Larry Page: Anything Imagined Is Doable

Since 2001, when the company’s name first became a verb and byword, the world googles its way to whatever query needs an immediate answer. Defined by the Miriam-Webster dictionary as a way to obtain any information on the World Wide Web, more than 120 billion search queries are googled every month.

That number is still growing and will continue to do so since still only about 1.2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people use the ubiquitous search engine which, at last count, had indexed some 60 trillion web pages. Most belong to dormant sites that languish in near total obscurity yet are only a mouse click or two away from anyone. Rival services such as Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo! come nowhere close to the volume of queries processed by Google. For all its social media savvy, Facebook’s attempt to reinvent the Internet and become its preferred portal foundered ignominiously and was quietly shelved alongside other failed attempts to rule the web.

Leveraging their search algorithms and the vast amount of traffic they generate, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have become media barons who make the late William Randolph Hearst look like a small-time operator. Convinced that information should flow unimpeded from generator to user and be accessible to all free of charge, Google has found a way to appropriate nearly everything not firmly bolted to copyright law.

Google began as a research project by two PhD student of Stanford University who, in 1996, moved away from the rather simplistic approach then used by web-based search engines. At the time, pages were ranked according to the number of times the search term appeared in their text. Larry Page and Russian-born Sergey Brin – both all brawn and brain – decided they could do much better and started looking at how websites related to each other in order to determine importance and relevance. Ultimately, this new approach resulted in the PageRank algorithm, a now highly complex theorem that became a science in its own right and keeps academics busy the world over.

Mathematics

It was Larry Page, a nerdy kid from East Lansing in Michigan, who as a student distilled the mathematical properties of the still novel world wide web and discovered its many uses in guiding traffic flows across vast networks. Just as Bill Gates foresaw that software would prove more important to computing than the actual hardware, Larry Page found that mathematics provided the key to the seamless dissemination of information, creating order in what otherwise would remain a chaotic jungle of disjointed data.

After publishing their dissertation, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Larry Page and Sergey Brin set up shop in the garage of a friend’s suburban home in Menlo Park, California. With servers cobbled together from cheap computer parts, nascent Google was soon processing around 10,000 queries per day via a database containing around 75 million indexed web links.

Things started moving fast. Never one to think small, Larry Page soon realised that his and Sergey Brin’s search engine actually represented a revolution not unlike the one unleashed by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440. This momentous realisation – only one in a string of epiphanies – gave Google its corporate mission: to organise all of the world’s information and make it universally available for free.

Promptly, both Larry Page and Sergey Brin – the latter with an extrovert nature and a mind wired for strategic thinking – embarked on a quest – deemed quixotic at first – to empower individuals by leveraging the unseen power of mathematics to pry open the vaults of knowledge and democratise access to data up to then locked away in the ivory towers of academia or the imposing halls of libraries.

Larry Page
Larry Page

Bold

Mindful of the maxim that success favours the bold, Larry Page – very much in the driver’s seat with Sergey Brin in a supporting role – adopted a Think Big attitude from day one. As Google began its meteoric rise to dominance, he soon developed a unique management style which put engineers in charge of the company with a mandate to speed up things. Entire days were spent debating and tinkering around in order to shave microsecond off server response times and keep the competition trailing.

Mr Page decided not to become a bureaucrat: he refused to interfere with staff and their pursuits. However esoteric, Google employees were – and are – encouraged to explore ideas and hunches. However, before long the company had become too large a corporate entity to be managed by an engineer. After taking advice from Steve Jobs at Apple and Andrew Grove at chipmaker Intel, Mr Page decided to cave in to investor demand that he entrust his creation to a professional manager. In August 2001, with Google barely three years old, Novell CEO Eric Schmidt was hired to lead the company and oversee its rapid expansion.

Mr Page carved himself a managerial niche as president of Products but remained, in the eyes of the world and – perhaps more importantly – of Google employees, the boss with a final say over new hires and overall direction. However, he did at no time misuse his power to stop the new CEO from expertly reshaping Google into the corporate behemoth is soon was to become.

Whilst managing Google, Larry Page displayed a marked disdain for project managers and other non-technical supervisors. Since he only hired the most brilliant of engineers, any supervision was deemed a potential impediment to the full deployment of their programming expertise. What’s more, Mr Page suspected Google’s project managers to surreptitiously downplay and starve grandiose initiatives he had launched such as the monumental quest to scan all the books ever printed anywhere in the world and make their contents available online.

Rebelling against the management culture that had taken hold of his company, Larry Page in 2001 pushed for a thorough shakeup that would see all Google engineers report directly to a single VP of engineering, in the process eliminating various hierarchical layers and reaffirming the supremacy of programmers.

Biding His Time

The plan did not fly – at least not for long. Pushing ahead against the express wishes of Eric Schmidt, then still only chairman of the board, human resources director Stacey Sullivan, and his personal coach Bill Campbell, Larry Page sent word that all project managers were to start looking for new jobs.

Even the engineers were not thrilled by their enhanced stature within the company. During the presentation of his plans, Larry Page was repeatedly shouted down by disgruntled and hurt staff members who called his ideas unprofessional and ridiculous. However, the publically announced layoffs did not materialise and the discredited project managers soon found a home elsewhere in the now vastly expanded organisation.

In the end, Larry Page – beaten but not quite defeated – conceded that he and Sergey Brin needed adult supervision. Eric Schmidt was duly made CEO while Larry Page went the way of Apple founder Steve Jobs who in 1983 also had to bow out as CEO due to pressure from concerned investors. And just as Steve Jobs returned triumphantly to lead his creation in 1997, Larry Page was determined to bide his time and stage a comeback at just the right moment, full of ambition and resolve.

