Google

Meet Google CIO Ben Fried

Get to know Ben Fried, the CIO of Google, and learn some of his views on technology management.

a_ben_fried.jpg
November's editorial focus here at TechRepublic is on the concept of the "CIO as a business catalyst." We've published articles on soft skills needed by CIOs, the experiences of a female CIO, old-school technology strategies CIOs should not forget, and released a report devoted to the current relevance of the CIO role. With this topic in mind, I thought it would be interesting to present a profile Ben Fried, the CIO of one of America's most famous technology providers - Google. Let's take a look at his background, philosophy, accomplishments and vision to see how he's made his mark on the company.

Background

Ben received his degree in Computer Science from Columbia University in 1992. He worked at Morgan Stanley for 13 years, eventually rising to the role of IT Managing Director.

According to Ben, "I ran a group called Application Infrastructure, which was responsible for all technology for software development, electronic commerce, and knowledge worker productivity: compilers, development environments, scm, build tools, vendor and in-house toolkits and frameworks for java, C++, and .net; in-house developed middleware, including real-time market data, soap messaging, high-speed pub-sub, and grid computing; testing; application hosting; configuration management, release management; application monitoring; all web and portal technologies and hosting, including the Internet-facing infrastructure; document management, search, business intelligence, reporting systems, email, instant messaging, video conferencing, computer-telephony integration, web conferencing; and desktop productivity applications."

Whew! I don't think there's enough air out there to get that sentence out in one breath.

Ben has worn multiple hats throughout his career; in addition to the roles previously mentioned he also programmed UNIX, Windows, Macintosh operating systems as well as the dBase II database software. His management experience includes front-line support, also known as The Trenches. And then came the CIO job at Google.

"The capsule summary of my role is that my organization provides technology services for Googlers, so that's everything from the personal computing technology that they use and all the support of it to software that powers our Finance and HR and legal and supply chain, for example, departments to the people who integrate newly acquired companies into Google to video conferencing and voice communications. It's quite a long list, but if you think of it as technology services consumed by people who work at Google that's probably a good way of thinking about it," Ben told Peter High of metisstrategy.com in a 2011 interview. However, he can't fix Google search results for people, he joked.


Also read: The Battle for the Soul of IT


Philosophy

In 2013 Ben told allthingsd.com that: "The overwhelming philosophy of my organization is to empower Googlers with world-leading technology. But the important part is that we view our role as empowerment, and not standard-setting or constraining or dictating or something like that. We define our role as an IT department in helping people get their work done better than they could without us. Empowerment means allowing people to develop the ways in which they can work best." Ben has also said: "You either let people use what they want, or restrict them to tools you choose that don't let them be competitive in the marketplace."

This component of his philosophy is delicately balanced at times. Google does not permit employees to use personal laptops for work (other than Chromebooks), but instead provides company-owned systems. "We make sure we know how secure that machine is; that we know and control, when it was patched, who else is using that computer, things like that. That's really important to us. I don't believe in BYOD when it comes to the laptop yet," Ben said.

Google gives staffers some choices in the operating systems they want to use - for instance Apple, Windows, Linux and, of course, Chromebooks. However, due to security concerns the use of Windows machines must be accompanied by managerial permission based on the demonstration of a genuine need to use Windows. "There's somewhat a difference between using it because it's the only thing you know, and using it because it's the best tool for your job," said Ben.

This concept of "cautious permissiveness" extends to certain applications; Ben has said that Google uses Office and Open Office in addition to Google Apps, adding: "there are lots of things that Apps doesn't do and the Apps team would be the first to tell you that, but what it does do and the style of work it does enable is how Google works as a company." However, as is the case with Windows, permission is needed for employees to use Microsoft Office or iWork. Not all programs are given the same leeway; Dropbox for instance is verboten at Google (with Google Drive being the promoted alternative, of course), and Ben has said this is due to security concerns: "The important thing to understand about Dropbox is that when your users use it in a corporate context, your corporate data is being held in someone else's data center." He later wrote to clarify that: "Any third-party cloud providers that our employees use must pass our thorough security review and agree under contract to maintain certain security levels."

When it comes to their email platform, while Google quite naturally uses Gmail but other email programs are allowed, "which is good because it exercises the non-Web interfaces of the app."

Accountability and decision-making capability are two factors which are also balanced: employees are given receipts for the products they use to show how much it cost the organization and help these individuals determine whether it has produced the appropriate value.

Accomplishments

Ben has stated of his role that "What we do to enable growth of the company, how to share IT at Google with a broader community and help them take advantage of products and services." His focus is less on direct promotion of new technologies to the outside world and more on helping the internal users do their jobs so they can deliver those new products.

