Google's CIO Speaks: Interview With Douglas Merrill

Douglas Merrill, the energetic VP of engineering and CIO of Google, gives his take on cloud computing, virtualization, and fueling industry innovation.

Art Wittmann, Art Wittmann is a freelance journalist

February 14, 2008

5 Min Read

What are the best practices in most advanced data centers in the country? Who better to ask than Douglas Merrill, the energetic CIO of Google? That's just what we did. While we didn't uncover all the secrets of how the search-engine giant builds its own worldwide data centers, we got a healthy dose of philosophy about innovation and how IT can drive one of the most dynamic companies in the world.

Merrill's energy for Google's work is apparent and infectious. You get the feeling that he won't stop until the entire world's information is online and searchable on Google.

InformationWeek: What's the role of the CIO at Google?

Merrill: I have the best CIO job in the world. It used to be the case that the CIO existed to bring technology to business, but it's our belief that's vanishing. Increasingly now, the way our technology works is driving the business. The CIO of tomorrow is not a business service person; the CIO of tomorrow is a technologist who understands business in a different way.

The job I get to have, and I think is increasing prevalent in industry, is I get to find new ways to enable people to be more effective. I get a job which says, "What are the business problems we have to solve and how can we transform them?" and that's a fundamentally different skill set. The CIO is less the geek with the funny glasses and more the actual business thought-leader.

InformationWeek: Google recently announced a cloud computing initiative. How did that come to be?

Merrill: The cloud computing initiative grew out of our engineering function. It grew from the understanding that we have extra capacity but no one has any idea how to use it. We got to cloud computing through a series of small, innovative steps, which is Google's way of doing anything.

We're really fundamentally an innovation engine. We do it by carving out time for engineers to try unusual things; we do it by encouraging the notion that it's OK to fail, but it's not OK not to try. We gather data and often have 100 experiments running at any time.

InformationWeek: Let's talk through some industry trends and how they affect Google. Today, many are trying to figure out how best to use virtualization to make their organizations more nimble and efficient. Is that important to Google?

Merrill: So far, virtualization has primarily been used to chop one big machine into 10 or 15 smaller machines. We don't do that at Google; we tend to use 10 or 15 machines to do just one thing. The place where we do use virtualization is in the workload-balancing layer. We move work between machines relatively automatically. We do that with our management layer, but we do share the same goal, which is not to waste any processor cycles. InformationWeek: In most organizations, new IT initiatives must be vetted through a process that determines whether they can be executed in scalable, available, and secure ways. How does Google approach that process?

Merrill: We don't think about the world that way. We start with thinking about the users. We make it easy to launch things internally and then we watch user growth. If it's positive, then we have an interesting service. We have libraries we use that inherently manage the security side and the scalability side. People don't write code for those things, they link in existing tools.

InformationWeek: You've said that users don't really know what they want. Yet you've said that you follow your users. How does this work?

Merrill: We watch our users and learn from them. For example, our users taught us to spell. We noticed they commonly misspell certain terms. In fact, no matter how you misspell a word, I guarantee that someone has misspelled it that way before. So rather than make people search through possible spellings, we recognize what they were looking for. No user could tell us the common spellings, but by watching our users, we learned what they are.

InformationWeek: Let's talk about your personal goals. What's most important to you?

Merrill: It's the green power initiative; that's the single most important thing we can do. How can we reduce the cost of electricity reaching our data centers? It's for the world good as well as for our bottom line. Reducing electronics consumption is a good thing, but it's very hard and it's a key initiative for all of us.

InformationWeek: What's your favorite book?

Merrill: A single book? How about I give you a couple? One of my favorites is called You Just Don't Understand! by Deborah Tannen, and I just finished a book called The Utility Of War by a British general. It was fascinating.

InformationWeek: What's your hobby?

Merrill: I ride motorcycles.

InformationWeek: Real fast motorcycles?

Merrill: On the track, yes. And loud American motorcycles. I have one from a small company called Victory, another called Saxon, and an Italian sports bike from a company called Benelli.

About the Author(s)

Art Wittmann

Art Wittmann is a freelance journalist

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