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Managing Google's Idea Factory


In late 1998, when Marissa Mayer first heard about a small outfit called Google, she barely batted an eye. The Stanford University grad student was urged by her adviser to pay a visit to two guys on the computer science building's fourth floor who were developing ways to analyze the World Wide Web.

But Internet startups were as common as hay fever in Silicon Valley. Mayer, then 23, was leaning toward taking a teaching gig at Carnegie Mellon University. And the thought of joining up with 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. A headhunter persuaded her to reconsider the search startup, and she ended up joining Google in early 1999, as a programmer and roughly its 20th employee. Since then, 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.

It's no small task. Co-founders Larry E. Page and Sergey Brin have long declared their mission is to "organize the world's information." Yet only in recent months has the staggering scope of their ambition come into full relief. Google is moving to digitize the world's libraries, to offer all comers free voice calls, to provide satellite images of the world, and perhaps to give away wireless broadband service to millions of people. Google really seems to believe it can make every bit of information available to anyone anywhere, and direct all those bits -- whether text, audio, or video -- through its computers before they hit users' brains.

ROCKET RIDE

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 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.

It's increasingly important, too. Google's rocket ride has attracted a swarm of competitors, from giants Microsoft () and Yahoo! () to upstarts like Technorati and Exalead. They're all aiming to take away a chunk of Google's search traffic, which puts a premium on the company's ability to develop other technologies. "People are used to typing in Google to search," says Chris Sherman, editor of the industry newsletter SearchDay. "But its competitors are doing a really good job of rolling out quality features and products." Microsoft Corp. has even explored taking a stake in America Online Inc. so that it can claim for itself the millions in revenues that Google gets from providing AOL with its search technology.

The woman charged with helping come up with Google's response is a tall, striking blonde with blue eyes. At 30, Mayer still carries herself with the erect posture of the ballet dancer she was in her youth. She grew up in Wausau, Wis., a city of 40,000 about 3 1/2 hours northwest of Milwaukee. She aspires to live up to the example of her grandfather, who served as mayor of Jackson, Wis., for 30 years, despite being crippled by polio as a child.

In Wausau, Mayer was one of the top debaters on her high school team. Then the brainy teenager decided to try out for 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.

Mayer continues to bridge the gap between MBAs and PhDs. She helps decide when employees' pet projects are refined enough to be presented to the company's founders. Such decisions are often made through an established process, with Mayer giving ideas a hearing during her open office hours or during brainstorming sessions. Yet she is also good at drawing out programmers informally, during a chance meeting in the cafeteria or hallway.

During a casual chat in 2003, a worker told her about the project of an Australian engineer, Steve Lawrence. He was developing a program to track and search the contents of his computer, which ran on the Linux operating system. Knowing Google had to figure out a way for people to find stuff on their own computers, Mayer tracked Lawrence down and asked him about developing a version of his software to search any PC. He was enthusiastic, so she helped assemble a team to work with him. The result: Google introduced its desktop search in October, 2004, two months before Microsoft. "Marissa has been very successful as the gatekeeper for a lot of these new products," says Craig Silverstein, director of technology at Google.

Part of Mayer's challenge is realizing when certain formulas falter. 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 execs decided it 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."'

Mayer's typical workday starts at 9 a.m. and doesn't end until about midnight. Her glass-walled office is intentionally situated across from the engineering snack area, where programmers grab evening coffee or munchies. Often on these late nights, engineers will bend her ear as they take a breather from their work, bringing her up to date on the countless ideas percolating through the ranks. "I keep my ears open. I work at building a reputation for being receptive," she says.

This theory is in action on a sunny Friday afternoon in September. Mayer walks around her office, shared with an assistant and two other employees. Outside the door, seven or eight programmers and product managers have been milling about since 3:30. Most wear jeans, tennis shoes, and checkered or striped shirts, all untucked. Some pace the hall and talk quietly on their cell phones. Others sit on chairs, their arms folded, waiting patiently.

OFFICE HOURS

At 4 p.m., her three-times-a-week office hours begin. It's a tradition Mayer brought over from her days at Stanford, where she taught computer science to undergrads. 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-20s. 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."

In ones or twos, all the visitors get a brief hearing, typically five minutes. She gently rebuffs one group seeking to put a link to Hurricane Katrina information on Google's home page. The site for hurricane victims, she argues, isn't useful enough yet. She brainstorms with a product manager on how to measure and compare the freshness of Google's search results against its rivals'.

One of the final groups marches in to discuss a personalized search product. Many pundits describe personalization as the Holy Grail in search. An engine that knows your preferences and interests intimately could tailor the information delivered to improve results. Google has been offering rudimentary personalization for a year, but more is expected in the future. With two people in Mayer's office and another on speaker phone, she grills the trio about the service's name. She's not enthusiastic about the initial suggestions. "You're killing me," she says.

After a few minutes of discussion, Mayer presses the group on the product's features. Google's top brass is having its next product-review session shortly, in which nascent ideas get either fast-tracked or sent back for further tinkering. So Mayer asks the big question: "O.K., let's take it to Larry [Page]. Are you guys ready to product review tomorrow?" They assure her that they're set to go.

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 to which anyone can submit or comment on an idea. At times, the thread more resembles a form 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% new ideas, 50% indoctrination of new employees," says Mayer.

It's all part of a culture 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.

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."

It's just one way Mayer tries to maintain the search company's original culture. That's no easy task. Movie night, for instance, used to be 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 cred (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.

By Ben Elgin in Mountain View, Calif.


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