Google Engineering Vice President Douglas Merrill battled a windstorm to get from the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to Seattle last week...
Google Engineering Vice President Douglas Merrill battled a windstorm to get from the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to Seattle last week, where he discussed Google’s culture and its growing pains as the company celebrates its second year in the Pacific Northwest.
Merrill, who joined Google in 2003 and helped steer its IPO, holds a doctorate in psychology from Princeton. He has worked as an information scientist at the RAND Corporation and writes a blog in which he admits to pointy hair and a penchant for bright clothing. Below is an edited transcript of a conversation with Business reporter Kristi Heim.
Q: It’s hard to believe the same person who likes the Sex Pistols also liked the movie “Love Actually.”
A: I am a complicated human.
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Q: So you’re here for Google’s second anniversary.
A: I’m here for the second anniversary. It’s such a great office we have here. Google’s unusual in a couple of ways. We open engineering offices where the talent is, rather than bringing talent to a location. … [In Kirkland] we have north of 250 employees, and we’re approaching 200 engineers. It’s just an incredible growth rate in two years.
We don’t have specialized engineering offices… Each of our engineering offices have a personality, a flavor. But fundamentally each office works on the entire panoply of Google products and services.
We have a way of organizing our engineering force we summarize as 70-20-10. Seventy percent of work goes into core search and ads, 20 percent goes into near-term extension of core search and ads, and 10 percent to wild ideas that we think might be big in the future, but we don’t really know.
It’s an example of how Google as an entity tries to be an innovation engine. We will almost always sacrifice clean efficiency for innovative effectiveness.
So where the primary goal of many engineering organizations is to run the trains precisely on time … our goal is to try and provide an environment and structures that lead our engineers to be more creative and to try new and unusual ways of solving the same problems.
Q: So what kind of flavor does the Seattle office have?
A: What we found here in these 200 engineers is an office that feels like Mountain View. It doesn’t feel like an office that has only one kind of people. You just wander around the office — you’ll see different kinds of people, different politics, different clothing … and we have great leaders here.
Q: And dramatic weather once in a while.
A: Yes, my flight in this morning was quite exciting. I’ve never had this happen in a plane before. We were landing, and at 25 feet, we peeled off and went around. I was terrified.
Q: What interesting projects are getting off the ground here?
A: We’re working on some of our communications infrastructure here, for example, Google Talk, and we’re investigating some others. Over time we’re going to do some work related to Checkout here … The ones that are most set here are Talk and Video, Maps and Google Pack.
Q: What are you looking at doing over the next year?
A: One of the things we’re increasingly trying to do is to export Mountain View work to the really incredibly successful non-Mountain View offices. It’s clear the Kirkland office is hugely successful. We’ve got great engineers, great growth rate and incredible delivery. It’s clear this is amongst our most successful offices worldwide.
So I think over the next 12 months we’re going to take a lot more of the core 70 percent work and bring it here to get access to this incredible talent…
We particularly open offices in places where people can achieve a good work-life balance. We tend to open offices in talent centers that also have arts and sports and good educational systems and outdoors and environments where people can congregate.
We find that our employees work really well in small groups when you can get them slightly away from their keyboards…
Q: How is Google approaching the challenge of hiring more women in engineering?
A: We’re really quite committed to hiring diversity of all types, gender, racial, ethnic, political, etc. Not because some regulation says it’s the right thing to do, but because in fact when you get different kinds of people solving a problem, you get better answers.
If your job is to innovate, you want to get as much of that diversity to apply to problem-solving as you possibly can.
We sponsor the Anita Borg Scholarships, we have recruiters that focus on women. We’re also doing work with other traditionally underserved populations.
We’re in the process of starting an internship program with a set of historically underserved minority population colleges across the country.
I do think we walk the walk in a way that isn’t always the case. We really do care about diversity and we really do support it through hiring, promotion, development, coaching.
Q: How does your background in psychology influence your work at Google?
A: I’m interested in how people solve problems. I got into it as a child mostly because of my particular issues. I was deaf as a child, I relearned to speak and I’m dyslexic. I’m personally very interested in the way people deal with environments that feel hostile to them. I studied in graduate school a set of educational techniques that could help women’s representation in mathematics.
My whole life has been around trying to understand and build tools to help people be more successful. Here I build tools to help Googlers be more effective.
We, as an organization, build tools to make all the world’s information universally accessible and useful.
In some sense I do psychology every day, I just don’t do the kind that involves a couch.
Q: As Google grows so fast, how do you make sure the organization remains effective?
A: What do we do well? Our primary advantage is our culture. It’s our focus on innovation … what I personally spend my time doing is going around to offices and reminding people what the culture is like. …
One of the things that’s interesting about Google is we explicitly talk about what we believe … As we grow we have to protect our culture in order to continue to be what we are, to get the great talent, to be so effective.
Q: What do you hear form people in those meetings?
A: You hear different things depending on where you are. In general, any organization that’s growing fast sometimes feels growing pains. With our live-out-loud culture, we talk about everything. I try to encourage people to tell me everything that’s broken, tell me everything you wish you could change.
One of the things I love about our culture is that we have an honest, open discussion about things that aren’t perfect. I expect, I hope to hear a large volume of interesting complaints about things that are broken.
The traditional litany of ‘I don’t always know what’s going on. How do I figure that out?’ The list of things that aren’t ideal at growing companies is the same everywhere.
Q: Where you see this office going in the future?
A: Our goal is to hire all the world’s smartest engineers and make them incredibly effective. It turns out a whole bunch of them live in the Pacific Northwest or want to live in the Pacific Northwest. We’re hiring. I want them all. Fundamentally my goal is to grow this office by a lot.
Q: You’ve just expanded into a building across the street. Does that mean you’ve decided to stay in this location in Kirkland?
A: Facilities is a hard topic. It depends on growth. We are here for the foreseeable future … We’re here for as far as we can see.
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org