Jessica Ewing

Senior product manager for iGoogle


[Background: Previously worked in the White House as a research assistant for the senior economic adviser to the president; graduated from Stanford, where she studied symbolic systems and mathematics.]



“The interviews here were–how do I put this?–very engaging. One of the questions was, ‘If you could change the world using all of Google’s resources, what would you build?’ It set a strong tone for what was coming. I talked about putting all nonprofits on some kind of index where people could basically trade in and invest in nonprofits like they were a normal business.”


“The thing that attracted me to Google was when the company was going public, and it had put in jokes in the SEC document it was required to file. I had just come from [Washington] D.C. where things are pretty formal, and I thought any company that puts a little humor in that document must be a fun place to work. Rather than picking a round number, they used ‘e million shares.’ [It’s an inside joke for math geeks; the number ‘e’ is the base of a natural logarithm in calculus and equals 2.718281828.]I’m part of the associate product managers program. It’s an experiment where Google said, ‘What if we just bring in smart, idealistic people who don’t know what’s not possible and train them in management?'”



“I’ll never forget my first day. [VP of search products and user experience] Marissa [Mayer] came to me and said, ‘You are going to be in charge of the Google home page.’ I was 22, and I thought, This is awesome. It’s the most famous home page in the world. But my friends were like, ‘What does that even mean? It’s like a white page with a search box and a big logo. My dog could run the Google home page. What a cushy job.’

I was Marissa’s deputy my first year. She and I shared an office, and she mentored me.”


“She and a bunch of us talked about what people really wanted from the home page. It was clear to Google that there were two groups: people who loved the site’s clean, classic look and people who wanted tons of information there–email, news, local weather.

IGoogle [a customized Google home page] started out with me and three engineers. We told ourselves, ‘Forget about what is possible technically. If you could get anything you wanted on your home page, what would it be?’ We thought it would be great if you could type in ‘What do I want to see?’ and Google would act like an oracle and magically give a list of search results that are things that you’re interested in.”


Marissa told us, ‘Just launch something and get it out there on [Google] Labs.’ Six weeks later, we launched the first version in May. The happiness metrics were good, there was healthy growth, and by September, we had a link on [iGoogle was the fastest-growing product at Google in 2006.] We were fighting for that link. That’s the ultimate goal.”


“Everyone on our team has opinions about where the product should go. Rather than simply saying, ‘This idea or that idea,’ we give people a chance to test their ideas out on the site. Innovation at Google is a lot like genetic mutation. You throw out all sorts of possibilities and most of them are a disaster, but some are good. It’s not forced.

We had a couple of things that didn’t work. We tried an animated sliding drawer that we thought was very cool. But it just bombed. Users just got really confused. On my team, there is a strong element of humor around failure. We’re not like, ‘Wow, this is embarrassing.’ We take it seriously, but there is this element of ‘whoops.’ Then we go try something else.”



“When the Google Maps team released Street View [featuring 360-degree photos], we thought, ‘That is the coolest thing ever.’ When you have a company where you are constantly releasing things, there’s a multiplier effect. We try to out-innovate one another. We asked, ‘How do we take iGoogle to the next level?’ Rather than using brute force to create everything, we built the tools and infrastructure to leverage the outside developer community. We couldn’t believe the stuff that people came up with. There was one high-school kid who developed the periodic table in a gadget [Google’s version of a widget]. We’d never have thought of that.”


“Then we thought, ‘How can we personalize the home page better?’ My brother had just had his first kid. I created a gadget that updates a picture of my nephew Jack so you can watch him as he grows. We realized there’s no reason only developers should be able to create content. Our next release was called Gadget Maker. Now anybody can create a gadget like I did and send it to friends and make it public.

I will never forget when I went home that year for Christmas and my mom opened up her browser and I saw her iGoogle page. All she had was weather and the ‘Jack gadget.’ I said, ‘Mom, we have thousands of feeds and gadgets you can add,’ and she said, ‘Jess, honestly, I love my home page.'”

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