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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.

Book Excerpt: The Sweet Science Of Software R&D Organizations
This excerpt is from the book, Making It Big in Software: Get the Job. Work the Org. Become Great, authored by Sam Lightstone.

Published by Pearson/Prentice Hall Professional, ISBN 0137059671, March 2010, Copyright 2010 Sam Lightstone. For a full table of contents, please visit:
ISBN: 0137059671
Copyright 2010 by
Prentice Hall.

Peter Norvig, Director of Research, Google, was head of search at Google from 2002 to 2005. He is responsible for answering more queries than anyone in the history of the world. Previously, he was the head of the Computational Sciences Division at NASA's Ames Research Center, making him NASA's senior computer scientist. He received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, Computer Science Department in 1986.

Q.How did you get started in software?

A. My high school offered a computer course in 1973. I thought it was great fun. I remember a moment that, in retrospect, meant that I might be a computer scientist: The teacher was explaining an algorithm for shuffling a deck of cards. She said to pick two cards and swap them, and keep going until every card had been swapped. I had an immediate reaction that this was terribly wrong, that it could potentially take forever to do that—and besides, there's a straightforward approach that is much faster. I didn't know then that her algorithm was O(n^2) and mine was O(n), but I did know right from wrong, and I couldn't stand for the wrong.

Q.What do you consider your greatest accomplishments or contributions to software?

A. My biggest accomplishment was directing the development of the Google search engine in its early to mid years, 2002-2005, because of the number of people it serves, its impact on the world, and the sheer difficulty of doing what it does.

Peter Norvig, Director of Research, Google

Peter Norvig
Director of Research, Google

I'm also proud that I had a small part to play in the development of autonomous planning software for use on Mars rovers and spacecraft, including Remote Agent, the first AI program ever to control a spacecraft. I didn't specify or write any of the software myself, but I served as an advocate for its development and deployment; when NASA threatened to cancel the project, I helped successfully argue to the understandably conservative project managers that the software was, in fact, safe and effective.

Q.Do you have a pet peeve in any aspect of the software world?

A. Programmers and product managers who can't think about their product from the user's point of view. As Alan Cooper puts it, "The inmates are running the asylum." If everyone would design from the point of view of a user who has a busy life and not from their own point of view of being immersed in the product for years, the world would be a better place.

Q. Can you tell me about an event in your professional history that readers might find interesting?

A. I remember in one of my first job interviews, the interviewer was describing the work he did. I wasn't sure if I really understood it and commented, "Oh, that sounds similar to the work of so-and-so on such-and-such." The interviewer was very interested and started to take notes on what I was saying. That was a moment when I thought, "Hey, maybe I really can play at this game; maybe the reading and thinking I've done over the years does have some value to others."

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