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Inspiring Best Practice 30 March Mar 2018 0830 30 March 2018

Larry Page: "Want to change the world? Have fun"

At 20, he revolutionised the internet. Then, at 40, the founder of Google transformed the concept of work. How? By focusing on employee motivation

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The future of Larry Page, enfant prodige of Silicon Valley and founder and CEO of Google, was written in his genes. The son of a computer science professor at the University of Michigan and a programming teacher, he spent his childhood among the processors and heavy computers of the 1970. However, Larry Page does not just own his DNA to his parents, but also to a natural propensity for creativity, nourished by very forward-looking educational choices: from Montessori schools, to visits to the first technological conventions, through to the daily exposure to computers from a very early age. "I grew up in a messy house. There were computers, gadgets, and tech magazines everywhere," said Page. "I remember spending a lot of time reading." And then there's his passion for music. "My parents made me take sax lessons. I think this influenced me considerably. In music, time is the primary thing. I think my fixation for speed at Google is due to my musical training."

As a small child, he started working on computers, and was the first of in his school to do his homework on a PC. Meanwhile, his older brother taught him to disassemble objects he found home. "I disassembled everything I could get my hands on, because I wanted to see how it worked," he said. "I understood very early on that I wanted to invent things." At the age of 12, he read the biography of Nikola Tesla, a great inventor who died ​penniless. As well as moving him, Tesla's story taught him the first rudimental lesson on innovation: "Invention is not enough. You have to get it out to people and make sure they can use it. That's the only way of having a meaningful impact". This became his mission in life, and lead to the creation of Google, when, while considering the topic for the dissertation for his doctoral thesis at Stanford, he decided to focus on optimising web-based searches.

"Invention is not enough. You have to get it out to people and make sure they can use it.

Larry Page, Google founder

"At the time, there were about 10 million documents on the net and if we managed to develop a method to count and qualify each link, the web would become far more useful and more valuable". Page and another graduate student, Sergey Brin, start working together on BackRub, the first prototype of Google, turning their university dormitory rooms into a laboratory and office. In August 1996, they finally developed their first search engine. Page and his partner were twenty-three years old. "We realised we had develop a good research tool, capable of sorting links," said Page, but they had to wait a further two years for their big break. "In mid 1998, we recorded about 10,000 searches a day. That's where we realised we were dealing with something really big."

Google comes out of the garage
In 1998, Larry Page and his colleague, Sergey Brin, left their Stanford's dorms and moved to Menlo Park, where Facebook now has its headquarters. With minor loans from relatives and friends, they managed to rent a garage and start working on their creation. The first check made payable to Google Inc., worth 100,000 dollars, was signed by Andy Bechtolsheim, another key Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who decided to take a gamble on these two twenty-year-olds. "At the time, we hadn't even registered the company. For two weeks, as we gathered all the documentation, we had nowhere to deposit the money," said Page. When the company was finally registered, Page became its CEO and Brin its Chairman. From then on, Google continued to grow and find funding. Two more years pass and at the stroke of the new millennium, the two partners raised their first million dollars, allowing the small team to move to a real office in Mountain View, where Google became the global giant it is today. In June, Page and Brin's creature indexed 1 billion URLs, making the most comprehensive search engine in the world.​

To change the world you have to have fun
"If we had been driven by money alone, we would have sold almost immediately," Larry Page has repeated several times, remembering the early days and the various acquisition offers they received, when Google was "only" a very promising startup. However, for its founder, this search engine represented the fulfilment of a dream that he had no intention of selling to the highest bidder: it was a revolutionary creation with the potential of having an enormous impact on the world. "Our mission was to organise global information and make it accessible and useful to everyone." And Google has kept its promise; it really has changed the world, completely revolutionising the way we search for data, news and information. According to Page, what determined the success of the multinational was its mission. "​What makes the difference, for us, is to feel that we are working on something really important. When you are literally changing the world, then getting up in the morning and coming to the office is very easy and also very, very much fun".

When you are literally changing the world, then getting up in the morning and coming to the office is very easy and also very, very much fun.

Larry Page, Google founder

The best place in the world to work
And if your office is the Google headquarters in Mountain View, having fun is not so difficult. "We have tried our best to develop a space that promotes creativity and exchange." Hence the informal environment, with sofas, hammocks, but also a gym, volleyball courts and the rule that "food should not be more than 150 steps away": all aspects designed to promote interpersonal relations, cross-team contamination, and thinking out of the box, as well as extremely flexible time management. Google employees have the right to dedicate 20% of their time to "doing what they love", which can mean participating in projects of another team or area, volunteering, or even simply sleeping. Achieving a work-life balance is also high on the list of priorities, thanks to a series of services that include a company crèche, laundry services and a restaurant-cum-takeaway. "These are simple ways of making life easier and solving certain minor problems for our employees; it helps people to be more focused and happier, and it is relatively inexpensive for us," said Page, commenting the countless benefits of his employees. He explained that not having to think of preparing dinner, fetching the laundry or crossing the city to pick up the kids often means that they can spend a little longer at work, without feeling overburdened with things to do.

Moreover, at Google there are not time clocks. Employee performance is measured based on results, whereas managers are monitored by means of a system that also takes into account the feedback of those who report to them, in what is a strictly flat organisation. "Ideas are more important than age", is a motto that Page loves to repeat. He believes that "just because someone is junior doesn't mean they don't deserve respect and cooperation". A recurring phrase that Google's founder often accompanies with another maxim, to explain his leadership philosophy: "The worst thing you can do is stop someone from doing something by saying, “No. Period.” If you say no, you have to help them find a better way to get it done."

And this style of being attentive to the efficiency but also to the growth of his employees, has earned Page a 96% approval rating on Glassdoor. "A silent person who really listens to people", said an employee when asked to described him. And, judging by the satisfaction of the people who work at Google, regarded for years as the ​Best Place to Work, it seems that this description fits Larry Page to perfection. "My job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they're having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society".

The problem with many companies is that they are missing out on the future

Larry Page, Google founder

"Careful not to miss out on the future"
While Google is the best place to work, it is also a place where you work hard. And Larry Page is the first to give the example. With all those years of success, a multibillionaire bank account, and being considered one of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley, Page still doesn't feel he's gone far enough. "You probably think that Google works perfectly, but I think it's terrible," he said, smiling, at a press conference. Page's ideal company is still a long way off. "I think that the search engine of the future should be able to understand everything and give you exactly what you are looking for. And we are still a long, long way from achieving this." It is precisely to achieve that ideal company that Page continues to rise every morning and that his large team of computer science prodigies continues to work, constantly implementing new features into the search engine. "The problem with many companies is that they keep doing the exact same things for dozens of years,” explained Page. "Do you know what they're doing fundamentally wrong? They are missing out on the future, but I have no intention of letting that happen to us."

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