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Scott Johnston: Google Drive honcho. Entrepreneur. Cancer survivor.

Scott Johnston, director of product management for Google Drive, spoke with TechRepublic about building tools that help people, changes in enterprise IT, and how surviving cancer changed his perspective on life.

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Image: Personal photo

When Scott Johnston's startup, JotSpot, was acquired by Google in 2006, he said that he would stay on board for two years. Somewhere along the way, his plan changed.

Eight years later, he's still working for Google. Now based in New York, Johnston is the director of product management for Google Drive, where he said he is driven by building a tool that helps people in their everyday lives.

Johnston started his career as a hardware engineer for Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), which is amusing because Google now works out of some of the buildings once occupied by SGI. After leaving SGI in the late 1990s, he worked on a startup in IT process automation called Kintana, which sold to Mercury Interactive in 2003.

After a few years with Mercury, he left for JotSpot. JotSpot was re-released as Google Sites after the acquisition, and Johnston worked to grow it to more than 30 million users. He later started and launched Google Drive and Google Drive for Work.

As an entrepreneur, Johnston said he and his team did a lot of soul-searching and emotional work trying to figure out roles and processes in the startups where he worked. The main problem was not understanding just how common their problems were.

"It's easy when you're so busy in a startup to start to believe that the problems you're having are extremely unique when they're likely not," Johnston said.

They eventually figured out that there were many resources available, such as books and mentors, which led them to the same conclusions they got by soul-searching. Without a doubt, though, his time at a startup prepared him for work at Google.

Understanding the team dynamic and user focus, as well as some of the aspects around recruiting and finding the right people for the right projects came naturally to Johnston. He has to make sure his team has freedom to move and activation energy to make things happen. There are common patterns he found in startups, and he said it is fun to revisit them at Google. According to Johnston, that's part of why he's still there.

Making the transition to Google wasn't always easy, though. He spent the first couple years trying to adjust his behavior to what he thought it was supposed to be at a large company, or at least what he perceived was the right behavior for a large company.

"I'm not trying to say Google is a startup. We're not trying to be one. I hate it when people are like, 'How can we be more like a startup?' I'm like, 'Well, we're a giant multi-national corporation,'" he said.

Once he began to focus on his core skills and stop obsessing over fitting into a big company, he really began to hit his stride with the company.

For enterprise IT, Johnston noted two major trends that he is seeing: The push to the cloud and huge adoption in mobile.

Regarding the cloud, he is most excited that it is changing the way people work in that it is freeing people up to focus on what they're trying to get done.

For example, Drive for Work has the potential to eliminate the need to worry about a bunch of IT infrastructure and allow employees to better focus on the core business strategy. Another example he gave was Drive for Work taking some of the load off of maintaining file servers or dealing with data trapped on hard drives.

"It really frees IT to focus on projects that are really strategic to the company," he said.

Regarding mobile, the flow of ideas is accelerating and information is always at your fingertips. Users are starting with a lot more information, and more of the information is up-to-date. Users aren't caught up in asking about the latest software versions.

Instead, they are able to work together with fewer hurdles through products such as Google Docs. Collaborative authoring, Johnston said, "fundamentally changes the speed at which you can pull together an idea."

Another interesting trend, he said, is mobile only. Johnston said he is seeing a large number of users who are accessing Google products through mobile devices only, even on the productivity tools. Johnston thinks mobile only will have a big impact on what is built and how it is built, because companies now have to build for this small, ever-present device with a plethora of sensors and inputs.

In his own words...

What do you do to unplug?

"The obvious one there has been my kids and the time that I'm with them, trying to really focus on them. I think that's really hard with a job you love because you're constantly mulling over problems and things that you want to do."

"From a hobby standpoint I'm a long-distance, open-water swimmer. I find that swimming — it's quiet. It quiets the mind, it's meditative. So that's usually how I unplug and escape outside of the family."

What's the best thing you've read lately?

"The one that sticks out for me in the last couple months was Moonwalking with Einstein. I love books that question conventional knowledge. This one's about memory, and how we perceive memory, and what kind of things you do to have a better memory. It's just a fascinating book and it shines a light on an area of the world that I never knew about around memory competitions. It's just a great book, can't recommend it enough."

If you weren't working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?

"One is architecture. The architecture classes I took at Brown were just so fun, and so interesting. I think it's a lot of the same problems we run into with software in terms of putting things together, and in terms of large teams working on large projects. So, that's one area. I'd also love to spend more time teaching."

What is one interesting fact about you the only a few people know?

"My wife and I are both cancer survivors. I think that is probably the one that most, at least, shaped me. So, that's put amazing perspective on life day to day and what's important. That's probably the biggest one."

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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