After my presentation Monday night, a couple of folks from Google's Krakow office asked if I'd like to come there for lunch on Tuesday. These were some of the nicest and most interesting Google offices that I've seen; perhaps much of this is due to the way they used the spaces in the existing (old, of course) building off of the Krakow central square, but all the decorations and designs seemed edgy and unusual even by Google standards. This office is not doing mundane work; they are innovating in the streaming video space, for example. As usual for Google, the food was outstanding, the best I've had in Poland despite the fancy restaurants we've gone to.
Because of a conversation at dinner Monday night, I've just begun reading Daniel Kahnneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which studies the phenomenon of intuition in particular and how we think and make decisions in general. I've always had strong intuition and it's generally been mysterious, by which I mean the indications of my intuition have not been deductible through any kind of normal reasoning process. Indeed, to me intuition means "information from some unknown place that is counter to what logic and reason tell me." Through long experience I have learned never to ignore my intuition, and the times when it seems astoundingly, obviously wrong are the very times to pay closest attention, because eventually the story will unravel and the reasons will reveal themselves.
This is the fourth Google office I've been in, if you count the one in Boulder where an open-spaces conference was attempted (no tour in that case). Each one seems very energetic and boisterous with lots going on and everyone very engaged. And in each case, I come away feeling ... tired, I guess. Something feels subtly wrong to me. At this point I can only speculate, but perhaps it's an underlying feeling of pressure that everyone in the building is aware of and is responding to. Eventually it will become clear.
Google came up in conversation at the Geecon conference as well. Several people said that it was a place they would try only after they had done something on their own first, typically being part of a startup. I don't know if Google has any idea that this is the sentiment, but I would find it worrying if I were them. The people who want to be at the edges do not consider Google first. These are not the A students that the Google interview process discovers through its rigorous academic testing, but those who are B students because they are too busy doing lots of other things, exploring and discovering -- the very people Google needs to stay innovative. Perhaps it's even time to reconsider the goal of creating a company that's like a grad school. I quite enjoyed grad school (for a number of special-case reasons) but that's not a model that I think of when considering organizational structures for innovation.
I also have to say that I find the thought of Google's legendary academic-style interview process to be intimidating. From the stories I've heard, this is a common anxiety. I know stuff, but I have no idea whether what I know is going to be on their tests, or even things they care about. More importantly, does what I happen to have in my head at the moment matter more to them than how I solve problems? For me, the real discomfort comes from considering the cultural filter that these tests represent. You'd definitely end up working with really smart people -- that is, "smart" as tested in the dimension of the Google interview process. But I think it would feel limiting to me, because the filter leans so heavily in the direction of pure technical expertise. This certainly doesn't exclude the other factors -- I met one woman at Google Krakow who was a solo free climber (with ropes to catch you only if you fall, but not to belay against) -- but it doesn't select for the interesting variations, either, like Zappo's famous "how weird are you" question. That's not enough for me anymore. I want to interact with people who know stuff that the rest of us don't already know. That's what stimulates me and produces the really interesting ideas.
Working at Google was never a possibility for me anyway, because it's too highly structured. I completely understand the value of having people be together, and doing things like providing food so that people don't feel the need to leave for lunch and coffee etc. Except I've never been good at keeping my butt in a seat during certain hours. In fact, just knowing that I'm supposed to be someplace during a particular time makes me start looking at the door. It also suggests the industrial-age belief that hours worked are equivalent to productivity, which inevitably leads to attempts at turning up that particular knob. Also, from Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine and endless experiences at the events that I hold, getting outside and walking around (Google Krakow is right on the beautiful city square!) is usually when you get the flashes of insight. Perhaps Google has simply created a larger box.
Tuesday afternoon, Adrian Nowak, who has been responsible for bringing me to Poland every time I've come (I've started calling him my agent for Poland), arranged for some mountain bikes so we could ride out of the city to a nearby park where there are trails. Krakow, and as far as I could tell, Poland in general, seems to be laced with bike and walking/running trails and they all get heavy use. It's quite refreshing when you come from a land where the car is king. Adrian said that the trip would be maybe 1.5 or 2 hours, just some mellow trails on the hills in this park. By the time we were done, it was over 3 hours and over 20 km. When we reached the park, Adrian said "we're going up now," and after we climbed for awhile he said, "now we're going down," and I thought "that wasn't so hard." But then a little later, "we're going up again" and eventually I realized that I couldn't anticipate anything from these statements. At one point I was hoping to pull out Mandy Patinkin's line from The Princess Bride: "You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means," but it turned out Adrian was not familiar with the movie. Eventually we reached the top and I assumed that we were done but then there turned out to be an entire second mountain to climb, ending in a spectacular view of everything.
By the time we were done I was pretty tired but, as it turned out, the trip was just right. It's one of those adventures that I needed to be tricked into -- If I had known how much work it was before going I might have demurred, but once it was over I was very glad to have done it.
Here is the map of our trip, although it's not the full route because Adrian forgot to turn on the tracker before we got onto the mountain.
That evening a group of entrepreneurial-oriented people met for dinner with Ela and Jerry Colonna who gave a seminar on Wednesday, which I'll write about in the next post.