Sue Gardner of Wikipedia … I’m Diderot … Bitch

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Sue Gardner, WikipediaThere are many unsolved mysteries in this world, and one of these is the question, “Did the 18th century French philosopher and creator of the world’s first encyclopedia roll over in his grave when Sue Gardner adopted his name?”

It was a late night session at Wikipedia when the Sue Gardner Diderot joke started.

To understand it entirely, you have to understand that the folks who operate Wikipedia are geeks, yes, but they’re also nerds. A geek like Zuckerberg can easily enough come up with his famous business card phrase, “I’m the CEO… bitch”, but it takes true nerds to turn that into “I’m Diderot… bitch”.

“Diderot” is what Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner is calling herself these days. She found it so amusing that she had stickers emblazoned with the phrase made up for everyone in her San Francisco office. Her own Diderot sticker is plastered onto the top of her computer screen.

The Power Behind the Throne

It was about 1750 when Denis Diderot came up with the idea for the encyclopedia. He’d been asked to translate a dictionary, of sorts, into French. Instead of a simple translation, he convinced printer Andre Le Breton to publish a book that would incorporate every active idea of the time, from art and philosophy to science. The two raised enough money to print the ambitious work, but the ruling classes were threatened by the radical idea of providing such information to the masses, and the project was stopped in 1752. It took Diderot another 20 years before he could finally finish his project.

Fast forward a couple hundred years to the founding of Wikipedia by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. Though Wikipedia drew a little controversy, mostly in the form of grumbling “experts” who felt that an open encyclopedia would dumb-down the formerly elitist world of knowledge, the problem for Wikipedia has long been the opposite of Diderot’s problem. Whereas Diderot had enough money for publishing his work but not enough support, Wikipedia has enjoyed plenty of support, but has been rather short on the funding side of the equation.

That’s how Sue Gardner got her job with the Wikimedia Foundation in 2007.

For his part, Wales is content to be the poster-boy for Wikipedia with no day-to-day role in the site’s operation; today, it is Gardner who is the real power behind the throne.

The Changes at Wikimedia

When Gardner took over in 2007, the whole Wikipedia operation consisted of seven people in a Florida strip mall. To say that the foundation was strapped for cash would be quite the understatement.

Gardner went to work. First, she moved the company from Tampa Bay to San Francisco. Next, she added almost fifty full-time staff members, and laid plans to add forty more. Under her direction, the Wikimedia Foundation stopped being one of those small non-profits where everybody hangs out in their socks all day at work, and became a real, actual, professional organization. Her biggest feat to date was raising $16 million in just 50 days in late 2010. All this for a foundation whose previous idea of fundraising was “Where can we come up with $1,500 for a new laptop?”

Looking Ahead: Sue Gardner Plans for the Future of Wikipedia

A Canadian woman of Asian descent, it bothers Gardner that most of the site’s writers are still white men. Women are very outnumbered, and so are people from outside Europe and the US. Not only does Gardner want to double the size of Wikipedia’s users from 500 million to 1 billion by 2016, she also wants these new users to be men and women from the developing world. To this end, she’ll be opening new Wikimedia offices in North Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, and India.

Her strategy makes sense, given that the number of people living in these regions well-outnumbers Europe and the United States. In other words, reaching out to the developing world is probably the only way Wikipedia will grow to 1 billion users, a fact Gardner seems to intuitively understand.

India tops the Wikipedia growth wish-list for Gardner, and not just because she spent a few weeks on a silent meditation retreat there recently. She might be cool, but she’s also practical, and she’s well aware that India is the fastest growing internet market in the world right now.

Wikipedia isn’t the only site setting up shop in India; Facebook’s world-domination scheme has recently taken them to the subcontinent, as well, and China might not be far behind. Facebook’s office opened in Hyderabad, India, in September 2010. However, while Facebook plans to hire about 500 Indians for their operation, Gardner wants to start with something more like 5. Still, it will be getting a foot in the door that Gardner hopes will eventually lead to an even broader expansion of Wikipedia. In the future, she wants to see more Tamil-language pages, Malayalam-language pages, and a host of others – she wants the whole world at the table as Wikipedia consolidates the world’s knowledge and history.

