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Making It Big In Software: Google's Peter Norvig

In this excerpt from the book Making It Big in Software: Get the Job. Work the Org. Become Great, by Sam Lightstone, Google’s Director of Research Peter Norvig shares insights into the working at the upper echelons of the software industry.

Q.What makes you feel successful about your work?

A. I'm very pragmatic and try to measure the impact I've had by multiplying the number of people I've done something for by the average impact on them. That's one of the things that makes it rewarding to work at Google: I can say that over a certain period of time, I've helped improve the response for a trillion queries. Even if each query saves the user just 5 seconds of time, that's 2,000 lifetimes we've saved over that period. And of course, we've had a much bigger impact on many users—we've helped them reunite with missing loved ones, find diagnoses for debilitating diseases, and so on. But ultimately, a purely numerical score is unsatisfactory. So I also forget about those hundreds of millions of anonymous users and focus more carefully on the impact I've had on those closer to me—whether I have made life better for the few hundred people in the company I interact with, the few dozen I work the most closely with, and the few others in my immediate family.

Q. What do you see as the coming changes in the software field over the next 10–15 years that will impact career opportunities either positively or negatively?

A. I think it is a great time with a lot of opportunities. The necessity for capital is less than it has been in any time in history. With a stipend of $5,000, a couple of college kids with a good idea can buy some laptops, create a solution, rent web servers from Amazon or some other service on a pay-as-you-go basis, and create the next big product. Or company. Or industry. More and more types of businesses are relying on software as a key ingredient to what they do, whether it be a movie rental business, a robotic vacuum cleaner, the discovery of new medicines or fuels, or a thousand other opportunities. Go out and solve some problems!

Q. How do you stay on top of technology trends and innovation?

A. Talk to people you respect and ask them what they're doing and what is interesting. Then read about those topics. When it makes a sense, you learn a lot more by actually doing a project in an area than by reading about it.

Q. How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you keep your professional life from dominating everything?

A. People get out of balance when they see their value as being able to respond quickly. If I see myself as a machine for answering email, then my work life would never stop because my email never stops. If instead I see my value as separating the important from the unimportant and making good decisions on the important, then I can go home at a reasonable hour, spend time with my family, ignore my email and phone messages all weekend long, and make sure that when I return to work, I am in the right mood to make the good decisions.

Q. Time management … technical leaders and executives are famous for being time-strapped. What strategies do you use to stay sane and use your time effectively?

A. Do the things that matter, stop doing the things that don't, and continuously examine your use of time so that you can tell the difference. Don't waste time on something just because that's the way it has been done.

Q. What suggestions do you have for others on being successful in software (either R&D or business)?

A. One thing I think is very important in life: Make sure you play in the big leagues. There's only so much you can learn or accomplish by yourself. For many attributes, you will be about the average of your peers, so make sure you have great peers. When I was in grad school, I played on a club Frisbee team that was competitive at the national level. Just for fun, I also played in a much less competitive intramural league. I tried to recruit the best athletes from that league to join my club team, but I ended up recruiting a player who was not the tallest, fastest, or strongest athlete. But he watched, learned, strived hard to improve, and, by virtue of playing with great teammates and great opponents, became a world-class player, leaving his old peers behind. I've always remembered that, and at every opportunity I tried to work with people who were better than me, from whom I would be able to learn and raise my game.

On the other hand, at some point it is useful for you to be the best person on a team, the one others look to get things done. You improve basic skills by watching others who are more experienced, but you improve decision making by being the go-to person, by feeling the burden of responsibility and living up to it.

Q. What words of wisdom or caution do you have for people entering the field?

A. To paraphrase my friends at Y-Combinator, "Make something people want, and have some guts." Life is too short to waste it on doing something that is not important. If you're in this field, you have the privilege of getting paid well to do interesting work with a variety of choices; you have the responsibility to choose wisely.

To read Chapter 7 of Making It Big In Software: Get the Job. Work The Org. Become Great in full, click here.

Sam Lightstone is Program Director and Senior Technical Staff Member with the IBM Software Group. There, he works on product strategy, product architecture and design, career mentoring, and recruitment for one of IBM's most successful software products. He is co-author of four books.

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