Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A New Type of CIO

I read an interesting article last week in the Wall Street Journal about Douglas Merrill, Google's Chief Information Officer. To say the least, Merrill is not your typical CIO. Granted, Google is not your typical type of organization. Here are a few snippets and comments from the article that I found interesting.

"Mr. Merrill's group lets Google employees download software on their own, choose between several types of computers and operating systems...."

This isn't totally off the wall, but certainly unique. They are a company focused on innovation and technology, so it isn't surprising that they wouldn't "constrain" anyone from getting the resources they need.

"We're a decentralized technology organization...Google's model is choice. We let employees choose from a bunch of different machines and different operating systems, and [my support group] supports all of them. It's a bit less cost-efficient - but on the other hand, I get slightly more productivity from my [Google's] employees."

The decentralization and the idea of choice certainly go hand in hand. The cost-efficiency comment is interesting and it doesn't sound like something that they necessarily quantify. I also assume that Mr. Merrill is being extremely sarcastic when he says he gets slightly more productivity out of Google employees. Based on the number of tools that Google produces for consumers, I would say that they are quite productive and innovative. I made the comment the other day to someone that I can't keep up with all the new things that they constantly release! On the topic of security, Mr. Merrill had the following response.

"The traditional security model is to try to tightly lock down end-points...we put security into the infrastructure. We have programs in our infrastructure to watch for strange behavior."

"When I talk to Fortune 100 CIOs, they want to understand, 'What is your security model? Is it really as reliable? What's the catch?' I already had to build security standards because search logs are really private. Very few [Google employees] have access to consumer data, [and those who do] have to go through background checks."

What I find most interesting about Mr. Merrill's comments is the fact that fortune 100 CIOs immediately have questions about security, primarily because of Google's approach to employee "choice". Google has shown that they can provide a best-of-breed infrastructure that is stable and secure. My guess is that most CIOs struggle to successfully provide a decentralized environment without ending up on the front page of the newspaper because their systems have been

The last comment I will make about Mr. Merrill is that he has a fascinating academic background, especially for a CIO. He studied social and political organization at the University of Tulsa and a masters and doctorate degree in Physcology from Princeton University. His IT knowledge came through practical experience at RAND, Price Waterhouse and Charles Schwabb. Certainly politics and physcology play into the role of a successful CIO.

When I look at Google's approach to information technology and management, their approach is around the principles of the organization: decentralized, autonomy and a focus on innovation. Those principles may not make sense for every organization, but they clearly work for Google. Do I think that every physcology major is going to be the next CIO at company XYZ? No. Do I think that there are lessons to be learned from Google and Douglas Merrill, absolutely.

If you are interested in listening to Mr. Merrill speak to how Google eats their own dog food, take a look at the YouTube video below. He and CEO Eric Schmidt discuss how they use Google Apps internally in an effective and collaborative manner while meeting business and consumer needs, including security. Google Apps is a great example that relates back to the three themes of DIG: having organized and accessible data, providing robust analytic tools, and providing a massively collaborative environment.

Comments are welcome. I would be interested to hear related experiences and if you feel that IT is helping enable your business the way that Google is enabling theirs.

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