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Google and America’s Defense

With a market cap of $215 billion, Google has become the second-most valuable technology company after Microsoft. An article in the New York Times provides a fascinating glimpse of how Google has pulled off that feat in less than ten years.

“Conventional software is typically built, tested and shipped in two- or three-year product cycles,” the article notes. “Inside Google, Mr. [Eric] Schmidt [the CEO] says, there are no two-year plans. Its product road maps look ahead only four or five months at most. And, Mr. Schmidt says, the only plans ‘anybody believes in go through the end of this quarter.’”

As an example of how this “quicksilver” culture works in practice, the article offers the story of a new Google product:

Early this month, Google released new cellphone software, with the code-name Grand Prix. A project that took just six weeks to complete, Grand Prix allows for fast and easy access to Google services like search, Gmail, and calendars through a stripped-down mobile phone browser. (For now, it is tailored for iPhone browsers, but the plan is to make it work on other mobile browsers as well.)

Grand Prix was born when a Google engineer, tinkering on his own one weekend, came up with prototype code and e-mailed it to Vic Gundotra, a Google executive who oversees mobile products. Mr. Gundotra then showed the prototype to Mr. Schmidt, who in turn mentioned it to Mr. [Sergey] Brin [Google co-founder]. In about an hour, Mr. Brin came to look at the prototype.

“Sergey was really supportive,” recalls Mr. Gundotra, saying that Mr. Brin was most intrigued by the “engineering tricks” employed. After that, Mr. Gundotra posted a message on Google’s internal network, asking employees who owned iPhones to test the prototype. Such peer review is common at Google, which has an engineering culture in which a favorite mantra is “nothing speaks louder than code.”

As co-workers dug in, testing Grand Prix’s performance speed, memory use and other features, “the feedback started pouring in,” Mr. Gundotra recalls. The comments amounted to a thumbs-up, and after a few weeks of fine-tuning and fixing bugs, Grand Prix was released. In the brief development, there were no formal product reviews or formal approval processes.

No formal reviews, no formal approval process—and just six weeks from conception to market. Now that’s speed!

Obviously other companies can learn from Google. But so can any other large organization, in particular the Department of Defense. America’s enemies are showing a dismaying ability to quickly adapt their tactics, techniques, and procedures on battlefields such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. armed forces have had trouble moving as fast, in part because they are saddled with an antiquated, Industrial Age bureaucracy. It is doubtful that they ever could or should become as bureaucracy-free as Google. More checks and safeguards are needed when people’s lives are at stake, not just profits. But it would make sense for the armed forces to study corporations like Google to figure out how to speed up their own bureaucratic metabolism, because our decentralized foes, such as al Qaeda, are organized more along the lines of Google than of the Pentagon’s elaborate hierarchy.


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