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How she enriched Google's idea factory

November 14, 2007 08:55 IST

Power Player

A headhunter persuaded Marissa Mayer to join Google, Inc in 1999 as a programmer -- Google's twentieth employee. Now, Marissa Mayer is charged with making sure that the tech giant continues to crank out brilliant ideas, even as clever competitors are hatching their own.

Champion of Innovation

In late 1998, when Marissa Mayer first heard about a small outfit called Google, she hardly batted an eye. The Stanford University graduate student was encouraged by her advisor to check out the research of two guys on the computer science building's fourth floor who were developing ways to analyze the World Wide Web.

But Internet start-ups were as common as hay fever in Silicon Valley. Mayer, then 23, was leaning in another direction. She was considering taking a teaching gig at Carnegie Mellon University. And the thought of joining up with some of the university's techies wasn't exactly appealing. "I knew about the Stanford PhD types," she muses. "They love to Rollerblade. They eat pizza for breakfast. They don't shower much. And they don't say 'Sorry' when they bump into you in the hallway."

Fortunately for both Google Inc and Mayer, she had a change of heart. Since joining Google, Mayer has emerged as a powerful force inside the high-flying company. Her title, director of consumer Web products, belies her power and influence as a champion of innovation. Mayer has her hands on virtually everything the average Google user sees – from the look of its Web pages to new software for searching your hard drive. And she helps decide which new initiatives get the attention of the company's founders and which don't.

Mayer doesn't handle all this herself. One of the key reasons for Google's success is a belief that good ideas can, and should, come from anywhere. Page and Brin insist that all engineers in the company have one day a week to work on their own pet projects. An ideas mailing list is open to anyone at Google who wants to post a proposal. What Mayer does is help figure out how to make sure that good ideas bubble to the surface and get the attention they need. The task is becoming more complex as Google grows, with a workforce of 4,200 now and revenues on track to hit $3.7 billion this year.

In Wausau, Mayer was one of the top debaters on her high school team. Then the brainy teenager decided to try out for the pom-pom squad and made that team, too. To some who knew her, Mayer was making a point. "She wanted to smash the image of the airhead cheerleader," says Jim Briggs, Mayer's high school debate coach. Her debate team ended up winning the Wisconsin state championship; her pom-pom squad was the state runner-up.

A large part of Mayer's success at Google is due to her ability to travel easily between different worlds. When she first joined, the company had something of a high school cliquishness, albeit in reverse. At lunch, the coolest kids – in this forum, the smartest geeks -- sat together. On the periphery, sales and marketing folks gathered. Mayer could hold her own in either realm. "She's a geek, but her clothes match," says one former employee.

Part of Mayer's challenge is realizing when certain formulas are faltering. For years she ran the company's top 100 priorities list, which ranked projects by order of importance. But as Google's workforce grew, the list soared to more than 270 projects. Last year Google executives decided that the list had run its course and shut it down. "People don't get attached to the processes themselves at Google," says Bret Taylor, product manager for Google Maps. "It's very unusual. Even at small companies, people tend to say: 'This is the way we do X.'"

Open door policy

At 4 pm, Mayer's three-times-a-week office hours begin. It's a tradition that Mayer brought over from her days at Stanford, where she taught computer science to undergraduates. Over the years, such meetings have spawned some big ideas, including Google's social-networking site Orkut.

First to enter her office are a pair of techies -- a man and woman in their mid-twenties. Sitting across from Mayer, separated by a desk with a Dilbert coffee mug and a toy robot still in its box, they forgo the pleasantries and launch into hushed banter. The duo is stumped over which languages the Google Web site should be available in. Although it is already translated into more than 115 tongues, from Arabic to Zulu, they wonder whether they should proceed with more obscure choices. Before one minute elapses, Mayer interjects. Google shouldn't be the arbiter on languages. Just include anything considered legitimate by a third-party source, such as the CIA World Fact Book, she says. "We don't want to make a large geopolitical statement by accident."

Capturing Ideas from anyone, anywhere

Office hours are just one way in which Mayer connects with inventive engineers and managers. Another is Google's ideas mailing list, the e-mail thread where anyone can submit or comment on an idea. At times, the thread more resembles a from of techie Darwinism. Google newcomers who proffer an especially obvious suggestion ("Why don't we search blogs?") or something off-topic like how to arrange the cafeteria tables often suffer withering rebukes. "It's about 50 percent new ideas, 50 percent indoctrination of new employees," says Mayer.

It's all part of a culture that's not for the faint of heart. Google oozes with what one ex-employee calls "geek machismo." Intellectual sparring can get heated. In the cafeteria, "food gets thrown," says the former employee.

Fearless culture

What Mayer thinks will be essential for continued innovation is for Google to keep its sense of fearlessness. "I like to launch [products] early and often. That has become my mantra," she says. She mentions Apple Computer and Madonna. "Nobody remembers the Sex Book or the Newton. Consumers remember your average over time. That philosophy frees you from fear."

This is just one way that Mayer tries to maintain the search company's original culture. That's no easy task. Movie night, for instance, was a piece of cake when perhaps 100 employees descended on a local cinema. Today, organizing such an event is a full-time job. Yet Mayer handles several of these a year, from picking a movie with the right geek credibility (say, Star Wars: Episode III) to ordering thousands of tickets to writing the software that lets her track who has received them. "She still walks around with a laptop, handing out all the tickets beforehand," marvels Google's Silverstein.

It makes sense for Mayer to stay in such close touch with the swelling ranks of Googlers. She may need every one of their bright ideas to keep the search giant ahead of the competition. Here go the key factors of Google's success:

  • Nurture great ideas from all levels of the company, not just the top.
  • Be available to employees so that they have an opportunity to get their ideas heard.
  • Demand creativity by giving employees "free thinking time" to develop pet projects, no matter how far from the company's central vision.
  • Acquire good ideas. Although preferring to develop new technologies in house, Google is also willing to snap up small companies with interesting initiatives.

Excerpted from Marketing Power Plays. Price Rs 299. Reprinted by permission of Tata McGraw Hill Publishing Company Limited. Copyright 2007 by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. All rights reserved.