CEO, Google

Want to encourage new ideas at your company? Let the engineers run wild. That was the advice Google Inc. Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt had for attendees of the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in San Francisco last week.

Schmidt’s comment came in response to an on-stage interview question from Gartner Inc. Vice-President and Fellow Andy Kyte, who asked him how executives should foster a sense of innovation in their IT staffs without allowing them to run rampant.The most clever ideas don’t come from the leaders, but rather from the leaders listening…Eric Schmidt> “We prefer them to run rampant,” said Schmidt. “The most clever ideas don’t come from the leaders, but rather from the leaders listening and encouraging and kind of creating a discussion,” he said. “Wander around…and try to find the new ideas.”

Google encourages its engineers to spend 20 per cent of their time on “something of the engineer’s own choosing,” with the idea that focusing resources on activities that are not directly related to the company’s core business will ultimately lead to new discoveries, Schmidt said.

Schmidt also encouraged executives to have an open-door policy when it came to technology demonstrations. “You want to see every conceivable demo, no matter how wacky it is,” he told the audience. “People love that….They get a chance to present to someone important like yourselves. All of a sudden the whole (corporate culture) becomes about leadership and innovation.”

Google views its ability to innovate as critical key to its long-term success against rivals such as Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. Schmidt said. But this quest for new ideas is also behind his company’s embrace of open source technologies such as the Linux operating system and the MySQL database, both of which are heavily used by the Mountain View, Calif., search company.

Schmidt had originally wanted Google to use a commercial database supplier such as Oracle Corp. or Sybase Inc. for Google’s back end, but his engineers convinced him that MySQL was actually better suited to the company’s needs, he said.

The open source community has been particularly adept at attracting some of the “best and brightest of new talent,” in part because it is an international phenomenon, Schmidt said. “I know this is a shock, but not all the best programmers are sitting here in California,” he said.

Google itself has hired a number of these open source developers, including Mozilla Foundation contributors Ben Goodger and Darin Fisher, who joined the company earlier this year. The Mozilla hires, combined with the revelation that Google has registered the Internet domain, have fuelled speculation that Google may be developing its own browser.

Schmidt downplayed this speculation at the event, saying that the Mozilla hires played into his company’s strategy of supporting both Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox browser. “We have decided to work on a browser-independent strategy,” he said. “We don’t want to be specialized on any particular one, so that’s why these people are working at Google.”

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