Google’s war against latency

Acceleration theory can too easily slide into seeing speed as a function of technological innovation. The susprisingly excellent In The Plex offers a nice counterpoint to this, identifying the sheer amount of effort involved throughout an organisation in order to increase speed across a diverse range of products. From pg 186:

In 2008, Google issued a Code Yellow for speed. (A Code Yellow is named after a tank top of that color owned by engineering director Wayne Rosing. During Code Yellow a leader is given the shirt and can tap anyone at Google and force him or her to drop a current project to help out. Often, the Code Yellow leader escalates the emergency into a war room situation and pulls people out of their offices and into a conference room for a more extended struggle.) This Code Yellow kicked off at a TGIF where Hölzle metered the performance of various Google products around the world, with a running ticker on the big screen in Charlie’s Café pinpointing the deficiencies. “You could hear a pin drop in the room when people were watching how stunningly slow things were, like Gmail in India,” says Gabriel Stricker, a Google PR director. 

After the Code Yellow, Google set a companywide OKR (the objective key result metric Google uses to set goals) to fight latency. To help meet its goals, the company created a market-based incentive program for product teams to juice up performance—a cap-and-trade model in which teams were mandated latency ceilings or maximum performance times. If a team didn’t make its benchmarks, says Hölzle, it accrued a debt that had to be paid off by barter with a team that exceeded its benchmarks. “You could trade for an engineer or machines. Whatever,” he says. The metric for this exchange was, oddly enough, human lives. The calculation goes like this: average human life expectancy is seventy years. That’s about two billion seconds. If a product has 100 million users and unnecessarily wastes four seconds of a user’s time every day, that was more than a hundred people killed in a year. So if the Gmail team wasn’t meeting its goals, it might go to the Picasa team and ask for ten lives to lift its speed budget into the black. In exchange, the Gmailers might yield a thousand servers from its allocation or all its massage tickets for the next month.