The Origin of "Don't Be Evil"

When my wife was in graduate school to get a master's degree in education, she took a class about how to teach students of different cultures without racial bias. Near the end of the class, one of her classmates said of the textbook they'd been reading, "You know, this book should just be called, 'Don't Be a Dick.' And all the pages could be blank."

I thought of that story recently while reading Steven Levy's book about Google, In the Plex, which includes the origin story of Google's infamous company motto, "Don't Be Evil." It's common these days for bloggers and journalists to point out all the ways in which Google falls short of the ideal expressed in that motto. So it was surprising, for me at least, to learn that the motto actually started as a kind of joke, not unlike the joke my wife's classmate made about not being a dick.

According to Steven Levy, Google held a meeting in 2001 to try to nail down its corporate values. Stacy Sullivan, the head of human resources, stood at the front of the room with a giant notepad, writing down platitudes like, "Google will strive to honor all its commitments." But engineer Paul Buchheit thought the whole thing was absurd.

Levy writes,

Paul Buchheit was thinking, This is lame. Jawboning about citizenship and values seemed like the kind of thing you do at a big company. He’d seen enough of that at his previous job at Intel. At one point the chipmaker had given employees little cards with a list of values you could attach to your badge. If something objectionable came up you were to look at your little corporate values card and say, “This violates value number five.” Lame. “That whole thing rubbed me the wrong way,” Buchheit later recalled. “ So I suggested something that would make people feel uncomfortable but also be interesting. It popped into my mind that ‘Don’t be evil’ would be a catchy and interesting statement. And people laughed. But l said, ‘No, reaIIy.”’

The slogan made Stacy Sullivan uncomfortable. It was so negative. “Can’t we phrase it as ‘Do the right thing’ or something more positive?” she asked. Marissa and Salar agreed with her. But the geeks—Buchheit and Patel—wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be evil” pretty much said it all, as far as they were concerned. They fought off every attempt to drop it from the list.

“They liked it the way it was,” Sullivan would later say with a sigh. “It was very important to engineering that they were not going to be like Microsoft, they were not going to be an evil company.”

I just love the fact that the motto did not originate out of some wide-eyed idealism. Instead, it was an attempt to cut through the whole bullshit concept of "corporate values." It's no wonder the company has had trouble living up to that ideal. "Don't Be Evil" is the implicit motto of every idealistic company before it gets mired in the messy, morally compromised world of actually making money.