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Former Google CIO Suggests 'Do Dumb Things' 202

Posted by timothy
from the not-all-things-are-dumb-in-the-same-way dept.
itwbennett writes "Speaking at the CA Expo in Sydney, Australia, former Google CIO Douglas Merrill shared some management tips he learned during his tenure at the search giant. At the top of the list: 'Don't be afraid to do dumb things.' Merrill recalls that 'most of the early Google hardware was stolen from trash and as the stuff they stole broke all the time they built a reliable software system. Everyone knew we shouldn't build our own hardware as it was 'dumb', but everyone was wrong. Sometimes being dumb changes the game.' Another pearl of wisdom from Merrill: 'the more project management you do the less likely your project is to succeed.'"
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Former Google CIO Suggests 'Do Dumb Things'

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  • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Monday July 25, 2011 @07:51PM (#36877872)
    is he saying that if the hardware he made was, say, 20% more power hungry and 10% more expensive it would have rendered Google's business idea unworkable. I'm not sure I buy it. Maybe it allowed him to scale up with less capital, but I think a 20% slower google would still have won hearts and minds during the period it was being created.
    • I don't know, seems reasonable to me. Profit margins can be pretty slim and it does not take much to go from making a cent per user to losing a cent per user and no business is built on losing money.

      • by guspasho (941623)

        No business is built on losing money AND no business grows as large and as quickly as Google has by running a slim profit margin.

        • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Monday July 25, 2011 @09:19PM (#36878716) Homepage

          Many huge businesses run on tiny profit margins. if you do enough business then it compensates and google does a ton of business.

          And thus are huge percentage increases. 20% more cost to operate the hardware and 10% more to build? That would of turned a healthy profit margin into a non existent one (don't forget we are talking about the beginning of Google so I doubt that they had so many employees to make hardware cost insignificant).

    • pragmatism, that's what it was. Look up the definition. Although saying 'be pragmatic' is not as quotable as saying be dumb' and meaning be pragmatic.
    • by YojimboJango (978350) on Monday July 25, 2011 @10:06PM (#36879088)

      If you're not buying that how about buying reading lessons.

      He's saying that getting cheap crappy hardware that failed all the time forced them to write software with a high tolerance for failure. A little between the lines and he's saying that if they didn't go through the hardship of failing hardware they would've never written something that could fail over to other machines. I can imagine that a system that fails over to a new server quickly would also be highly scalable with a little tweaking.

      That 'dumb decision' to not invest in reliable hardware indirectly helped them build a highly scalable search system that became their whole companies foundation. Over management and strict adherence to known process would have produced a Google search that would've required a massive rewrite to their (at the time only) product right when they were getting off the ground.

      TLDR: If you're big enough to hire a consultant that tells you to, "Think outside the box", you're probably too big to think outside the box.

    • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @02:44AM (#36880598) Journal

      You have to remember that this was during the last bubble and Google is rather famous for going against the flow. "Everyone" was using the investment money to buy Sun hardware with Oracle databases and those expensive chairs. Google went dumpster diving and because that ZERO cost hardware failed all the time came up with software that could deal with unreliable hardware meaning that google never had to buy 5 nine hardware at insane prices.

      This was repeated by Facebook. You will find endless experts claiming you could never scale either PHP or MySql to be a serious site, yet one of the largest sites in the world runs on those two. Same as google proved linux was far more capable then just being a hobby OS for nerds. And proved it again with Android.

      Google could afford to offer gmail with insane storage space because they had a very cheap hardware infrastructure. Had they build it with "proper" hardware and software the costs would have been astronomical.

      But hey, you know better then Google because you run what mega-corp?

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        You will find endless experts claiming you could never scale either PHP or MySql to be a serious site, yet one of the largest sites in the world runs on those two.

        To be fair, Facebook had to customize both PHP and MySQL to get "serious" throughput out of them... naturally this is an example of the OSS model triumphing, but it does suggest that there was some truth to the idea.

