years ago, Charles Chase, an engineer who manages Lockheed Martin’s
nuclear fusion program, was sitting on a white leather couch at
Google’s Solve for X conference when a man he had never met knelt down
to talk to him.
spent 20 minutes discussing how much time, money and technology
separated humanity from a sustainable fusion reaction — that is, how
to produce clean energy by mimicking the sun’s power — before Mr.
Chase thought to ask the man his name.
didn’t have any sort of pretension like he shouldn’t be talking to me
or ‘Don’t you know who you’re talking to?’” Mr. Chase said. “We just
Larry Page is not a typical chief executive,
and in many of the most visible ways, he is not a C.E.O. at all.
Corporate leaders tend to spend a good deal of time talking at
investor conferences or introducing new products on auditorium stages.
Mr. Page, who is 42, has not been on an earnings call since 2013, and
the best way to find him at Google I/O — an annual gathering where the
company unveils new products — is to ignore the main stage and follow
the scrum of fans and autograph seekers who mob him in the moments he
steps outside closed doors.
just because he has faded from public view does not mean he is a
recluse. He is a regular at robotics conferences and intellectual
gatherings like TED. Scientists say he is a good bet to attend
Google’s various academic gatherings, like Solve for X and Sci Foo
Camp, where he can be found having casual conversations about
technology or giving advice to entrepreneurs.
Mr. Page is hardly the first Silicon Valley chief
with a case of intellectual wanderlust, but unlike most of his peers, he
has invested far beyond his company’s core business and in many ways has
made it a reflection of his personal fascinations.
intends to push even further with Alphabet, a holding company that
separates Google’s various cash-rich advertising businesses from the list
of speculative projects like self-driving cars that capture the
imagination but do not make much money. Alphabet companies and investments
span disciplines from biotechnology to energy generation to space travel
to artificial intelligence to urban planning.
will get a good look at the scope of those ambitions on Feb. 1, when the
company, in its fourth-quarter earnings report, will disclose for the
first time the costs and income of the collection of projects outside of
Google’s core business.
chief executive of Alphabet, Mr. Page is tasked with figuring how to spin
Google’s billions in advertising profits into new companies and
industries. When he announced the reorganization last summer, he said that
he and Sergey Brin, Google’s other founder, would do this by finding new
people and technologies to invest in, while at the same time slimming down
Google — now called Google Inc., a subsidiary of Alphabet — so their
leaders would have more autonomy.
general, our model is to have a strong C.E.O. who runs each business, with
Sergey and me in service to them as needed,” Mr. Page wrote in a letter to
investors. He said that he and Mr. Brin would be responsible for picking
those chief executives, monitoring their progress and determining their
day-to-day management was left to Sundar Pichai, the company’s new chief
executive. His job will not be about preventing cancer or launching rocket
ships, but to keep Google’s advertising machine humming, to keep
innovating in emerging areas like machine learning and virtual reality —
all while steering the company through a thicket of regulatory troubles
that could drag on for years.
Mr. Page’s new role is part talent scout and part
technology visionary. He still has to find the chief executives of many of
the other Alphabet businesses.
he has said on several occasions that he spends a good deal of time
researching new technologies, focusing on what kind of financial or
logistic hurdles stand in the way of them being invented or carried out.
presence at technology events, while just a sliver of his time, is
indicative of a giant idea-scouting mission that has in some sense been
going on for years but is now Mr. Page’s main job.
the investor letter, he put it this way: “Sergey and I are seriously in
the business of starting new things.”
Interest in Cool Things
Page has always had a wide range of interests. As an undergraduate at the
University of Michigan, he worked on solar cars, music synthesizers and
once proposed that the school build a tram through campus. He arrived at
Stanford’s computer science doctorate program in 1995, and had a list of
initial research ideas, including self-driving cars and using the web’s
many hyperlinks to improve Internet search. His thesis adviser, Terry
Winograd, steered him toward search.
before he came to Stanford he was interested in cool technical things that
could be done,” Mr. Winograd said. “What makes something interesting for
him is a big technical challenge. It’s not so much where it’s headed but
what the ride is like.”
