John Hanke

Product director (Google Maps, Local, and Earth)

[Background: Cofounder and CEO Keyhole, a global 3-D mapping company acquired by Google in 2004; cofounded Big Network, a casual gaming company; helped develop Meridian 59, one of the first multiplayer online 3-D games; worked in foreign affairs for the U.S. government in Southeast Asia.]



“Keyhole’s offices were just a few blocks away, but we didn’t know much about Google. We lived through the whole dotcom era, and when everybody got cleaned out, one of the few companies that was still growing and prospering was Google. We always heard rumors about these lavish lunches and the massages. It was very mysterious. As an entrepreneur, I was skeptical; Google had raised a lot of money, but I didn’t know if it was making a lot of money. Are they out of touch with reality and spending like it’s 1999?”


“I wasn’t at Google when it happened, but apparently Google was in a meeting looking at other companies, and Sergey pulled out Keyhole, which is what we called the application, and projected it on a big screen. He started flying around the planet showing everybody their house, the Google offices, and completely subverted this other discussion about buying another company. After that, somebody called us up and said, ‘We want to buy you guys.'”


“We came over and met with Eric [CEO Schmidt] and Larry and Sergey [founders Page and Brin]. We wanted to determine whether Google would be a good home for us or not. We perceived Google as a big company. This was right at the time of Google’s IPO, and it had about 3,000 people. We had about 30. I was struck by the first-principles approach to management. They were looking at ‘How do you build a company?’ almost from a blank book. ‘How do we hire people, how do manage them, how do we keep them motivated, how do we do acquisitions, how do we make our culture?’ Rather than spying on Apple or HP or a more established company, they were just saying, ‘We’re smart. Let’s think about this problem and come up with our own answer.’


At first, you think, God, these guys are nuts because they’re not doing anything the way they’re supposed to do it. This is never going to work. It’s going to fall apart. But as you come to a deeper understanding, you begin to appreciate it. That’s not such a bad way to do things.”


“You have mini-entrepreneurs sprinkled throughout Google. One of the guys I work with who helped start the Street View project, the ground-level photography thing, started Gmail and a couple of other projects. He’s an innovation driver. Larry and Sergey create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable innovating, where people get rewarded for it.

We transplanted the whole company over the weekend from four blocks away. We got here and walked around, talking to the people seated around us, and found out that they were a lot like us. We bonded at the engineering level.”


“I had never worked in a large company before. I had done several startups and had solved problems and managed at the level of 20- and 30-person teams. So I didn’t have any preconceived notions of how you were supposed to work on a scale of thousands of employees. That was alien to me. I just imbibed the Google culture–how decisions get made, how resources are allocated, how teams are given the power to go do stuff without layers of management or excessive amounts of bureaucratic review. You see a lot of self-organization. That means you have to work out extensive problems in return for the flexibility.”



“Street View dates back to the early days of Google. Larry Page was an early adopter of digital cameras, and he thought you could get a lot of interesting information about local businesses and local places by collecting digital images of them. So he actually drove himself around the Stanford campus, shooting photos out of the window of his car to get an initial data set to work with. Then he turned it over to some engineers at Google and said, ‘Think about how you could stitch these images together or create a map interface with ground-level images.’

There was a lot of hard-core R&D about how you collect this imagery, how you understand geo-imagery, how you connect one image to another, and a lot of really researchy computer-science stuff. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s slap a product together.’ It was, ‘Let’s look at how we can do this in an innovative way.’ That group started working with some grad students at Stanford and doing things that were pretty out there: ripping out the electronics inside a vehicle and putting in our own computers, different sensors to understand the location of the vehicle as well as to collect data.”


“In my first conversations with Larry and Sergey, they believed that geographic information about the physical world was an important class of data that fit Google’s mission to organize the world’s information. What we’ve done over the last few years is driven by that vision. Finding solutions to make people’s lives more efficient. Saving time. Saving gas. Helping them make better choices about local products and services. And tapping into the market for local advertising.”


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug