In the final portion of a TechTrek class meeting in February, Jere Doyle gives his young charges a tech history lesson. First, he channels Socrates and draws knowledge and understanding out of the students by peppering them with questions.
“Google,” says Doyle. “What kind of company is it?”
“A data company,” suggests one young woman.
“Why do you say that?”
“Everything is based on data.”
“That they make on their own?”
“Where do they get it from?”
“From people, users.”
“It’s an advertising company,” says JB Bruggeman ’19, a business analytics and marketing student. (Atypically, TechTrek West will be a trip home for Bruggeman: he grew up in Silicon Valley.)
Doyle asks, “Why do you say that?”
“Because 90 percent of their revenues come from advertising.”
“What’s their most successful product?” Doyle asks the class.
“The search engine,” a student answers.
“Search,” Doyle agreed. “Unlike when I was here in the old days, and you had to go to Bapst Library to look something up.”
The class dwells on why, if Google has been so successful with its search engine and ad revenues, its parent company, Alphabet, has been pursuing “moonshots,” such as the hot-air balloon (intended to bring internet service to the Third World) and self-driving cars.
“I’ve been stuck behind self-driving test cars,” says JB Bruggeman ’19, recalling incidents on the highways back home in California. “They’re sooo slow.”
“If you honk, do they speed up?” Doyle wonders.
But for all the criticism or investor concern that Google lacks focus, Doyle goes on, “they nailed search [and] they nailed local [advertising]. Does anyone know who their big competitor was, back in 1999? The Yellow Pages. If you were a plumber, you would pay $3,000 for an ad in the phone book. Maybe it got you a call. Who knows? Google said, ‘We’ll only charge you if somebody calls.’”
As a result of their laser focus on that model, made possible by their excellence in algorithms and analytics, Google remained standing amid the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. “I think Google saved the internet,” says Doyle.
Doyle’s co-instructor Gerald Kane weighs in on the company’s current moonshots. “What legacy companies run into is, they don’t know how to be innovative anymore. Once you’re a big company, it’s hard to manage 60,000 employees. It’s a bureaucracy. Google’s approach is to plant a thousand flowers,” in the form of bets—that is, research—on other products. “That’s how to remain innovative. That’s the whole game.”