“Organizing the world’s information for our users”: A Fireside Chat with Google’s Marissa Mayer

By Angela Okune
iHub
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“Organizing the world’s information for our users”: A Fireside Chat with Google’s Marissa Mayer

Despite short notice, over a hundred members of the iHub community turned out to hear the Vice President of Location and Local Services at Google, Marissa Mayer’s fireside talk at iHub on Thursday, June 30, 2011. In a company that today employs over 26,000 employees, Mayer was one of Google’s first 20 employees and the first Google female engineer.

This is day two of four days that Mayer is in Nairobi with a class of 32 Associate Product Managers (APMs) who are enrolled in a two-year Google training program. The program hires fresh graduates from undergraduate and master’s programs to work on product design and engineering. Nairobi is the last stop on the class’ tour of Google offices around the world, which included stops to Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hyderabad.

Career Development

Marissa faced a number of good opportunities upon entering the job market, including a position with a consulting firm. Nevertheless, she felt that joining a start-up (Google) was the right thing. “I realized I would learn more by being in the room and deciding how to make good business decisions (rather than being a consultant and leaving the room after giving advice).” After joining Google, it was an organic process to move from being an engineer to becoming more of an administrator. After four months of being unable to hire someone to do Google user-interface (UI), Mayer slipped into doing product management, first doing UI once a week, then gradually focusing more on product management.

Mobile-Web Crossover Phenomenon

The percentage of users accessing Google on mobile exceeded Google users on web first on Christmas Day 2010. Since then, such “crossovers” have tended to happen on some weekends (likely because people are not at work, and thus using more phones). The remarkable part of this cross-over is that Google is something that was born on the web and developed on the web but is now being used more on the phone. “I think it’s pretty amazing to see how far the mobile space has come. With everyone having a computer of reasonable quality in their pockets at all times, the mobile world is now beginning to access the open web. I also think mobile applications are really critical.”

Gender at Google

“At Google, I’m not a woman—I’m a geek. It’s great to be in an environment that is all about innovation and technology. Passion is a gender-neutralizing force. It’s much more of a defining factor than the gender aspect.”

Google Web Design

Google believes strongly in HTML 5 and Open Graphics Language (Open GL). Mayer believes if such languages can get up to scale, then developers will not have to code for a particular system—all systems will work under HTML 5.

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Q: Regarding the new Google+. Many people already use Facebook and Twitter. How is Google+ different?

A: GooglePlus is a system that is highly differentiated and engaging. Using a circles model, and other models makes it a very compelling application. The engaging system will be one of the big drivers to get people to adopt Google+. Furthermore, Google systems have a good way of suggesting people you might want to interact with. There is a lot Google has done to build up good suggestions for users. One can build on top of the contacts from other activities on one’s Google account. Therefore, Google is not starting from scratch. This is a recipe for success for Google+.

Q: How important is product development in terms of gaining competitive advantage?

A: Product development is the core of what Google does. We believe we are a product company. We have stayed very focused on technology and products. Engineers decide what is exciting and what the next products will be. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Therefore, rather than seeing what customers need now, one needs to be looking at the overall trends. Try to understand what the trends are and what can be done once you know what the trends are.

Q: What advice can you give to start-ups in Africa?

A: The mobile element is important. Make sure you are addressing smart phones but also feature phones. Make sure you have broad reach—the more people who can use your products, the better. Micro-payments, even tiny little payments of money can make a huge difference. Don’t underestimate the value of small payments and how they add up. Many times you can add monetization to something and it can actually be positive in UI.

Q: How did Google create awareness in such a short time?

A: Firstly, there is something really amazing about finding out something you didn’t think you could find. The fact that Google was able to find more than other search engines meant it spread quickly through word of mouth. Professors told students to use Google because it finds more relevant results than others. Secondly, Google is a memorable and phonetically spelled name. It was a long brainstorming process but one late night, “Google” was thought of and registered quickly. Unfortunately, the next day, the co-founders realized that the noun was actually spelled “Googol.” Nevertheless, if “Google” had actually been spelled “Googol,” it would have been more difficult for people to remember and spell!

Q: What do you think is the potential for location services?

A: There is an amazing amount of innovation in this area since the mobile phone is your cursor in both places–your physical world and also your digital world. Today location services are mainly focused on check-ins, Google latitude, etc. to express locations. However, down the line, Google expects there will be much more functionality available for people to get more information. Most of that information will be on your phone and you will get to decide what will be on it. Users should be able to control all aspects.

Q: Cloud computing

A: Google along with two or three others have helped to pioneer cloud computing. We had no choice but to build very large infrastructures that had very unique cross-properties. It makes more sense to use one of these large systems so we have more slack when we need greater infrastructure. Cloud computing is something that is good for both developers and end-users.

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Marissa shared some tidbits of advice with the iHub community as she wrapped up her talk. “Start more companies. Don’t be afraid to take risks. It’s okay to fail as long as you fail fast.  Don’t forget the law of large numbers. If you build a lot of things then one thing works, you can begin to ramp it up.”

At the end of the Fireside Chat, the 32 Associate Product Managers joined Marissa on stage to explain the work they have been doing, will be doing, and to share three adjectives related to their experience at Google.

The following is a compilation of their insights from working at Google:

Autonomous, challenging, innovative; roller-coaster, exhilarating, unexpected; scaling, fun, fun; collaborative, overwhelming, very exciting; Data, speed, decisions; fast-paced and fun; juggling, design, users; flurry, curious, fun; passionate, organized chaos; users, engineers, speed; scrappy, surprising, rewarding; entertaining, exciting, intense; collaborative, data, fast; giant, alarming, nerd-fest; so many users; challenging, exciting, fun; great people, always learning; fast-paced, half-hazard; learning, daunting, fun; exhausting, exhilarating, and insight; algorithms, rewarding, jeans; fast-paced, frenetic, fugitive-fighting; creative chaos, geeks; work hard, play hard; fast, futuristic, uncharted; challenging, technical, awesome; innovation, iteration, impact; internationalization, actualization; problems as opportunities; fascinating, intelligence, food.

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