Google, Mr. Page is known for asking a lot of questions about how people
do their jobs and challenging their assumptions about why things are as
they are. In an interview at the Fortune Global Forum last year, Mr. Page
said he enjoyed talking to people who ran the company’s data centers.
ask them, like, ‘How does the transformer work?’ ‘How does the power come
in?’ ‘What do we pay for that?’” he said. “And I’m thinking about it kind
of both as an entrepreneur and as a business person. And I’m thinking
‘What are those opportunities?’”
question he likes to ask: “Why can’t this be bigger?”
Page declined multiple requests for comment, and many of the people who
spoke about him requested anonymity because they were not supposed to talk
about internal company matters.
Many former Google employees who have worked
directly with Mr. Page said his managerial modus operandi was to take new
technologies or product ideas and generalize them to as many areas as
possible. Why can’t Google Now, Google’s predictive search tool, be used
to predict everything about a person’s life? Why create a portal to shop
for insurance when you can create a portal to shop for every product in
corporate success means corporate sprawl, and recently Google has seen a
number of engineers and others leave for younger rivals like Facebook and
start-ups like Uber. Mr. Page has made personal appeals to some of them,
and, at least in a few recent cases, has said he is worried that the
company has become a difficult place for entrepreneurs, according to
people who have met with him.
of Mr. Page’s pitch included emphasizing how dedicated he was to
“moonshots” like interplanetary travel, or offering employees time and
money to pursue new projects of their own. By breaking Google into
Alphabet, Mr. Page is hoping to make it a more welcoming home for
employees to build new businesses, as well as for potential acquisition
will also rid his office of the kind of dull-but-necessary annoyances of
running a major corporation. Several recently departed Google staff
members said that as chief executive of Google, Mr. Page had found himself
in the middle of various turf wars, like how to integrate Google Plus, the
company’s struggling social media effort, with other products like
YouTube, or where to put Google Now, which resided in the Android team but
was moved to the search group.
disputes are a big reason Mr. Page had been shedding managerial duties and
delegating the bulk of his product oversight to Mr. Pichai, these people
said. In a 2014 memo to the company announcing Mr. Pichai’s promotion to
product chief, Mr. Page said the move would allow him to “focus on the
bigger picture” at Google and have more time to get the company’s next
generation of big bets off the ground.
who have worked with Mr. Page say that he tries to guard his calendar,
avoiding back-to-back meetings and leaving time to read, research and see
new technologies that interest him.
that he is worth in the neighborhood of $40 billion and created the
world’s most famous website, Mr. Page has the tendency to attract a crowd
when he attends technology events. At last year’s Darpa Robotics
Challenge, he was trailed closely by a handler who at times acted as a
buffer between Mr. Page and would-be cellphone photographers. That
commotion could annoy anyone, but it is particularly troubling for Mr.
Page, who, because of damaged vocal cords, speaks just above a whisper and
sometimes uses a microphone in small meetings.
At home in Palo Alto, Mr. Page tries to have the
most normal life possible, driving his children to school or taking his
family to local street fairs, according to people who know him or have
seen him at such events.
at Google, even events that are decidedly not normal aspire to a kind of
casualness. Take the Camp, an exclusive and secretive event that Google
holds at a resort in Sicily and where invitees have included Elon Musk,
the chief executive of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Lloyd C. Blankfein, the
chief executive of Goldman Sachs, and Tory Burch, the fashion designer.
attendee, who asked to remain anonymous because guests were not supposed
to discuss the gathering, recalls being surprised by how much time Mr.
