2013, 10:14 AM

I doubt that there are too many people in the world today who are not aware of the success story of Google. It is truly surprising how a service that does not charge a penny from its users has become one of the most profitable endeavours in the world. There is a lot to learn from the story of Google, both from their technology and their headway into the business arena.

Being a student of Computer Science, Google has always held a degree of fascination for me. Last year, I got my hands on a book called The Google Story, by one David Vise. It took me a while to finish the book, but a lot of thoughts were crowding in my head as I read it. As a student and professional in the field of science and technology, it felt like a good idea to compile them in one place as articulately as possible.

The idea behind Google germinated from the minds of two Computer Science graduate students – Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In the search for a promising research topic, these two young researchers arrived at the problem of searching for a given data in the enormous collection known as the World Wide Web. The exact story of their topic, their novel approach, and how this eventually led to today's Google is well-documented in several books, websites and documentaries. I will thus refrain from repeating them here. Those who really wish to read that story at length could probably just Google it! I will instead focus on Google and the two people behind it, and share some of my thoughts on the matter.

There are many factors being Google's unprecedented success. Some of these, however, do stand out. A most prominent reason, in my opinion, has been Google's focus on excellence in technology and on providing a superior user experience compared to their rivals at the time. More than business concerns, Google's focus has always been researching in novel technology. While it may seem contradictory, possibly the prime reason behind Google's success as a business is that they are more interested in research on new technological avenues than they are about securing a profit margin. Even today, Google's involvement with state-of-the-art technology and their drive to always serve the user sets them apart and guarantees their ongoing success.

Nevertheless, I would still claim that even this does not completely explain the substantial success enjoyed by Google. I would assert that the seed of Google's success was not planted in the year 200, or even in the late 1990s. Google's success today is due to investments made far back in the past, and the excellence we see today in all Google endeavours is merely the return on that investment.

To analyse that claim at greater depth, we need to focus on the two individuals behind the Google story. Even if they had not stumbled upon the Google idea, Sergey Brin and Larry Page would have finished their doctoral dissertation and most probably gone on to become prominent academics. However, the brilliance of these two individuals is not an anomaly. Both of them had the good fortune of growing up in academic, inquisitive and scientifically inclined households. Both had fathers who were university professors, and took an active interest in encouraging the intellectual growth of their children. Both kids grew up in an environment where asking questions and experimenting was not just tolerated but rather encouraged. In his book, David Vise tells us how often after dinner, Sergey's father would sit down with his son and proceed to engage in some sort of debate, on nearly any topic under the sun. The purpose of this was not for the father to impose his ideas on the son, but rather to give young Sergey an opportunity to form his own views about the world and be able to articulately defend his them to others. To this day, Sergey maintains the habit of engaging in healthy debates, and challenging everyone around him to defend their ideas and opinions.

On the other hand, Larry's family always made it a point to show interest in, and welcome, any sort of new technology, of which computers is just one example. Everyone in the family was required to have an email address, and their own website. On the surface this may seem trivial. However, I can say from an experience that these small practices can go a long way towards letting children overcome their fear of technology, build self-esteem and encourage them to always take on new challenges and try new things. For all we know, it was this familiarization with technology that gave Larry Page the audacity to tell his supervisor that as a thesis topic, he proposes to index the entire World Wide Web, which actually led to the founding of Google and his pioneering work on the Page Rank algorithm.

These are just a few examples. The book is full of many similar anecdotes which may seem trivial at first, but to me they seem worth pondering on. For instance, the book opens with an account of how Sergey and Larry visited a Math Camp in Israel to spend some time with the children there. These children had helped Israel secure seven of the ten gold medals at an international event, which led to Larry expressing mock disappointment about the three they did not get. But why were the Google executives there? If they approached Google as a business, and themselves as, at most, technology entrepreneurs, they probably would not have had much reason to visit a math camp. The fact though, is that these two think of themselves as scientists, and treat Google as their research lab. Further, they value quality education and take an active interest in the intellectual development of the future generations.

Almost any book about the rise of Google is likely to have many anecdotes like the ones mentioned here. Within the Computer Science community, there is an aura of superior intellect around not only Sergey Brin and Larry Page, but almost any Google employee. This is definitely truer than for companies like Microsoft, Apple or Facebook. This is not to say that people in these other companies are in any way lacking in intellectual prowess. Nevertheless, few people can deny having noticed how Google employees seem to have a different reputation within the industry.

