Interview: Wojciech Burkot
I understand that Polish engineers have done extremely well in international competitions. Are there any other factors which determined your decision to locate the R & D Department in Krakow?
That was one of the key issues that led to the setting up of the centre in Poland, but it’s not the only one. It’s not only the programming skills set. We do indeed need these kinds of skills, but in time, we need something more. There’s a lot of talent here, and that was definitely one of the biggest reasons for us coming here.
I understand that Polish engineers have contributed the most significant innovations in this region of your operation. Is that right?
Polish engineers contribute significantly to our innovation and product development and are among the best minds we have; our engineering centres in Poland will clearly help to drive our innovation power.
The recruitment process at Google is quite different to some of your more traditional competitors. It’s almost standard practice to consider referrals from staff, but the fact that you actually encourage your engineers to give phone interviews to potential candidates, suggests to me that you place a huge amount of trust in your workforce.
We definitely do. I believe that one of the founding principles here was that A-Class players attract other A-Class players, so, yes, there is internal referral, but even those who are referred have to undergo exactly the same recruitment process and there is no benefit to them from being referred. They have to answer the same kinds of questions as the outsiders and we are very, very picky. We tend to select the best of the best. There is this rule that B-Class players attract C-Class players, but you don’t have this with A-Class players. They know their value, and they want, given the amount of work we have ahead of us, someone who can help them, and the best person to do that is another A-Class player. Yes, indeed, there is a tremendous amount of trust placed in the workforce. It’s not only related to recruitment, but the sharing of sensitive information. This company is very, very open and every one has a part to play in the decision making process here.
Google claim to seek “creative, innovative people, for whom work is a passion.” The second part of the interview process measures creativity. How do you do this?
We have a lot of algorithmic puzzles and mathematical problems that we pose to our candidates and watching them solve them gives us a lot of information about their creativity. We are so happy when we see a new solution to an old problem that it gets disputed all over the place for quite a long time after the candidate presents the new solution [laughs].
The favourable work conditions at Google are well-publicized. Your kitchen seems extraordinarily well-stocked and I understand that one day the management decided to give all the staff a bicycle. Why do you invest so much in what some other companies might regard as luxuries?
We want our engineers, especially in R & D Centers like this to be as happy as we can make them, so it started that way back at Mountain View and this culture continues in every new center that is opened, and we share the same benefits and privileges as other people in the company, so there’s no way given the growth of the organization that this could be different. Our people travel and meet their counterparts around the world and they are just accustomed to this treatment. This is normal life for them.
Google is well known for grouping engineers into small product development teams. How do you decide the make up of the teams?
It depends on the project at hand. There are bigger groups focusing on wider areas and smaller projects within these areas. The smallest projects here involve two or three people and the largest is six, which is a strong force. Six engineers at Google, six geniuses working together is really a lot (laughs). We don’t go after specialists. We hire very bright general engineers. Most specialists specialize in something obscure and that’s not good. The kind of people we hire can work in a number of different areas and if they don’t know about some of these, they can learn really fast. The right mix of youthful enthusiasm and experience is the key to balancing our teams, but this is very flexible. People can come and say, “I now longer want to work on this project,” and they can transfer to something else. That’s perfectly OK.
It’s also noticeable that at Google a fifth of engineer’s work time is given over to personal product development. How do you ensure that this time isn’t wasted?
They are creative people. We like their ideas and actually, if you consider the typical top-down scheme of invention, where there’s this team of architects who’ve been in the industry for 20 years. They come up with ideas that go down to the senior designers, who prepare the design and then down to coders who just implement what was invented. Usually this top-down model doesn’t work for invention, so our model is just the opposite. We start with very many ideas and people are bright enough to recognize that some of those ideas are better than their own. Our engineers could easily give up their 20%, but what we would lose would be the effort of a single person with a limited amount of time, as opposed to the whole hierarchical organization working for two years to produce something which just doesn’t make any impact on the market. So, some of the few ideas that survive the vetting process become company projects or else, they are good enough in themselves to be worked on as 20% projects. Some of our Google features started as 20% projects, like, for example, Gmail – quite a hit I would say. I can see how this strategy works. Very little time and money invested by the organization, yet the project can grow to the stage, where someone says, “it looks interesting, can I join forces with you?”, and then it grows in a very natural, organic way, bottom up.
In the old days, a product would sometimes take a number of years to reach the market from conception, but these days companies need to work a lot faster to launch a product. How do you ensure that quality is maintained?
When you operate on our scale, it is definitely the quality that matters. We have too many users and can?t risk them having something bad pushed on them, so we make sure that the products are thoroughly tested by the time they reach the launch stage. At the same time, we can expect that people will find areas for improvement in the released products. You will see if you use gmail or a similar product, that you can wake up at 4 in the morning and find out that the product is slightly different from what it was. We know why we introduce those changes and we are pretty sure that the new version is better. Constant improvement is our recipe for maintaining the quality while still being fast to the market.
I noticed that Google is involved in the Open Handset Alliance Project, which involves a number of IT and telecommunications companies working together to produce a universal platform which will connect mobile phones to the internet. This can help to drive growth, especially in new markets like Africa, where mobile communication is absolutely essential for business development. How important is this desire in Google to drive growth for the mutual benefit of all?
Fighting exclusion is the driving force behind these kind of projects. You mentioned Africa, and indeed the mobile phone essential to communication capabilities there and Google wants to be part of that, but, eventually, in the long term, more people will be included and this will result in the growth of the whole world economy. My background is in the telecommunications industry and the struggle to develop the killer application has been going on for years and one of the problems was the segmentation, the strong competition in the sector, and opening the resource of a very good software platform to users will give someone out there, in the wide world, a chance to develop something that is really useful. This is very difficult to achieve, even for an organization of our size. We’ve had tons of ideas about how to use the Android platform, but if you take hundreds more engineers from around the world, some of them will come up with solutions we never could have dreamed of.
Google are involved in giving users the autonomy to make their own decisions and choices, but personalizing searches can potentially lead to invasion of privacy. How do you balance these two factors?
Privacy is very important and I at this moment we are one of the companies that makes data intentionally obscure after some time, so that personal information can’t be extracted any more for you as a user, there’s about as much invasion into your life as using a spell checker or a spam filter. It?s done automatically and we never have any intention of going into the private details of any of our users. There seems to be a great deal of loyalty amongst Google users.
I read that there was a recent research program, in which the advertisements were removed from the search engine to test user reaction and people actually got a little upset, because they were so used to seeing them. How can you account for this loyalty?
I think the biggest factor is quality. We try to target searches, so that people find truly useful information themselves and we believe this enhances user experience. Our users are just one click away from other competing search engines and we actually deliberately point them to the websites of yahoo and Microsoft if they have useful information, so we try to get that loyalty by the quality of the service we provide. People don’t usually consider the fact that we are a very small company compared to some of the others in the IT market, and there?s just not enough people to manipulate the results manually. We can improve the algorithm, that’s true, but it takes time and the current results are what they are. People consider certain sites valuable and get the pointers to them.