Monday, August 30, 2010

Who coined Google's unofficial motto Don't Be Evil? (Hint: It wasn't Larry Page, Sergei Brin or Eric Schmidt)

IMG_8283Image by tantek via FlickrTwelve years ago this week -- Sept. 4, 1998 -- Google was founded by Stanford students Larry Page and Sergei Brin. What began as a project to improve academic paper citations has since become arguably the most powerful media company on earth. No small part of Google's monstrous growth was the loyalty of the tech community, which the company won over with its upstart idealist motto "Don't Be Evil."

With repeated privacy gaffes like Google Buzz's contact list exposure or the Wi-Fi packet sniffing performed by Google Street View survey vehicles, people have begun to doubt whether the Don't Be Evil mantra is still practiced at Google. With Google's blatant net neutrality sellout to Verizon, some suspect Don't Be Evil was never a serious part of Google's corporate DNA.

To that end, it's worth noting that Don't Be Evil is a phrase that was suggested to Brin and Page, rather than suggested by Brin and Page. And it wasn't current CEO Eric Schmidt that brought Don't Be Evil into Google's company culture. Instead, it was one of Google's most influential early employees that coined Don't be Evil as a core company value -- an employee that, perhaps tellingly, is no longer with the company.

Who coined Google's unofficial motto Don't Be Evil? 

Don't Be Evil is generally credited to Paul Buchheit who, along with Amit Patel, suggested the slogan at a Google workshop on company values. If you don't know Buchheit, you certainly know his work: He created Gmail and built the prototype for Google Adsense, arguably Google's two most successful products outside the search algorithm itself.

Patel, meanwhile, made it his mission to evangelize the Don't Be Evil motto, writing it in the corner of virtually every whiteboard in Google's headquarters. Notably, that's as close as Don't Be Evil ever got to becoming an official Google slogan or corporate value. The sixth item in Google's 10-point corporate philosophy is "you can make money without doing evil." You can avoid evil, but you don't have to avoid evil. Perhaps that's a meaningless equivocation, but recent Google actions suggest otherwise.

Corporate culture is a function of corporate leadership. Patel is still at Google, notably as an advisor to Google Ventures. Buchheit, meanwhile, left to become an angel investor. Thus, the originator of Don't Be Evil is no longer at Google and the original Don't Be Evil evangelist is now focused on companies outside Google rather the search giant itself. No wonder Google's anti-evil stance seems less a governing principle of the company than just another example of the Truly Trivial.
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