        • by sphealey (2855)

          > To be fair, Facebook had to customize both PHP and MySQL to get
          > "serious" throughput out of them... naturally this is an example of the
          > OSS model triumphing, but it does suggest that there was some truth to the idea.

          Also to be fair, Facebook's business model does not require transactional integrity and a 95% or so success rate in committing updates is acceptable to them, so with that model the advantages of an Oracle or DB2 are not necessary. If Facebook guaranteed commits to its customers th

      • by Needlzor (1197267)
        "This was repeated by Facebook. You will find endless experts claiming you could never scale either PHP or MySql to be a serious site, yet one of the largest sites in the world runs on those two." Except that Facebook: - compiles its PHP to C, so in the end it really has nothing to do with PHP anymore apart from the syntax they code in. So the "endless experts" were right: PHP is an unscalable turd. - runs like a piece of shit anyway. Numerous problems of disappearing messages, posts that can't be seen for
  • by br00tus (528477) on Monday July 25, 2011 @07:56PM (#36877926)

    I think most project managers are a waste as well. In a small company it is unneeded. I'm more circumspect to say whether or not they're needed in a big company, but they certainly seem less needed in small, closely connected groups. If you have a big, long project, with people from different divisions doing different things, then yes, a project manager can be helpful. On a small project, with a few people, who work closely already on a variety of things, project managers just tend to get in the way. I don't know how many projects I've been brought into at the last minute because someone quit or whatever, and the PM points to my place on the timeline - I'm already two weeks late in finishing whatever is supposed to be done on the day I'm brought into the project. It's just completely pointless aside from those large collaborations that cross across many people in many different groups at a company.

    • by modmans2ndcoming (929661) on Monday July 25, 2011 @08:10PM (#36878094)

      BAD project management gets in the way... a project manager is suppose to get obstacles out of the way of the talent and provide resources where needed... not crack the whip because they are idiots.

      • BAD project management gets in the way... a project manager is suppose to get obstacles out of the way of the talent and provide resources where needed... not crack the whip because they are idiots.

        Another thing that kills project is bad management. A good project manager can't be effective if bad management gets in the way.

        • by djdanlib (732853)

          You and the parent poster have some very true points. Your project manager could be the most effective PM ever, but management could say "We want to meet about this [inconsequential thing] before proceeding [for the sake of our monthly justification to upper management that our employment is not pointless]. Oh, by the way, some of us are going to be on vacation until next month, so we need to wait until next month." Happens all the time.

      • If that's the case, then I've never met a GOOD project manager. Generally the project managers I've worked with seem to think their jobs are to slow me down. I had one tell me it was because when I completed my work too soon it would make the project estimates look bad. Then he proceeded to load me down with process, Quality Assurance and configuration management reports. All of which were turfed when the project managers were rotated because one took a "promotion".

        I agree some management in the planning
        • that made the initial time estimates? If so then you were making the estimates (yours in particular) look bad and unreliable. If it was someone else making the estimates for you work then that is about as big of a WTF as you can get. I've been at places where the engineers are given estimates created by someone else. It never works out.
          • by Knuckles (8964)

            Still stupid even if it was the GP's own estimate. A good PM would have sat down with him to see how to improve the estimate for next time. There are good methods for that.

        • Oh, yeah - nothing makes you look more incompetent than having your project be ahead of schedule.

          • by jd2112 (1535857)

            Oh, yeah - nothing makes you look more incompetent than having your project be ahead of schedule.

            I take it you've never worked in the Government sector? On time/under budget is the last thing you want because next year's budget will be cut.

            • you could use the spare money to buy a new Airhockey table for the programmers. That'll solve the spare money and time!
        • ... it's the other way around. Planning stages that are bogged down in process never seem to get off the ground; good, effective project management in development & testing phases keeps everyone corralled and on track.

