Why Google Still Needs “Adult Supervision”

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In explaining his decision to pass the boss torch back to co-founder Larry Page, Google CEO Eric Schmidt tweeted that, ha-ha, “adult supervision” is no longer needed at the company that dominates internet search and advertising. And Google’s monster fourth-quarter earnings offer evidence that Schmidt is true to his tweet: profits reached $2.5 billion on sales of $8.4 billion. But maybe he shouldn’t have been so flip.  Maybe Google needs a lot more adult supervision rather than less, because its too-cool-for-the-Fortune 500 culture is becoming too cumbersome, a geek commune that’s simply gotten too big to manage like a startup.

The act-small ethos is always a source of tension in tech companies that grow quickly and successfully.  Google leaves people free to pursue their own projects‹engineers still can devote 20% of their time to doing their own thing. That’s entrepreneurial, but in a company that now has tens of thousands of employees it makes for a lot of unfocused work. And the engineers who think they’re working on the coolest thing ever created can’t get the attention of top management.  Result: the right hand doesn’t always know what the left was doing, meaning lots of knowledge gets sidetracked or lost in the Googleplex. And decisionmaking gets strung out by the need for consensus, which is easy in a small company but harder for a big one. Visitors to the Googleplex report internal management strategies that are by turns utopian and bizarre — everybody evaluates everybody else’s performance, for instance using, a wiki-style management software.

It’s possible that Google doesn’t need a guy who can invent the whip — it needs a guy who can crack the whip.  Of late Google’s got so much brainpower just churning and churning, with not much to show for it. Its Android mobile operating system is a hit, but there are so many more expensive train wrecks like Google Buzz, which underlines Google’s swing and miss in the social network space, and the disappointing Chrome operating system, which seems to have lost its place in the company’s hierarchy. Even Schmidt seemed confused by its status, referring to Chrome recently as a netbook OS, which is the kiss of death since netbooks are so yesterday. Tablets are where it’s at, and the people running Chrome certainly view it as tablet OS. Schmidt was either out to lunch or out of touch.

Schmidt is Mr. Outside, Google’s guy on Wall Street and at the White House, and also the guy who ran the management and board meetings while Page and co-founder Sergey Brin concentrated on the products, on nourishing Google’s culture and trying to do no evil. Page, who created the algorithm that made Google search possible, also pursues other interests, such as energy projects. He’s behind Google’s push to create a driverless electric powered automobile. Very cool, but not necessarily what you want your CEO to be doing, even in his designated spare time.

That’s what makes the choice of Page as CEO so interesting; he seems to be everything Google doesn’t need right now.

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