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Difficult for IT leaders to shift thinking

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 12-10-2009 Print

But isn't it difficult for IT leaders to shift to that way of thinking?

Fried:I liken it to something I read in an article last year in The Economist. In Europe, it's been becoming more common to take down road signage in towns around common squares. The observation was that strict traffic laws in pedestrian-centric, central towns were actually driving up accidents. There was too much distraction--drivers were following signs and not thinking and looking around for themselves. A number of European cities ended up removing signage. It sounds completely counterintuitive, but they found marked decreases in accident rates.

So my observation is that it's possible to give people choice. Google is a place with a very high percentage of tech-savvy people. But I think we're proof that you can create a technology environment where you give people choice. You actually get a better support organization, which gives you better change management, which gives you happier users.

The argument against it is that support costs will go through the roof. Yes, you do have to invest in having more expertise in more operating systems, etc. But virtually all of our applications are Web-based, so we don't worry about desktop installs and supporting native applications and clients.

But wouldn't some say that could only happen at a company like Google?

Fried:I don't think that's true. I talk with a lot of people who are thinking about doing it. Approaches like that are attractive.

One of the problems you encounter when you have a desktop-centric IT stack is the high cost of opening new offices. I saw it at Morgan Stanley. We had so much internal technology that was needed to power the Morgan Stanley desktop. It was very expensive, so the technology costs associated with opening a new office were very high. The joke was we were looking at a business deal with a company in China, and the cost of putting one ex-pat who understood and could support the technology used there was more than the payroll of the entire office combined, and that the cost of one decked-out computer was more than any one employee's annual salary.

This ties back to the Google approach, in that there's a lot less infrastructure needed. You worry about more Internet connectivity. That means you can be more nimble.

CIOs are thinking about where to invest in the next surge. I came to Google for this reason, and I don't say it because I'm at Google: Cloud technologies offer us a way to get into new locations cheaper than we could with fully installed software-based approaches before. That's going to be important as companies look to "seek alpha," as we used to say on Wall Street, in new locations--especially in the developing world, where no CIO wants the dominant cost to be whether or not there's an ROI to opening a new office. Don't be in that business. Don't have that bull's-eye on you.

Google is obviously a tech-savvy company. Does that put more pressure on you and IT?

Fried:I haven't counted up all the numbers, but probably a plurality of people on our operating committee have Ph.D.s in computer science or were in Ph.D. programs. So it's a very different job from that of a lot of other CIOs.

Does it put pressure on us? IT is considered an engineering discipline here, so that puts me in a group with the people in charge of search, Apps, Maps, Google Earth and so on.

I think it's fantastic that IT is held to the same engineering standards as the rest of what Google does. In the fight for talent, it turns out to be a huge advantage. We want the same caliber people working in IT as those working on search, Maps, etc. You can come into Google and have access to all these things and be judged on the same playing field. It creates pressure, but it creates the kind of pressure I want--to be excellent.

I started out talking about my belief that the best way to create differentiation is creating technology. Being part of a broader organization that's all about building technology adds pressure, but pressure that moves us in the right direction.


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