          That said, it sounds like your project manager was (a) incompetent, and (b) had little experience of the software development process himself.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      rubbish...

      Sorry someone will end up doing the job of the project manager. Seen it happen dozens of times.

      Get a real one and you see what was missing...

      Get a myopic dick and they can grind things to a halt.

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      I think most project managers are a waste as well. In a small company it is unneeded. I'm more circumspect to say whether or not they're needed in a big company, but they certainly seem less needed in small, closely connected groups.

      I argue that you need project management all the time, only the amount of it varies in depending the size of the project. I tend to agree, however, that if you do project management in excess of what's needed, almost all the time is a failure guarantee.

      In short, when doing it the proper way, project management is related with the "cost of prevention", thus:
      a. you may skip the prevention and, if lucky enough, you may succeed; but...
      b. ... if you are excessively cautious, nobody is going to get you back the

      • by jd2112 (1535857)

        you may skip the prevention and, if lucky enough, you may succeed;

        That sure worked out well for BP

        • by Pieroxy (222434)

          you may skip the prevention and, if lucky enough, you may succeed;

          That sure worked out well for BP

          Because BP is all about software.
          *context*, it's all about context ! People are talking about software here.

    • by alvinrod (889928)
      It really depends on what amount of management needs to be done and wether or not developers will use sane project management practices themselves. In smaller groups, things will generally work well assuming that group of developers in that group is well disciplined and are able to identify what needs to be done. Once the group size increases, so does the communication overhead, while the contribution of any one person decreases. At that point you need someone looking at the big picture and providing some g
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I think most project managers are a waste as well. In a small company it is unneeded.

      My job is a fucking endless nightmare because of people who think like you. :(

      Still, in all fairness, I would (and do :/) take no project management at all over bad project management. Bad PM isn't just catastrophic, it's an extinction-level dinosaur-killing asteroid of fail.

    • Often the problem is when these plans are made, time lines are too optimistic to get it under budget. Then the timelines are used as a whip to judge people success or failure.
      They work better if you can have blanks. And the project managers job is about keeping the project going and all the requirements are met.

    • Successful companies grow... and hire more people... and add a layer of management... and the managers are hired last... thus the meanest.
    • by rtb61 (674572)

      There are two types of project managers, professional project managers and of course professional in the project being done who can project manage. These two produce greatly different results, one who only concerned in generating personal income for generating as much project management paperwork as possible and being able to blame everyone else for their failures. The other of course has skills and understanding of the work at hand, a produces the correct amount of project management to produce a result,

  • Google succeeded because it was at the right time at the right place. Nothing else. Yes, there were other search engines before it, but Google set a standard and ran with it. Try the same approach in the same field of business today and you will fail. Invariably. Likewise with the next EBay, the next Amazon, the next Facebook. No, they were not the first. But they were amongst the first and they were there and "the best" at just the right time when the service they offered suddenly got popular.

    That's all th

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2011 @08:02PM (#36878010)

      Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
      - Seneca
              Roman dramatist, philosopher, & politician (5 BC - 65 AD)

      • Some people have a lot of opportunities and chances to eventually be prepared for one of them. Other people have spent their whole lives preparing and never had an opportunity.
    • Google succeeded because it was at the right time at the right place. Nothing else.

      No, it was not "Nothing else." Google got it right (or close enough to right). Taking advice from Google would be a mistake because they are already dominant in the industry where there advice is most applicable. However, listening to how they chose to go against the "received wisdom" of business might help you to see how it might pay you to go against the "received wisdom" in your industry and be more successful.
      Treating the pronouncements from a successful businessman from a different industry (probably

      • by steelfood (895457)

        "Glean" doesn't require gathering slowly or laboriously. It only requires insight, which depending on the person and subject matter, comes after a variable amount of time. Take a story, abstract it to the relevant bits, and apply it elsewhere as necessary. The key is to know which bits to take, and when to apply it.

