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Monday, July 16, 2007

Paul Buchheit on Gmail, AdSense and More

Paul Buchheit used to work at Google as employee number 23. He was the lead developer of Google’s web-based email client Gmail, created the first AdSense prototype, and also came up with Google’s early informal motto “don’t be evil.” In her very interesting 2007 book Founders at Work, Jessica Livingston interviewed Paul as well as many other tech people (including Evan Williams of Pyra/ Blogger, which got acquired by Google later on). Jessica allowed me to reprint parts of the chapter on Paul.


Before Gmail, Another Gmail

<<I started working on email software a long time ago. I think it was maybe 1996, but it was just a little project. I had all these ideas that never really went anywhere. Oddly enough, I think I was calling it Gmail at the time, for some other reason. It just was a random project – not necessarily the predecessor to Gmail – but it was something that I’d been thinking about because I’d been sort of unhappy with email for a long time.

It was before Hotmail and I was in college at the time. If you wanted to check your email, you’d have to go back to your dorm room. I thought, “That’s so stupid. I should be able to just check it anywhere.” So I wanted to make some kind of web-based email. But I really didn’t know what I was doing, so it didn’t go anywhere.>>

Gmail Gets Off the Ground at Google

<<I was here at Google and I had worked on Google Groups, which is not exactly the same, but it’s related. After the first generation of Google Groups had mostly wrapped up, they asked me if I wanted to build some type of email or personalization product. It was a pretty non-specific project charter. They just said, “We think this is an interest area.” Of course, I was excited to work on that. (...)

I actually started out with some of the Groups code, just because I was familiar with it. I built the first version of Gmail in 1 day, just using the Groups code, but it only searched my email. I released that to some Googlers and people said it was useful, so it progressed from there. (...)

Everyone here had lots of email. This company is a little bit email crazy. I get 500 emails a day. So there was a very big need for search.>>

Internal Resistance Against Gmail, and Teamwork

<<[T]his was was when Google was still pretty much thought of exclusively as search, so even the idea of doing something like email was strange. A lot of people were kind of unsure. At this point, it wouldn’t seem like a big deal, but at the time it was a little bit controversial. (...)

For quite a while, it was just myself; and then another person, Sanjeev Singh, started working on it. (...) [T]hen later on another person, Jing Lim, started. It was a very slow kind of progression. And people were still a little bit uncertain about the whole idea of doing something as different as email.>>

Technical Challenges of Gmail

<<There’s a lot that was challenging about it, just because it’s very big, for one thing. We gave everyone a gigabyte of storage to start with. At the time, the standard was around 2 or 4 megabytes. (...)

[I]n email, everything has to be instant, and of course you can’t lose any of the data either.

It turns out to make a big difference in how you build things. A lot of the strategies that you might use for web search can be problematic when you apply them to email at a systems level, simply because you need to make everything so far. It has to happen right away. You can’t say, “Well, we receive email and then in half an our it will appear.” (...)

The JavaScript was a big deal as well, because at the time that we first started doing the interface in JavaScript, most people thought of JavaScript as a tool for pop-up advertising and other obnoxious things like that. This was before the whole Ajax thing, so a lot of people were pretty skeptical that JavaScript could work reliably. Not without justification – it is a little bit tricky because if you do things wrong, you’ll crash the browser.>>

Gmail’s Conversation View

<<It turned out part of the reason people were organizing their mail so aggressively is because they were trying to put the conversations back together. They’d put them all in the same folder – or they would forget and put them in the wrong folder and then the conversation would get split and they could never find the reply to this message.

There were all these little tools and tricks that people had for reassembling the conversations. Why not just put them all together to start with? At some point, we said, “Let’s hide the quoted text too.">>

On Creating an AdSense Prototype

<<I end up with side projects just because something catches my eye and I go off and work on it for a little bit. (...) AdSense, the content-targeted ads, was actually something that, if I recall, I did on a Friday.

It was an idea that we talked about for a long time, but there was this belief that somehow it wouldn’t work. But it seemed like an interesting problem, so one evening I implemented this content-targeting system, just as a sort of side-project, not because I was supposed to. And it turned out to work. (...) What I wrote was just a throwaway prototype, but it got people thinking because it proved that it was possible, and that it wasn’t too hard because I was able to do it in less than a day. After that, other people took over and did all the hard work of making it into a real product.>>

Coming Up With “Don’t Be Evil”

<<I believe that it was sometime in early 2000, and there was a meeting to decide on the company’s values. They invited a collection of people who had been there for a while. I had just come from Intel, so the whole thing with corporate values seemed a little bit funny to me. I was sitting there trying to think of something that would be really different and not one of these usual “strive for excellence" type of statements. I also wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out.

It just sort of occurred to me that “Don’t be evil” is kind of funny. It’s also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent. (...)

But the real fun of it was that people get a little uncomfortable with anything different, so throughout the meeting, the person running it kept trying to push “Don’t be evil” to the bottom of the list. But this other guy, Amit Patel, and I kept kind of forcing them to put it up there. And because we wouldn’t let it fall off the list, it made it onto the final set and took on a life of its own from there. Amit started writing it down all over the building, on whiteboards everywhere. It’s the only value that anyone is aware of, right?>>


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