Is Google far too much in love with engineering?

Chris over at Cnet discusses the fact that almost every single employee at Google is an engineer, and whether or not that is entirely a good thing.

It’s nice if a pilot has a background in flying. It’s really quite special if a colonoscopist has a background in medicine. But does everyone who heads up a department at Google really need to have a background in engineering?

Is Google far too much in love with engineering?

If you’re not aware of the phenomenon of reactionary extremism, you obviously don’t read anything on the web. When people see a problem with something, their brains somehow create a false dichotomy. There’s a problem with copyright law, therefore all intellectual property law is bad. Capitalism is causing some badness here, therefore socialism is perfect and the best!

Google has almost definitely fallen victim to this fallacy. I know that almost every developer has experienced the pain of having to obey poor decisions from managers who do not understand technology. They make bad decisions based entirely on money or gut feelings, or other factors, and it infuriates the engineer. Google was started by engineers, so this situation angers them more than anything else. Their highest priority is to make sure it never happens.

Is this really a problem? Not if you’re a Google employee. If you’re a Google employee, you’re likely an engineer. Therefore you also know the frustration of managers who know nothing about technology poor decisions making engineers miserable. You are glad that you are shielded from them. You are glad that even if a decision doesn’t go your way, it was because someone had numbers, and there is some evidence behind the decision.

The problem is that by having only engineers, Google has some extreme weaknesses. There are two major ones that I think stand out above all others.

The first is user interface design. Sure, Google does a lot better than many, but not good enough by far. Android and Google Wave have some of the worst user interfaces imaginable. Google apps are sort of ok-ish. Chrome is alright. Nothing amazing. They have effectively unlimited money. They can design a new datacenter out of shipping containers that is crazily energy efficient. Why can’t they hire a decent UI person? Oh, wait, they just did. We’ll see if they actually listen to him, or if engineers decisions override him. Even so, it’s just one person, and it’s way too late in the game.

The second major problem is that they don’t finish or integrate any of their products. Google Voice is the greatest example of this. Once a person comprehends the idea of Google Voice, they immediately and desperately want it. The problem is that you can’t transfer your old number to it. It also doesn’t “just work.” Even on Android phones with Google’s logo printed on the phone itself, Google Voice does not integrate seamlessly and perfectly 100% of the time. They have so much money, and Google Voice has been out for so long. They should be able to put the polish on it.

I know, as a developer, that the old saying about the final 10% of the work taking 90% of the time is absolutely true. The last part is always the hard part. Google is full of engineers, so they know that rule as well as anybody. It seems to me that they all know this, and they all collude so that nobody ever has to actually do that hard work which is so unpleasant for engineers. They just keep doing the 90% of the work that takes 10% of the time. It’s truly an engineer’s paradise.

The result is that Google has a ton of projects. There are hundreds and hundreds of Google things that they have created or purchased. Which ones have actually made it big besides search, ads, mail, chat, analytics, docs. Other than search and ads, even things like docs is a drop in the bucket in terms of popularity. YouTube was popular before they bought it, so that doesn’t count. They have lots of projects, and almost no completed ones. It’s because they’re all engineers doing what engineers want to do. They need a non-engineering business person to crack the whip and make them do the work they don’t want to do. The work they don’t want to do is the work that will actually put them ahead of the competition.

Even if they realize this, there is another problem. They don’t need to care. They make so much freaking money just from search and ads, why do they care if a project like Voice is half-baked? It only hurts users. Users aren’t engineers who work at Google, so who cares if they suffer? They don’t even need to give them the courtesy of a phone number to call for support, because those non-engineers can’t possibly have anything valuable to say.

Google, hire some UI people, and do what they say, even if you don’t like what they have to say. They know better than you. Secondly, stop making new stuff. Finish the things you have. You might not think it’s worth it to invest more work into something that isn’t a hit. Well, nothing you make is going to be a hit unless you’ve worked out every last kink.

Obviously problems arise when non-engineers make decisions related to engineering. Google has clearly solved that problem, and it gives them an advantage. However, when you have engineers making decisions about law, art, or anything else that isn’t engineering, the same principle applies. Perhaps it is just the anti-social nature of engineers that prevents Googlers from working well with other disciplines. They better make some friends, and soon.

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2 Responses to Is Google far too much in love with engineering?

  1. James says:

    “the anti-social nature of engineers”? Really? Engineers are some of the most social people I know.

  2. matthew s. says:

    I agree with Apreche on the case of Google not finishing its projects. I remember when the Google labs was this mysterious place to test the new products but it seems to have grown and previously new ones haven’t changed much!

    Another comment on the UI of the Google search itself: they have implemented some excellent interfaces for refining results and changing category (news, images, etc.). I really enjoy this but it seems to be intermittent in when it appears. I haven’t bothered to find the trigger for the UI with the sidebar because its just not that important (as say…. a better Docs).

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