Free healthy food, shuttles to work, guest speaker talks from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama … the perks of working at Google might seem endless. But what’s the Googleplex in California’s Mountain View really like for its 57,000 employees? Karla Martin, Google’s director of global strategy and strategic planning between May 2014 and September 2015, says once Google is your home, it’s always your home.
Ms Martin, a Harvard Law School graduate, was a keynote speaker at the World Strategy Summit last November in Abu Dhabi. These days, she’s a thought leader in residence at Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as advising and investing in various Silicon Valley start-ups.
What are the most exciting innovations Google is now focusing on?
The notion of bringing connectivity to other parts of the world. Google has spent a lot of time thinking about places where data is expensive, where Wi-Fi is not universal and how can we work on that problem – be it with balloons (a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in remote areas, known as Project Loon) or low-flying aircraft (drones, known as Project Skybender). It’s about getting more information into the hands of the people. To a large extent, a lot of the Arab Spring was fuelled by YouTube – it was not always right, but enabled people to instantly visually see what was going on. That matters in a way it didn’t matter in the old TV world. Trying to bring that sense of urgency and connectedness to other parts of the world I think is what Google is really striving for.
What innovations were you involved with at Google?
We were focused on where we were going to shift resources to drive growth in the future and drive a lot more process innovation in strategic planning. In a company as innovative as Google, what makes it difficult is that it’s a little bit like doing strategy on the event horizon. Long-term planning at Google is a year, because they’re able to change very quickly and people are very used to change being a constant. I think what is innovative about it is trying to think through not “is this strategy going to get us through the next 18 months?” but “do we have a strategy that’s lean and nimble and has the right principles, so whatever we decide to pivot to, the strategy holds?”
How flexible is Google’s work-life balance?
Google in that respect is an amazing company. Whether that means you want to play on a volleyball team with Google, go for a run, or just get back home with your children, they are very respectful. Lazlo Bock (head of HR) has made that a linchpin of what they call “Googliness” – of making sure that people feel that it’s a great place to work because you can grow as individuals, but also people respect that you have a life outside. They focus on measuring your outputs rather than your inputs, so you can be where you need to be at that time. That meant I could work from my home in San Francisco on Fridays.
Did you use Google’s free shuttle buses?
People complain about the Google buses. They’re fully equipped air-conditioned buses with free Wi-Fi, but they’re not super -fancy – if you took a tour bus here in Abu Dhabi, it would be like that. Time on the bus counts as work time. Mountain View, where Google is based, is an hour-and-a-half from my house, but leaving home on the Google bus at 5am was not a problem. I’d lose 10 minutes waiting for the bus, then I’d reconnect online back doing work. When I got off that bus, I was able to walk through the door of my home, and be completely detached from work.
What makes Google take notice of other companies?
Google is always on the lookout for seeds of ideas that may plant trees that grow over many years. One of the things that makes Larry Page such an amazing leader is that he is open to the idea that Google can one day maybe become the largest bio-pharmaceutical company in the world, or the largest green energy and electric car manufacturer in the world. He is always thinking not a day ahead but a decade ahead. There are two sorts of ideas. There’s the “this will make us a lot of money tomorrow?” and then the “this will sustain us and help build the capabilities we need going forward to becoming something different”. They’re also very patient. When they acquire a company, they don’t immediately try to smash it into Google. The new companies are on the same payroll, the same badging system, but they’re able to take their time to figure out where the natural fit is within the new organisation.
What made you quit?
I sound like a politician when they leave office, but I really did want more time with my family. Even though those three hours I spent commuting every day were work time, it was still too long – like commuting from Abu Dhabi to Dubai each day.
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