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3/15/2011
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Google Docs Adds Discussions

The latest addition to Docs shows that entrepreneurial culture can thrive even inside a company as large as Google.

Google Docs is designed for writing. But often there's a need to write about what's been written. That's why, on Wednesday, Google is planning to add discussions to Google Docs.

Discussions aren't the same as comments. They're not discrete notes placed in the text. Rather, they're intended to be yet another way to help people work together, to hash out ideas. A Docs discussion descends downward in its own window pane like a miniature forum. It's a well-designed and eminently useful feature.

Scott Johnston, a group product manager for Google, describes discussions as a way to accelerate collaboration.

Discussions integrate with e-mail and they're designed with business processes in mind -- there's a Resolve button to underscore how discussions can be used for document development and approval.

This is why people love cloud computing: New features just appear, without the need to download or install any additional software.

Google developed over 130 features last year for Google Apps, its online application suite. And in order to iterate that rapidly, Google depends heavily on people like Johnston.

Johnston came to Google in late 2006 through its acquisition of JotSpot, which became Google Sites. He oversaw the creation of discussions in Docs.

"I'm sort of a startup nut," he said. "I'm addicted to the energy. ...I don't do well at large companies." He says he expected to help re-release JotSpot on Google's infrastructure and to then depart for another startup. But he ended up being convinced to stay by Google managers Jonathan Rochelle and Bradley Horowitz.

Rochelle in particular, during the six years he's been at Google and working on Docs, has tried to maintain teams that operate like startups inside Google. Johnston says that Google itself is run like a federation of startups, so it's not as if the Docs group is alone in its attempt to maintain agility amid corporate growth.

About a year ago when he was on the verge of leaving Google, Johnston says his view of what a large company could be changed following a poorly received pitch meeting. Trying to address concerns raised about his suggested project, he made contact with Google engineer in Sydney, Australia, and subsequently traveled to Australia for a face-to-face meeting.

The meeting went well and led Johnston to believe that he could recapture the excitement of being an entrepreneur without leaving Google. Now, he says, he's running some 20 to 25 projects with various Google engineers as if they're startups.

"I feel almost at this point like I'm an angel investor," he said. "It's like this ideal world where I have these amazing resources. I have funding, if I can convince my boards to fund me."

For Google, maintaining a vital culture of entrepreneurship is believed to be necessary to retain talent, particularly with rivals like Facebook seeking to lure high-value employees away. "We're constantly trying to figure out how do you keep entrepreneurship going while still being the size we are," said Johnston. "And I think it's starting to click."

Perhaps not coincidentally, Google recently raised base salaries for its employees by 10% and, for non-executive employees, shifted from offering bonuses to salary increases.

Johnston says he's seen Google find itself in the past few years. "When I started, I don't think we were that sure of ourselves," he said. "All of a sudden there was all this attention on us and I don't think we were ready for that. I've seen the company mature a lot. And that's another reason that I stayed. The company has moved to a place where it seems to care as much about my health and well-being as it does about my output."

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