I attended a Google NYC Tech Talk yesterday evening, entitled "Doubleclick Ad Exchange: Connecting the World of Online Advertising". It was the most interesting of the several I have been to (the sole exception is one highly technical presentation by Victor Miller a year ago on hashing functions). There was a reasonable amount of detail on some of Google's strategies for ultra low-latency auctioning of internet advertising, and I was able to enjoy the special pleasure that you get from listening to smart people explaining something they know a lot about. If I was not completely won over by three references to the market's "invisible hand" in various names, that is the result of my own failure to believe, and Google is not to blame for it.
A sideshow to the talk was a closer look than usual at some of Google's security rules. Nothing extraordinary, and I don't think I'm putting the company at risk in what follows, but the cumulative effect left me in a state of mellow reflection (possibly not my normal state).
In the large presentation theater, we were told we could take photographs of things within the theater itself but not of anything in the rest of the space, all of which was completely visible from the open-walled theater. Okay, I understand the "I shall avert my eyes" rule and am even able to observe it. But with something over two hundred strangers in the room, I wonder to what extent the company expects such a rule to be honored. Making a rule without enforcing it can weaken one's authority if someone decides to test it, and that is a risk when the rule isn't easy to enforce, surely a temptation to some of the contrary among us.
More interesting was the security downstairs. There were a number of people on line at the desk, waiting as a security officer tried to find someone on the phone to authorize a certain person to enter the building. We all had our IDs ready to show him. But a moment came when the officer let through someone who said he was going to be late to the Tech Talk, and then suddenly all of us who said we were going to the same place were waved through — without anyone looking at IDs, printed Meetup "tickets", official name lists, or anything else. I was glad to get in without further delay, but I think the security officer must have felt the kind of pressure to which a weak functionary is most susceptible — fear that he might get in trouble for holding up something important. I hope the company asks itself what it says to the outside world when a security officer feels weak and is vulnerable to silly time pressure of this kind. For security to be respected, doesn't it have to appear confident, patient, and utterly unruffled?
Inside security, I faced the familiar little desk with name badges on it, printed from Meetup's name list. Google is now using a higher quality name badge than it used to. That gave a more professional feeling to the visit than used to be the case, certainly. What made me smile to myself is that, in the lobby of what must be the most technically innovative company now active in the US, these badges were still being sorted by hand, as they have been ever since I started attending the Tech Talks. And this time, the people who were passing them out actually gave me someone else's badge, without looking at any of my credentials or even trying to pronounce the last name on the badge to me (I spelled mine out for them clearly). I didn't realize I had gotten the wrong badge until I got home later in the evening and took it off. Only the first letter is the same as in mine.
I guess I should be glad whoever got my badge didn't get me in trouble — he could have photographed the opulent buffet (in the off-camera section of the meeting space), or stayed behind past the no-peeing hour in the men's room, or sneaked out of the building through an unauthorized exit stairway (these were accessible but we were warned away from them in tremulous gentleness by a junior employee).
I suppose it's something to be grateful for when security, so frightening in our society in the past decade, is handled softly — rather than with the ill-concealed hostility that has become common elsewhere.
On the whole, though I've been irked with some of Google's practices in the past weeks, I came away with a better overall impression of the company than I had when I went in, and that surprises me a little, and pleases me, too.