        In this particular case, he's saying to think out of the box, and to not be restricted by preconceptions. That certain methods do not produce the optimal results in the short term should not nece

    • by JordanL (886154)
      And this is a great example of why you are not a multi-billionaire or successful CIO suggesting people do dumb things: successful business people are at the right place at the right time because they decide to make that time NOW. Facebook, Google, eBay, Amazon... for them it was the right time because they put a lot of effort into making it the right time.
    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      No, Google succeeded because they did search with a far better algorithm than anything else out there at the time. It came into being several years after the first search engines, and was up against several established players, such as Yahoo. They also made one very smart marketing move, which is still with them today: The front page of Google was a simple search box, whereas the front page of their competitors was loaded with widgets and paid ads. In the days of 56k modems, that meant you could load Google

    • by Dahamma (304068)

      Google succeeded because it was at the right time at the right place. Nothing else.

      Except that there were a dozen search engines at the SAME "right" time and place, and none of them had the same success as Google. They won out in search because their search result quality and simplicity at the time blew away everyone else's, and they have continued to be the best in their class.

      And they are making massive profits now not because they have "good search", but because they put large *effort* into making their

    • Not luck, a different approach that was far better than the competition. Google's ranking wasn't an entirely new idea - it was very similar to what the science citation index did - but no other search engine at the time even attempted such an approach. They made their own "timing" because search engines had been around for a few years previously and the technology was all there but nobody else had made such a step.
    • Mod parent Insightful!

      The same is true for many pieces of software and gadgets - Windows and Skype being two very strong examples.

      Apple on the other hand is an example of a company that knows when to hit sweet spots. Their dominance of the mobile device market was built on them knowing exactly when to make granny-friendly toy versions of existing gadgets.

  • Misleading summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 101010_or_0x2A (1001372) on Monday July 25, 2011 @07:57PM (#36877956)
    Does anyone here even read the summary together with the article itself and see if it makes sense? He did *not* say "do dumb things". That statement implies that you know its a dumb thing to do and it will not work, yet you do it anyway. In this case you *are* dumb and should be fired. He said "don't be afraid to do dumb things", which has a totally different meaning. It means that you should try approaches that may be non-obvious, but at least you are attempting to solve whatever the problem at hand is in an ingenious way. Sometimes it does not work and you look foolish, but you often get innovative solutions to tough problems.
    • by syousef (465911)

      Does anyone here even read the summary together with the article itself and see if it makes sense? He did *not* say "do dumb things". That statement implies that you know its a dumb thing to do and it will not work, yet you do it anyway. In this case you *are* dumb and should be fired. He said "don't be afraid to do dumb things", which has a totally different meaning.

      Actually if you read what you just wrote, it logically implies that you should expect to be fired and not be afraid of it. I don't think you should be giving anyone subtle lessons in logic.

    • by c0lo (1497653)
      Seriously, guys, read TFA. Here's another example of "dumb" but insightful:

      On funding good people, Merrill recommends always "over hiring" and diversity matters.

      "Diversity yields better outcomes. Hire someone who annoys you as they are more likely to be diverse and diverse practices are better," he said.

      Any MBA graduate will tell you this is dumb, because you aren't trying to minimize the cost and create yourself the pains of constant frictions. Very few will recall that the profit has two components, and the "income" part of it is actually favored by diversification.

      • The problem with these kinds of soundbytes is that you can make them say anything you like.

        "Diversity yields better outcomes." WTF does that even mean? Without a definition of "better outcomes", it can be right or wrong. Do you really want an engineering department full of firemen, truckers, painters, sportspeople etc? No, you want an engineering department full of engineers.

        "Hire someone who annoys you" Seriously? Do you want to spend the whole day having arguments and being stressed out about stupid s

        • by c0lo (1497653)

          "Hire someone who annoys you" Seriously? Do you want to spend the whole day having arguments and being stressed out about stupid shit? Is that really a better way to build products?

