Interview by Jessica Bennett
It was my job to oversee everything that had to do with Google search: what users saw on the homepage, and all the code written behind it, right down to the very last character. But we accidentally introduced a stray “/”—a slash—on our servers. It was the slash heard round the world. Suddenly, every page on the Internet was popping up with a big red warning: THIS SITE MAY HARM YOUR COMPUTER. You couldn’t access anything on Google. It was as if the Internet was broken.
It was 8:27 a.m. on a Saturday in 2009. I was in Minneapolis visiting my brother. I woke up late and was racing around my hotel room trying to get ready. There was a knock on the door. I was sure it was my mom, telling me I was late. But it was my friend Jini. “Yes, you’re late to breakfast,” she said calmly. “But also: Google is down. I think you might want to deal with that first.”
I ran to my laptop, and my phone began ringing off the hook. I was getting emails from users all over the world, with subject lines like “GOOGLE IS BROKEN.” #GoogMayhem started trending on Twitter. I work well under pressure, but I began to have this horrifying sense of just how many millions of people were looking at their computer screens thinking, “What is going on?” And how many of them were clicking straight over to Yahoo.
We all went into troubleshooting mode. We figured out what went wrong in about 10 minutes, which, for a system as complex as Google, was pretty impressive. I had people on the hotel phone, people on my cell phone, I’m video chatting, I’ve got eight IM windows open.
We fixed the problem in less than an hour. The good news was it was a Saturday morning, which is a lower-traffic time—though by lower traffic I mean tens of millions of people instead of hundreds of millions. The responsibility to our users was the hardest part. I was VP of search and user experience, so this was my team, my job. It was humbling to know just how many people were relying on us and how many were suddenly frustrated, thinking our company was foolish. For many people, Google is the most important tool on the Web. So it was like every door they tried to open was suddenly locked. Instead of waiting around, they turned to the competition. Definitely not an easy Saturday morning.