In all, it seems like Denis Diderot isn’t really a good comparison for Sue Gardner. Diderot was ambitious, but never global. He valued ideas, but only the ideas of the most well-recognized minds of the Renaissance – all well-to-do white males. Gardner is far more populist than the 18th century European thinker ever could have been. A better comparison of Gardner might be something like this: Take Trinity from The Matrix, and mix her together thoroughly with Karl Marx. Then add just a dash of Oprah Winfrey’s best kumbaya moments, and stir in the entrepreneurial common sense and ruthless bootstrapping of someone like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Once you’ve got this mix together, you might just wind up with a Sue Gardner. Diderot, for his part, can just rest in peace.

Sources: Fast Company and Wikipedia

Sue Gardner is helping Wikipedia steer in the right direction.

Will Larry Page’s Google Change the World?

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Larry Page, GoogleThe New Old CEO at the New Old Google
A friend who lives in Seattle made this observation recently: “It used to be that Microsoft was the cool place to work. Then when Google opened an office here, Google became the cool place to work. Now that Facebook has an office here, everyone’s leaving Google and Facebook’s the cool place to work.”

The fact that Google is starting to slip from its position of King of the (Internet) Hill cannot have escaped the attention of Google leadership. Even something as simple as no longer being the coolest place in a cool city to work makes a difference in the King of the Hill battle, and Google knows this better than almost anyone. In fact, one in five Facebook employees is an ex-Google employee. High-profile defections include Lars Rasmussen, one of the Google Maps creators; Bret Taylor, Facebook’s CTO who also helped develop Google Maps and the Maps API; David Fischer, now Facebook’s VP of Advertising and Global Operations, but formerly a Google VP; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO who is another former Google VP.

Is Google Getting Stuffy in Its Old Age?

These losses hurt for a company whose early business model was basically to get a bunch of smart people in a room and let them come up with cool stuff. Now that Google isn’t a start-up anymore, it seems as if it’s sinking into Corporate America Quicksand – that is, it’s getting big, sluggish, bureaucratic, and, well, corporate. As ex-Googler Rasmussen noted, the “energy [at Facebook] is just amazing, whereas it can be very challenging to working in a company the size of Google” (Source below).

Another example of a departing Googler who just wasn’t happy with Google bureaucracy is Dennis Crowley, who co-founded Dodgeball, moved his project to Google for two years, and then left Google to found Foursquare. Of his two years at Google, he wrote in his blog that it was “incredibly frustrating for us… we couldn’t convince them that Dodgeball was worth engineering resources, leaving us to watch as other start-ups got to innovate in the mobile + social space” (Source below).

Enter the New Old CEO

It is in this somewhat perilous corporate environment that Larry Page, one of Google’s two co-founders, will take over as Google’s chief. When Google got their first round of funding in the mid-90s, Page had every intention to be the CEO. However, he was only 25 at the time, with no real business experience to speak of, and the people bankrolling Google didn’t think him capable of leading the company. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who a decade later would refuse to entertain the idea that anyone could lead Facebook except himself, Page and Brin eventually agreed to hire Eric Schmidt, Google’s first CEO.

Schmidt was Google’s grown-up for the first decade, leading the infant business from an excellent but unmonetized search engine to one of the richest and most ubiquitous companies on Earth. During this time, it wasn’t as though Page and Brin took a backseat; they were very active in Google’s growth and improvement. Page was the president of products, while Brin was the president of technology.

Now, however, Page finally has the opportunity to prove he can be Google’s chief executive. Given that he and Brin have been compared to Johannes Gutenberg in the impact their invention has had upon the world, though, it’s interesting to ponder how (or if) Page could ever possibly top what he’s already accomplished. As one commentator on Page’s situation noted, it’s easier to win a championship once with beginner’s luck than it is to repeat that feat a year later (Source below). Does Page have any more world-changing ideas to unleash upon an unsuspecting planet, or, as Rasmussen implied, has Google just gotten too big and too Corporate America to keep innovating?

