Product Culture Marty Cagan

Corporate Hubris

“Hubris: The false pride that comes before the fall” – Wikipedia

I probably get more questions from product people about Google than any other company. With their astounding success, it seems everyone wants to emulate them.

Regular readers of my blog and newsletter know that I’m one of Google’s biggest fans. Beyond their excellent search, I think their AdWords and AdSense products are truly exceptional, and they have more than their fair share of outstanding engineers.

That said, I am very worried about the long-term prospects for the company.

I am worried about them for two reasons. First, I think there is a serious problem with their product skills, and second, I am increasingly seeing symptoms of problems with their corporate culture.
With respect to their products, I know it’s odd to talk about product problems with a business that has performed overall so well. Nevertheless, I believe strongly that Google could and should have performed so much better than they have.

For example, consider Froogle, a fantastic opportunity for Google, given how so many people clearly start their e-commerce shopping process with a Google search. I can only believe that Google is intentionally holding back on this product for strategic or contractual reasons because I can’t otherwise explain the lack of progress. Similarly with Gmail, another great opportunity to leverage the community’s affinity for Google, that now is two years old and hasn’t progressed much since its debut. Another terrific opportunity is the Google Desktop, but even very basic capabilities (like moving a file to a different folder) remain unsupported. And Orkut, the social networking site that launched at the right time and should have leaped when Friendster stumbled, also seems deserted by its product team. And Google Base. Why did they bother? And the list goes on.

More generally, Google seems to get all excited and launch something and then just leave it there and lose interest. They call a service “Beta” for years, not because they’re listening to the market and rapidly responding and interating, but seemingly just because they appear unwilling to follow through. Their products are rarely integrated with each other, or completed to the level that users deserve.

It seems clear to me that Google is having a very difficult time converting terrific product opportunities and terrific assets (including their huge and loyal community, talented engineering and site operations staff, and deep pockets) into terrific products. Part of this may be due to the role of product management at Google, part may be due to its corporate culture (discussed next), and part may be due to the consequences of very rapid growth. For whatever reason, if Google is to become the long-term success that I hope and believe it can, it must become better at converting these product opportunities into successful products.

Now let’s discuss the corporate culture issue. I have to admit up front that I’m particularly sensitive to this problem. While I loved my time at Netscape and later AOL, and I worked with some of the best people I’ve ever met there, I think both of those companies suffered from some fairly serious cases of corporate arrogance. At Netscape, it was more of technology-based arrogance and at AOL is was more market position-based arrogance. In both cases it turned out to be a significant liability and customers suffered.

At Netscape, I think I got caught up in the emotion there as well, and wish I could have spent more of my time assisting partners and startups that asked for help, rather than just focusing on the biggest opportunities. At AOL, the attitude by the sales and business development people especially was often so bad, and partners and customers were treated so poorly, that many of us were frankly embarrassed and ashamed of our corporate behavior.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing some similar problems at Google. I have heard now from multiple sources that there have been important business deals for Google that they have lost due to the unwillingness of companies to join their culture.

I also know of too many people now that have been so turned off by the Google interviewing experience that they have declined their offers, or dropped out of the process. In each of these cases, it was Google’s loss. The interview process itself is flawed, but the bigger issue is the arrogance that comes across. Especially worrisome to me is the emphasis on things like college, degree and GPA. While a degree from MIT, IIT, or Stanford is an asset on any resume, surely the people at Google are bright enough to realize that many of the smartest and most successful people in our industry either never went to college, dropped out of college, did poorly in college, or went to a “lesser” college.

At HP we used to go through an exercise every year where we rank-ordered every employee from top to bottom, across every job; so every senior engineer in a division, for example, would be ranked 1 to n. This was a controversial practice, but it made very clear the employees the organization felt were truly the top performers. I remember the HP Lab’s management team’s surprise when they discovered the lack of correlation between performance ranking and years of computer science university level education (and HP Labs was one of the top industrial research labs in the world at the time). It certainly taught me to look beyond superficial indications like GPA when evaluating potential employees.

I understand Google’s desire to maintain staff quality in the face of very rapid growth, but I think their process suffers on both fronts – it is too slow to support the needs of the business, and too narrow-minded in terms of finding the best people.

I do believe that Google can correct these problems and realize their potential, both as an industry leader and as the provider of many great products. But it may take some soul searching for them to decide what kind of company they want to be, and the different skills needed to get there.