In an interview last month, Douglas Merrill, Google's CIO until he was hired Thursday as president of EMI's digital business division, talked about how the Internet search pioneer's IT organization is configured (not structured), how CIOs need to evolve and the most exasperating question that people ask him at cocktail parties.
You joined Google as senior director of information systems in late 2003. How did you land such a cool job?
I spent four years or so at Charles Schwab & Company doing a bunch of different things, including head of infrastructure, head of security for a while, and then I left technology for a year or two as head of HR strategy. My background is a mixture of process, people and technology. [Merrill holds a BA from the University of Tulsa in social and political organization and an MA and a PhD in psychology from Princeton University.]
At Google, they were just getting ready to think about going public and [Google co-founder and President] Larry [Page] had some interesting ideas. I had this background, and I was a licensed broker, so I understood how the public-offering process worked. The rest is history, as it were.
I've read that Google doesn't have an IT organization that's structured like that at most companies. How is it configured?
We have a pretty heavy reliance on decentralization, so people have a lot of control to do what they want. Our motto is "Choice, not control." I try to make it possible for all Googlers to have all the hardware and control that they want.
Mostly, what I try to do is make it possible for our engineers and product managers to use the tools that they want, whether it's PC and [Microsoft] Exchange or whatever they choose. What matters is productivity and creativity.
How do you manage this as a CIO?
Most software downloads are done by the [end users]. There's lots of self-service. If they need help, we have drop in centers called "Tech Stops" where we have broadly skilled people -- more skilled than you might find at most help desk centers. We expect our people to be pretty deep experts on infrastructure. And we have application developers and other programmers who can help with Google Apps and other application support.
How many people support Google's IT operations?
We don't really think about things that way. In some respects, everybody here supports IT operations in some way. We have numbers like support people per office, but the numbers are kind of hard to compare to other businesses because we have lots more offices than most organizations. I have like 100 offices worldwide. Our ratios [of employees per IT support person] are strange because most of the support is done by people themselves.
Google is building multiple data centers in seemingly out-of-the-way places in the US and elsewhere. What's the strategy behind this?
Google tries to focus very heavily on responding to user queries. We can produce about 10 results in 250 milliseconds. We try very, very hard to provide lightning-fast response, and we have thousands of machines worldwide to support those response rates. As we increase our clouds worldwide, there are incredible benefits to users.
Can you explain what some experts call Google's unique server design?
We build our own hardware. We do that because we're very, very cheap and we have unusual demands. We use consumer-grade hard drives where most businesses use more expensive, higher-availability hardware. We expect it to break, and when it does, we have file systems and backups, which make it less [likely] to be noticed by users.
We also have switchable power supplies. We know what voltage goes into our machines. We do lots of other designs like that to make our hardware more economical and more environmentally friendly.