Page spent with his children.
public remarks, Mr. Page has said how important his father, Carl V. Page,
a computer science professor at Michigan State University who died in
1996, was to his choice of career.
dad was really interested in technology,” Mr. Page said at Google I/O in
2013, the last time he took the stage at the event. “He actually drove me
and my family all the way across the country to go to a robotics
conference. And then we got there and he thought it was so important that
his young son go to the conference, one of the few times I’ve seen him
really argue with someone to get in someone underage successfully into the
conference, and that was me.”
who work with Mr. Page or have spoken with him at conferences say he tries
his best to blend in, and, for the most part, the smaller groups of
handpicked attendees at Google’s academic and science gatherings, tend to
treat him like a peer.
scope of his curiosity was apparent at Sci Foo Camp, an annual
invitation-only conference that is sponsored by Google, O’Reilly Media and
largely unstructured “unconference” begins when each of its attendees — an
eclectic batch of astronomers, psychologists, physicists and others —
write something that interests them on a small card and then paste it to a
communal wall. Those notes become the basis for breakout talks on topics
like scientific ethics or artificial intelligence.
The last conference was held during a weekend in
June on Google’s Mountain View, Calif., campus, and Mr. Page was there for
most of it. He did not host or give a speech, but mingled and went to
talks, just like everyone else. That impressed investors and computer
scientists who did not expect to see so much of him, but researchers who
had come from outside Silicon Valley barely noticed.
have a vague memory that some founder type person was walking through the
crowd,” said Josh Peek, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope
Science Institute in Baltimore.
benefit of these gatherings for the reserved Mr. Page is that they are
mostly closed to the news media.
Mr. Page does talk in public, he tends to focus on optimistic
pronouncements about the future and Google’s desire to help humanity.
Asked about current issues, like how mobile apps are challenging the web
or how ad blockers are affecting Google’s business, he tends to dismiss it
with something like, “People have been talking about that for a long
he has talked more about his belief that for-profit companies can be a
force for social good and change. During a 2014 interview with Charlie
Rose, Mr. Page said that instead of a nonprofit or philanthropic
organization, he would rather leave his money to an entrepreneur like Mr.
course, for every statement Mr. Page makes about Alphabet’s
technocorporate benevolence, you can find many competitors and privacy
advocates holding their noses in disgust. Technology companies like Yelp
have accused the company of acting like a brutal monopolist that is using
the dominance of its search engine to steer consumers toward Google
services, even if that means giving the customers inferior information.
speaking, Mr. Page is leaving his chief executive job at Google at a time
when things could not be better. The company’s
to grow about 20 percent a year, an impressive figure for any
business, but particularly so for one that is on pace to generate
approximately $60 billion this year.
fact, the company’s main business issue seems to be that it is doing too
is facing antitrust charges in Europe, along with investigations in
Europe and the United States. Those issues are now mostly Mr. Pichai’s to
worry about, as Mr. Page is out looking for the next big thing.
It is hard to imagine how even the most ambitious
person could hope to revolutionize so many industries. And Mr. Page, no
matter how smart, cannot possibly be an expert in every area Alphabet
wants to touch.
method is not overly technical. Instead, he tends to focus on how to make
a sizable business out of whatever problem this or that technology might
solve. Leslie Dewan, a nuclear engineer who founded a company that is
trying to generate cheap electricity from nuclear waste, also had a brief
conversation with Mr. Page at the Solve For X conference.
said he questioned her on things like modular manufacturing and how to
find the right employees.
doesn’t have a nuclear background, but he knew the right questions to
ask,” said Dr. Dewan, chief executive of Transatomic Power. “‘Have you
thought about approaching the manufacturing in this way?’ ‘Have you
thought about the vertical integration of the company in this way?’ ‘Have
you thought about training the work force this way?’ They weren’t nuclear
physics questions, but they were extremely thoughtful ways to think about
how we could structure the business.”
Dewan said Mr. Page even gave her an idea for a new market opportunity
that she had not thought of. Asked to be more specific, she refused. The
idea was too good to share.
Doris Burke contributed reporting from New York.
Trying to interview Google’s chief executive can feel ...
emasculating. Conor Dougherty provides a
look in Times Insider at how he covers the company and its
elusive chief, Larry Page.