February 14, 2008
Imagine the sort of personality it takes to be the CIO of Google. You're responsible for the engine that drives a company described almost strictly in superlatives and that derives its value solely by great implementations of information technology to solve only the largest, most intractable problems. Any CIO needs to be astute, confident, energetic, technically competent, and business savvy; now apply superlatives and you can start to imagine the personality that is Douglas Merrill. But it's not quite that simple. Merrill comes with the same sort of enigmatic traits we all do. I spoke with him via a videoconference from Google's Silicon Valley campus; he was home preparing to travel.
With his longish hair that's constantly getting in his eyes, wearing a slightly too tight, long-sleeved T-shirt, and barely able to sit still for the 40-minute conference, you very quickly understand that Merrill is a different sort of CIO. Throw in the fact that he's both an avid rider of loud, fast motorcycles and something of a bookworm, and you begin to get an accurate picture. Merrill's educational background is different than you might expect, too: No technical degree or MBA; instead, he holds a doctorate in psychology from Princeton University.
While that might strike you as odd at first, it makes perfect sense as you get to know him. One can imagine a CIO with a purely technical background being overwhelmed by the throng of geniuses Google has amassed. And that technical background could just as easily be self-limiting in a company trying to solve problems no one else has dared to imagine. Here's where superlatives won't do it. It wasn't far into the conversation that energy and intelligence were joined by arrogance, the sort of arrogance that you need to believe that you can make the entire world's information searchable--on any device, in any language--with results served in about a quarter of a second.
Except one gets the feeling that, at Google, these personality traits aren't unique to Merrill. Besides the aim of making searchable every bit of data on the planet, this is a company that's decided to render Microsoft impotent through online apps, solve the world's renewable energy problems, get the electronics industry to rethink how it powers everything, and make the wireless handset market conform to the Google way. Heady stuff, and the reason we take the company seriously is that it has yet to fail.
But arrogance has a darker side, too. Whether asking about how Google picks sites for its data centers, or whether it uses DC power within them, or about how users can be assured that the best data mining company in the world won't mine the data its users give it for self-gain, the response is an uneasy secretiveness that doesn't seem to fit a company hell-bent on making the world's data public. In that sense, Google and Merrill both show their youth. As strong as the corporate culture is at Google--and trust me, they've all drunk the Kool-Aid--it has yet to be tested by the sort of missteps that invariably afflict companies at some point in their evolution. Whether Google has built into its culture the resilience it has built into its products is yet to be seen.
For a Q&A with Google's CIO, Douglas Merrill, go to "Google's CIO Speaks: Interview With Douglas Merrill". And share your thoughts at our blog, CIOs Uncensored.
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