The engineering director of Google explains how the company maintains its creative culture and innovative operations.
[Background: Founder of two companies, Verity and Eloquent; CTO of Open Text.]
A STARTUP CULTURE WITH 16,000 EMPLOYEES
“When I was looking at the company from the outside, I said, ‘I know for a fact you can’t have a culture like Google’s with more than 20 people. I’ve tried.’ Yet here was a company with a zero or two beyond that, and it was clearly making it work. Which means there’s something to learn here. I wanted to see how that happens. And I wanted a piece of it.”
“Obviously, there’s no magic bullet. First, Google is investing in brains. And that’s a pretty good investment, because that way, you don’t have to know what the next thing is. Those people are going to figure it out. Every company has a bell curve, right? It’s different here. The odds are pretty good that if you bump into someone in the cafeteria, they are way better than you at something. They are world-class at something.”
PATIENCE FOR CASH
“[CEO Eric Schmidt] and [cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin] have a real understanding of our risk tolerance, our risk reward, and they constantly repeat it. There’s a real patience for cash and a hunger for scope of impact. If what you’re doing has the potential to really make a big difference in a good way, then don’t distract yourself or me by telling me how and when you’re going to make money from it. On the other hand, if you have something that’s clearly going to make some money over the next few quarters or year but won’t be big and exciting, then don’t do it.
I remember something Larry told a bunch of managers. He said, ‘One of the worst things you can do is have your team work on something that I won’t care about even if they succeed,’ Larry doesn’t care about little things. He has the luxury of not caring about little things. As a company, we have the luxury of not needing to care about little things.
Eric was at the same meeting, and I asked him, ‘Do you think we’re taking enough chances? Are we’re failing enough?’ He did exactly the right thing. He said, ‘What do you think?’ And I told him, ‘I think I’m still being too safe. I’m not really taking advantage of the environment here.’
It wasn’t long after that that we started OpenSocial.”
SETTING THE OPERATIONAL TEMPO
“When we started OpenSocial [a universal platform for social-network applications], we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. But we knew that this was an area where there was an opportunity to do something dramatic and game changing. We asked, ‘What’s the easiest way to get third parties to build compelling applications for social networks that leverage Google’s assets?’ We started running a bunch of experiments. We set an operational tempo: When in doubt, do something. If you have two paths and you’re not sure which is right, take the fastest path. What’s true in physics about objects in motion is true when you’re creating a product. It’s easier to keep moving and change course than when you’re sitting and thinking and thinking.”
CHEESE IN MOTION
“The inherent stress in working at such a fast pace is that everyone’s cheese is always moving. We’re humans. We don’t like that. But there are ways to manage that. ‘Manage’ is too strong a word. One way to deal with that is by communicating as much as possible, which is never enough. The rate of new information creation is so high. That’s one reason the amount of email here is insane.”
EAST COAST VS. WEST COAST MENTALITY
“There was an Upside magazine article years ago where someone did this semi tongue-in-cheek comparison of West Coast and East Coast companies. The writer said people on the East Coast learn to prepare for hurricanes and blizzards. You do that by massive central planning and preparation. On the West Coast, everyone has learned to plan for earthquakes, which you can’t plan for. You say, ‘Well, I’ll be adaptable and light on my feet, and I’ll deal with it when it happens.’ There’s something to that. Google has a high tolerance for chaos and ambiguity.”
DAY ONE SETS THE TONE
“At the end of day one, all of the administration is done. We had our machines, we had our accounts, we had calendar events scheduled, we all had our paperwork filled out. The little thing that struck me was how I only had to provide my name and address once. Any other HR system I’ve ever dealt with I have to tell them over and over. It’s not a big deal, except that no one else gets it right. At Google, not only was all the administration done, but I only had to sit through a few hours of introductory orientation and got a lay of the land around products and the company. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a good first day. And then it accelerates.'”
AMAZING–YES, AMAZING–TECH SUPPORT
“The facilities and tech support here are stunningly good compared to the norm. If I have a problem with my laptop, I can walk 20 yards to the Tech Stop [Google’s walk-in repair shops]. There are always two people there, and the thing that shocked me the first five times was that they wanted to help me, right? And they were good quality people who were clearly hired, and motivated, to be helpful. And they are. You walk in, and things get better.”
A PAYCHECK IS A LOUSY MANAGEMENT TOOL
“There’s an old Peter Drucker line that goes, ‘If you ever really want to learn how to be a manager, go work with volunteers.’ Because when you manage volunteers, you realize that the paycheck is actually a lousy management tool. It has almost nothing to do with how you manage and motivate and organize and excite people. It can become a crutch, right? And in that sense, not in the financial sense, but in the ‘build something great, change the world’ sense, everyone at Google is a volunteer. So the trick in managing volunteers is get out of the way and clear the underbrush.”
IMPOSSIBLE TO DUPLICATE
“You could not replicate this with a different set of people. There are management practices here that would break with different staffs, and vice versa; there’s not one way to do it. We have a matched set of hiring and operations that go together. ‘Culture’ is a fine word for all that.”