Douglas Merrill

CIO and VP of engineering

[Background: Formerly a senior vice president at Charles Schwab; worked at Price Waterhouse and the RAND Corp.; ran a small consulting company in Southwest Asia; taught at Northwestern; has a doctorate in psychology at Princeton]



“I was deaf as a child, and I am dyslexic. I spent a lot of my childhood struggling to do things that everybody else found easy. I adapted by finding tools to make things simple. I’m still fascinated by tools that make it easier for people to explore their worlds. During the carpool this morning, we heard a song by the band Living Colour on the radio, and the driver asked, ‘When did that come out?’ I whipped out my iPhone and did a Google search. That’s what drew me here, the idea that we can take the world’s information and render it all available and useful. We make it easy for people to ask questions about the world.”


“Historically, knowledge has been power because it has been hidden or impossible to find. Four hundred years ago, less than 5% of the world could read or write. Two hundred years ago, something like 20% of people could read or write. Today, we have an incredible transformation in which knowledge has become explicit in the world. But that’s not the same thing as making it available.”


“Innovation is superfragile. It’s like a flower in early spring, where just the wrong weather will kill it. It’s very easy to kill, by having the barriers of entry too high, by requiring people to say yes to something. Leadership can help, but it can also hurt, by accidentally saying, ‘This is a dumb problem.’ If you build a culture where the leader’s voice has more weight, you’ll step on things. We try very hard to let people innovate sort of freely.”



“We’re about to start adding other currencies for of payment. You can imagine the classic business which would say, ‘Here are the countries with the highest revenue. Here’s the highest percentage of coverage we don’t have. Let’s build those.’ We did that, but we also wanted to help places where e-commerce isn’t wildly successful yet.

Take sub-Saharan Africa. There are relatively few search queries from that area. Why? Well, partly because there are about 100,000 wireless Internet ports in the entire region. An hour of time in an Internet café costs roughly the equivalent of one month’s wages. So no one is going to go do that. But there are more than 10 million Internet-enabled mobile phones. We started thinking about ways to accept those currencies and engage in mobile efforts. There’s not a lot of business, but the business that could be created could change people’s lives. One of our core values is making all the world’s information available, not just what’s in English.”


“Organizations that exist for a long time almost always have strong cultures. But any sociologist will tell you that it’s rare for people to talk about the elements of their culture. They’re just assumed. For example, if we all got in an elevator, we would turn around and face the doors. There’s no reason to face the doors. Nothing happens. But we all understand those rules, without talking about it.

Google talks about its culture, which is a little strange. Google lives out loud. We argue about strategy and whether our products are good or bad, whether we’re building the right stuff. We argue about everything. But you want conflict to thrive in a supportive way. At heart, I’m an introvert, but I’ve learned to enjoy the give and take of ideas here. We work hard to protect people who argue.”



“When I was at RAND, I did a study of unusually high performing military units for the Army. There’s a group assigned to the National Training Center year-round called the “opposing force.” It trains all the time and it constantly beats the units that rotate through once a year. In a normal rotation, the new group wins maybe one out of the seven or eight battles, but a few have won as many as four.

Those very successful units ‘argued’ during the planning process. I put that in quotes because they were polite disagreements. The groups would actually say, ‘Heather, you are the devil’s advocate today.’ They wanted to make sure that different viewpoints were represented. So although everybody believes that success is about leadership, it turns out it really isn’t. You need conflict. You need a diverse range of ideas. Ultimately, that yields better solutions.”


“Our hiring process is legendary. I may think you’re a rock star, but I can’t go hire you. We have hiring committees that are checked by other committees. So it’s not me hiring you, it’s the company hiring you, and everybody has a stake in it. An engineering candidate talks to an average of eight engineers. I talked to 20 people before I was hired.”



“I’ll ask candidates who aren’t engineers how to build a Web crawler. The right answer doesn’t matter. I want to hear you think the problem through, because the odds are good that since we’re an innovative company, you’re not going to know how to do what you’re going to be asked to do. You’re going to have to figure it out. I want to know that you’re okay with ambiguity.”


“Here’s something else I’ve asked prospective hires. I say, ‘You’re sitting in your office late one night, and someone you don’t know walks by and says, “Hey, I see you have a trash can. I don’t have one.” What do you do?’ For me, the right answer is, ‘Here’s my trash can. I’ll go get myself another one.’ But there are bad responses, where you’re trying to figure out if the person is someone important. For us, hierarchy doesn’t matter that much.”


“We need a stubborn rebellious attitude in order to innovate. How do you encourage that? It’s a tricky balance. We have to walk the line between anarchy and absolute focus on Six Sigma efficiency. We believe innovation is key to long-term effectiveness, but you can’t trade all efficiency. You actually have to deliver products. There are no pat answers to describe how to balance that contradiction. I need a process where the culture self regulates and balances these things out.”

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.