If you use Google Maps on April 1, or for the following week, you'll get a new option to play Where's Waldo. Waldo is a no-brainer after Pac-Man showed up on Google Maps for April Fool's Day 2015, Ms. Pac-Man showed up in 2017, and Mario drove his go-kart around Maps this year on March 10, otherwise known as Mar10 Day.

But if Where's Waldo is a natural progression from some of the search giant's previous pranks, the way he got there also tells you a lot about what's so great about the company, even as it continues to evolve and grow. Here's why:

1. Young people new to Google led the project.

Adding "Where's Waldo" to Maps was suggested by two 23-year-old Maps product managers, Max Greenwald and Shreena Thakore. They're not just young, they're relatively new Google employees and this is one of their first projects for the company. Many, probably most companies would have thanked them for the idea but then handed it off to a more seasoned team, particularly since it involved a complex process of getting permissions from both Candlewick Press (the U.S. publisher of the Waldo books) and NBC Universal (which owns the rights to the animations). Greenwald and Thakore were allowed to run with it.

2. When someone has a good idea they can move quickly.

A former Google exec once told me that if you work there and have an idea that you want to pursue, you can usually just go do it unless someone specifically decides to stop you. In other words, go, rather than no-go, is the default. This philosophy made it possible for Greenwald and Thakore to start discussing April Fool's ideas in January, and still get the resources they needed to have the game up and running on April 1. In many companies, the process of approvals and reviews would have required them to get started a lot earlier.

3. Google learns from its mistakes.

The lack of elaborate review can be a double-edged sword. That became evident on April 1, 2016 when Google's "Mic Drop" feature in Gmail--which involved a Minion and prevented people from seeing responses to their emails--caused enormous headaches for Google and for its users, some of whom lost customers or sent inappropriate messages about funeral arrangements when they accidentally clicked it.

The company had to pull the feature quickly and in the two years since it has opted for adding games to its products rather than trying to fool people with fake ones. Given Google's size and scope, that's probably a better idea. The fact that it gave the project to two young engineers suggests that even after getting burned by Mic Drop, the company is still willing to be playful and take risks.

4. Google is smart about marketing. 

The April Fool's Day game is all about fun, but Google's found a way to make it fit with its marketing efforts at the same time. The company is currently pushing its Google Assistant feature, available on Android devices, Google Home, and others. So Google is using the game to help people engage with its new product--suggesting that users start by asking the Assistant where Waldo is. (It will tell you to look in Maps, and remind you to update the app if needed.)

5. Google is fun.

There's a message underlying the April Fool's jokes, the endless array of Google Doodles and Google Doodle games and even the brightly colored letters in the Google logo: Google is a fun company. That's a huge competitive advantage. For tech companies, especially large and growing ones, the biggest challenge in today's world is attracting and retaining the talent they need. Google, known for its free food and openness to new ideas and even at one time for letting engineers spend one day a week on a project of their choosing is already known as a great place to work. But it stays on top because it keeps reminding everyone--employees and outsiders alike--that no matter how big it gets, Google will stay fun.

A few months ago, a departing Google engineer shocked everyone by arguing that the company had basically outgrown its ability to be innovative. The fact that Where's Waldo will be part of Maps next week doesn't tell us any different. But the way it got there can give us hope that assessment is wrong.

Published on: Mar 31, 2018
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