From Bottom-Up to Top-Down

When Gmail was born, it was because one engineer in one day in the summer of 2001 started playing around with code and came up with what would become the Gmail prototype. His creation came out of Google’s famous 20% allotment to its engineers to play around with whatever the heck they wanted to. Google News and AdSense were both invented by Googlers in the same way.

When it came to Android, though, things were different. Page didn’t like Google’s lack of a cohesive strategy for the mobile market, and he and Brin bought Android when it was still a tiny start-up in 2005, without even consulting Schmidt ahead of time. Page gave the Android creators room to work, but he set the tone and the vision for the project, managing its development in a way he would not have done at 25. The same held true with Page’s involvement in helping YouTube to flourish.

Autonomy Within Google

Rasmussen and other former Googlers aren’t the only ones who miss the good ol’ days, when Google was an agile young start-up ready to thumb its nose at more established competitors; Page misses those days, too. He’s always working away at solving his latest mathematical puzzle: How do you take a company with over 25,000 employees and make it look and act like a tiny start-up? His success with Android and YouTube might give us some clue as to how Google will be managed under Page. Imagine a company that’s almost a confederation more than a republic; Android, YouTube, Slide, and Chrome are already almost companies within companies, and Page has found that empowering their chiefs is a very effective way for him to give them room to innovate, yet he will still make sure they’re thinking sufficiently big enough and staying with a tone that’s 100% Google. It was Page’s influence, for example, that kept Android as an open source OS – a quintessentially Google trait.

As outside observers, we also shouldn’t underestimate Page’s ability to think big and think into the future. Granted, not all of Page’s big ideas have worked out. Early on in AdWords, his perfectly serious suggestion that Google could accept goats as a form of payment in nations such as Uzbekistan turned out not to be well-received by his colleagues. To call him “quirky” would be a huge understatement; on the other hand, calling him “brilliant” might also be an understatement of the same magnitude.

This, then, is the essence of Google’s future under Page: still quirky but still brilliant. Maybe Google will even start being the cool place to work again.

Sources: Facebook, BNET, Fast Company.

All Grown Up: Larry Page at the Helm of Google

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Larry Page & GoogleImagine Larry Page and Google in a Silicon Valley production of Shakespeare’s famous comedy, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, wherein all the characters are played by the internet’s most well-known denizens. Sue Gardner, the executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, could play Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazon women. The entire company of Microsoft could play Oberon, king of the faeries, whose misdeeds set the play’s whole plot into action. Mark Zuckerberg, the “I’m the CEO… bitch” of Facebook, could play Nick Bottom – the show’s accidental star who doesn’t even realize he’s a bit of an ass.

Yet who would play the show’s main star, the prankish, lovable, and innovative faerie, Puck? Steve Jobs might be the obvious choice, whose magical potions have made the whole world unwittingly fall in love with Apple, but then again there’s also Google‘s Larry Page. Larry Page might not have quite the notoriety of Jobs, but he’s certainly prankish and puckish, and though the world’s love affair with Google seems to be waning, now that Larry Page has taken on the role of Google’s CEO from the departing Eric Schmidt, Google’s waning moon might start waxing again. The Googleplex, furthermore, would make an excellent Fairyland.

Don’t think that Puck would make a good CEO? Yeah, a lot of the other cast members say the same thing about Larry Page.

Larry Page takes the helm of Google (“Day to day adult supervision no longer needed”)

Larry Page, the man who originally conceptualized the Google search engine and made that concept come to life with his friend Sergey Brin’s help, had always intended to be the CEO of Google. Google had been his vision, after all, his grand idea. Venture capital firms investing in the fledgling company, however, had very different ideas. They didn’t want a couple of computer geeks in their mid-twenties to fritter away the millions of dollars they had just invested. Like a parent offering an ultimatum to a wily child, Sequoia Capital stated, “Hire a CEO… or else.” Larry Page and Brin suggested Steve Jobs for the Google post; when this didn’t work out, they hired Eric Schmidt instead.

