Academy of Achievement

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Larry, you’re a CEO at 27. What challenges or frustrations have you experienced at reaching this station at such a young age?

Larry Page: I think the age is a real issue. It’s certainly a handicap in the sense of being able to manage people and to hire people and all these kinds of things, maybe more so than it should be. Certainly, I think, the things that I’m missing are more things that you acquire with time. If you manage people for 20 years, or something like that, you pick up things. So I certainly lack experience there, and that’s an issue. But I sort of make up for that, I think, in terms of understanding where things are going to go, having a vision about the future, and really understanding the industry I am in, and what the company does, and also sort of the unique position of starting a company and working on it for three years before starting the company. Then working on it pretty hard, whatever, 24 hours a day. So I understand a lot of the aspects pretty well. I guess that compensates a little bit for lack of skills in other areas.

What about you, Sergey? What challenges or obstacles have you had to deal with so far?

Sergey Brin: I will list several. One is providing a service that’s going to serve millions of people. When we were at Stanford, we had about 10,000 searches per day. Now we serve over 50 million searches per day. That scaling of an infrastructure, that is pretty challenging. On a more personal level, I am now the President of Google, and we have about 170 people now. I think managing people, and being emotionally sensitive, and all the skills you learn in terms of communication and keeping people motivated, that has been a challenge. I have enjoyed learning that, but that’s important, and a hard thing to learn.

Larry Page, what is responsible for your early progress in life? How did you get to where you are so quickly?

Larry Page: I think I was really lucky to have the environment I did when I was growing up. My dad was a professor, he happened to be a professor of computer science, and we had computers lying around the house from a really early age. I think I was the first kid in my elementary school to turn in a word-processed document. I just enjoyed using the stuff. It was sort of lying around, and I got to play with it. I had an older brother who was interested in it as well. So I think I had kind of a unique environment, that most people didn’t have, because my dad was willing to spend all his available income on buying a computer or whatever. It was like 1978, when I was six. I don’t think there’s many people my age who’ve had that experience, or anyone in general. From a very early age, I also realized I wanted to invent things. So I became really interested in technology and also then, soon after, in business, because I figured that inventing things wasn’t any good; you really had to get them out into the world and have people use them to have any effect. So probably from when I was 12, I knew I was going to start a company eventually.

How do you think you knew at such an early age that you wanted to be an inventor?

Larry Page: I just sort of kept having ideas. We had a lot of magazines lying around our house. It was kind of messy. So you kind of read stuff all the time, and I would read Popular Science and things like that. I just got interested in stuff, I guess, technology and how devices work. My brother taught me how to take things apart, and I took apart everything in the house. So I just became interested in it, for whatever reason, and so I had lots of ideas about what things could be built and how to build them and all these kinds of things. I built like an electric go-cart at a pretty early age.

It’s as if computers were the toys of your childhood.

Larry Page: Yeah, basically, and electronics too.

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You mentioned reading magazines like Popular Mechanics. What else did you read that might have influenced or inspired you in some way?

Larry Page: I read all the computer magazines and things like that, and I was sort of interested in how these things really work — anything having to do with the mechanics behind things, either the mechanics or the electronics. I wanted to be able to build things. Actually, in college I built an inkjet printer out of Legos, because I wanted to be able to print really big images. I figured you could print really big posters really cheaply using inkjet cartridges. So I reverse-engineered the cartridge, and I built all the electronics and mechanics to drive it. Just sort of fun projects. I like to be able to do those kinds of things.

Sergey, how old are you now?

Sergey Brin: Twenty-seven.

What do you think influenced or inspired you to do what you have at such a young age?

Sergey Brin: I certainly like to think I’m young, but these days by Silicon Valley standards, I’m getting to be over the hill. If you look at Napster, for example, the founder is what? Twenty?

