Book review: In the Plex

In the Plex by Steven LevyOne of my favorite books from last year was The Everything Store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. It was one of my favorite types of business books, a third party account that chronicled the building of Amazon. In the comments to my book review, one of my favorite bloggers, Rohan (author of the blog A Learning a Day), mentioned In the Plex – How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy.  Since the book fit my theme of a biography/story-based business book and came recommended from a trusted source, I decided to let it jump the queue in my 2015 reading list.

In the Plex is one of those books I wish I had read 4, maybe 5 years ago. It documents the founding of Google and shows how Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out on a journey to not just start a company but to do something meaningful that will have a lasting impact on the world. The pursuit of this passion led them to build a company that was not a run of the mill, ordinary startup. They spent tremendous energy assembling an exceptional team that was focused on solving a difficult problem – the indexing of all of the information on the internet.

I learned two important lessons from In the Plex:

  1. Successful startups succeed by solving big problems. In Google’s case they solved two big problems related to the internet. First, they figured out how to efficiently index the information on the internet in order to provide relevant search results to users. Second, they figured out how to serve relevant ads to users and make money in the process.
  2. If you’re going to solve a big problem, you need to build a great team. Larry and Sergey were relentless in their pursuit of the best talent they could find to build an incredible team. As with all successful companies, the quality of the team determines the success of the company. I was amazed by the amount of brain power Google has accumulated, as well as how uncompromising they were in hiring the best.

The other nugget of information that I gleaned from the book was the underpinnings of how the Google search engine works. Given the startup that I’m working on, it would have been very useful to understand the workings of Google during one of our first failed product launches. It’s very clear from reading the book that achieving good results in the Google search engine is a data driven exercise that relies on generating good content. In other words, gaming Google’s search algorithms is not a long-term path to success. There are a lot of very smart people who are figuring out how to make sure that the Google search results are relevant. You will not succeed by attempting to out smart them.

While I found the book very interesting and educational, I was a little disappointed in the second half. I felt like Levy spent too much time trying to defend Google’s data practices and their “don’t be evil” motto. Basically, there was a lot of great information in the first half of the book, but the second half didn’t contain nearly as much.

If you are starting a company or involved in a start-up, especially one that depends on online marketing, I would strongly recommend reading In the Plex. There are great company building lessons in the book, and you’ll get insight into how the Google search algorithm works. If you’re just looking for entertainment, then the book is good, but I wouldn’t consider it great. For that reason, I’m not going to put it in my Must Read category of books, but I still enjoyed it. Bottom line, the book may not be great, but it won’t disappoint.

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