I'm feeling lucky

Book reviews

A life changed by Google, managing in the Cloud, and the many uses of magnetic levitation

Allen Lane 

I'm Feeling Lucky: The confessions of Google Employee Number 59

by Douglas Edwards, £20, ISBN 978-1-84614-512-4

What makes a family man in his 40s leave a steady job and take a pay cut of tens of thousands of dollars to join up with a small start-up company not long out of its original garage premises?

For Doug Edwards, who walked away from the San Jose Mercury News in 1999 to become Google's first director of consumer marketing and brand management, the move wasn't made on a whim. He'd been writing about the meteoric rise of the area's tech companies in the dotcom boom and saw a chance to switch careers on the strength of his background in marketing.

The gamble, and the years up to 2005 that Edwards spent in what he describes as the 'reality abattoir' of Google's Mountain View headquarters, obviously paid off. Since leaving in the wake of an IPO that made him a rich man thanks to the stock options that he'd borrowed money to take advantage of, he's been able to pursue personal interests and admits he doesn't have to worry too much about working again.

But 'I'm Feeling Lucky' isn't a self-congratulatory book. Nor, despite the 'Confessions of'' subtitle, is it a kiss and tell story of scandals from one of industry's most unconventional workplaces, where some of the greatest minds of the time indulged in blue-sky thinking that for once lived up to its description.

Instead, as one of the first accounts of the rise of Google to be written by someone who was there every day, it's a blow-by-blow retelling of how a combination of foresight, ability and staggering self belief enabled founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to change, if not the world, then at least the way it uses the Internet.

Of course, there was a big element of luck too,'as Edwards admits. By the late 1990s the concept of Internet search was widely believed to be, if not completely solved, then something that was never going to be a big money spinner. Google was fortunate, therefore, when its pitch of an algorithmic approach to indexing Web content that provided more accurate results caught the imagination of investors whose millions of dollars of funding saw it through the'lean early years.

Unlike the business-focused versions of how Google used that money to become the Web behemoth it is today, this is a more chatty, anecdotal story of Friday afternoon doughnut binges and roller hockey games in the office car park. Essentially, it describes how a bunch of people just out of college managed to establish a workplace based more on a student lifestyle than any orthodox office environment.

And mostly, it's a story of the culture clash that ensues when an English graduate with experience of marketing and how to communicate with people has to work in close proximity with a fiercely analytical group of technology experts.

Edwards's wide-ranging role eventually turned out to be a weakness in the more commercially driven period after the IPO that made employees millionaires overnight. Summoned to a meeting by a new director of product marketing he hears the ominous words: 'Doug, I'm having a hard time slotting you. I don't really see where you fit. There doesn't seem to be a place for 'brand management' in the organisation as a functional role.'

As Edwards explains: 'He had earned degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from IT, had worked as a business strategist for a consulting firm, and had been a VP of global product marketing for a major networking company. He was exactly what Google was looking for, and that meant I no longer was.'When he left on 4 March 2005, Edwards recalls: 'My exit interview was brief and with an HR staffer I had never met before.'

The healthy bank balance he walked away with must have helped sugar the pill, but at no point is Edwards bitter about his overall experience. Yes, there were stressful, traumatic episodes and a lot of hard work, but it's obvious from 'I'm Feeling Lucky' that given the chance to go back he would do everything the same.

Dominic Lenton

 

McGraw Hill

Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution

by Charles Babcock, £19.99, ISBN 978-0-07-174075-3

'Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution' opens with a reference to The Wizard of Oz. Remember how the grand-scale technology of the man behind the curtain is revealed to be little more than a few dials and levers? With the cloud revolution, says Charles Babcock, the curtain is going to reveal something substantial, something that will revolutionise how data centres will look for generations to come. 'This is not your father's data center,' he says.

The move from enterprise data centres to the cloud means that nothing will be the same again. You'll be able to rely on large clusters of servers on the Internet at a fraction of the cost of running your own systems. As Babcock says: 'Businesses large and small will have the power to do things they couldn't do before, do them faster and reach customers more effectively.' Access will be universal and ubiquitous, while systems will be able to expand to meet shifting requirements, deal with demand bottlenecks and allow business processes to be altered on the fly.

Sounds good, but businesses don't change overnight and, as The Cloud Revolution articulates clearly, overturning objections to the concept will be based on existing organisational prejudices and cultures. Then there are the issues of security, reallocation of resources and fundamentally redefining the type of company you need to become to exploit the technology.

It remains to be seen if the cloud revolution is another dotcom boom-and-bust cycle, but Babcock thinks that it won't be. In contrast with the dotcom boom's imaginary profits, with the cloud there are major productivity gains. And unlike dotcom, the peak of the cloud's hype coincides with the technology being top on the list of innovation likely to be put into use.

Nick Smith

 

Harvard University Press 

Rising Force: The magic of magnetic levitation 

by James D Livingston, £20.95, ISBN 978-0674055353

If you thought magnetic levitation was mostly about flying trains, then read 'Rising Force'. Former physicist at GE and lecturer at MIT, James D Livingston can barely conceal his excitement, and dry sense of humour, as he takes his readers on a whistle-stop tour of everything 'maglev'.

Starting with an easy-to-understand grounding in the concept of levity, Livingston swiftly moves to the basic principles of magnetism, gravitational forces and magnetic levitation, entertaining the reader with magic and fiction along the way. We learn how 19th century magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin introduced 'levitation' to the masses, followed by David Copperfield and David Blaine. And then there's the fascination that magnetic levitation held for the writers of 'Spiderman' and 'Dick Tracy' each equipped their comic-strip characters with mysterious maglev devices.

