A former Google executive, Andrew McLaughlin assesses the leadership shuffle at the company and talks about what it was like being an adviser in the Obama White House.
Tumblr Vice President Andrew McLaughlin, who was Google’s chief of global policy before leaving to work in the Obama White House, recently made a prodigal return of sorts to Silicon Valley — teaching a fall course on free speech and the Internet at Stanford.
McLaughlin’s career has ranged from founding a technology-policy think tank in Uganda, to launching the Internet’s technical-coordinating organization, ICANN, in 1999; to advising President Obama on tech policy. At Google, he had an inside view of top leadership as the company mushroomed into an Internet superpower.
McLaughlin recently took a break from his part-time gig at Stanford for a conversation on his time at Google and in Washington, D.C. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you think Google’s new leadership, with Larry Page as CEO and Eric Schmidt as executive chairman, is working?
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A: I’m really impressed with how it’s playing out. I might not have predicted that if you had told me a year ago that this would be the structure. Eric was a fantastic CEO for Google’s huge growth period. Interestingly though, it’s seems that Larry has had a period right now where he’s taking aggressive steps to restructure the company in smart ways, in bold ways.
It seems to me like the guy has really grown personally in 10 years. I’m not seeing him; I just have friends in the room when he’s making decisions. One of the things that was always a problem for Larry is that he came across often as sort of dismissive and contemptuous of subpar thinking. And by all reports, he’s listening carefully; he’s spending time on people. He is personally showing a much more positive and constructive, cooperative face to his leaders — the people that are his senior executives. It shows he really has worked to understand his own limitations and to try to overcome them. And I think that’s really cool.
Larry has been recapturing for a very large organization some of the spirit and nimbleness it had when it was much, much smaller, which is the willingness to make some big bets, and to try some bold things. That is very much what Google needs.
Q: As Google’s policy director, you recommended against taking Google into China. How did that decision play out?
A: What Eric and Larry believed was that Google in China brings change to China faster than Google outside China. The decision as I experienced it was not a money one. They never, ever asked about revenue potential. Obviously, it was there. You didn’t have to do the math to figure that out. But that wasn’t what they wanted to talk about. They wanted to talk about the ethics of changing China faster.
Q: Were they right or wrong?
A: I look at the evidence on the ground in the past six years that Google’s been there, and I have to say that Google’s presence has pushed the Chinese Internet to innovate faster, to develop more product, to be more open, to support more free speech.
Part of their argument was that Google can be so important to the Chinese that they won’t be able to kick Google out. And there, they might have been proved right again.
Google still has 20 percent of the search market there. That’s incredible, given the poke in the eye Google gave to the leadership. In fact, the attachment of many Chinese to Google because they stood up like that might be even stronger.
Q: The perception was Google was very tight with the Obama administration after the election.
A: I think the closeness was way overplayed. How many times did Barack Obama meet Eric Schmidt in person? Like two. It’s not like they had a close personal friendship or anything like that.
The campaign was grateful for all the support they got from Googlers. But that’s not the same as Barack Obama the human being having some sort of close alliance with Google or with Eric. It’s far removed.
So when the Justice Department moves to investigate Google deals, that’s exactly what should be happening. They are doing their jobs. “Google takes over the Obama administration” was just a press narrative. It had no relationship with reality. There were a grand total of four Googlers who took jobs in the administration.
Q: Was Washington, D.C., a frustrating experience?
A: Absolutely. On the big things that matter, though, I felt like the president took tech seriously. I felt like we had a seat at the table. And in a couple of areas it went well.
For example, in the area of electronic health records, we had a plan; it was aligned with the president’s broader priorities, and we knew what we were doing, which is get the standards right, and get the money to follow the standards. And it’s going to be huge. By 2015, every American is going to have something that reasonably resembles an electronic health record.