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Even Google Should Beware Of Hubris

June 28th, 2009 · 14 Comments · General

One of the best words we’ve inherited from the ancient Greeks is hubris (ὕβρις), defined on Wikipedia as “overweening pride, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution or nemesis”. Homer used hubris to drive the plots (and moral lessons) of  both of his famous epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Hubris is, of course, a disease that afflicts winners, and it’s hard to pick a stronger winner in today’s online world than Google. Surely Google is the closest thing the web has to an Achilles or Ulysses. But hopefully Google’s legions of computer science PhDs remember a little bit of the Homer they were hopefully subjected to in high school or college.

Since that was probably a while ago, even for Google’s youthful employees (LinkedIn reports a median age of 29), here are two modern-day examples of hubris.

At the Enterprise Search Summit last month, Google’s lead product manager for enterprise search had this to say about Microsoft:

“One way of doing enterprise search would be to start something in 2001 that didn’t work. You could then do a complete overhaul in 2003, which also didn’t work. In 2007, you could launch a rip-and-replace system and then … you could acquire a large, random, non-integrated system.”

“I’m not going to name any specific company,” he quipped.

And, just a few days ago, Google’s senior manager of engineering and architecture punctuated a panel discussion at the Structure 09 conference–where he was sharing a stage with a counterpart from Microsoft–with the punchline “If you Bing for it, you can find it.” [CORRECTION: PLEASE READ "An Apology to Vijay Gill"]

There’s no question that Google is trouncing Microsoft in the online world. But that’s no reason to be catty. Indeed, Microsoft has paid dearly for its past hubris, so it’s not like Google needs to look back to Homer for history lessons. As Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps, instead of worrying so much about how to keep up with the Twjoneses on real-time search, Googlers ought to take a moment to reflect on the information they’ve already indexed.

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel Lemire // Jun 28, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    As long as engineers have the power within Google, they will keep their edge over a company like Microsoft.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Jun 28, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    As an engineer (at least in the general sense of that word), I empathize with that point of view–though I’m skeptical that the history of technology companies validates it.

    To be clear, Google is crushing Microsoft online, and a bit of hubris isn’t going to change that in the near term. But it is a character flaw in Google’s corporate culture, and one Google would do well to curtail, not only to maintain a positive public image, but also to keep its head straight.

  • 3 Daniel Lemire // Jun 28, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    There are few companies trying to come up with the best technology and the most useful tools. Any company with this focus will win on the long term. I am absolutely convinced. These companies are safe bets. I admit that I do not have statistical evidence to back me up, but I do have some experience.

    A lot of what goes on has to do with business deals and finding ways to “monetize” or attract funding. These are important things, but when they are your main focus, you will not prevail in a war of innovations.

    The software industry is a simple one. There are a few really good people. I call them engineers for lack of a better word, though software designer would be a better term. In most companies, these people are directed by people who have no idea how to come up with good software. Their talent is kept in check and almost neutralized. Yet, all innovation comes straight from these few people.

    Vista is a bad product, not because Microsoft lacks the talented engineers, but precisely because the engineers did not get the final word.

    By the way, the same holds in academic research. True innovation does not come out of trying to get large grants or your paper accepted in the most prestigious conference. If your primary focus is not on pushing the state-of-the-art, you will simply rehash old stuff and help fill “top conferences” with boring talks. We will not cure cancer by getting larger grants. Money is a tool, your intent is what matters most.

    Anyhow, I’ll finish with an unrelated rant. Search my name in Bing, it uses something like “Wavelet filter design and interpolatory subdivision schemes” to describe my home page. I was working on wavelets back in 1998, about ten years ago. I wrote wavelet-based software for the last time in 1999. My home page is always current with my interest. It seems like bing’s crawler has serious bugs.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Jun 28, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    I’m certainly with you on being underwhelmed by Bing, and more generally by Microsoft’s efforts online. I also agree that their problem isn’t lack of talent–I’ve known my share of engineers at Microsoft. So I’m certainly inclined to chalk their problems up to either management or corporate culture.

    But being dismissive of competition is the surest way to have blinders to it. And, while Microsoft may be losing online, it’s still doing quite well elsewhere. I’m sure that a lot of people at Google know that and are paying attention. But, much to you point, management and corporate culture matter.

  • 5 Christopher Rines // Jun 28, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    A few comments:

    1. Hubris on stage or in public comments is sad. We used to be known as an industry of nerds who couldn’t get their ideas across without reverting to geek speak or aggressive attacks. We are way beyond that, put someone on stage with at least a bit of tact… The old saying he who lives by the sword … applies here, not all Google touches is golden. ;)

    2. On the specific enterprise search quote… HA! Google slamming anyone’s enterprise search offering is hilarious when you look at their own “innovations”. I can almost see a Google sales wonk on a call, customer asks, “Why Google Enterprise Search”, Google Wonk responds “Because we are Google”, wonders off muttering under his breath at the customers audacity.

    Oh and right now my favorite potential UI for enterprise search would be something based on NewsSift. It’s certainly not perfect (needs work on sources & temporal data displays) but I really like that UX.

    3. Daniel L., it is my humble opinion that you have this slightly wrong. Engineers are making the decisions at Microsoft just like Google the difference is:

    a. Microsoft has been around for so long that fiefdoms are very prevalent, everyone is not pointing in the same direction and very often the best idea loses because of this. Additionally with the stock “crisis” MS went through the past few years many strong voices have either dropped out or turned off. None of this is an excuse for sub-par projects but I think it’s part of the why.

    b. Google is still in the honeymoon, cult phase where everyone wants to please Brin & Page so they are all in-line like lemmings which I grant is working right now (just like it did at MS). That said everything Google touches is hardly golden.

    c. You are already seeing fraying around the edges of Google with dissatisfaction of how things are going and I believe that will accelerate. I love the idea of 20% time but as many small projects are started by very smart, passionate people when their project is not one chosen to become the next Orkut (HA!) or Wave there will be a growing dissatisfaction.