          Personally, I favor a diversity of ideas in the inception stage, I found that leads to better products.

          There's no insight here, just soundbytes that everyone interprets differently.

          And you too are right: each one will pick what they want to hear. Does it make it less valuable? (are you in the search for "the silver bullet solution"?)

          • No, I'm saying these quotes have no intrinsic value. All the value that derives from them is what readers put in. So they shouldn't be viewed as distilled wisdom to be understood, but rather as nonsense to use as a conversation starter. They're basically like fortune cookie quotes.
    • by Aceticon (140883)

      Doing things in ways others find dumb is the way to create a truly successful business.

      Almost by definition, the only way to do things which is not tagged as dumb is the proven way, the way things are done by almost everybody and (lo-and-behold) the way countless well estabilished businesses do things now.

      If you're starting a company that does things like everybody else, all you're going to be is a tiny player, with no real distinctive value offer (after all, you do it like everybody else), surrounded by la

    • I think what he meant was "try things that are considered dumb from a business/administrative perspective." Building your own servers, from a technical perspective, may be a brilliant thing to do, but would be considered dumb from a business/administrative perspective. From a business perspective, the smart thing to do is to follow the "Nobody Ever Got Fired For Buying IBM" mentality. To go with a nice packaged solution from one of the biggest, best-established companies with good brand-name recognition, te

  • Don't do dumb things. Do calculatedly different things that break the conventional wisdom for good reasons. You can do risky things that you think have a good chance of failing but might have huge rewards as long as you know why you're doing it.

    But the executive level takeaway seems to be "Hey, I didn't understand why that last thing worked, so why not just do whatever I want with impunity?" See anything Eric Schmidt has ever said, for example. Or Kaz Hirai.

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Monday July 25, 2011 @08:09PM (#36878078) Homepage

    Every single major corporation does dumb things all the time! Incompetence is rampant! That means, logically, if you want to create a major corporation, you need to cultivate a culture of incompetence and stupidity.

  • Continuing this line of thought, Merrill said, "Put all your eggs in one basket; Count your chickens before they hatch. Serve some wine before its time, find yourself an itch to scratch."

  • Wealthy advice (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Monday July 25, 2011 @09:00PM (#36878536) Homepage Journal

    its funny how the uber wealthy have advice like 'its not about the money', 'take risks' ' you can always start over' 'the economy isn't that bad' etc etc.

    Sure, they made it and we didn't, but it does taint their objectiveness to towards the real world.

    • its funny how the poor have advice like 'its about the money', 'play it safe' ' you can't start over' 'the economy is that bad' etc etc.

      Sure, they didn't make it and we did, but it does taint their objectiveness to towards the real world.

      ---

      See what I did there? It is actually rather insightful because this is pretty much how it works. If you do something and it hurts, you won't do it again. But if you do something and it doesn't hurt, you will do it again. Success is positive reinforcement, failure a negat

    • The best example is the guy in England who started his own green energy company and built the Nemesis EV demonstrator car. He's been in the news over the last couple of days.

      He was basically a hippy who built his own windmill in his backyard and said that it "became the blueprint for his company," that he thought there should be more windmills, and figured he should set them up, so he "just did it."

      Well WHERE DID THE FUCKING MONEY TO START A WIND POWER COMPANY COME FROM!?!? He never explains this. I'm betti

  • by Anonymous Coward

    From TFA:

    "Don't be afraid to do dumb things. Larry and Sergey developed a search product called 'Backrub' - don't ask me how they got that - and shortly after that launched Google as part of the Stanford domain. Most of the early Google hardware was stolen from trash and as the stuff they stole broke all the time they built a reliable software system."

    So this brings back one of my fondest IT memories. One week in the late 90s, I went down to the bay area for some very expensive naptime my employers referred

  • Talking about Google encouraging people to "Do Dumb Things": their senior VP of engineering condones driving while distracted on a Mercedes advert [youtube.com].

