Ex-Google CIO gives his farewell interview

Before he left Google for EMI, Douglas Merrill told Thomas Hoffman about the search giant's internal IT

You joined Google as senior director of information systems in late 2003. How did you land such a cool job?

I spent four years or so at Charles Schwab & Co doing a bunch of different things, including head of infrastructure, head of security for a while, and then I left technology for a year or two as head of HR strategy. My background is a mixture of process, people and technology. [Merrill holds a BA in social and political organisation and an MA and a PhD in psychology]

At Google, they were just getting ready to think about going public and Larry [Page] had some interesting ideas. I had this background, and I was a licensed broker, so I understood how the public-offering process worked. The rest is history, as it were.

I’ve read that Google doesn’t have an IT organisation that’s structured like that at most companies. How is it configured?

We have a pretty heavy reliance on decentralisation, so people have a lot of control to do what they want. Our motto is “Choice, not control.” I try to make it possible for all Googlers to have all the hardware and control that they want.

Mostly, what I try to do is make it possible for our engineers and product managers to use the tools that they want, whether it’s PC and [Microsoft] Exchange or whatever they choose. What matters is productivity and creativity.

How do you manage this as a CIO?

Most software downloads are done by [end users]. There’s lots of self-service. If they need help, we have drop in centres called “Tech Stops” where we have broadly skilled people — more skilled than you might find at most helpdesk centres. We expect our people to be pretty deep experts on infrastructure. And we have application developers and other programmers who can help with Google Apps and other application support.

How many people support Google’s IT operations?

We don’t really think about things that way. In some respects, everybody here supports IT operations in some way. We have numbers like support people per office, but the numbers are kind of hard to compare to other businesses because we have lots more offices than most organisations.

We have [approximately] 100 offices worldwide. Our ratios [of employees per IT support person] are strange because most of the support is done by people themselves.

Google is building multiple datacentres in seemingly out-of-the-way places in the US and elsewhere. What’s the strategy behind this?

Google tries to focus very heavily on responding to user queries. We can produce about 10 results in 250 milli-seconds. We try very, very hard to provide lightning-fast response, and we have thousands of machines worldwide to support those response rates. As we increase our clouds worldwide, there are incredible benefits to users.

Can you explain what some experts call Google’s unique server design?

We build our own hardware. We do that because we’re very, very cheap and we have unusual demands. We use consumer-grade hard drives where most businesses use more expensive, higher-availability hardware. We expect it to break and, when it does, we have file systems and backups, which make it less [likely] to be noticed by users.

We also have switchable power supplies. We know what voltage goes into our machines. We do lots of other designs like that to make our hardware more economical and more environmentally friendly.

You mentioned recently that Google now spends more money on power than it does on the capital costs over the lives of these machines. What steps have been taken to make the server farms more energy efficient?

One is using [switchable] power supplies. We also do circuit designs to make the machines more efficient. We’re trying to make our server farms as efficient as possible, in terms of heat dissipation and with as little cooling required as needed.

What are some sources of green power that Google is utilising?

Look at our public announcements. We don’t directly say which of those sources are currently used in our datacentre. We’ve markedly reduced our carbon footprint. [Note: Last year, Google announced its intention to become carbon-neutral in 2007 and beyond, and the company claims that it’s on track towards meeting these goals.]

What’s the coolest thing about your job?

That’s a good question. It’s to interact with super-smart people. You can’t walk the hallways here without coming across someone with a superexciting background who is doing something completely different from what their background is in. That’s pretty darn cool. And I get to work with these people.

I don’t have to be the guy [charged with finding] a 10% cost reduction.

What are the biggest misconceptions that people outside of the company have about your role at Google?

Usually when I’m at a cocktail party, it’s not so much about what I do for a living as it is about people who talk about their love of Google. They mostly express how excited they are about using our products and how they use them.

Okay, then what is the most exasperating question that people outside of Google ask you?

“When are you going to release product x?” Because people are so excited about the products we have, and there’s so much creativity coming out of Google engineering, they want to know when we’re going to release this function or that. And I can’t answer. We just have so much work being done in our engineering labs.

And even if I knew, I still couldn’t answer. There’s so much innovation happening all the time, you don’t know the next big thing that’s going to happen. It’s a really cool problem to have.

Let’s switch gears for a moment. How do CIOs need to change their approaches?

The language we’re using in the job must change. Increasingly, I don’t think there’s a meaningful distinction between technology and the business. It hasn’t always been true. If you look at a company like Google, there’s no distinction, but we’re a technology company, so that kind of makes sense.

I think CIOs [need to] think about aligning with the business and really think about ourselves as being CIOs in the business. [CIOs should be] less budget-focused.

So how do CIOs make that transition?

We have to admit that there’s a problem. We have to reward talent in the organisation for taking risks and applying all of the innovation that’s available to us and being truly a business function.

How do you see your own role evolving?

I feel like every three to six months I’m in a different job. Change is fast here. I can’t predict what will happen down the road, but what I spend my time doing today won’t be what I’m doing this summer.

What are some of the things that concern you lately?

At the highest level, it’s not that much different from anyone else — to make my employees as productive as possible; for anyone who needs help, get it to them quickly; to make it possible for our users at Google Checkout to feel secure to buy from different merchants; and to support the growth of Google Apps.

When I go to speak with CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies, I say “Here’s how we run our company using Google Apps. Why don’t you try it, too?”

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