Big interview: Douglas Merrill, former Google CIO

Douglas Merrill, formerly the CIO of Google and now president of EMI's digital business division talks about how internet search pioneer Google's IT organisation is configured (not structured), how CIOs need to evolve, and the most exasperating question that people ask him at cocktail parties.


Merrill spoke to us before he announcing his move from the search giant.

You joined Google as senior director of information systems in late 2003. How did you land such a cool job?

I spent four years or so at Charles Schwab & Co doing a bunch of different things, including head of infrastructure, head of security for a while, and then I left technology for a year or two as head of HR strategy.

My background is a mixture of process, people and technology. [Merrill holds a BA from the University of Tulsa in social and political organisation and an MA and a PhD in psychology from Princeton University.]

At Google, they were just getting ready to think about going public and [Google co-founder and President] Larry [Page] had some interesting ideas. I had this background, and I was a licensed broker, so I understood how the public-offering process worked. The rest is history, as it were.

I've read that Google doesn't have an IT organisation that's structured like that at most companies. How is it configured?

We have a pretty heavy reliance on decentralisation, so people have a lot of control to do what they want. Our motto is "Choice, not control". I try to make it possible for all Googlers to have all the hardware and control that they want.

Mostly, what I try to do is make it possible for our engineers and product managers to use the tools that they want, whether it's PC and [Microsoft] Exchange or whatever they choose. What matters is productivity and creativity.

How do you manage this as a CIO?

Most software downloads are done by the [end users]. There's lots of self-service. If they need help, we have drop in centres called 'Tech Stops' where we have broadly skilled people - more skilled than you might find at most help desk centres.

We expect our people to be pretty deep experts on infrastructure. And we have application developers and other programmers who can help with Google Apps and other application support.

How many people support Google's IT operations?

We don't really think about things that way. In some respects, everybody here supports IT operations in some way. We have numbers like support people per office, but the numbers are kind of hard to compare to other businesses because we have lots more offices than most organisations.

I have like 100 offices worldwide. Our ratios [of employees per IT support person] are strange because most of the support is done by people themselves.

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