He arrives at Andy’s Pub not looking like the energetic, up-and-coming software coder Google hired 14 years ago, but more like a version of his father at the end of his career, just before he keeled over into early retirement. Wearing trademark jeans, sneakers and sweatshirt, the vestiges of youth are long replaced by ashen skin that hasn’t seen daylight in months and eyes buried deep beneath his brow line. He struggles to slide into the booth across from me grasping at the pain in his lower back. He picked the place, not me.
“You look like crap,” I say to him.
“That’s an improvement,” says Cutts. He’s tense and nervous. His eyes dart around the room looking for something; a waiter, a familiar face, a way out.
I order a beer and he gets two. He chugs his first and lets out a long breath as if the tension within escapes through deflation.
“Pretty tough at work these days?” I ask.
“You wouldn’t believe,” he says. “But I have no one to blame but myself.”
“You’ve always been a rabid perfectionist,” I remind him. “But, you’re the boss now. Don’t you have people?”
He sips his second beer considering my question. “Yes, but they’re not as good as the math.”
“Yes, the secret sauce keeping us one step ahead of the web-spammers,” he says.
“Secret, huh? You mean if you told me you’d have to kill me?”
“Worse. If I told you I’d have to explain it to you,” he says. “Believe me; it would be way more painful than death. I explained it to my wife once. She cleaned out the house, bank accounts, and she and the kids moved in with her mother.”
There’s no tan line where his wedding band used to be. “That’s gotta hurt, man,” I say.
“It’s some pretty painful math, dude.”
“Just give me a little taste of it. If my head starts smoking that’ll be your cue to stop,” I say.
We order a fresh set of beers and he considers my appeal.
“OK, here’s the deal,” he says. He leans in and whispers, “The math – it’s not real. We want you to think there’s a complicated process working in the background, but there isn’t. It’s just me and a secretary constantly reviewing 3.42 billion web pages, day in and day out.”
“You mean to tell me…”
“If you say I told you I’ll deny it.” He leans back and gulps his beer. Matt is not good at smug.
“Why don’t you come clean with the world?” I say.
He says, “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge; once you make it over the bay you have to start all over. It’s job security. The less the world actually knows the better.”
“So, all those people working for you are…”
“English majors”, he says. “They have a nice quiet spot to write their poetry, or whatnot, and I hardly have to pay them a thing.”
“But, that means that one person is responsible for the way information gets sorted and retrieved,” I say. “If it’s just you…”
“And a secretary,” he says.
“You, and a secretary – suppose you get hit by a bus?”
“I was standing on the corner of Geary and Grant the other day with that same thought.” he says.
“So when someone has high page ranks one day and low the next…” I say.
“That’s just me messin’ with ‘em. Or they screwed up my dry cleaning,” he says.
“That’s a lot to walk around with every day,” I say.
“Tell me about it,” he says.
I picked up the check. Matt Cutts never picks up the check.
image via Spotted Panda