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The Guru from Google holds court

ram1.jpgRam Shriram, the angel investor who counseled Google‚s founders during the earliest days, says success has no magic formula, but stems rather from continual small „block and tackleš moves and, oh, it helps to have a little book called „Ram‚s Book of Mistakesš to guide the way.
We joined a couple of hundred people listening at the feet of Shriram last night in Santa Clara, when he talked with President of TiE Silicon Valley Sridar Iyengar about the „Google story.š Here are our takeaways:

--Success is pretty much a crap-shoot; there are too many unknown facts in a company‚s early life to make all the right decisions. But good, quick judgment calls on multiple fronts helps multiply the chances of beating the odds.

--Not even the wise man can see it coming: „I had no premonition of the things to come,‚‚ Shiram said, about meeting the founders in 1998 for the first time at the office of Stanford professor Jeff Ullman, when he firsted tested their search engine. For two months, he didn‚t think anything more about it, until they called him.

--It‚s the people, stupid. Shriram helped co-founders Larry Page and Serge Brin in the Menlo Park garage by consulting his „Ram‚s Book of Mistakes,š which he said he started eight or nine years ago to help remind him of all the bad decisions he‚d made. Bad hiring decisions are the most fatal.

-- It‚s all in the grooming. Shriram set out to made sure Page & Brin hired only the very best, or „Aš people. He cited the well-known Silicon Valley tenet: Hire only A people, and they‚ll hire other A people. If you hire the B person, they‚ll hire C or D people. Someone asked a good question: How did Shriram decide who are so-called „Aš people? Grooming is a part of it. „I try to find out who their mothers are,š he said. If they are raised well, they‚re more likely to make good citizens, employees and entrepreneurs.

--(Aside note: Maybe that‚s why it takes a grueling four hours of interviews for Google to make hiring decisions. And it's turning away at least some candidates. Russell Beattie decided he didn‚t want to go through with it, as he writes in this interesting diatribe)

--Shriram counseled the audience: „Be bold and dynamic,š noting that there are huge opportunities afforded by the new Internet economy -- in China and India, especially.

--Enterprise software is one sector that is slowing. When asked about comments by Oracle‚s Larry Ellison that the tech sector is consolidating, Shriram said Ellison was correct, but only concerning software: „I‚d say it's Larry‚s personal problem.š He noted that Yahoo, Google and eBay had created 24,000 jobs, and that Internet companies had created $200 billion in stock market value in the last 7 years. „Not a bad achievement.š

--Launching a company is easy. The great thing about the Internet is you can launch and test an idea easily, and cheaply. If it doesn‚t work, you can go back to the drawing board. „If you build your field of dreams, and no one comes, you can shut it down,š he said.

--The trick is small engineering teams. „Bite-sized engineering projects,š as Shriram calls them, where you can „know and measure each person‚s output on a project.š That allows you to remain innovative and to launch and scrap projects quickly.

--Oh, and Shriram hasn‚t made a new investment in 12 months. And no, he's not publishing his "Ram's Book of Mistakes" any time soon.


I don't see what the big deal is about four hours of interviews. Taking a job is a big decision - meeting lots of people at Google gave me the comfort to know it was a place I'd want to work, and when I started, meant there were a bunch of people who already knew me and wanted me to succeed.

Current Googler on October 29, 2004 9:51 AM
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Good point. It was five years ago that the Merc hired me, and now that I think about it, it took at least 4 hours to get past the gatekeepers...even in 1999.

Matt Marshall on October 29, 2004 10:22 AM
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A misunderstanding of my weblog post, spun by uptight Googlers it seems, is that I decided against a job because I didn't want to sit through the four hour interview. No, I decided I didn't want to work for Google first, then decided I didn't want to go through the interview process because it would be a waste of an afternoon. That was very clear in my post.


Russ on October 29, 2004 10:36 AM
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Four hours of interviews, a half day, is pretty standard for the industry. That's enough time to meet 5-6 people. It's hard to get good information about a candidate with any less.

Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are known for having challenging interviews, but they can also be quite fun. It's an opportunity to bounce ideas off smart people and learn more about an interesting company.

Personally, I really enjoyed my Google interviews. I met several people face-to-face that I only known before through their academic writings. And it was an opportunity to engage in some interesting technical discussion and debate.

For us geeks, any chance to spend four hours chatting with smart people is a good time. I'm surprised Russell didn't jump at the chance to go in and talk.

Greg Linden on October 29, 2004 10:42 AM
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Looks like the bottom line is that software industry is finished in the US as a good marketable skill anyway. Top developers (unless they are successful entrepreneurs, which are far and between) command now roughly half the hourly rate they used to command 5 years ago. And this trend keeps continuing, no matter how many PhD's you have. So I don't see much "A" -level Americans even thinking into going into software industry.
"A" people, as it was mentioned, come from "A"-type families. But do American software developers want their kids to become developers and compete with some guys in India or China for half the money their parents used to make... I do not think so...

savelich on October 29, 2004 11:17 AM
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savelich -

While there won't be too many high paying job working for faceless mega-corps; there will still be interesting problems to solve in software, and those will attract the A-level players. Entrepreneurs, disruptive startups, and contrarian thinkers will still have a place in the new world order. Not all of us were raised just to want to get rich.

Derek Woolverton on October 30, 2004 12:22 AM
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"A" people only hire "A" people; that maybe true. But once an organization is filled with all "A" people, then the typical bell curve appears. 10% are smart, 80% are average, 10% are not-so-smart. So, perhaps the bottom 90% will hire A- people, who in turn will hire A-/B+ people thus polluting the base. Either way an organization has to be able to manage *any* type of people, an A person can become an F person; we have seen it many times.

I think Cringley makes an interesting arugment of what may happen to Google. Here is an excerpt:

"There's an interesting effect here that I've noticed over the years -- smart people don't make the same mistake twice while REALLY SMART people don't make the same mistake three times. Since they tend to make fewer mistakes to start with, really smart people tend to repeat the mistakes they do make because they are initially convinced that the outcome was someone else's fault or perhaps because of cosmic rays."

So who do they blame? The other "A" people inside the company?

read the rest at:

Ven on October 30, 2004 8:40 AM
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interesting, according to the filings of brian reid, who was fired by google in february, the average age of a male google employee is circa 29, and female average is 28...and only 2ish percent of all employees are over 40...so my question is this: are you talking about hiring smart people with very little commercial product delivery experience? is that why products like gmail go out the door with security flaws? why desktop is release without default settings to avoid internet site caching? their issues are both technical and emotional...not a youth culture issue per se, because other young firms have gotten it right, more like too many back seat drivers who can all drive stick but are all being forced to drive automatic...

Dave Carpe on November 1, 2004 4:15 PM
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Im finding this whole hype being built around google,same as happened to a nescape , then healtheon,then amazon,then ebay , just proves that the media and the wall street always need poster boys and flavour of the month companies to restore investor confidence.
What about all the success theories built 6 months back ?

Jassim Ali on November 4, 2004 9:44 PM
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Equal opportunity employer , yes google is , oh yeah , i dont have a mother , and that makes me a - C employee ?

Gooogleeee on November 6, 2004 8:56 AM
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