1: “On May 24, 2002, in Google’s kitchen at 2400 Bayshore Parkway in Mountain View, California, Google founder Larry Page pinned a note to the wall: 



“In the early 2000s, some of the best minds in America were competing quietly in a race,” Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

“The goal was to build a software engine that connected Internet user searches with targeted advertisements, an esoteric-sounding task that would potentially unlock a multibillion-dollar market,” Daniel writes.

The big question: Which company would win?

The clear favorite was Overture, a well-financed Los Angeles startup led by brilliant entrepreneur Bill Gross

Bill was a trailblazer in Internet advertising. “He had invented the pay-per-click advertising model, written the code, and built Overture into a thriving business that was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, as well as a recent initial public offering valued at one billion dollars,” Daniel notes.

Many assumed Overture would easily win the race. “The market had placed a billion-dollar bet on Overture,” Daniel writes, “Overture possessed the intelligence, experience, and resources to win.”

2: But that’s not what happened. 

Instead, a small, young company named Google emerged as the winner.

Google was not your typical company, and co-founder Larry was not your typical businessperson. 

“His main leadership technique, if it could be called a technique, consisted of starting and sustaining big, energetic, no-holds-barred debates about how to build the best strategies, products, and ideas,” Daniel writes. “To work at Google was to enter a giant, continuous wrestling match in which no person was considered above the fray.”

The Google culture was known for,” Daniel notes, “raucous all-employee street hockey games in the parking lot (‘No one held back when fighting the founders for the puck,’ recalled one player).”

And: “All-company Friday forums, where anyone could challenge the founders with any question under the sun, no matter how controversial—and vice versa. Like the hockey games, the Friday forums often turned into collision-filled affairs.”

On that May day in 2002, Google’s battle with Overture wasn’t going particularly well. 

“The project, which Google called the AdWords engine, was struggling to accomplish the basic task of matching search terms to appropriate ads,” Daniel writes. 

“For example, if you typed in a search for a Kawasaki H1B motorcycle, you’d receive ads from lawyers offering help with your H-1B foreign visa application—precisely the kinds of failures that could doom the project.”

Larry printed out examples of the failed ads, dashed off this three-word verdict in capital letters, and pinned it on the kitchen bulletin board. 

Then he left the building.

Google engineer Jeff Dean saw Larry’s note on the bulletin board on Friday afternoon. 

“A quiet, skinny engineer from Minnesota, [Jeff] was in most ways [Larry] ‘s opposite: smiley, sociable, unfailingly polite, and known around the office for his love of cappuccinos,” Daniel notes. 

Jeff worked in Search, a different department within Google. He had his own pressing challenges to solve. As he stood in the kitchen making a cappuccino and looking at the ads, “a thought flickered through his mind, a hazy memory of a similar problem he’d encountered a while back,” Daniel writes.

He returned to his desk and began working on the AdWords problem. 

“He did not ask permission or tell anyone; he simply dove in,” Daniel writes. “On almost every level, his decision made no sense. He was ignoring the mountain of work on his desk in order to wrestle with a difficult problem that no one expected him to take on. He could have quit at any point, and no one would have known. 

“But he did not quit. In fact, he came in on Saturday and worked on the AdWords problem for several hours. On Sunday night, he had dinner with his family and put his two young children to bed. Around nine P.M., he drove back to the office, made another cappuccino, and worked through the night. 

“At 5:05 A.M. on Monday, he sent out an email outlining the proposed fix,” Daniel writes. “Then he drove home, climbed into bed, and went to sleep.”

Jeff’s solution worked: The Adworks engine’s accuracy scores immediately increased by double digits. 

“On the strength of that improvement and subsequent others it inspired, AdWords swiftly came to dominate the pay-per-click market,” Daniel writes. 

The following year, Google’s profits increased from $6 million to $99 million. A decade later, the AdWords engine was generating $160 million every day, and advertising was the driver of 90 percent of Google’s revenues. 

“The success of the AdWords engine, author Stephen Levy writes, was ‘sudden, transforming, decisive, and, for Google’s investors and employees, glorious… It became the lifeblood of Google, funding every new idea and innovation the company conceived of thereafter.'”

Overture, on the other hand, faltered. “Decision making involved innumerable meetings and discussions about technical, tactical, and strategic matters; everything had to be approved by multiple committees,” Daniel writes. 

Despite its head start and billion-dollar war chest, it was “hamstrung by infighting and bureaucracy.” he notes. 

3: What’s most surprising about the Google story?  

Jeff Dean’s recollection of what happened.

In 2013, Google adviser Jonathan Rosenberg interviewed Jeff for a book he was writing on Google. “I want to talk to you about the AdWords engine, Larry’s note, the kitchen,” Jonathan said, assuming Jeff would “pick up on the cue and launch into a reminiscence,” Daniel writes.

But Jeff didn’t do that. Instead, he stared at Jonathan with “a pleasantly blank expression,” Daniel writes. Jonathan was confused. He filled in more and more details. 

“Only then did Jeff’s face dawn with the light of recognition—oh yeah!”

“I mean, I remember that it happened,” Jeff told Daniel. “But to be completely honest, it didn’t register strongly in my memory because it didn’t feel like that big of a deal. It didn’t feel special or different. It was normal. That kind of thing happened all the time.”

It. Was. Normal. 

What are we to make of Jeff’s recollection?

The first section of The Culture Code details how high-performing teams create psychological safety. 

Which is very different from artificial harmony.

Google co-founder Larry’s “technique of igniting whole-group debates around solving tough problems sent a powerful signal of identity and connection, as did the no-holds-barred hockey games and wide-open Friday forums.”

Google team members “did not manage their status or worry about who was in charge,” Daniel notes. “Their small building produced high levels of proximity and face-to-face interaction.” 

The resulting workplace culture was “a hothouse of belonging cues,” Daniel notes. “Its people worked shoulder to shoulder and safely connected, immersed in their projects.” 

Daniel’s conclusion: “Google didn’t win because it was smarter. It won because it was safer.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: How “safe” is it for members of the team I work on to speak up, challenge the status quo, and make a contribution?

Action: Journal my answer to the question above.

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