Google Senior Exec Alan Eustace on Innovation Strategy and the Technology of the Next Decade

12/16/09Follow @gthuang

If ever a company defied hyperlocal coverage, it’s Google.

Whether you live in Boston or Bosnia, Seattle or Shanghai, Google is a big deal—and it’s getting bigger every day. Whether it’s attracting or gobbling up the best companies and talent in New England or Southern California, or competing with giants like Microsoft (Bing) and Amazon in the Northwest, that all takes a back seat to the bigger picture coming into focus: that of a truly global company delivering some pretty astounding and pervasive Internet technologies, but also facing some of the greatest challenges of its corporate life.

That bigger picture is exactly what computer scientist and Google senior executive Alan Eustace works on every day, and yesterday he gave me a unique glimpse of the inner workings of the company’s strategy in engineering and technology.

Eustace joined Google in 2002. Previously he had spent 15 years at the Western Research Laboratory (the last three as director), originally run by Digital and acquired by Compaq and then Hewlett-Packard. He is now a senior vice president of engineering and research at Google, where he helps oversee an annual R&D budget of some $2.8 billion (according to 2008 figures, that represents 13 percent of Google’s revenues) and numerous engineering centers around the world, including in the Seattle and Boston areas. (In October, Eustace spoke about the local innovation community at the company’s Kirkland, WA, offices.)

I got a chance to speak with Eustace yesterday about everything from Google’s engineering management strategy and what he worries about most, to its $750 million purchase of AdMob last month and the broader significance of mobile to the company’s business. We also touched on some farther-out implications of advances in areas like speech interfaces, machine translation, and even quantum computing. (Eustace had no comment on the widely rumored “Google phone” coming out next year, though.)

Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Alan Eustace (image courtesy of Google)

Xconomy: How do you allocate Google’s engineering resources across core areas like search versus other areas like cloud computing and mobile? What’s the overall strategy?

Alan Eustace: We have a 70-20-10 rule. We spend 70 percent on core products, 20 percent on emerging areas, and 10 percent on “wild and crazy” ideas. Those are things we may not have a business model for, but may be important in the long run. Things can move between core and emerging. For example, mobile used to be something of an emerging area—the business models weren’t completely clear. Now with smart phones, mobile search is happening with increasing frequency. Internet access has gone up substantially in the last three years. Now people will do searches on either phones or the Web. People are using YouTube [on phones]. Something that used to be a tiny part of all our searches, and was quite different from desktop searches, has evolved into a superset of the desktop experience.

X: What’s your approach to coordinating which engineering center works on which particular products, and managing all those different efforts?

AE: It depends on the expertise in the area. I look at the various areas inside the company. I want to support those areas based on the talent of those [geographic] areas, the quality of the talent and leadership. It’s important that we don’t fragment, that we don’t have 27 places working on the same thing. It’s also important to have critical mass, so communication overhead doesn’t … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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