IT's Third Epoch...and Running IT at Google

If there's anyone who understands the impact of consumer technology on the enterprise, it's Google CIO Douglas Merrill. He believes we're not only entering a new business epoch; it's one in which IT leaders with real technical skills will be more in demand than ever.

By Abbie Lundberg
Mon, October 08, 2007

CIO — If there's anyone who understands the impact of consumer technology on the enterprise, it's Google CIO Douglas Merrill. He believes we're not only entering a new business epoch; it's one in which IT leaders with real technical skills will be more in demand than ever.

Merrill doesn't look like the standard model information executive. If you were to walk into a CIO gathering and find Merrill there, you might take him for a hip entrepreneur or a musician come to perform. He has earrings. More than a few. And long, unruly hair. He wears bright tee shirts and jeans.

You also wouldn't think CIO if you were introduced to Merrill through his CV. His degrees are in social and political organization (undergrad) and psychology (masters and doctorate from Princeton). He's worked as an information scientist for the RAND Corporation (leveraging his training in cognitive and social science); he led a security practice at Pricewaterhouse; and at Charles Schwab, in addition to the more traditional IT responsibilities of information security and infrastructure, he was responsible for HR strategy and operations. He's credited with engineering Google's 2004 IPO.

But when you talk to Merrill about technology and its role in business and life, when you start to understand the way he thinks, after a while you start to think, well, that's exactly the way a CIO in 2007 should think.

Merrill views technology primarily as a tool to enhance peoples' creativity and productivity, and one that can help them solve their problems. His guiding principle in IT management is "choice not control." Despite having grown up professionally in the era of highly structured enterprise systems, he runs a highly reliable and secure enterprise on a pretty unstructured, heterogeneous, much more organic model.

Four years ago, Merrill joined Google as senior director of information systems, responsible for internal engineering and worldwide support. CIO Editor in Chief Abbie Lundberg recently spoke with him on the Google campus about current trends in information technology and the impact they are having on the way organizations think about and manage IT.

CIO: How is your approach to running IT at Google different from the traditional model?

Douglas Merrill: Some of the side effects of the era we grew up in, when enterprise technology was highly siloed, highly focused on heavy business process design ("You vill do vat this software tells you"), that model of the world yielded incredible economic returns. The downside was you had to be relatively controlling as a CIO. [You told people,] "You're going to use this kind of infrastructure; you're going to use these kinds of servers; the end points are going to look like this."

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