I was really interested in computers ever since I got one, when I was in elementary school. Eventually, I went on to join the Ph.D. program in computer science at Stanford. Those purely… The interest of what can you do with all of the world’s information — now that it’s online — that interest spawned Google. And that was together with Larry Page, who is my co-founder and partner.

Sergey Brin: I think as a kid, I always had a kind of scientific curiosity. I was always interested in mathematics, and I always enjoyed doing math problems. In fact, my undergrad, I had a degree in both math and computer science. I think, eventually, I was really inspired by computers because of the amazing power that they give you. Today’s PCs do a billion operations per second. It’s almost inconceivable, and I think that was the most inspiring thing to me, how you could leverage that to actually produce something that was useful, beyond video games and things like that.

At what age would you say you had this realization?

Sergey Brin: I remember in middle school, a very good friend — who I’m still in touch with — he had a Macintosh, one of the early ones, and together, he and I would just sit and play around and program. We had little programs for artificial intelligence. We’d have a program that would talk back to you. We wrote a program to simulate gravity. I remember we wrote a program to do what’s called “OCR” now, optical character recognition. It was just for fun, and purely out of intellectual curiosity. I think that is probably the first time that I really experienced that.

So this is what you did in your spare time. This is what you did for fun.

Sergey Brin: I have to admit I was a bit of a nerd. I still am.

Were there any particular books that were especially important to you along the way?

Sergey Brin: I remember really enjoying (Richard) Feynman’s books. He had several autobiographical books, and I read them. It seemed like a very great life he led. Aside from making really big contributions in his own field, he was pretty broad-minded. I remember he had an excerpt where he was explaining how he really wanted to be a Leonardo, an artist and a scientist. I found that pretty inspiring. I think that leads to having a fulfilling life. Beyond that, just within the computer field, there are classical books I still find impressive, like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. That was really ten years ahead of its time. It kind of anticipated what’s going to happen, and I find that really interesting.

Are there any particular challenges you associate with being a son of immigrants who came to this country from Russia?

Sergey Brin: If anything, I think I benefit from it. I will say, as a child, I had an accent. I came to the U.S. at the age of six, and so I was teased and stuff in elementary school. I don’t regard myself as being really popular going through school, but that was never that important to me, and I always had friends. I think, if anything, I feel like I have gotten a gift by being in the States rather than growing up in Russia. I know the hard times that my parents went through there, and I am very thankful that I was brought to the States. I think it just makes me appreciate my life much more.

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You certainly have an aptitude for it. Is this because of your early education or your parents? How do you explain that?

Larry Page: Actually, my brother was nine years older than me, and he went to Michigan as well. He brought home some of his labs for electronics and things like that, and sort of gave them to me. I learned how to do the stuff. I think there were a lot of lucky things like that.

You seem to have had no fear of any of this. Where does this self-confidence come from?

Larry Page: I think that’s true of kids today as well. If you have access to these things at a really young age, you just become used to it all, and it is natural to you. Kids certainly don’t have fear of using computers now. It’s the same kind of thing. If you grow up in environments where you have ICs (integrated circuits) lying around, you don’t have fear of that either.

And here you are now, a CEO at what age?

Larry Page: I’m 27.

Do you have siblings?

Sergey Brin: I have a brother who is 13, and that’s a big age difference, obviously. Maybe I’ve turned him away from computers and technical fields. He wants to be completely different. His interests are more in sports and languages these days.

It appears that it’s people of your generation who have really introduced the so-called “24/7 mentality.” Are you aware of that? Do you think that accounts for your success?

Larry Page: I think it definitely helps to be really focused on what you are doing. You can only work so many hours, and I try to have some balance in my life and so on. I think a lot of people go through this in school. They work really hard. You can do that for part of your life, but you can’t do that indefinitely. At some point, you want to have a family. You want to have more time to do other things. I would say that it is an advantage being young. You don’t have as many other responsibilities.

What else are you doing these days?

