Watching Sergey Wander: A Sliver of Insight Into Google?

Posted by: Rob Hof on May 28, 2009

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that reveal the most, and I had that experience today just watching Google cofounder Sergey Brin walk a couple of San Francisco city blocks.

For the second day in a row at Google’s I/O developer conference in San Francisco, Brin showed up (late) at a press briefing today, this time following the introduction of a very early version of Google Wave. It’s a new communications and collaboration service that got rave reviews from the large audience of developers, though it won’t be available to real people for several months. (I Twittered about it here, and you can get the full details on the Google blog and on Techmeme.)

Anyway, after the briefing, I ran into him and a Google PR person and chatted with them a few minutes while Brin tested out Google Latitude, the location application that came out a few weeks ago. I left the conference hall to get back to the office, glanced at email on my Treo, and then noticed he had left too, walking half a block ahead of me all by himself. I figured he was heading to Google’s San Francisco offices, which are two blocks from mine, so coincidentally I ended up following him for a couple of blocks.

Apologies to Sergey if this observation seems intrusive (seriously, I was just hoofing it back to the office!). But his wanderings struck me in a couple of ways that at least indirectly said something to me about Google and its management. …

One was that Brin had absolutely no handlers with him, no one telling him where he was scheduled to go next. I mean, here's a billionaire, a founder of perhaps the most famous and one of the most successful companies in the world, who presumably has way too many other important things to do. And yet he's just ambling along, just another young guy in San Francisco (with no socks, as far as I could tell) whom nobody seemed to recognize as a Somebody.

Maybe some will see this as a poor use of time by someone whose every move can also move billions of dollars' worth of Google's shares. I don't think so. I see so many corporate executives who seem to be always surrounded by handlers or (yes) the press. Somehow it was refreshing to see a corporate titan (a label Brin no doubt wouldn't apply to himself) get literally outside the usual corporate bubble.

The second thing that struck me was that he was still clearly testing out something on his phone, presumably Latitude. Surely he has hundreds or thousands of engineers who are already doing this, but he seemed to be taking the responsibility to check out the company's products himself, in the wild. In fact, he seemed truly absorbed in it. This also has to be a good thing, a CEO president with an intense interest in his company's own products.

And then he turned down another street and I kept going to my office. OK, no doubt I'm reading way too much into a random walk down Third Street. After all, Google is hardly immune to arrogance and self-importance, and it certainly has made a number of missteps, such as an inability to make much money from YouTube and a seeming deaf ear to antitrust concerns. But watching Brin reinforced an impression I took away from some other developments, such as a flurry of new search and other features in recent weeks and left me thinking that Google's management hasn't quite reached that point where complacency sets in and sparks an inexorable decline for a company.

Reader Comments

s

May 28, 2009 11:36 PM

AFAIK, larry (dunno about sergey) even does his own calendar!

Rex Hammock

May 28, 2009 11:38 PM

Maybe he was using his phone to check out an application that allows him to track his Boeing 767.

Rob Hof

May 28, 2009 11:52 PM

OK, Rex, I take your point, and I did worry that this might sound like a fanboy post. Yeah, Sergey's hardly an everyman anymore, and I don't mean to imply that he, Larry, et. al. have made all the right decisions, especially on that playboy plane. So like I said, maybe all this meant nothing. Just thought it was interesting how absorbed he seemed to be in the product. Wonder how many presidents of companies this big are.

John Furrier

May 28, 2009 11:56 PM

Really good insight Rob. I also noticed that Sergey had no handlers walking around the halls amongst the growing legion of developers.

Good for Sergey to be so active. Heck he's young and is active in his company. It's clear to me that Google is competing and working hard to enable innovation. The big question is that the company seems to be half academic like and half money making on products.

The big question that I've been asking myself all day today is what companies have actually made or making money working with Google in building a business(minus SEO, SEM, and agencies, and companies they bought).

Can they make developers money? They enable cool things but there seems to be no business model for their partners. Is this being competitive if their ecosystem can't generate a "wave" of revenue.

Ric

May 29, 2009 9:11 AM

I thank you for your slice of insight. It also speaks volumes to me. I find the first and biggest cardinal sin captains of industry make right before they stop innovating ... is by in to their own PR. When you cant do anything like walk down the street, by your self, lost in something important is the day you hang it up. Thanks for taking the time to share and put some humanity back on the face of this juggernaut.

karl kastner

May 30, 2009 6:31 AM

Maybe he was testing the new Android app, Stalker Alert.

Shirley

May 30, 2009 8:06 AM

Did it ever occur to you that he might be looking at something? Or, he might have needed a "breath of fresh air"? Regardless of where we are, sometimes we just need to take a look around us.

