The Google way

A few key words of advice for those in search of IT management guidance

If you look at top-selling nonfiction books in any given week, those about successful business management often dominate the list. A few years ago, Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight From the Gut was all the rage because it provided a personal glimpse into what made General Electric so successful. Although books from successful CEOs are plentiful, very rarely do you find specific guidance on managing technology, and when you do, it’s often delivered in a dry textbook style that would cure any serious case of insomnia.

I’m always on the lookout for IT management tips, and in the same way CEOs looks to successful companies like GE, I look for guidance from the technology companies I admire. Google is one of those companies, and recently I got a small peek into the Google management brain.

One of the sessions I attended at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference earlier this month was “Google Is Harder Than It Looks,” presented by Nelson Minar, a software engineer at Google. In his talk, I got a glimpse into what Google's technology stack looks like, including a bit about the Google File System, the distributed file system Google uses to drive its services (think 300TB on 1,000 machines). As most people who follow Google know, Google uses clusters of low-end PC hardware and lots of high-end network hardware to achieve the high availability and responsiveness that we have all come to expect. Exciting stuff, but for me, the more interesting part of the presentation came before Nelson got deep into the technology, when he touched on the “Google philosophy,” a general approach that I think innovative corporate IT departments should note.

Quite simply, the Google philosophy can be expressed in five general principles: Work on things that matter, affect everyone in the world, solve problems with algorithms if possible, hire bright people and give them lots of freedom, and don’t be afraid to try new things. As a general practice, Google also requires that its engineers spend 20 percent of their time working on personal technology projects unrelated to their primary projects.

Running through the five principles, “work on things that matter” and “affect everyone in the world” go hand in hand. In a corporate IT environment, applying these lessons means staying focused on issues that need to be solved and solving the issues that have the broadest impact on your employees and customers, which is “the world” being served by corporate IT. These are common sense principles, perhaps, but worth stating explicitly.

The most intriguing principle might just be the one about solving problems using algorithms. Expressed more generally, this tenet suggests that repeatable problems should be solved with defined and repeatable processes; put more simply, automate what you can. From a corporate IT perspective, this means constantly evaluating business processes to see where you can apply IT strategically to make your organization more efficient, accurate, or just plain nimble. To me, this is the highest calling of IT — taking critical but mundane tasks and automating them so employees can concentrate on tougher issues requiring focused human thought.

Finally, I think hiring bright people and giving them freedom is a required element of an innovative organization, one that implicitly supports trying new things. The 20 percent personal projects requirement is not unfounded: It’s really an implementation of the organizational “slack” that Tom DeMarco details in his book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency. An IT organization running at full throttle all the time is ultimately self-defeating — take it from Google.