Why Google Does ‘Beer & Demos’ Every Friday

By Scott Kirsner |  July 2, 2015

Craig Nevill-Manning was Google’s first engineering employee in New York City — a site where the tech giant now employs more than 4,000 people. He was one of the speakers at our Field Study earlier this month, and one of the topics he discussed was the role that a weekly gathering called “Beer & Demos” plays in the way the company develops ideas.

Nevill-Manning is a Director of Engineer at Google; he created what is now Google Shopping, and currently works on a project called Google Memory Integration.

One of my concerns at Google is that a new engineer joins today, and they look around and see 20,000 or more software engineers at Google. They look around and think, what’s the likelihood that my idea is going to have any impact on this enormous operation? If that’s true of most engineers at Google, that’s terrible for Google in the long run. That’s kind of the death of Google. How can we get people not to think that way — to think that my little idea has legs? How do they take that idea from having it in their head, or chatting about it with somebody — to, I’ve built a prototype or I’ve made some mocks, and I’ve showed them off to a bunch of people.

Friday afternoon at 4:30, we give Beer & Demos. In the game room, I set up a projector. Very low-key. There’s no seats. Everybody’s standing around with a bottle of beer — and by the way, we also have root beer, ginger beer, and so on — it’s not mandatory to drink alcohol. If you have an interesting little idea that you’ve cooked up, you get five minutes to show people. There’s normally about 50 or 60 people there, and it’s pretty relaxed. The bar is incredibly low. If nobody fronts up with a demo, I’ll demo something I’ve done recently, just to lower the bar even further. [The goal is] to make people comfortable that, if they have an idea, they don’t have to polish it and perfect it and build it for a year before they show it to anyone. At 4:30 on Friday afternoon, they’ve got a low-overhead way of getting that idea to the next level.

Once you build that prototype, you realize, my original idea kind of sucks. But as you’re building it, you realize that this adjacent idea is a much better idea, and I’m going to go ahead and do that.

The most important thing is that your demo exists. That’s the biggest achievement. It’s gone from in your head to in code. There’s [Google] App Engine and HTML and JavaScript and prototyping tools — you can build a lot in a couple of days. The second most important thing is you get feedback — people do yell out questions and they give lots of feedback. The third thing is recruiting [collaborators who may want work with you to further develop it.]

The people who present things at Beer & Demos tend to be slightly more entrepreneurial than some of the other engineers. Some people are going to have the energy to push their ideas through, [but for] some people, that is not their thing.

…Once you’ve got something that’s compelling, you show it to people like Alan [Warren, VP of Engineering], and you say, “I’ve got this great idea for improving Google Sheets.” At that point, it picks up a more regular process of prioritization, and getting an engineering team to work on it. That part of the process — we sort of know how to do that. Where things get stuck is between peoples’ heads and the first couple of prototypes.

Once a thing is in prototype form, it’s much easier to think about how to take it up to scale.