Secrets of a nimble giant
Technology companies usually get slower as they get bigger - so why is Google as fast as ever? Co-founder Sergey Brin tells Jemima Kiss how size can make for innovation.
It was Rupert Murdoch who summed up success in the digital age when he said: "Big will not beat small any more - it will be the fast beating the slow." That might be inspiring for startups, but in the process-laden, corporate environment, how can big companies keep their edge by moving quickly and lightly? This has become something of an obsession for Google watchers, who have seen the college research project develop into a multi-billion-dollar phenomenon, stretching from mobile software and blogging to social networking and the ubiquitous search. How does a company with 20,000 staff manage to keep innovating?
Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, thinks size should help. "It's important for people to realise that you should benefit from the scale - if you're not benefiting then you're doing something wrong, and might as well break up into lots of little things. Instead of having our employees in large buildings, we could have several thousand houses each with a garage - there's nothing stopping us from doing that. But the fact is that as we scale, we should be able to take advantage of that. Look at how many colleagues can you talk about a specific issue with, and how can you take advantage of a piece of infrastructure that the company already has."
Google's infrastructure - and those enviable facilities - are much reported, from the lavish, free canteen and commuter shuttles to the infinity pool at the Mountain View headquarters. The Sydney office has equally fine trimmings, with lava lamps and great views, which may or may not have contributed to the birth of its most recent tech toy, the communications tool Wave. Tapping several sweet spots in web development, Wave aggregates real-time Twitter-esque instant messaging with email, wiki-based collaboration features and social networking.
Wave of confidence
Brin doesn't get his hands dirty with quite as many of Google's tech projects as he'd like, so he says he's "trying to take time to do more of that". But when Lars and Jens Rasmussen came to him with the idea for Wave, it was their track record that gave him confidence in the project. The pair joined Google with the acquisition of their mapping startup Where 2 Technologies in October 2004; that grew into the first incarnation of Google Maps.
"We have been gradually embracing the idea that once you're successful, we give you much more latitude," says Brin. "Somebody who has a success under their belt has really demonstrated accomplishment and in that case we will give them generally more liberty. When they came and proposed this idea they said, 'We want to do something new and revolutionary, but we're not even going to tell you what it is. And we want to go back to Australia, hire a bunch of people and just work on it.' That was a crazy proposal," Brin says, and not one many businesses would have supported. "But, having seen their success with Maps, I felt that it actually was pretty reasonable." It was two years ago that Brin agreed to support the project, and the full version of Wave will be released later this year.
Google was one firm rumoured to be looking at acquiring Twitter, and the two are known to be talking about a possible real-time search collaboration. But despite the real-time elements of Wave, the project was conceived before Twitter had achieved momentum. Brin says the team wasn't aware of Twitter at the beginning, but wanted to create something timeless. "The very first demo that they showed me had, for example, character-by-character typing, which actually made me nostalgic because the old Linux systems all did that with Talk."
As well as organisational structure and the track record of engineers, Brin talks about intuition around projects that might translate to something more mainstream. "That essentially takes taste, I would call it, and a certain kind of intuition. People may or may not have that kind of intuition - that's why for something like Wave the prior success on a mass consumer scale is what gave me confidence that these guys can do that again in another field."
With that $131bn market value, Google is in an unusually powerful financial and strategic position to give its engineers this kind of latitude. The downturn has barely dented Google's research and development budget, which was reduced to $641m (£392m) for the first quarter of this year from $673m in 2008. Around 36% of its staff work in R&D in total, and the entire 2008 R&D budget was a staggering $2.79bn.
Despite appearing to suffer mildly from the economic climate, Brin has previously said that tough times bring out the best of the Valley because when there's too much money around, "you get a lot of noise mixed in with the real innovation and entrepreneurship".
Companies can traditionally buy in innovative products, as happened with Where 2, or develop in-house. The most well-known Google initiative for encouraging innovation in-house is its "20% time" strategy, which has almost become an innovation cliché. The idea that 80% of an engineer's time is spent on the day job and 20% pursuing a personal project is a mathematician's solution to innovation, Brin says. Some staff secretly admit their 20% time is spent catching up with the day job, but the firm insists the strategy has led to Google News, Gmail and the mighty AdSense system, among other things.
What could established media companies learn from Google's approach to innovation? Given the perfect storm of economic meltdown and once-in-a-generation collapse of their business model, innovation may well have slipped off the priority list for old media. Perhaps it is time to rephrase the challenge, says Brin. "Any conversation I have about innovation starts with the ultimate goal - in this case what the reader is trying to accomplish, and what would make that better. Somebody reading up on the news wants to be kept up to date, and quickly." News sites offer some useful content, but there's a lot of duplication. "I don't have a solution for you - I'm just saying that I think posing the problem correctly is perhaps more important than defining the solution. People want to have good, engaging, high-quality information about things going on right now in the world."
In-house, Google uses a project database and an ideas mailing list to manage new projects. While noting ideas on the mailing list is important, it is less significant than the project database, says Brin, which lists weekly updates on who is working on what, their goals, progress and links to documentation. That distinction has to be instilled in the company culture.
"It's important not to overstate the benefits of ideas," he says. "Quite frankly, I know it's kind of a romantic notion that you're just going to have this one brilliant idea and then everything is going to be great. But the fact is that coming up with an idea is the least important part of creating something great. It has to be the right idea and have good taste, but the execution and delivery are what's key."