Creative companies innovate by incorporating exploration
Date: Friday , March 31, 2006
Watching young children at play can be fascinating. When my kids were little and were first learning to play with Lego blocks, I would see them do everything physically possible with those pieces of plastic. Besides forming towers and houses as we were hoping they would, they lined them up to form roads, used them as projectiles, filled the blocks with water, and much more. As a parent one is anxious to see progress and it is tempting to guide the child to the one correct application of Legos, but every book on parenting will tell you that's a mistake. Children love to explore and sharpen their creativity in the process. In a sense they are true scientists, operating purely on curiosity, figuring out how the world works one conceptual Lego block at a time.
Adults have little opportunity for curiosity-guided exploration, especially in the workplace. Employers who value schedules over serendipity and adherence to process over creative freedom are largely to blame. We, at Google, see things differently and decided to make creative exploration a cardinal virtue at work. In part this was due to our somewhat unconventional evolution. Most companies evolve top down from a business plan. Google, on the other hand, evolved from a graduate student project at Stanford, almost accidentally.
Our founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had no plans of starting a company when they began looking at the web as a domain for research. Instead they had a deep desire to understand what the linkage between web pages could teach them about the quality of authorship. Each link, they felt, was like an endorsement from one author to another.
Then came the big leap of imagination. What if you looked at 100 million pages and all of their outbound links - you might then discover perhaps a billion endorsements between authors. Could you build a mathematical model that unified all those observations and use it to measure the value of every page on the web? This became known as Pagerank, a web-scale mathematical computation for ranking, and a fundamental component of Google's ranking ever since.
Interesting though the insight was, Larry and Sergey were not ready to accept it as credible technology until it could be proven in practice. Thus, Google was born, a full-fledged search engine. Most research at universities is aimed at generating academic papers. Inventors, on the other hand, care less about recognition and more about seeing their ideas work for real. There is great joy in translating an idea into practice as any enterprising toddler can tell you.
In the months following the 9/11 attacks Americans started to realize how interconnected the world really was. Like many others I turned to news on the web for answers - why did this happen, who was responsible, and what would happen next? I discovered very soon that staying on top of worldwide reporting on a subject is hard.
On the web, hyperlinks are supposed to tie together related pieces of content. News is so fresh that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to have authored a page that links to all the relevant reporting on current events. I wondered if this was a fundamental limitation. We, at Google, had the capability to crawl the web really fast, analyze content and discover patterns. Why not put these capabilities to use to solve this problem? This was the germ of an idea that became Google News.
In less than a year we had an automated service that could find all the news published on the web, from over 4000 sources, group articles by subject and rank them by importance. In essence, a single page from which you can access worldwide reporting on every story in the news. Did anybody ask me to do this? No. Did I have the freedom to take a crack at it? Yes- and that made all the difference.
At Google we have something called “20 percent time,” which allows every engineer to use a fifth of their time at work to explore pet ideas. For one day a week they can be the CEO of their own startup with Google as the VC. If something promising comes out of that effort we turn it into a full-time project with resources and a launch plan. The aim is to awaken the inventor in every engineer.
In 2004, I came to India to found Google's India R&D Center in Bangalore, along with Lalitesh Katragadda, and headed the center for 1.5 years. Our goal was to transplant Google's culture and creative practices in India. Our mandate was to create an equal office that would locally conceive, implement and deploy products to Google's worldwide audience.
The key differentiator here is “locally conceive.” Most U.S. companies come to India to outsource work. Although there is lip service paid to autonomy and freedom, in practice there is a long list of things they know they want to get done in India. Local ideas take a back seat. For Google this was part of a global expansion - to China, Japan, Switzerland, Brazil, Norway and many other places.
All of Google's offices strive to hire the same, high caliber of talent and give them all an equal opportunity to innovate. In India we hired carefully, knowing that the people we brought on board would be stewards of our company's future. These were also the people we expected to make sure that our search and advertising in India was the best that it could be.
The first person I hired in India was Navneet Loiwal, the ‘topper’ from IIT Bombay's Computer Science batch. We started a project in Bangalore with his help that is as big as anything I've ever worked on. This in a sense is the future of U.S. investment in Indian IT - local empowerment. Hire the best, give them a powerful mandate, and you will not be disappointed. We certainly have not.
Krishna Bharat is a Principal Scientist at Google Inc., working in the areas of web search and data mining. He graduated with a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Georgia Tech in 1996 and, before joining Google in 1999, was a member of the research staff at DEC Systems Research Center.
He is the creator of Google News and, in 2003, he received the World Technology award for Media & Journalism. In 2004 he founded Google's R&D operations in Bangalore, India and served as the center's first Director.