Friday, April 01, 2011

The Once and Future King

On Monday, Larry Page takes over as Google's CEO. Again. Larry was CEO for the first couple of years that I worked at Google, before the VCs won their battle to have a more experienced manager front the company and Eric Schmidt was brought on board. There are some interesting insights floating around the ether about Larry and the impact of his leadership on life in the Plex. I'll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on this Monday on Bloomberg TV, but here's a preview.

One of Larry's last acts as CEO before Eric took the reins in 2001 was a reorganization of Google's engineering group. It was painful for all involved. I give the details in IFL, but essentially,  most of the project managers who were overseeing the engineering group - giving performance reviews, maintaining timelines, protecting the engineers from random requests (including Larry's) - were not themselves technical specialists. Larry couldn't abide that, especially because they kept interfering with his ability to push through his own large-scale projects, including scanning every book in the world. So he held a full-engineering meeting and told the project managers in front of their colleagues that they were no longer needed. People were upset, and not just the project managers. Several engineers were angry at the change and the way it was handled and Larry was surprised by the pushback they gave him. That reorg was an inflection point at  the company. Afterward, all the engineers (a number that grew into the hundreds) reported directly to Wayne Rosing, the new head of the department.

Larry is a very smart guy. No doubt he learned from this experience that the most expedient course is not always the one that generates the least friction. After years of watching Eric's management, I suspect that he will have mellowed somewhat. Somewhat, but not entirely. For example, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on Larry's recent request to the product managers that they send him an email of no more than 60 words explaining what projects they are working on. A lot of new senior executives would take the occasion of their appointment to meet staff members, chitchat with them to create a personal bond, and inquire casually about their work in progress. Larry approaches things with a more rigorous efficiency.

If Larry were to meet with 100 managers, at 15 minutes each, that would be 25 hours out of his life. If he can scan 100 emails in an hour, he would save himself a full day. Larry values his time more than the need to make his managers feel warm and fuzzy about having face-to-face meetings with him. Unless things have changed since I worked there, most of his managers (at least the ones with engineering backgrounds) understand that completely and would do the same thing. A side benefit is that this puts the onus on the managers to boil down their most essential projects to a few sentences, rather than rambling on about irrelevant subjects. This approach wouldn't work for most organizations, but it's pretty much expected at Google.

Some pundits are asking if Larry's ascension will mean he lets his wild ideas run free, causing Google to lose focus on revenue generation. I have a couple of responses to that. First, Larry has a circle of people who moderate his more extreme visions and keep Google grounded. Chief among this group when I was at the company was Urs Holzle, Google's first VP of engineering and now a Google Fellow. Urs understands both Larry's vision and the constraints of reality and has an uncanny ability to make things happen that would seem to be impossible. But when something truly is impossible, he says so and Larry hears him. 

Salar Kamangar, who is now head of YouTube, was another person who filled the role of sage counsel when I was at Google. Larry respects Salar, who has proven time and again his savvy about business operations and the market for Google's products.  Salar is not a dreamer, but a strategist who sees opportunities that are very much of the here and now. So even though Eric Schmidt might play a lesser moderating role than previously, there is a band of trusted advisors willing to tell Larry that his vision is correct, but the timing is wrong.

The second answer to the concern about Larry's "out there" ideas is that given a choice between a visionary leader and a manager solely focused on improving next quarter's results, most talented engineers in Silicon Valley would not hesitate to choose the former. I was lucky enough to chat with Larry one-to- one about his expectations for Google back in 2002. He laid out far-reaching views that had nothing to do with short-term revenue goals, but raised questions about how Google would anticipate the day sensors and memory became so cheap that individuals would record every moment of their lives. He wondered how Google could become like a better version of the RIAA - not just a mediator of digital music licensing - but a marketplace for fair distribution of all forms of digitized content. I left that meeting with a sense that Larry was thinking far more deeply about the future than I was, and I was convinced he would play a large role in shaping it. I would rather jump on board that bullet train than ride a local that never missed a revenue stop but never arrived at anywhere worthwhile.

Larry has had a lot of wild ideas, like launching a search engine in a field overcrowded with them, offering advertisers a self-service product that put up text ads instantly without review, and scanning every book in the world. All of those ideas seemed outrageous at the time, but Larry didn't care. He knew they were the right thing to do and he made them happen. So, my prediction for Google under Larry's reign? Greater efficiency, faster product launches, bigger, bolder initiatives and a lot more head-scratching among those who don't see as far down the road as Google's CEO - a road that could lead Google to unprecedented global influence or a disastrous derailing. 

Either way, it should be one hell of a ride.

1 comment:

simone said...

on faster product launches would be cool to see some stats ;) many thanks for the great quality memories and point of views :)