Eric Schmidt on Innovation
I revisited the site recently that lists similar biographical interviews with technology stalwarts such as Craig Barrett, Micheal Dell, Larry Ellison, Vinton Cerf, Bill Joy and several others. The interviews are so long, it takes a big investment of time to read one. I picked up Eric Schmidt and what a revelation.
Eric is one of those guys who everyone agrees hasn't got his due. He was one of the first guys at Sun Microsystems and likes to think of himself as a "organization builder" and then he single handedly turned around Novell. At Google, Eric was hired to bring much needed discipline (fiscal and otherwise) and to keep the explosively growing company in harness. However, due recognition continues to elude Eric as Google today is widely regarded as a child of the two Stanford geeks Sergey and Larry. In his book "Search", John Battelle says Google's critics claim that "Schmidt is simply a warm suit responsible for keeping Wall Street and the press happy."
After reading the interview, it's obvious there's no truth in the above statement. Eric Schmidt is not only a true visionary but is also someone who has a deep understanding of how innovation happens and therefore is perfectly suited for his role at Google - one of the most innovative companies in the history of business.
Select quotations from Eric Schmidt's interview (PDF) by Daniel Morrow of the Computerworld Honors Program. (at the time of the interview, January 2000, Eric served as CEO of Novell)
"conventional wisdom is often wrong"
One of the most wonderful things about the world is that conventional wisdom is often wrong, and I have always delighted in showing people that there is a new or better way to accomplish something.
"how could this possibly be?"
on not realizing the value in interconnectedness that internet brings and therefore missing the chance to invent the internet.
Now my attitude about this is that this is a complete failure on the part of myself and my buddies because we had been working with this technology for 20 years. There was nothing we did not know about TCP/IP protocol, the FTP protocol, the power of computers. Many of us had spent a lot of time working on the early part of the ARPANET, the earliest parts of the Internet. And yet here is Tim Berners-Lee, who is a random guy we don’t even know, who invents this thing. How could this possibly be? Well, of course it shows you how brilliant Tim really was.
To this day, I do not know why the teams of which I was a part, and I’ll hold myself responsible here, didn’t see this five or ten years earlier. I think it took a real visionary to see it, even though in hindsight you go "It’s such an obvious idea." We had this technology in the ‘80s but somehow we couldn’t see it, and he did, and changed the world.
"I know a new way of doing something"
on where innovation comes from
- individuals who disagree
In my experience in technology, it’s always the same. You have one or two people who are made to feel unimportant. Whatever the conventional wisdom is, is not true for them, and rather than just take it, they rebel. They come up with a new set of ideas. They say, "I know a new way to do something" and they build it. And they have the intellectual capacity and the energy to not just build it, but to also popularize it; that’s the important thing.
It’s not just the fact that it’s built in a lab, but also that there’s some kind of vehicle for adoption. That then creates the wave. So what I always like to think about it is who is the person who is going to get it started? Then how do I get the wave started once the thing is there?
I can give you some examples. The Microsoft product Windows was built by one fellow, Scott MacGregor. He left the company shortly thereafter. UNIX was built by two people, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie. Java was built by essentially two or three people, James Gosling, Bill Joy, and maybe one or two others.
If you look at the history, every one of these initiatives has had an incredibly small team that then created the next revolution. The web, Tim Berners-Lee did it himself. With respect to browsing and Mosaic, which really defined the use of the Internet, is Marc Andreesen, Eric Bina, and two or three other people, out of a university no less at the age of 20. Now, again, why didn’t the rest of us think about this? Well, we were too busy with conventional thinking.
luck and skill
It’s always the same. It’s always a little group, on an edge that somehow gets it right. And there’s a couple of things they do; one, they really do get it right, they’re at the right time, and two, they have a clever vehicle. They give it away, or they get a big endorsement. In almost all cases, there was some component of both luck and skill with respect to adoption. If you look in the scientific community, in most cases I think there are similar answers. You look at the work of others. You come up with your own idea, and then you have to popularize it. You have to get people to think about it.
On finding the best people
The problem with the technical industry is that engineers are not fungible, and the difference between the best engineer and the worst engineer is not a factor of two; it’s a factor of 20,000. So you have to find people, and they’re often very young. They often don’t even appreciate how talented they are.
I was just in a meeting with a fellow, who I think may be one of the top two or three technical people in the company. He doesn’t even know he’s that good, and he says, "Well, it just seems like what we’re doing is so obvious," and he described a brilliant idea as far as I’m concerned. And I said, "Well, if it’s so obvious to you, why hasn’t anyone else in the industry built it?" And he goes, "I don’t know, good question."
my point is, these are the kinds of people who I’m trying to find. You get them in multiple ways. Many of them show up in the company because of recruiting. You know if you hire 100 people, one of them will be brilliant. You just don’t know which one of the 100, in which case you could just not hire that other 99. So you try to identify these people through various forms of recognition programs, and frankly, the best way to do it is to just ask, because if you find one, they know all the others.
On Novell turnaround
if you're looking historically at turn-arounds, we did it right. Turn-arounds are done by putting the patient in the intensive-care unit, you administer shock treatment. You make everybody focus very much on the short term. You get the business model right. You become profitable. You serve your customers.
since I spend all my time thinking about the mistakes that I made, for things that I didn’t foresee, so nowadays I’m a little wiser, so I begin to think about why I don’t see it.
When I was at Berkeley for example, I built the first network at Berkeley. And I’m very proud of that, but your respect for me will be much lower when you understand that I designed the protocol for that network, which I did myself by the way, to only allow 26 computers on the network--A through Z.
On future trends
I think we know some things about society and people now that are sort of worth explaining, and my guess is that these will be true for the next hundred years as well. We know that people are social. We know that people like to form networks. We know that people are infinitely fascinated by brands and communities.
If this vision is roughly correct, and I think it is, then the dominant uses of computing will be network and communication-centric, because it is ultimately driven by people, not by the manufacturing needs of a corporation or whatever. If you define it that way then the market is very, very large. Today there are a couple of hundred million people using computers on their desktops, or at home, personal computers. Today there are roughly one billion telephone lines in the world, and there are roughly six billion humans. So if you look at that, what does that work out to be, three percent penetration, in terms of the human need for computing and communication?
Prenominations of the role at Google?
Five years ago, when I was sort of doing all my evangelism, I tried to do one keynote a day. And my objective was to talk to 100,000 people in one year about this new vision of computing. Today, if I look at the talks I gave back then, I’m very proud of them, but it is now conventional wisdom. But if you go back to my original model, which is conventional wisdom is often wrong, the problem is now seeing the next one, which I don’t think we’ve agreed to. So one of my rules is that once you sort of have figured it all out, and you sort of know where everybody goes, something really wild is about to happen, and wouldn’t it be nice if I could get ahead of it this time?