However, my focus is not on how terribly intelligent the people at Google must be. Over the last few years, there has been an increased focus on encouraging entrepreneurship and creation of jobs in Bangladesh. The reason for this is clear – there are already not enough jobs for the educated workforce, and this disparity is only likely to grow in the coming years unless we do something about it actively.

What is it we can do? We can encourage our graduates to think differently about their career plans. Instead of focusing only on how to write job applications and face interviews, we can encourage them to start their own business ventures, ones that will take a lot of effort in the short term but be sustainable eventually. These businesses will then create more jobs for the future graduates. Instead of being an employee, we can encourage our young minds to strive towards becoming potential employers.

This is not easy. The last thing I intend to do is give the impression that being an entrepreneur is easy. However, we are fast approaching a point in our economy when this will be the only viable option for many. Many have already realised this and are preparing themselves accordingly. It can be said with a reasonable amount of conviction that in another decade, this number will grow to almost become equal to that of those looking for more conventional jobs.

Where does the whole Google come in here? One of the largest entrepreneurship opportunities for a country like Bangladesh lies in the field of Computing. Computer Science and Engineering is one of the fields that churn out a high number of graduates each year. If nothing else, this guarantees an edge in the outsourcing market, where the large number of skilled employees available equates with lower costs. A lot of companies already in operation are basically functioning as offshore branches of foreign software firms. But the true potential for technological entrepreneurship is yet to be tapped. In a society where engineering is still a highly dignified sector, technological entrepreneurship might be the best of both worlds.

This is where there is room to learn from start-ups in general and Google in particular. The first lesson, of course, is that success is not easy. It will take a lot of hard work, patience, and a healthy dose of good luck to create a sustainable business. The odds are against succeeding with your very first venture. Even Bill Gates' first business was a spectacular failure.

Then comes the biggest lesson, the one Google demonstrates most effectively – focus on the product or service, not on the profits. If you offer quality, people will come to you and the money will flow in too. Focus on the challenges and try to enjoy the creative process. Of course, cultivating this attitude takes time and effort. The desire for quick and easy success is inherent to us, and one needs to actively override such impulses and learn to focus on the long-term outcomes. This could be something our universities begin to emphasise. In addition to all the technological and logistical knowledge that forms a core part of their curriculum, our graduates should be given some entrepreneurial training and help in preparing themselves to start and successfully run a business of any sort. These skills are usually ignored in our institutes of higher learning, much to the loss of our future workforce.

However, it is not enough for just our universities to encourage and provide training for future entrepreneurs. Just like the founders of Google, certain skills and attitudes need to be cultivated from a very early age, both by our schools and our families. We need to encourage children to ask questions, to try out new things and to take joy in learning things and experimenting with new technology.

A lot needs to change in our educational curriculum before our graduates are ready for the entrepreneurial life. At the university level, we need to focus on more than just technical competency. We need to encourage teamwork, communication skills and above all, experimentation. It is my firm conviction that a student will learn more from playing around with an idea independently than they will by attending several house of lecture. More importantly, this will help students develop a degree of independence and intellectual vigour.

In our schools, there needs to be less emphasis on how much the students know, and how well they can do in conventional exams. Instead, we need to ensure that students truly understand the very fundamentals of any subject. If the fundamentals are sound, students will be able to pick up all the rest on their own. On the contrary, it serves little practical purpose to cover a large amount of content when students merely study to do well in exams and do not really understand the material in depth. Lastly, we need to start looking at alternate ways to evaluate our students. While there are many subjects where a written exam is the best evaluation tool, there are also many where such methods are rather inadequate. Especially at the university level, a student's understanding of the content would often be much better demonstrated by doing a project, a survey or a research paper. A lot of students enjoy the lessons and understand the material, but are just not good test-takers. It makes a lot of sense to have alternative evaluation methods for at least those subjects where practical application of principles would be a much better proof of understanding than a written exam.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this simple idea – make sure the students are enjoying the learning process. This will help them build a positive attitude, which, as evident from the Google story, can have impact far beyond our wildest imaginations.

Hammad Ali is a teacher of Computer Science and Engineering at BRAC University.