Google CFO: We want to fix 'broken' world

Patrick Pichette says technology can and should change a "broken" world for the better, and its engineers are constantly concocting "crazy ideas" to fix the problems seen around them.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The world as we know it is already "broken" and Google, with its global reach and talent pool, is looking to make a difference on a daily basis by developing solutions using technology to fix the "big problems" such as traffic flow and Internet connectivity.

CFO Patrick Pichette says he enjoys being in the position to be able to "change the world" through tech innovations introduced by Google. (Credit: Google)

Patrick Pichette, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Google, said in a fireside chat held at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Friday that technology can and should be used to change the world.

Citing Google's self-driving car project as an example, Pichette said there is "no sense" for human beings to be driving on the roads as we are too prone to error and inefficient, thus causing accidents and massive traffic jams in many places around the world.

"Technology can solve this problem and it's quite easy to solve," he said.

In order to get the right talent on board and grow the project team from scratch, the CFO said the search giant ran a competition around the problem of driving and picked the top four teams in the competition to join the company. This way, it built up a critical mass of like-minded people passionate about the issue and who have the right network of connections to foster innovation, he explained.

The self-driving car project begun in 2010 and Google tested its prototypes on public roads, clocking up over 300,000 miles of testing without yet being involved in an accident while under computer control. It always has a driver present while the public road tests were carried out though, and it remains to be seen whether these prototypes will eventually become commercial products.

Wanted: "Completely nuts" ideas

Asked by one of the participants how Google sought to sieve through all the ideas thrown up by employees to focus on, Pichette said these tend to be "crazy" ideas that are "completely nuts" and will have to satisfy the question of, "Will 1 or 2 billion people use this?"

He said that because of Google's immense scale and reach globally, to be a "Googler" means to constantly want to change the world around them. "It's no point having a 10 percent or 15 percent incremental change," he stated.

The CFO cited its mobile operating system, Android, as an example of a big vision becoming reality. He said when the idea of creating a new mobile ecosystem while bypassing the operators was deemed by many as crazy and impossible, the company and the team running the project relished the challenge.

He also used the same example to highlight how many of the bets Google undertake are small in scale and not costly gambles. "Android started with four people initially, and even when it started to really take off, there were just 150 people working on it since it's software," Pichette recalled.

The executive added his job is made easy when the time comes to pull the plug on unsuccessful projects. He said Google engineers all want to win and because they are so invested in their ideas, they can sense, emotionally, when their ideas are not working or need to be reworked.

"As CFO, I just throw back the facts at them and let them decide if they want to burrow on or move on to the project next door which has a better chance of accelerated development," said Pichette.

An Ovum analyst had praised Google for being a company that excels at good failures. Carter Lusher, research fellow at Ovum, said in 2011 the search giant has the ability to fail fast, cut losses, learn from the experience and move. He added failure is not a bad thing in itself, but failing to fail in an effective manner is.

Google undertook a few rounds of streamlining its product development portfolio in 2012, with services such as iGoogle and Google Mini as well as functionalities around picture editing software Picasa, among others, being shuttered.

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