With this in mind, some of his accomplishments include fostering an open source mindset, supporting the "20% time" concept, flexible workspaces and agile development.

Open source

To Ben, open source is a critical component both for technology (Android, for example) and corporate culture. Google treats all software development as an open source project. "Any engineer at Google can look at the source code of almost anything going on in the engineering department. We believe in transparency. Transparency leads to quality; it creates better products, better work." He applies this to his own role as CIO.

That being said, "there's a broad sense of engineering standards about how software is written, about how the work is reviewed – even about things like the quality of the security tools that are used and the application performance. There's broader engineering standards at Google for how stuff has to work, and we can take advantage of all of that."

20% time

At Google, the "20% time" concept means that engineers can work on whatever they choose, whether it's their own projects or someone else's. This gives them the freedom to explore, collaborate, experiment or just plain think up something new, something that would appeal to any software developer.

Flexible workspaces

Ben has promoted the concept of flexible work areas that apply to inside and outside the company; this might involve moving to another group's physical location in order to promote collaboration or remaining 100% effective while working from home ("it is in [the CIO] mandate to enable people to be fully functional when they are at home").

Located in New York, he and his team were subjected to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 which resulted in a five-day shutdown of their company headquarters. Ben reported that staffers were able to do their jobs from home with the same efficiency as they would have at the office. He has even worked to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots in New York to help further the "anywhere connectivity" concept.

Agile development

As Peter High wrote in Forbes, "Google's IT mission emphasizes agile development methods, as competitors are not treading water, and Google's competitors are many and varied. Speed to deliver is essential. On this front, Fried and his team have one of the best user acceptance testing groups available in the surrounding cubes and offices. Again, this provides ample room for feedback, advice, and ongoing iterations of projects that more fully flesh out what is valuable and what is not."

google_logo_shaded.jpg

Vision

I would consider Ben Fried's vision to be one that is based in part on seeking opportunities, defining solutions, scaling, and adapting to change.

Last July Ben said: "At Google, we are programmed to think that if you see an opportunity or a problem, we need to do something about it." That mindset is the key to creating technology. Ben stated in 2011: "At a high level, there's this really neat value at Google that we don't create the processes that our technology allows, but rather we decide what we want Google to be and we create technology to enable that."

Stacey Higginbotham of gigaom.com provided some insights into Ben's views on scaling and handling change:

"The Google culture is one where the general engineers who understand the system have a lot of input and power, which is a cultural shift that organizations that want to build at scale should try to implement... while change may be the root of all evil for a developer trying to build out complex web systems, it's also inevitable and the reason they all have a job. Developers must expect change and adapt to it rather than assume that's a solvable problem."

Ben has also opined that "most people are in technology because they like the fact it's an always-changing landscape. I certainly love it because it's changing so much and it's always reinventing itself. You know, there's a piece of advice that I've often heard offered to new managers and new executives which is 'what you did that got you into the seat you now sit in isn't the thing that you need to do to be successful in that seat.'"

Like many CIOs, Ben is enthusiastic about the cloud, which he considers the epitome of scalability: "Here's fundamentally what I think is different about the cloud. It's about economies of scale that didn't exist as a result of service providers operating in scales that didn't exist… the cloud is about getting access to those economies of scale that were previously unavailable, cost levels that were previously unavailable… there's a natural hierarchy of sophistication of offerings in the cloud marketplace. How you should approach the cloud is 'can I use a cloud provider to give me access to hardware I don't have to buy myself, and get dynamic scale, for example?'"

Another important element of Ben's vision is the importance of merging technology and business, as well as the type of IT skills needed for a company to remain competitive.

"There is a unique fusion; a deep understanding of technology with a deep understanding of your organization's business and mission. And that, fundamentally, is where IT needs to be - at the fusion of technology and organizational mission; a deep understanding of your organization. The roles within your IT department and the skills needed are going to change over time. It's really important to think about hiring generalists, not specialists, because the technology landscape is constantly changing." Software development will always be an important part of any IT shop, Ben feels.

Conclusion

I think Ben Fried is a CIO who represents a good sense of balance. He balances personal choice for employees with corporate standards; open source with engineering principles; promotes the merge of technology with business and utilizes "old school" CIO techniques like writing mission statements while diving into problem-solving and new technologies.

You can find Ben is on Google+, where he posts interesting photos and tech tidbits.

Also read:

About

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

2 comments
pigwings
pigwings

So, if you married Amanda Sayfried, her name would be,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin moderator

Does your organization's IT philosophy mesh with Ben Fried's? Where does it differ and where is it in sync?

Editor's Picks