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Moonshots 2

I apologise unreservedly. I have now been enlightened to the fact that it is not just countries who do Moonshots, but also companies. Here then is Moonshots 2.

Larry Page  lives by the gospel of 10x. Most companies would be happy to improve a product by 10 percent. Not the CEO and cofounder of Google. The way Page sees it, a 10% improvement means that you’re basically doing the same thing as everybody else. You probably won’t fail spectacularly, but you are guaranteed not to succeed wildly.

Page expects his employees to create products and services that are 10 times better than the competition,  meaning he isn’t satisfied with just discovering a couple of hidden efficiencies or tweaking some code to achieve modest gains. Thousand-percent improvement requires rethinking problems entirely, exploring the edges of what’s technically possible, and having a lot more fun in the process.

This regimen of cheeky aspiration has made Google an extraordinary success story, changing the lives of its users while stuffing the wallets of its investors. But it has also accomplished something far beyond Google itself: in an industry rife with bandwagon-hopping and strategic positioning, Page’s approach is a beacon for those who want more from their CEOs than a bloated earnings statement.

While Google has made some missteps in recent years and while its power has deservedly drawn the scrutiny of regulators and critics, it remains a flagship for optimists who believe that innovation will provide us with not just delightful gadgetry, but solutions to our problems and inspiration for our dreams.

For those people—and maybe for the human race itself—a car that drives itself (to name one of the company’s recent tech triumphs) is a much more valuable dividend than one calculated in cents per share. There’s no question which is more important to Larry Page.

Of course, it can be challenging working for a boss whose dominant trait is dissatisfaction with the pace of progress. Astro Teller, who oversees Google X, the company’s blue-sky skunkworks division, illustrates Page’s proclivities with a parable. Teller imagines wheeling a Dr. Who time machine into Page’s office. He plugs it in and it works,  but instead of being bowled over, Page asks why it needs a plug. Wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t use power at all? “It’s not because he’s not excited about time machines or he’s ungrateful that we built it,” Teller says. “It’s just core to who he is. There’s always more to do, and his focus is on where the next 10X will come from.”

Page thought big even when he was little; he has said he always wanted to be an inventor, not just to produce gadgetry but to change the world. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, he found inspiration in a student leadership-training programme called LeaderShape, which preached “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” By the time he got to grad school at Stanford, it was a natural step for him to 10X his potential thesis idea—a tool to annotate web pages—into a search engine that transformed the web and the world.

And once Google’s riotously successful ad business provided a plump financial cushion, Page was free to push for innovations that bore only a passing relationship to his core business. Google would build an email service—with 100 times the storage of competitors. Google would provide translations—for the entire web, from any language to any other. Google would give readers instant access to a global library—by scanning nearly every book ever published and putting the contents in its indexes. More recently, Google launched its own version of an ISP service, laying its own fibre and providing broadband service to Kansas City customers at 100 times industry-standard speeds.

That moonshot mentality is the basis of Google X, which the company established in early 2010 to identify and implement once-impossible sci-fi fantasies: Hail Mary projects like the self-driving car. Or Google Glass, a wearable computing system. Or an artificial brain, in which a cluster of computers running advanced algorithms learn from the world around them, much like humans do. (In one experiment, it took only three days for a digital colony of 1,000 machines, with a billion connections, to surpass previous benchmarks in identifying photos of faces and cats.)

Page was closely involved in establishing Google X, but since he has ascended to lead the company, he can’t spend as much time there. Some Googlers wonder if Page, clearly at his happiest working on moonshots, is essentially taking one for the team by assuming the sometimes prosaic tasks of a CEO. (Talking to bureaucrats about antitrust issues, for example, is probably not his idea of a good time).

The evidence shows, however, that Page has attacked his role with full-hearted fervour, applying the same 10X mentality to the process of running the company. He reorganized the management team around an “L-Team” of top aides, and he relentlessly rallied employees around a sweeping effort to integrate all of Google’s offerings into a seamlessly social whole. And in the boldest move in his tenure, he engineered the $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, one of the world’s biggest handset companies.

In one of the rare interviews he has granted as CEO, Page recently discussed thinking big and other Googley issues with Wired at the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. Later that same day, Page, who turned 40 in March, announced a new philanthropic venture. After observing epidemiological behavior via Google Search’s flu-tracking service, he decided to pay for free flu shots for kids in the entire Bay Area. How 10X of him.

Wired: Google is known for encouraging its employees to tackle ambitious challenges and make big bets. Why is that so important?

Larry Page: I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing?

That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.

So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental. Take Gmail. When we released that, we were a search company—it was a leap for us to put out an email product, let alone one that gave users 100 times as much storage as they could get anywhere else. That is not something that would have happened naturally if we had been focusing on incremental improvements.

It is not just Google who are the only large tech company that is finding nothing is sexier than moonshots. Huge, daring plans attract positive news stories, make the company desirable to ptential employees and excite investors. Amazon has received loads of free publicity for its talk of delivering packages with drones and Facebook turned a few heads when it bought Oculus Rift, the maker of virtual-reality technology that seems to have no connection at all to its core business.

But CEO, Mark Zuckerberg talks of using virtual reality to help billions share spaces and experiences.

Some of these moonshots will certainly fail, but the excitement and buzz they generate is worth it. Also, all these companies have something else in common; a higher price-to-earnings ratio than Microsoft. A high ratio indicates investors expect a company to grow, so they will pay a premium to own stock in it. Expect Microsoft, with its new CEO, Satya Nadella, to announce Microsoft as the next big player of Moonshots 2.

Nigel Phillips

 

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