    Translation: it's okay to drive like a moron, we have software that will save your ass.
  • Selection bias (Score:3, Insightful)

    by michaelmalak (91262) <michael@michaelmalak.com> on Monday July 25, 2011 @09:11PM (#36878632) Homepage
    This is like asking a 110-year-old man how he got to live to be so old, him answering that he ate Ho-Hos every day, and then you adding Ho-Hos to your daily diet. Forget correlation != causality. There's not even any correlation here.
    • by 517714 (762276)

      The 110 year old man would be lying about Ho-Hos since he could only have eaten them for 40% of his life. Likewise you may wish to ignore the advise of someone who believes that the CCD was invented by Kodak or in 1990. CCD was invented by Bell Labs in 1969 and Kodak did use CCDs in a digital camera in 1975 and nobody (as far as I have been able to determine) said either was a bad idea.

      I believe that ignoring the conventional wisdom of this ex-CIO is apt advise in this case.

  • I'm trying to change the game by making this dumb post. Now mod me +5 Insightful.

  • I don't know if pulling hardware out of the trash is the only reason to build reliable systems. You could also just make building something that's redundant and reliable your main goal. Of course, I do see how it would be hard to pull that off if you get overbearing project managers just looking to cram one more feature in. So I think his second point is spot on.
  • by Culture20 (968837) on Monday July 25, 2011 @09:46PM (#36878920)
    So what's the statute of limitations regarding stealing from the trash? Anyone know?
  • by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Monday July 25, 2011 @09:48PM (#36878948) Homepage Journal

    Google CIO:

    'Don't be afraid to do dumb things.'

    I believe that this yet another area in which I am well ahead of the curve.

  • by LynnwoodRooster (966895) on Monday July 25, 2011 @09:54PM (#36878996) Journal
    Early on in my engineering career, my first principal engineer I worked for, a Russian scientist who fled the USSR in 1974, told me something that's stuck with me ever since:

    .
    You never learn from your success, only from your failure. If you succeed, you cannot be sure it wasn't just dumb luck; when you fail, you know there is only one person to blame.

    • by Goboxer (1821502)

      I was in a math class with a friend who was a bit lazy when it came to homework. One day we got tests back and he scored lower than me, and explained it away by saying "I prefer to fail so that I can learn from what I did wrong." I said to him "I prefer to practice, that way my failures are private and my victories are more meaningful."

      I would say failing is valuable, but mostly when you are practicing.

  • Another pearl of wisdom from Merrill: 'the more project management you do the less likely your project is to succeed.'"

    This is very poor advice. More often than not, I have seen poorly managed projects meet with less success. A properly planned project means that you have the cooperation of your customers and all departments involved. A properly planned project is one in which you have the trust and confidence from your customer.

  • Paul Kelly's song is an anthem to most people's lives.

    If I don't do several dumb things before I get my morning coffee, it's an unusual day.

  • Therefore, my advice is, put your finger into a light socket. The fact I did dumb things precedes my luck, so now I can give dumb advice from experience.
  • by epine (68316) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @01:25AM (#36880280)

    This is a case where I wish I hadn't RTFA. None of these glib aphorisms turn full circle. It scares me that he's willing to throw out dangerous sound-bites with no guard rails for the unwary.

    I think he also has a bad case of bafflegab envy: where your investors decide your company is worth twice as much because everything you say runs against common sense. We've had a few investment cycles where all the money was chasing after anti-gravity machines.

    No doubt you can dress funny on the road to success if you're funded to twice the level that any rational person would pony into. This is the "Confederacy of Dunces" business model. Works great if you can pull it off.

  • I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said something like:

    The wise man adapts himself to the world but the fool adapts the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the fool.

The flow chart is a most thoroughly oversold piece of program documentation. -- Frederick Brooks, "The Mythical Man Month"

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