Google's egalitarian culture: Education evangelist preaches the gospel of creativity

February 07, 2014

Jaime Casap might hold the title of "Education Evangelist" at Google, but he doesn't cut the figure of a preacher. In skinny jeans, dark hair slicked back into a ponytail, kind eyes looking into those of his "congregation" of Masters in Information Management (MSIM) students, the soft-spoken Casap talked about his mission to spread the gospel of quality education for children around the world -- especially in Africa.

Africa? "That's not Google's goal -- it's my goal," he stated. Africa may not be the focal point of Google's strategy, but Casap's interest makes the connection: more on that later.

Casap was a featured speaker recently at the IT Leadership Seminar hosted by the Department of Information Systems at the W. P. Carey School. His audience of MSIM students and professionals heard Casap's take on how other companies can innovate, maintain creativity and avoid becoming what one author calls a "giant hairball."

Casap earned a master's degree from ASU's College of Public Programs in 1993 and serves on the Department of Information System's professional advisory board. He's worked at Google for five years, and before joining the California-based company, he worked for Accenture consulting and technology services and then the Charles Schwab investment company. "I've been through the bubble, then watched the bubble burst," he told his audience.

Today, Casap is part of the Google Apps for Education Team that brings technology into schools, in particular K-12. He arranged state-level agreements that have brought cloud computing to millions of students and their teachers in Iowa, Oregon, Colorado and New York. The Internet search giant sends Casap around the U.S. and the world to improve schools the way his company has been improving web-based search functions since 1998.

A window to knowledge

At Google, the corporate culture strives for an egalitarian management style that democratizes the workplace and educates every employee about the company's mission statement.

Casap asked his audience how many knew their company's mission. Few hands went up. Google's, Casap said, is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

"We all know this mission at Google," he said. "All the teams are focused on that."

Google organizes millions of searches a month worldwide, but its beginning was small scale, as illustrated by the photos Casap flicked on the screen: founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Stanford University with a handful of computer monitors and half a dozen hard drives crowded around a table.

As the nascent company grew, it traded its re-formatted computers for rooms filled with server racks at sprawling data centers. The look of the web site itself has also evolved, but for the most part maintains a sprightly logo on a field of white.

What has changed is the way information is organized in the Google search process: ad results (banner ads and Google ads), organic results, video results, news results and real time results. The company has trademarked and patented its PageRank system, which ranks web pages by relevance. The company has also launched such products as Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Goggles (which identifies landmarks around the world), Google Earth and Google Books (whose aim is to make every book accessible online). In 2006, Google acquired the video web site YouTube.

In a world where web sites compete to be a visitor's destination, Google, Casap pointed out, is deliberately not an end to itself. A portal to other sites, it is the only web-based company in the world designed to get users off its site as quickly as possible, he said.

Underlying all operations is the commitment to serving customer needs before they even know they have needs, Casap said. He quoted auto pioneer Henry Ford, who declared, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse." Google is producing cars, not horses.

"We believe search should be smarter," Casap said.

Smarter business

Google has identified a set of concepts in its pursuit of the smart search goal. Casap says they apply to other businesses as well.

Pay attention to the data: Monitoring user searches has alerted Google to its role in world events and allowed the company to respond. For example, acute search spikes have been noted during earthquakes in California as users scrambled for information. Influenza outbreaks have been tracked using spikes in searches for information about the flu and its symptoms.

"News comes instantly for us," Casap said, suggesting that traditional news organizations no longer can come on the air at 5:30 p.m. and announce events that Internet surfers have been following all day. Result: a shift in the very definition of news.

Watching how searches proceed has inspired new Google products. When the company found Googlers grasping to spell search terms, such as Britney Spears, Google created its "Did you mean" function.

No customer asked for that refinement, Casap said. But by examining how their customers are using data, Google finds solutions before hurdles become walls.

Hire the best: Building an innovative company begins with the right hires, Casap suggested. Google hires "by community." No one person does the hiring. Candidates go through multiple interviews with multiple people to ensure the proper "culture fit."

Google employees must be smart, curious and have the ability to learn quickly, he said: "We want to be sure we hire the best."

Ideas come from everywhere: It may be a cliché, Casap noted, but "for us, it's true. We collect ideas."

Not all ideas are created equal, and not all succeed: "We fail all the time," he said. But ideas are never discarded. Often they "morph" into other ideas and products whose time has come, he said.

Share all the information: Google employees gather every Friday for a companywide TGIF session. Founders Brin and Page lead the sessions, which might cover anything from announcements about a company toy drive to previews of new products. Any employee can speak, including the newest hires.

"If you're not doing that every week," he said, "you're doing something wrong."

And employees are smart enough to know that what happens at Google stays at Google. All information is proprietary. "We're all comfortable with that idea of sharing information with each other," Casap said.

Everyone must understand the mission: How can three people (Brin, Page and executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt) run a multibillion-dollar company? Because of collaboration among all employees, Casap said: "We all work together."

Data drives all our decisions: Everyone who has an idea at Google must support the proposal with data. For instance, if Casap wants to explore how technology is used in education, first he must ferret out the data.

Users always come first: Every company says it, but at Google, "We really, really, really mean it," Casap said. "Our engineers are focused on our users."

Creativity breeds innovation: Google's pursuit of innovation didn't begin when the company became huge. "We've been like this from the beginning," Casap said. Even small companies must innovate, he added. Creativity doesn't require wealth, but corporate bureaucracy can easily squelch creativity.

The spark of ingenuity

Companies court disaster when they become "hairballs," Casap said, referring to Gordon Mackenzie's book, "Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace." In the corporate world, MacKenzie explains, a giant hairball is an entangled pattern of behavior that stifles creativity and imagination.

"If you hire smart people," Casap said, "you don't create hairballs."

How does Google find and hire the best employees? Recruiters look at the applicant's school and GPA, Casap said, but the company also seeks out "someone who has done things." Successful candidates aren't always conventional. The company is looking for people who demonstrate a spark of ingenuity.

Asked to explain how rejected projects morph into successes, Casap said that colleagues work together and keep ideas on track or redirect them down new paths. "Peers help you review your project," he said.

That takes confidence at the top, he believes: "As a leader, you have to be okay with losing control."

Fuel the passion

One of the most popular programs at Google is its policy of 20 percent projects. Employees are asked to devote one day a week to a project of personal interest. Some projects are put to use within the company, and some enter the public arena. Past projects have included Gmail, Google News and an employee shuttle system on the company's campus.

This is where Casap, the child of a single mother on welfare and the first in his Argentine immigrant family to attend college, developed his passion for helping school children and perhaps one day providing free education in Africa.

Can ambitious education targets be achieved in Africa? he was asked. Casap said that's his goal.