Google’s Douglas Merrill, a corporate technology director with a background in psychology, is firmly convinced that while technology plays a role in keeping projects on track, so do the Ping-Pong tables and the elaborate cafeteria at company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.the social settings that get coders away from their desks and talking to each other about their projects.
As he explained during a presentation in Phoenix, that’s one of the things that made Google successful as a startup, but now the challenge is to maintain that quirky culture as the company grows. It now has more than 6,800 employees and dozens of sales and engineering offices around the world.
Having overseas engineering offices is proving to be important because people who are based France, or India, or China tend to do a better job of localizing Google’s applicationsthat is, not just translating the user interface but changing the way the system works to meet local requirements.
E-mail is a pretty good answer for tracking projects, Merrill says, but e-mail alone is not sufficient for really managing them, and not for keeping the people who are working on them happy and productive. “At the end of the day, face time rules,” he says.
The closest thing to a technological answer to reaching those overseas workers is videoconferencing, and even then face-to-face contact is still better. So, Google has had to hire a cadre of managers who spend most of their time on planes, in addition to hiring local managers for those offices. That goes against the grain for a company that prides itself on its flat management structure, but it’s necessary, Merrill says.
Remote offices also tend to suffer disproportionately from minor inconsistencies in technology infrastructure, which can hobble efforts at collaboration between engineers in different offices. For example, an application might depend on a certain configuration of Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) servers, which are used to store information about networks, devices and user accounts. “We don’t really want to spend days tracking down problems in code because the LDAP schema that we use in Dublin is different than the LDAP schema that we use in New York,” Merrill says. “Those sorts of things used to happen. The time we spent doing that cost money, it cost productivity and, most importantly, it cost frustration.”
Trying to dictate the proper configuration from the home office, and have remote offices set things up to those specifications, didn’t work, he says. Instead, he developed an “office-in-a-box,” with LDAP servers and other basic infrastructure preconfigured at headquarters and shipped into the field. (This almost sounds like the prefab data center in a container Google is reported to have created, except that this is more the size of a steamer trunk.)
“We took the data center, we shrunk it, put it in a brightly colored box and rolled one into every office,” Merrill explains. “Then we built a whole bunch of tools that work in the background to verify that the LDAP change made in one place is replicated to all the other offices-in-a-box around the world.”
Keeping the technology synchronized is one way of keeping people and projects in sync, but there are always limits to what it can accomplish, he says: “That’s Merrill’s Law: There are no technological solutions to social problems.”
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