Q&A: A Google 'stalker' deconstructs the secrets to its success

A self-described 'Google stalker' examines the secrets to its success and explains how you can emulate it.

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When you build, you have to pick a platform, and each has own API and languages and so on. If I'm an independent software developer, what languages should I be learning today? Google's APIs, Amazon's, eBay's, Salesforce.com's. I should keep track of the number of mashups being developed on these platforms so I can learn these APIs and build my own mashups that run on them. That is a good career path. You've got to watch the evolution of these platform companies and see which are the next operating systems, if you will.

You write that innovation is literally built into job descriptions at Google. How does that work? Managers are required to spend 70% of their time on core business, 20% on related but different projects, and 10% on anything else. [Technical employees spend 80% of their time on core business and 20% on projects of their own choosing.] It doesn't have to be on a daily basis; they can chunk it or spread it out.

Sounds good, but if you don't track it, it's just a meaningless statement. But these folks track it. That 20% time has produced phenomenal products, including Gmail, AdSense and Google News. When you have creative people and you make this part of the job description, it's a great fit.

That would seem to be something any company can do, if they commit to it. Every company should do it. You may think it's goofing off, but that's where the best ideas come from: time to sit down and actually think. People are so caught up in delivery that we don't have think time. Everybody who wants to add value knows it comes from our free time.

Next, Google cultivates a taste for failure and chaos. How so? Failure is not considered to be a bad thing. They encourage people to make new mistakes. If people are not feeling stretched, they're not trying hard enough. In this business where innovation is happening on a day-to-day basis, unless you push the envelope, you're not going to be leading. There's a story about how a senior executive made a big mistake that cost several million dollars, but [Google co-founder] Larry Page told her he was happy she made the mistake. Because if they're not making mistakes, they're not taking enough risks. They would rather try and fail than sit back and say, "What if we had ...?"

And finally, Google uses data to vet inspiration. Is that backing away a little from failure and chaos? We didn't want readers to feel that Google is totally chaotic and there are no processes in place. Actually, they have very good processes. They listen to ideas. Ideas get vetted on an internal discussion board. Once ideas come through, people get to present them to the top team -- 15 minutes per idea. And they don't care about what you think; they want data to back it up. So first, you alpha-test your product, find out what users are telling you, and then you present that. They're very brutal internally, and a lot of ideas get killed. But then you feel confident that the right ideas are being pushed up.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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