But amid the fantastic, Livingston's text remains firmly rooted in engineering and real-life. China's possible 'stranglehold' over rare-earth element neodymium, a crucial component of magnets used in magnetic levitation, is a worry for many in the West. As is Iranian President Maumoud Ahmadinejad's plans to build 50,000 centrifuges.

Livingston describes how magnets in each centrifuge will lift the device's rotor from its base to optimise spin and uranium enrichment. He also leaves us in no doubt that 50,000 is a hell of lot of centrifuges to build if you're only enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

The book's real strength lies in its sheer number of examples, both ridiculous, one-off demonstrations and practical, commercial applications. Frogs, Sumo wrestlers, pizza and cheese as well as blood pumps, wind turbines and maglev surgery within the abdominal cavity of a live pig. Really.

For many, however, the ending will fall flat. Following rigorous coverage of maglev trains, Livingston reflects on US failings to construct 'even a short maglev line' on a par with China's Shanghai shuttle. The US-centric conclusion is not the all-encompassing ending one might like, but the journey makes up for it.

Rebecca Pool

 

Earthscan

The Green Executive

by Gareth Kane, £24.99 ISBN 978-1-84971-334-4

Near the beginning of 'The Green Executive', Gareth Kane warns that roughly three-quarters of all organisations are unaware that there is environmental legislation pertaining to their business.

Of the environmentally aware, too many are stuck at the bottom end of the sustainability curve. This is where compliance and greenwash are the tokenistic gestures of PR fixated image-makers who wish to appear to have eco-sensitive credentials.

But it doesn't have to be this way, argues Kane in his well-informed and public-spirited new book. Why not, instead of tinkering around the edges of sustainability, go the whole hog and make it a pillar of your corporate DNA? There are, as he explains, sound commercial reasons for following this track.

While environmental protection might have once been the domain of accountants and a management chore, the concept of green business has escalated up the chain of command to become a strategic board level priority. Once we used to say 'go green and save money', but today sustainability in its broadest sense is the commercial necessity upon which businesses compete. How to bridge that gap is the major theme underlying 'The Green Executive'.

Kane's arguments are backed up by the voices of key industry figures from the manufacturing, electronics, telecoms and other technology sectors. The trend, they say, is to make your world and your business a better place. Business as usual, says Kane, is not an option.

The trouble with books like this is that ' for all their good intentions, rigorous debate and well-researched data ' they are preaching to the converted. I hope I'm wrong, but it's my suspicion that the people who need to read Kane's book are the very people who are in sustainability denial and are culturally inured to Kane's argument.

Nick Smith

Also out this month...

When Sebastian Vettel became Formula 1’s youngest ever world champion at the 2010 season finale in Abu Dhabi, Red Bull Racing had already clinched the constructors’ championship. The car that helped secure both titles, the Red Bull Racing RB6, is the subject of a new addition to the Haynes Owners’ Workshop manual series. Produced with full co-operation from Red Bull, the book explains in incredible detail how a modern F1 car works, including the design engineer’s view and the driver’s perspective. Haynes Red Bull Racing F1 Car Owner's Manual by Steve Rendle (Haynes, £19.99, ISBN 978 0 85733 099 4) will be less useful than the version you’ve probably got for your family saloon, but a lot more interesting.

Haynes’ other manual out this month is even further from the publisher’s usual territory. In the Dam Busters Owners' Workshop Manual (Haynes, £19.99, ISBN 978 0 85733 015 4), Dr Iain Murray applies the familiar Haynes treatment to provide rare insights into the wartime worlds of specialist bomb design and development, and their delivery by the RAF. With a comprehensive selection of rare archive photographs and technical drawings, as well as specially commissioned artwork, he re-tells the story of Barnes Wallis’s contribution to the Allied war effort through the medium of the technology that made it all possible.

For a more thoughtful read, The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantam, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 553 81922 9) is now available in paperback. Hawking’s  first major work in nearly a decade asks fundamental questions about the origins of the universe, why we’re here, and the nature of reality. Is the apparent ‘grand design’ of our universe evidence for a benevolent creator who set things in motion, or does science offer another explanation?

Looking to the earth’s future rather than its past, the need to find energy sources that do not contribute to carbon emissions has put nuclear power firmly on the agenda. In Nuclear Power: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 19 958497 0), Maxwell Irvine presents a back to basics overview of the nature of nuclear that looks at its risks  and potential. Like OUP’s other Very Short Introductions this pocket-sized book is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to get up to speed and provides pointers to more detailed sources of information.

For those who do want to go beyond an introduction, also out this month from OUP is Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, £10.99, ISBVN 978 0 19 975946 0). Physicist and nuclear engineer Charles D Ferguson is president of the Federation of American Scientists and has worked on nuclear policy issues at the US Department of State. His overview of nuclear is up to date enough to include a detailed look at the Fukushima Daiichi incident and its implications, considering whether there were flaws in the reactors and the concerns about nuclear safety culture in Japan.

One of the fundamental questions Ferguson addresses is whether nuclear is really a renewable technology. And as Arvid Linde points out in Electric Cars: The Future is Now! (RAC, £12.99, ISBN 978 1 845843 10 6), no vehicle can be said to be truly carbon neutral unless the electricity it runs on has been generated from a ‘green’ source. A car engineer from Estonia whose masters degree in engineering and logistics focused on electric car economy, Linde now runs a green motoring blog. The RAC admits that he’s been known to take "a rather sceptical stance” on electric cars, but claims that his book shows both their good and bad sides and will ultimately encourage people to embrace the future of green motoring. In such a fast-evolving area of technology, much of the material will date fairly quickly, but as an overview for anyone considering becoming an early adopter it’s an excellent snapshot of the practical aspects of ownership that includes a complete catalogue of the best electric cars available today and in the very near future.

Additional reviews by Dominic Lenton

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