July 5, 2011

ALGORITHMS WITH A HUMAN FACE:

Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social (Steven Levy, June 28, 2011, Wired)

Sensing a leadership vacuum, Gundotra, who had arrived at Google after a long stint as a Microsoft executive, made it his mission to channel the energy into a more focused, sweeping effort. Gundotra, who is 43, had arrived at Microsoft in the aftermath of the 1980’s applications wars, when Lotus Development Corps, the maker of a seemingly invincible spreadsheet, had failed to decisively adopt the graphical user interface — and was crushed by Bill Gates. Gundotra believed that social networking was a similar discontinuity, and he wanted to make sure that Google’s executives realized this.

“There are only a few emotions that can effect change at a large organization,” he explains. “One is greed and another powerful one is fear.” Outright greed is gauche in the Googleplex, so Gundotra prepared a slide deck that mocked up challenges from Google’s competitors (notably, Facebook), illustrating how each company could turn Google upside down. And vice versa.

A crucial turning point was a May 2010 gathering of 50 of Google’s top people to discuss the broader challenges faced by the company. At one point, the meeting dispersed into breakout sessions of about eight people each. Gundotra was in a group that included Amit Singhal, one of the company’s most respected search engineers. Singhal spoke passionately about how the internet was increasingly organized around people, urging that Google dramatically expand its focus to create a hub of personalization and social activity. Singhal believed that Facebook not only was ahead in that realm, but, worse, it was building an alternative internet with itself in the center.

“If every web page is living on one company’s servers, it’s not healthy for the web,” Singhal later would explain. But there was good news, too. “We’re still just scratching the surface of marrying human relationships with information,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity which someone else will fill — or we will fill.” Gundotra convinced Singhal to repeat the rant when the group regathered. The words hit Google’s leaders hard.

Gundotra made a pitch to lead the Emerald Sea project, and got the nod. Bradley Horowitz became his co-leader and collaborator. (This year, Gundotra was promoted to senior vice president in charge of social, giving him the top-tier organizational equivalence to Google’s leaders in search and ads.)

Gundotra’s philosophy of product design is to envision the demo he will eventually present at the launch event and work backwards from there. He did this with Google’s social strategy and he and Horowitz created a slide deck that he presented at yet another high level May meeting in Building 2000. The presentation identified ten key elements of the initiative and named a proposed leader for each team. “My name was on a slide,” says Rick Klau, who became the product manager in charge of Profiles. “That was the first time I knew that I was one of the leaders in this effort.” (Klau is now at a different job at Google.)

Oh, and Google would launch this effort in 100 days.

It was a “wild-ass crazy, get-to-the moon” goal, Horowitz says. But a project like Emerald Sea — which quickly expanded to cover 18 current Google products, with almost 30 teams working in concert — was a complicated and challenging task. Indeed, on the hundredth day after that May meeting, which fell in August, Emerald Sea was not completed. But several hundred Googlers were working on the project, and making progress. Gundotra’s demo now had a working prototype. Gundotra and Horowitz had already shown it to Google’s board of directors, who had responded with a standing ovation.

It was that August where I first viewed Emerald Sea. In a small auditorium in Building 2000 Gundotra showed me what had won the board’s ovation. Since then Emerald Sea has undergone many changes. But the philosophy of the product as Gundotra explained that day, has been unwavering.


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Posted by at July 5, 2011 6:01 AM
  
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