I recently interviewed Google's CIO Ben Fried at the company’s mega-office in New York. Covering an entire New York City block, employees zip around on Razor scooters that are parked at intermittent intervals like Citi Bikes around Manhattan. The creative energy is palpable from the interesting chalk drawings, the elaborate LEGO models, and creative meeting and huddle spaces around the building. For instance, my video interview below was conducted in a movie inspired conference room, with old film reels, theater curtains, and the like. At times, some of what Fried and I discussed seemed to be out of a futuristic science fiction movie.
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Fried says that Google’s technology is a reflection of the company culture. The company is innovative to the core, and is constantly pushing the envelope on what technology can do. Prominent examples abound, such as those emerging from Google X like Google Glass and the driverless car. This pushes Fried to operate from the point of flexibility.
It turns out that flexibility is a cultural hallmark at Google. Fried explains that if you let people use the technology that they are most comfortable with, they will be at peak productivity and creativity. Many of his CIO peers at other companies focus on setting technology standards in order to reduce the complexity of what they must manage and reduce costs at the same time. Fried understands this rationale, but wonders whether this is not an example of a focus on bottom line savings at the expense of potential top-line gains.
Another area where Fried and Google cut against the grain of common thinking for CIOs is infrastructure derived innovation. Many CIOs try to find ways to distance themselves from infrastructure, outsourcing it in many cases. Google is a notable exception since so much of what makes them powerful is creative use of infrastructure. The fact that they have developed a Google Cloud offering highlights just how strategic this is.
Fried is in the enviable position of being surrounded by many engineers and technology leaders who have invented the technologies that his team uses and manipulates. The ability to innovate with that sort of horsepower is boundless.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.