On a recent Motley Fool Radio Show, David Gardner talked all things Google with Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Vise, author of the new book The Google Story. In the second of three installments, David Vise talks corporate culture, innovation, and Googling your genes.
David Gardner: .David, in the course of doing your book, The Google Story, you got to know these guys.
David Vise: I did get to know these guys and their people very, very well. I can tell you that this is unlike any other company I have encountered in my 20 years of business reporting at The Washington Post. When you meet them, they argue with you and debate with you. It's like an intramural sport for them. They spar with you.
The first time I met Larry Page and told him I was a reporter at The Washington Post, he began to suggest to me what I was doing wasn't really that smart, that what we ought to be doing was debating New York Times reporters every day online so people could see something really interesting taking place instead of just having stories in each of the separate newspapers. They engage through argument; they engage through debate. In fact, when these guys first met, that's how their relationship began. They argued and argued and argued.
David Gardner: Do they like each other?
David Vise: Very much. They take vacations together some of the time. They share an office at the Googleplex -- the company's headquarters in Silicon Valley -- and they are soul mates, intellectually, in the enterprise they've built, and they're partners joined at the hip. I think they bring complementary strengths to it. They have very different personalities. Sergey is very extroverted and outgoing. Larry Page is much more contemplative and reflective. He's probably a deeper thinker. Sergey, though, it turns out, is not only a brilliant mathematician, but he's also a very, very effective businessman and dealmaker. If you talk to people around the Googleplex, you find out that Larry Page puts enormous amounts of time into looking for ways for Google to cut its costs, whether that's the cost of electricity to power the biggest computing network in the world or ways to reduce costs when the company is buying food for the three meals a day it feeds its employees.
David Gardner: You know, much has been made of being paranoid and being successful in business. Andy Grove of Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) said, "Only the paranoid survive," the title of this bestselling book. Do you get a sense that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) feels like it has lots of competition and is worried and fighting hard, or do they just think, hey, we're in a class by ourselves at this point?
David Vise: They are absolutely paranoid about secrets and competition. If they hadn't been forced to go public by various SEC rules relating to their revenue and assets and the number of shareholders they had, they would have remained private. Why? Because as long as Google remained private, it could coin enormous profits without other people knowing. Ever since Google went public and made that march toward having its stock traded on Wall Street, it has had to disclose a lot of financial information. That's what vaulted Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) into getting more serious about search. That's what woke Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) up to get even more aggressive about what it was doing in search. So Google is very, very protective of its secrets. Very, very competitive and extremely skeptical about trusting anybody on the outside with any information that might lead them to crack the code.
We're talking about guys who not only develop software, which is what everyone thinks drives this Google machine. They actually build each and every one of the personal computers that are out there in data warehouses around the world that they use. So Googleware is really software and hardware. It's soup to nuts, and you don't see that in this world. Most companies are specialized in one area or the other. They've found they can save money and improve quality by doing it all.
David Gardner: David Vise, for The Washington Post you cover a lot of big media and Internet companies. At a certain size, growth becomes difficult. In some cases, untenable. AOL (Now part of Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) ) certainly discovered that, as have many companies before it. Do you view Google, at some point, someday, hitting that wall?
David Vise: Google is in its infancy, so we're a long way from the company running out of room for growth. However, the law of large numbers tells us that the rate of growth is likely to slow over time. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive officer of Google, has said this repeatedly, but these guys are so ambitious that I think they'll look for and continue to find new ways to grow and new ways to profit -- not to get rich themselves, but because they want the resources to be able to invest in their vision. That vision includes everything from the Internet search that you and I might do when we fire up our computer all the way toward breakthroughs in science and technology that might someday let people Google their own genes.
David Gardner: And let's talk about science for a sec, David, since you mentioned genes. Google is now working with Dr. Craig Venter, the biologist who helped decode the human genome through the company Celera, which kind of flamed out on the public markets after a while. But how might Google help us understand our genes more, since you mentioned it?
David Vise: It turns out that the search engine is a great match for the human genome. I've talked with a number of people at NIH and other scientists who are aware of what Google is doing. The search engine has an ability to take massive quantities of information, way more than any of us could ever do with our brains and in ways that are impossible to do in a wet lab, and take individual genes and genetic code, compare the two, and tell you, for example, what the probability is that you may develop a certain illness or disease, or to identify genes that may suggest allergies to medicines.
I don't know about you, but I find that when you go to the drugstore and buy medicine, they give you a laundry list of potential reactions to the medicine that has everything on it and so many things on it that it is useless. What we're moving toward is an era of personalized medicine. Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, is passionate about the intersection of biology, genetics, and technology. He has a very strong belief that someday Google's computing power, combined with Dr. Craig Venter's continuing involvement and knowledge of genetics -- and that of other scientists who are involved -- could even lead to the identification of and cure for a variety of diseases.
David Gardner: Now let's talk a little bit about Google's corporate culture, to the extent that you have gotten to know it over the years here. David, what's it like to work at Google?
David Vise: It's a lot like being on a college campus. If you're a software engineer at Google, you live at work. They feed you three free meals a day. They have free onsite medical and dental care. There are colorful kitchens stocked with M&M's and other food all over the place. People don't work in individual cubicles; they work in shared space so there's a lot of interaction. It's really much more like graduate school than it is like a business.
Even as the company has grown and added people, they keep their teams to tackle ambitious projects down to three to five people because they believe this is the best way to solve problems of any size -- at least in the early stages, before you need to get the business people involved in figuring out what the business model is. The other thing is, everyone who works at Google has something called "20% time." That means they get one day out of five each week to spend on anything they want to. Not what your boss wants you to, but what you are personally interested in. Google has found that by giving people "20% time," a number of important discoveries and innovations have occurred at the company, and some of its best ideas have come out of 20% time.
Fool co-founder David Gardner's interview with David Vise, author of The Google Story, continues Friday on Fool.com.