Almost like a monarchy’s regent, Eric Schmidt ruled Google in Larry Page and Brin’s stead for the next ten years. When he handed the Google reins back over to Larry Page this year, he told everyone that Page was ready for the job. Specifically, when he left Google, he tweeted, “Day to day adult supervision no longer needed!” He deemed Larry Page ready to take over the business he started.

The big idea about Larry Page taking the helm of Google

Larry Page might be all grown up now, but that doesn’t mean he’s given up the fantastical-sized dreams that got Google started. Brin and Page warned the world just how big their dreams were when they named their new company after one of the largest numbers mankind has ever conceptualized. The two former Montessori students were never told they couldn’t build something that huge, and Google resembles nothing if not a Montessori classroom for adults.

Some of Page’s early suggestions at Google give an idea of just how big he’s willing to dream. There was the time he asked Eric Schmidt how many engineers Microsoft had. When Schmidt replied 25,000, Page countered by suggesting that Google should have a million. Another time, as Google was working to develop AdWords, Larry Page wanted the system to be so simple that all the customer would have to do was enter a credit card. One Googler pointed out to Page that not every country issued credit cards, so Page quickly responded – without trying to be funny – that maybe in these countries they could accept, say, goats as payment.

Occasionally, Larry Page and Brin were allowed to implement their nutty ideas, with disastrous results. For example, in 2001, they decided to get rid of all middle management positions, in an attempt to reduce bureaucratic layers. This didn’t work at all, and management positions returned less than a year later.

Other ideas seemed crazy, but turned out to be brilliant. In response to Googler Denise Griffin’s 2003 request to expand the customer service department, Larry Page dismissed the idea, stating that the whole concept of customer service was ridiculous anyway. Instead, he suggested that the customers should answer each others’ questions. This suggestion turned into Google Forums, and lo and behold, it’s worked beautifully for Google.

Google Books and Android were two other ideas that started with Larry Page. He started Books over the protests of others, who said it was impossible, because he wanted everyone on the planet to have access to mankind’s knowledge. Larry Page personally oversaw the purchase of Android because he realized Google would lose the mobile web race if it could only make apps for other people’s operating systems.

The Future of Google under Larry Page

Skeptics of Larry Page worry that his big dreams could get a little too big, and without Schmidt to supervise, Page’s puckishness could take Google down the wrong road. Supporters counter that, first of all, Larry Page isn’t 25 anymore. He’s a ripe old 38, and has more than held his own amongst the Valley’s cast of Fairyland characters for over ten years. Second of all, Larry Page has surrounded himself with smart people who, over the years, have learned how to help him keep his feet on the ground for long enough periods of time that he never completely floats away. They point out how well Android and YouTube have done under his leadership, as Larry Page has given the companies’ former CEOs room to work while still encouraging them to share his grand ambitions for the projects.

Dreamer though he is, Larry Page is also a computer scientist with a Ph.D. from Stanford, and the son of two other computer scientists. His dreams, ultimately, are data-driven. He likes to measure, re-measure, and like any good scientist, he’ll let go of a hypothesis once the evidence proves it to be a bad idea. Larry Page can admit when he’s wrong, and change direction right away. Such traits prevent him from being dictatorial, and keep morale up with the engineers, who know that if they provide the data to prove the boss wrong, he’ll listen.

In all, Google, which has been an interesting company to watch over the last ten years, will probably only become more interesting with Larry Page securely at the helm. Like a creeping Puck with a sly grin on his face, Larry Page won’t be afraid to take Google into a new direction if he decides it’s needed. Unlike Puck, he’ll also be quick to rectify any mistakes once he realizes he’s made them.

Sources: Wired, Fast Company, and All Grown Up: Larry Page at the Helm of Google – Another article on Larry Page and Google from 4thWeb.