Larry Page: I think I am really lucky. Being in the Bay Area, a lot of my friends have started companies that have been quite successful at different stages. So I go up to San Francisco and I hang out with my friends, and we talk about their companies and all sorts of different things. It is fun, but it is also work in some sense. I think within Silicon Valley there is really a mix of recreation and work a lot of times.

What do they think of people like you at Stanford and Michigan? You are extraordinary people they’re sending out into the world.

Larry Page: Well, thank you. It was kind of strange for me. I went back to Michigan and there was all this faculty who wanted to meet with me. It was just very strange, going from a student to that. At Google, especially, we are really lucky. Everybody is our product! Or it’s starting to be everybody. No matter who you talk to, they’re like, “Oh, Google today was great. I found exactly what I needed.” Somehow we’ve done a really good job. People are really happy with our company, and we have provided pretty good service. So that sort of transfers onto how people interact with me as well, which is really nice.

It used to be that a Ph.D. candidate hoped to have his or her dissertation published in some obscure academic journal. Your dissertation started a company and launched you on a career.

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Larry Page: There are a lot of students at Stanford who have started companies based on their research work. I think Stanford does a pretty good job with that. There is obviously a lot of infrastructure, but also there is an acceptance of it, which I think is good.

Is there an expectation?

Larry Page: There is sort of a joke that faculty members have to start a company before they get tenure. I don’t think that’s quite true. The faculty are very focused on what is going on in the world, which I think is a good thing. The danger is if you’re not doing research because you are pushed into things that are just practical.

Sergey, to ask you a different question, what would you like to be remembered for, down the road?

Sergey Brin: In terms of being remembered, I think I want to make the world a better place. That’s a pretty generic answer, but I mean it in several ways. One is through Google, the company, in terms of giving people access to information. I’m sure I will do other endeavors in terms of technologies and businesses. The second is just through philanthropy. I don’t have a significant amount of wealth beyond that on paper right now, but I hope that I have the opportunity to direct resources to the right places. I think that is the most important thing to me. I don’t think my quality of life is really going to improve that much with more money.

Larry Page, what do you see as the responsibilities that go along with success and the accumulation of wealth that we are seeing in Silicon Valley today?

Larry Page: I think there is tremendous responsibility. If I was not in this situation, my biggest concern would be the concentration of wealth and power in a very small number of people. On the other hand, it is nice to be rewarded for what you do. There are a lot of things I would like to do in the world that having a lot of resources would really help with.

What do you want to do?

Larry Page: I have been really interested in applying technology to transportation. I don’t think that has really been done. Making cars better. There are a lot of interesting systems people have designed that basically are small monorails that run along sidewalks, and that route you exactly where you want to go. Some of these things are actually quite practical. As a side interest, I have kind of followed this stuff. When I was in Michigan, I tried to get them to build a monorail between central and north campus, because it is only a two-mile trip, and they have 40 full-sized diesel buses that run back and forth. Two miles! So that’s a prime candidate for new transportation.

Is there any reason for you to go back to Stanford and finish your degree? You have taken leave of absence from Stanford to be a CEO. Why bother to go back at all?

Larry Page: Well, I think Stanford is a really great place. There’s really, really smart people around, and it’s really a fun place to be. Some people from other startups have gone back when things sort of calmed down. So it does happen. There are things I want to work on that are very speculative, and Stanford is a great place to do things like that. I didn’t start out building a search engine. I just said, “Oh, the links on the Web are probably interesting. Why don’t we try doing something with that?” I was pretty lucky that it was a useful thing to do. If you’re doing something you’re not sure is going to work at all, a company probably isn’t the right place to be doing it. Having incredibly bright people around to work with is a really nice thing. I could see going back for that purpose.

Will we see Larry Page Hall erected on the Stanford campus anytime soon?

Larry Page: Boy, I think I’d rather not have stuff named after me.

Thank you very much for talking with us. You guys are something. You really are.

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