Google finds R&D opportunities, pitfalls abroad

Google's director of international engineering operations talks about the challenges and opportunities that face Google's expanding international R&D operations

Kannan Pashupathy, the director of Google's international engineering operations, oversees the company's growing network of international R&D centers.

In that capacity, Pashupathy has grown the number of international R&D centers from three to more than 20 in less than three years. But adding new R&D centers at a pace that can match Google's rapid international growth without losing its corporate culture hasn't been easy.

Google has worked hard to transplant its corporate values, hoping to recreate a small slice of Silicon Valley in each country where the company sets up shop. To achieve this goal, the company brings new hires from around the world to work at one of its larger offices, such as its headquarters in Mountain View, California, and sends veterans to work in newly opened R&D centers.

During a visit to Singapore, where Google recently announced plans to open an R&D center, Pashupathy sat down with IDG News Service to discuss the challenges and opportunities that face Google's expanding international R&D operations. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Why has Google built up its network of international R&D centers so quickly?

It's been very challenging to set these up as quickly as we've done it, partly because the industry's evolving rapidly. We know we need a lot more people than we're able to put on projects and we are developing very quickly as a global company with products in multiple languages, we're doing simultaneous releases in multiple languages, and all of these are very, very demanding engineering-wise. So it's important for us to set up these centers.

Is there daily interaction between the various R&D centers? How do you share projects between different centers?

There's constant interaction. First, there are the obvious ones: telephone and video. All of our centers are hooked on to a corporate video-conferencing system and the teams are constantly engaging with each other. But as you can imagine time zones play havoc with that.

We have some simple rules that we've come up with that allow us to not distribute the work across too many locations and to structure the work so that it doesn't require a lot of day-to-day communication if the teams are not collocated. We also have focus areas for the centers, which work on two to four areas where they have skill sets and are able to contribute to Google.

Each of these centers also work both on global projects and on local projects, so we expect them to actually contribute to both those areas.

Have you encountered cultural obstacles to the acceptance of Google's corporate culture and flat management style?

When we are hiring people we are looking for people who are actually open to stuff like that. We actually do a very strong test for culture fit, and that's something everybody looks at. In addition to your raw smarts and your analytical thinking and your problem solving and your grade-point average, we do a very strong culture-fit test.

Part of that culture-fit test is to look for people who have an open mindset, people who think there is a richness in different cultures, that they can learn from everybody and hierarchy is not important and ideas are. If you're in the company, you're already somehow predisposed to thinking or at least aligning yourself in that direction.

But even if you do that, there are people, particularly the more senior types, who are used to one way of doing business and have a tougher time getting used to an environment where a meritocracy rules, and the notion that a person who is fresh out of college yesterday can have the same say at the table as someone who has 20 years of experience.

In April, Google released a Chinese software tool that included a database that was developed by one of your rivals, Inc., for a competing product. What went wrong and what lessons did Google draw from that incident?

That was clearly something that shouldn't have happened. We went into an internal investigation of how it did happen, and took some very aggressive measures to make sure it never happens again.

These sorts of things help you evolve your practices. In addition to innovating on technology, we're also innovating on processes. We're innovating on how we manage our people. As a culture, we are a very open and transparent culture, and sometimes some things slip through the cracks like this. We are also a very flat company organizationally, so there's not a lot of day-to-day attention that we're paying to people. This one was sort of an intern situation, where the oversight should have been a bit more tight.

There's learning there clearly and the lesson is when you are bringing in fresh people, particularly those who have no experience with corporate life, that you can't just assume they'll do the right thing. You have to train them, particularly in places where they may have no such experience prior to that.

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