Stuart

May 30, 2009 2:47 PM

A small correction: Sergey's title at Google is "Co-founder and President" (at least according to Wikipedia). Eric Schmidt is Google's CEO.

From what I understand, Larry and Sergey specifically created Google's management structure so that they could stay more involved with Google's products.

John

May 30, 2009 5:14 PM

Well, if he wasn't a target for kidnappers before, he certainly is now. Couldn't you just peep in windows to get your voyeuristic kicks? Ask your corporate counsel about the giant liability window you have just opened. I hope they ask you in return whether you can say "Paper or plastic..."

Rob Hof

May 31, 2009 12:23 AM

Stuart: Actually I didn't say he was CEO, just skipped the president title because he's one of two presidents (with cofounder Larry Page). I just didn't want to burden the sentence with the other title, since it's already well-known they and Schmidt are pretty much equals in a triumvirate.

Rob Hof

May 31, 2009 12:27 AM

Um, John, as I said in the post, he was walking a public street, the same route I was already walking, so I was hardly a voyeur. And I assume he is not now still walking the same street, so it's tough to see how he's more of a target for kidnappers now than before. So I think I will not be bagging groceries very soon.

Davos

May 31, 2009 12:32 AM

people like the author are what is bad for america ... name dropping, twittering nobodies.

juan

May 31, 2009 4:33 AM

I agree totally with the two observations, particularly in the case of new companies.
I used to visit Redmond twice a year representing my Company in a tek forum, this was 95. A former colleague then working there told me, Bill comes here and reviews my product looking into implementation details, library size, start up time, ....
I know many extreme counter examples and I have appreciated that they are really harmful.

Z

May 31, 2009 2:00 PM

Why are the google founders not focused more on helping America's image around the world? Facebook, Google, etc have major international influence. They just sit back when they could do many more specific thngs to pressure other countries populations to help solve global issues the us is shouldering alone.

JP

May 31, 2009 2:43 PM

What most people dont undesrtand is that youtube is part of Google's enviroment... It can take another 5 years before they make a penny but is going to bring profits inderectly. Itunes makes almost no money for Apple but is a key part of it...

Gregory F

May 31, 2009 2:52 PM

This *is* a little creepy and not really worth the time it took to read, nothing personal.

homeBiscuitsAndGravy

May 31, 2009 2:53 PM

all these bitchy comments (Davos in particular) gave me a profound case of gas. really children, the point was pretty transparent that Brin was simply doing something that people who run large organizations need to do more of: get out of the corporate bubble once in a while and stay in tune with your products. now excuse me while i go pop some Beano...

Sergey's mom

May 31, 2009 5:26 PM

This article has no redeeming qualities and almost borders on paparaazi stalking. This gives no insight into Google management. Your preceptions and assumtions are based on "nothing". For all you know he was trading stocks and checking the weather. Your objectivity is laughable. Next time, try an interview and bring something worth while to the table. I am embarassed for BW that you apparently have no one reading your material before you unleash it on their readers. Please do your job and report on items that have substance as opposed to your misguided perceptions.

Rob Hof

May 31, 2009 5:46 PM

"Sergey's mom": Actually I did interview him, and some of that will be for a different story. Yes, I was assuming a bit, but as the post says, he was checking out Latitude when I talked with him, so it wasn't exactly a stretch to think he was continuing to do so as he walked. Anyway, it's hardly stalking to walk where I was going to go anyway and simply notice what he was doing. I deliberately avoided taking a photo or otherwise disturbing him.

Contes

May 31, 2009 6:34 PM

I agree with z, the CEO's of major American companies, especially online companies, have a great deal of influence on rest on of the world. Through a simple link to an article they can change what other people from other countries think about the US in these times. Radu Contes

Nanc-o-matic

May 31, 2009 8:08 PM

Can't escape our humanness now can we?

John

June 1, 2009 1:57 AM

Um, Rob, please don't be disingenuous and overly literal--you revealed to or reminded the public that Mr. Brin, one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in America, travels unescorted. While I cheerfully concede that you may be expressing genuine geek social naivete about the desirability (if not feasibility) of billionaires taking a solitary stroll on a city street, I still believe your observations are careless and endangering (which is also how I would characterize Mr. Brin's actions by placing himself, family, friends, coworkers and shareholders at risk.) Just one last question: do you recognize the following comment and its source? "Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy." Do tell...

Stuart

June 2, 2009 5:09 PM

Umm, Rob, while not directly calling Sergey Google's CEO, you did say "This also has to be a good thing, a CEO with an intense interest in his company's own products."

Rob Hof

June 2, 2009 5:13 PM

Stuart, you're right, I implied he was CEO when he's actually one of two presidents. And the annoying thing is, I know he's not the CEO. Fixed it...

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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