February 2013 WIRED interview with Google CEO, Larry Page …
Steven Levy 01.17.13
Larry Page lives by the gospel of 10x. Most companies would be happy to improve a product by 10 percent. Not the CEO and cofounder of Google. The way Page sees it, a 10 percent improvement means that you’re basically doing the same thing as everybody else. You probably won’t fail spectacularly, but you are guaranteed not to succeed wildly.
That’s why Page expects his employees to create products and services that are 10 times better than the competition. That means he isn’t satisfied with discovering a couple of hidden efficiencies or tweaking code to achieve modest gains. Thousand-percent improvement requires rethinking problems entirely, exploring the edges of what’s technically possible, and having a lot more fun in the process.
This regimen of cheeky aspiration has made Google an extraordinary success story, changing the lives of its users while fattening the wallets of its investors. But it has also accomplished something far beyond Google itself: In an industry rife with bandwagon-hopping and strategic positioning, Page’s approach is a beacon for those who want more from their CEOs than a bloated earnings statement. While Google has made some missteps in recent years, and while its power has deservedly drawn the scrutiny of regulators and critics, it remains a flagship for optimists who believe that innovation will provide us with not just delightful gadgetry but solutions to our problems and inspiration for our dreams. For those people–and maybe for the human enterprise itself–a car that drives itself (to name one of the company’s recent tech triumphs) is a much more valuable dividend than one calculated in cents per share. There’s no question which is more important to Larry Page.
Of course, it can be challenging working for a boss whose dominant trait is dissatisfaction with the pace of progress. Astro Teller, who oversees Google X, the company’s blue-sky skunkworks division, illustrates Page’s proclivities with a parable. Teller imagines wheeling a Dr. Who time machine into Page’s office. He plugs it in and–it works! But instead of being bowled over, Page asks why it needs a plug. Wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t use power at all? “It’s not because he’s not excited about time machines or he’s ungrateful that we built it,” Teller says. “It’s just core to who he is. There’s always more to do, and his focus is on where the next 10X will come from.”
Page thought big even when he was little–he has said he always wanted to be an inventor, not just to produce gadgetry but to change the world. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, he found inspiration in a student leadership-training program called LeaderShape, which preached “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” By the time he got to grad school at Stanford, it was a natural step for him to 10X his potential thesis idea–a tool to annotate web pages–into a search engine that transformed the web and the world. And once Google’s riotously successful ad business provided a plump financial cushion, Page was free to push for innovations that bore only a passing relationship to his core business. Google would build an email service–with 100 times the storage of competitors. Google would provide translations–for the entire web, from any language to any other. Google would give readers instant access to a global library–by scanning nearly every book ever published and putting the contents in its indexes. More recently, Google launched its own version of an ISP service–laying its own fiber and providing broadband service to Kansas City customers at 100 times industry-standard speeds.
That moon-shot mentality is the basis of Google X, which the company established in early 2010 to identify and implement once-impossible sci-fi fantasies: Hail Mary projects like the self-driving car. Or Google Glass, a wearable computing system. Or an artificial brain, in which a cluster of computers running advanced algorithms learn from the world around them, much like humans do. (In one experiment, it took only three days for a digital colony of 1,000 machines, with a billion connections, to surpass previous benchmarks in identifying photos of faces and cats.)
Page was closely involved in establishing Google X, but since he has ascended to lead the company, he can’t spend as much time there. Some Googlers wonder if Page, clearly at his happiest working on moon shots, is essentially taking one for the team by assuming the sometimes prosaic tasks of a CEO. (Talking to bureaucrats about antitrust issues, for example, is probably not his idea of a good time.)
The evidence shows, however, that Page has attacked his role with full-hearted fervor, applying the same 10X mentality to the process of running the company.
He reorganized the management team around an “L-Team” of top aides, and he relentlessly rallied employees around a sweeping effort to integrate all of Google’s offerings into a seamlessly social whole. And in the boldest move in his tenure, he engineered the $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, one of the world’s biggest handset companies.
In one of the rare interviews he has granted as CEO, Page recently discussed thinking big and other Googley issues with Wired at the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. Later that same day, Page, who turns 40 in March, announced a new philanthropic venture. After observing epidemiological behavior via Google Search’s flu-tracking service, he decided to pay for free flu shots for kids in the entire Bay Area. How 10X of him.