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.”

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: