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June 23, 2008

Entering orbit around the Googleplex

Attention conservation notice: this is a posting about a workshop at Google's Mountain View complex.

I'll be giving a talk (1:30pm, Building 42, 2nd Floor; not sure if it's open to the public) about complex models of large-scale structure in networks at Google's Mountain View complex tomorrow, as part of a joint SFI workshop entitled "Selection Tinkering and Emergence in Complex Networks." The workshop is part of the Paramaribo Tech Talk series at Google; here's a brief explanation of the event:

This meeting will search for general principles of organization and evolution of natural and artificial systems changing through local rules based on reuse of previously existing substructures. Such a process of "tinkering" makes a big difference (at least in principle) when comparing biological structures and man-made artifacts. As pointed out by the French biologist Fran├žois Jacob, the engineer is able to foresee the future use of the artifact (i.e. it acts as a designer) whereas evolution does not. The first can ignore previous designs, whereas the second is based on changes taking place by using available structures.

In spite of its apparent drawbacks, tinkering has been able to generate most complex structures observable in the real world (including some in the technological world). Very often, the resulting structures share common principles of organization, suggesting that convergent evolution towards a limited number of basic plans is inevitable. How innovations emerge through evolution is one of the key problems in complexity, and this meeting will focus towards understanding these problems, using several scales of analysis - from cellular networks and tissues to ecosystems - and using network approaches as a quantitative characterization of such complexity.

My contribution, I believe, is to talk about networks and how to extract meaningful information about their large-scale structure.

Update 28 June 2008: The visit to Google went quite well, I think. The Tech Talk was in one of the main buildings, and what seemed like a relatively central place. Throughout the day, Googlers passed by on their way to other places in the complex. During my talk, I noticed a few new faces in the audience, which I can only assume were locals.

What's fascinating about Google is, really its size. My understanding is that the core business -- the one that brings in the majority of the money -- is the AdSense division, which sells keywords to advertisers and places ads on various other sites. The AdSense group itself doesn't require much to run, so there's a tremendous surplus of cash, which Google has apparently been using to grow like crazy and to invest in interesting (but mostly not profitable) projects related to organizing information. In some sense, this makes Google a lot like the old Bell Labs, where massive amounts of extra money were devoted to risky projects, many of which didn't produce anything useful until years or decades later. On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for having a good reputation, and the kind of good PR that Google gets from free but useful products like GoogleEarth, etc. is the kind that you simply can't buy any other way.

Another thing that struck me about the Googleplex was the age demographic. One of my friends from grad school who works there now said that a quarter of everyone he meets has worked there for less time than he has. That's not because there's a high turnover rate, but because Google's just been hiring like crazy. And they've been hiring young people. The vast majority of people I saw were under 40 or so, and a big portion of them were under 30.

So, it's a strange place really -- not like most companies I've interacted with --lots of fringe benefits (free food everywhere, free services like haircuts and shuttles, 20% time to work on your own crazy projects, etc.), lots of freedom, lots of young people, etc. In some sense, the internal corporate philosophy seems to be one of bringing together lots of smart people and giving them the tools, impetus and freedom to do brilliant things. So, it seems like a great place to work, right now. If the cash surplus situation were to change dramatically for some reason (government anti-trust activity a la Microsoft, strong competition from Yahoo! or MSN, a collapse of Internet adversing, etc.), then I'm sure things would change, much as they did for Bell Labs in the 1990s when it was spun out from AT&T.

For researchers, Google seems like a pretty good place to be. The three Googler colleagues of mine that I chatted with while I was there all have PhDs and all seemed to be really happy with their jobs. Of course, none had been there for that long, but one of them, who works on understanding the internal organizational dynamics of the company, mentioned that the retirement / quitting rate is very very low. So, like I said, it seems like a really good place to work, for now.

posted June 23, 2008 08:40 AM in Self Referential | permalink


Aaron hiya and sorry to bother.

Could you send me an email as am beinbg deadly thick ref yr email addy and am trying to get an email to you vis power laws and calculations of them.

Thanks yr work.


Simon (Fellows)

Posted by: simon fellows at June 29, 2008 07:43 PM