As a young boy growing up in suburbia, Larry Page became fascinated with the tragic life story of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-born inventor who arrived near penniless in New York City and went on to design alternating current (AC) electricity generators. Working for Thomas Edison, speaking eight languages, and blessed with a photographic memory, Nikola Tesla suggested to his employer that the electrical motors and generators the great American inventor had designed offered ample room for improvement. Promised a $50,000 bonus if he could put his bravado into practice, Nikola Tesla set to work, delivered as promised, and was rewarded with a $10 raise.

Mr Tesla quit his job in disgust, formed his own company, and chased investors. Whilst a brilliant inventor and visionary, he was less capable at playing the corporate game, committing suicide almost destitute in a New York City hotel room in 1943.

Nikola Tesla is Larry Page’s hero. Amongst the lessons he drew from Tesla’s predicament is the realisation that bright ideas are not enough: they need to be properly commercialised. He also never forgot to watch out for the Thomas Edisons of this world: people who will hijack ideas and cash in at the inventor’s expense.

It made Larry Page into a blunt man, lacking in social grace. Famously, he once told an assembly of Google marketing employees that they owed their job to the ability to lie. Though by no means a tyrant, Mr Page has little time for emotions, preferring to base his social interactions on the strength of argument instead. Complex problems are reduced to binary (yes/no) propositions from which the best one is chosen – regardless of any collateral damage. This enabled Larry Page to keep an unusual clarity of focus which ultimately made Google into the massive global business it is today.

Slowly stepping back from day-to-day management as his confidence in Eric Schmidt increased allowed Larry Page to concentrate on megalomaniacal projects such as Google Street, Maps, and Books that aimed to follow the company’s original premise to deliver all information available anywhere to all who care to look for it. Uploading seamless pictures of all the streets in the world and scanning all the books ever published were typical Larry Page: big, bold, and hugely ambitious. From the earliest day, both Larry Page and Sergey Brin had decided that Google was to be much more than just a search engine. In fact, they aimed for world domination whilst adhering to their Don’t Be Evil mantra.

Owning a Mint

Owning a veritable mint being run by a competent CEO, Mr Page discovered that he could do whatever he fancied – the possibilities were, and are still, endless. In 2005, struck by the notion that mobile would be the future of computing, Mr Page had his company buy Android – a small start-up developing a lean operating system for use on handheld devices. He failed to inform CEO Eric Schmidt of the $50m purchase and kept Android well isolated from the rest of the company. Mr Schmidt did not take much interest considering Android Larry’s little plaything. The money involved was minimal and did not noticeably impact Google’s huge stockpile of ready cash.

While Mr Page tinkered with Android, he was overtaken by Apple’s launch of the iPhone. All of a sudden, Android seemed but a cheap Apple knock-off – an also-ran lacking in originality. In a stroke of genius, Android was made available free-of-charge to phone makers trying to compete with Apple. It worked and already by 2010, Android had become a resounding success, overtaking Apple in market share and finding its way into countless devices, supporting a vast universe of applications.

Android became Larry Page’s second successful attempt at world domination: while Google became the go-to search engine, Android turned into the preferred mobile operating system. By now, the company had become so large that it was unable to escape from the malaise nearly all big corporations suffer from: rule by committee. The times that a group of three engineers could knock together a new world class product have definitely gone; now, engineering teams of up to forty people work on perfecting existing services rather than introducing new ones. Product development had become all about meetings with the actual programming following as an afterthought. To make matters worse, a newcomer had arrived on the scene, promising to shake up the search experience and, indeed, the way in which the Internet is used – Facebook.

The appearance of Mark Zuckerberg’s social network reminded Larry Page of the way Google used to go about its business: bold and decisive. During a meeting with product developers plugging a minor alteration to existing software, Mr Page is reported to have exploded in controlled anger – lowering his voice to a whisper: “This is not what we do. We build products that leverage technology to solve huge problems for hundreds of millions of people. Look at Android. Look at Gmail. Look at Google Maps. Look at Google Search. That’s what we do. We build products you can’t live without.”

A few months later, Eric Schmidt made way at the top for Larry Page who in early 2011 was reinstated as CEO with Mr Schmidt being honourably side lined as executive chairman in an amicable corporate coup. Determined to get his company back on track, Mr Page struck out in different directions: he bought Motorola for its patents, launched Google+ to bring the fight to Facebook, unified all Google products under a single corporate look-and-feel, went into hardware with Chromebook laptops, introduced Google Glass, and started pulling fibre optic cable in a number of US cities to offer residents free high-speed Internet connections.

Mr Page also appealed to senior management to stop the infighting and start collaborating – changing the way the company had conducted its business in one fell swoop. Thus far, Google had thrived in an abrasive atmosphere where unwelcome ideas were regularly branded stupid, evil, or worse.

The Father of All Disruptors

Mr Page – a disruptor par excellence – is determined to return Google to its fold – the pursuit of world domination by not being evil. In August 2015, Mr Page let go of Google’s reins for a second time, appointing Sundar Pichai as CEO in order to free up time for more interesting pursuits. In a surprise corporate restructuring, Google formed and became part of the umbrella company Alphabet.

Google is now well on track to absorb nearly all of the world’s advertising budgets. The company already receives more marketing dollars than all print magazines and newspapers combined. And, there is still room to grow with vast swaths of the emerging world being brought online.

Mr Page must now find new ways to shape Google’s future as his company, in turn, shapes the world and how it interacts. There is never a shortage of ideas in Larry page’s mind. There is no shortage of cash either with which to mould his thoughts into tangible realities: self-driving cars, vertical conveyor belts into space, artificial intelligence, and working on solutions to stop the ageing process and cheat death.

In 2012, Larry Page told a group of investors: “Anything you can imagine probably is doable. You just have to imagine it and work on it.” He keeps doing just that.