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4/8/2011
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Life As Google's CIO

Ben Fried explains the unique experience of running Google’s corporate IT, from constant online software upgrades to a homegrown videoconferencing system.

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To some CIOs, the mingling of corporate and consumer information technology represents a source of headaches and risk; to Google CIO Ben Fried it's a source of excitement.

"I came here because I believed that the wave of the corporatization of consumer technology was going to become a dominant theme in my life, and I would rather be part of an organization that's shaping that than have that wave fall upon me in some other part of the industry," Fried explained in an interview in late March at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Fried spent 14 years at Morgan Stanley before joining Google in May 2008. At Morgan Stanley, he led the development of the company's first foray onto the Web and its first Internet-based institutional electronic commerce offerings. He was responsible for software that wasn't specifically for a line of business, such as Web infrastructure, personal productivity technology, office and email, messaging, telephony, and video conferencing, and software development technologies.

At Google, he has somewhat similar responsibilities, which involve software delivery, overseeing built and bought software that serves the major business unit functions inside Google (HR, performance management, expense reporting, for example, but not its commercial Web software), supporting Google employees with their hardware and software needs, overseeing merger and acquisition systems integration, systems administration, and operations. He doesn't manage security or technology for engineering and sales, which have their own dedicated technology teams.

Like many CIOs, Fried has to decide whether to buy or build software to meet specific corporate needs. Given Google's reputation as an unconventional company and its surfeit of engineering talent, it's tempting to imagine that the company's engineers build everything from scratch. But there are areas where it pays to be conventional. For example, Google relies on Oracle Financials, a fact that probably generates a bit of discomfort now that Oracle is suing Google for allegedly infringing on Java patents.

"The way I look at Financials, having come in after the initial implementation, is that this is a case where there's great value in us being like a lot of other companies," said Fried. "You want to look the same to the outside. Given a world of Sarbanes-Oxley, and where you want to have external auditors be able to easily understand how your books and records work, having books and records that are familiar to them and systems that are familiar to them, to understand how you're managing that, seems to me like a smart move."

But elsewhere, Google does tend to take the road less travelled by building systems to accommodate unique workflows or business processes.

Consider the company's homegrown videoconferencing system, which has been in development since 2008. It's a project close to the heart of Larry Page, Google's co-founder and, as of April, CEO. "He's got a passion about it," said Fried. We had a discussion about what he wanted to see, and when I could give him a look at the new stuff we're doing."

The system combines off-the-shelf PC video technology backed by the Google Talk video infrastructure and a custom graphic user interface. The software supporting the system aims to provide the ease-of-use of a video kiosk or appliance, says Fried, to convey a sense of reliability, when in fact it's evolving as developers iterate.

Traditional corporate video conferencing systems are costly to buy and to run, explains Fried, requiring special hardware in data centers, special video conferencing equipment in meeting rooms and specialized support technicians. By crafting custom software to run on commodity PCs in conjunction with Internet services, Google can achieve the same results for less.

Fried says it has been interesting to watch as Googlers have come to recognize that there's more to this system than commodity hardware. The company's video conferencing system, like its consumer-facing products, changes through rapid iteration. That means it's hard to form a fixed opinion about the system because it's constantly evolving.

"It takes a while to get them to understand, we do a push of that system every Wednesday," he explained. "And the GUI could be really different. The features could be really different. The bug that you saw could be fixed. In fact, it probably is fixed. And it's really cool seeing that process take place. I must admit, seeing that transformation, I can only recommend it to others in general, that getting to this really, really regular release process, and to my fellow IT practitioners, getting your users used to the idea that the software gets better every week."

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