    I will conclude by apologizing for my own snark towards the Google comments & failed products, it was illustrative. And by saying I think both companies have a lot of smart people trying to do good work, I’d partner with either.

    P.S. On a purely research basis I follow many more Microsoft & Yahoo researchers than Google for what that’s worth.

  • 6 jeremy // Jun 29, 2009 at 1:44 am

    “One way of doing enterprise search would be to start something in 2001 that didn’t work. You could then do a complete overhaul in 2003, which also didn’t work. In 2007, you could launch a rip-and-replace system and then … you could acquire a large, random, non-integrated system.”

    Yeah? And besides search, how many of Google’s “innovations” were grown, in-house, rather than through acquisition?

    Gmail: In house.
    Google Earth: Acquisition
    Picasa: Acquisition
    Blogger: Acquisition
    Docs: Acquisition
    Spreadsheets: Acquisition
    Android: Acquisition
    YouTube: Acquisition

    Shall I continue?

    I guess I don’t understand what, exactly, Google is poking fun at.

  • 7 Bob Gourley // Jun 29, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Daniel,

    This was yet another great post. Thanks. Your thoughts seem spot on to me. And you linkage to Homer proves we are dealing with human nature here. Thanks for the great context.

    Bob

  • 8 Daniel Tunkelang // Jun 29, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Bob, thanks. I hope I’m doing right by the teachers to whom I’m grateful for drilling the classics into my head in high school.

    Jeremy, I agree that Google shouldn’t knock acquisition as a strategy. That said, I think the jab that Microsoft has struggled to find its way in search has some truth to it. My objection was not the substance but the tone and context–he delivered those words in a keynote address that was supposed to be positive. It was bad enough that that the presentation was a fluffy vendor pitch (which it was), but to gratuitous bash a competitor crossed the line.

    Christopher, great analysis! I see a guest blog post in your future…

  • 9 jeremy // Jun 29, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Oh, of course it has some truth that Microsoft has struggled to find its way in search. But hasn’t every company struggled in some area new to themselves, in one way or another? Replacing a couple of words here and there leaves us with:

    One way of doing online video would be to start something in 2005 that didn’t work. You could then do a complete overhaul in 2006, partnering with media companies to bring the world exactly what it wants: old episodes of Charlie Rose, loaded with DRM. In late 2006, you could acquire a large, random, non-integrated system (YouTube), and thus have two video platforms. In 2007 you could then make good use of that DRM by disabling the playback ability of videos that customers had already purchased through Google Video, and in 2009 disable uploading capabilities completely, establishing once and for all the complete and utter strategic confusion around your Video efforts.

    I wasn’t there to hear the tone and context of the keynote. But the substance itself also seems fairly hubris-filled. If you’re going to poke fun at Microsoft for not getting search right, in house, and having to acquire other companies in order to be successful, then you have to be able to look at your own efforts, and see that you yourself have acted exactly the same way.

    But isn’t that hubris? An inability to see in oneself the failings that one sees in others?

  • 10 Daniel Tunkelang // Jun 29, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I agree. My point was simply that I didn’t think the speaker from Google was wrong on the analysis, but rather that he was delivering it in a way that was inappropriate and, yes, hubristic. Learning for others’ mistakes is wise. Publicly poking fun at them is, at the very least, not wise.

  • 11 Daniel Lemire // Jun 29, 2009 at 11:29 am

    @Christopher

    What I am saying is that any company which is focused on making the best product possible will win on the long term.

    I did not say anything specific about what is going on within Google. I am pretty worried about the transformations Google is going through.

    It is pretty depressing if the DRM stuff in Vista was put there by engineers. Frankly, I cannot believe this. These are not requirements that engineers or users would throw in. They have the smell of MBAs at work.

    I stand my ground. I think Microsoft’s goal in designing Vista was not to create the best operating system. Maybe some of the new features came from the engineers, but largely, the engineers did not have the final say, business guys did.

    The goal was not to please the customers. The goal was to please the music industry so that other deals could be made.

    Once Google start… oh! I don’t know… tuning their search engine to please the music or film industry… then they lose. So far, it seems that they have done their best so that their users, not their business partners, be happy. In short, it seems that they are mostly doing the right thing… so far…

  • 12 jeremy // Jun 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Once Google start… oh! I don’t know… tuning their search engine to please the music or film industry… then they lose. So far, it seems that they have done their best so that their users, not their business partners, be happy. In short, it seems that they are mostly doing the right thing… so far…

    Actually, Daniel L, the moment Google started showing its first advertisements on your search results page, I felt that it had lost its way and had started working to please the MBAs rather than the engineers.

    (And don’t forget — Google Video also comes with built-in DRM. Do you really think the engineers wanted that?)

  • 13 Daniel Lemire // Jun 29, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Google Video also comes with built-in DRM. Do you really think the engineers wanted that?

    Probably not.

  • 14 An Apology to Vijay Gill | The Noisy Channel // Aug 2, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    [...] little over a month ago, I wrote a post entitled “Even Google Should Beware Of Hubris“. I stand by much of that post. But I specifically said: And, just a few days ago, Google’s [...]

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