Google’s Ben Fried: ‘My mission is to unite work and personal lives’

It’s 9.30am in New York, where Ben Fried, CIO of Google, is based, and he’s already telling me it’s a bit too early to make jokes about the weather and the clouds.

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Fried is in charge of one of the biggest cloud operations the world has seen – and for a man of such responsibility he has a great sense of humour, and is clearly excited and passionate about technology.

It’s certainly in line with the famously informal, enthusiastic work ethic that fuels Google. Founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998, the tech giant’s remit has grown from search-engine algorithms to busying itself with organising and making accessible the world’s information.

Fried explains how the world has become technologically savvy, in a way that it has never been before. Over the past 10 years, the number one dominant force in the industry has been the rise of the consumer internet and the ever-growing number of devices we can plug into it. Increasingly, companies are seeing the value of marketing their products through it.

“Companies’ entire dialogues are being framed by the rise of these consumer internet technologies,” he says. “The industry keeps on finding new ways of benefiting from all of the investment, all of the innovation and all of the economies of scale that have taken place in the consumer internet.

“I talk to CIOs fairly frequently and the dialogue has gone rapidly – say from thinking about the cloud as a way of dealing with your email to people talking about doing document collaboration and shared storage. I see more and more people talking about using real-time collaboration, whether it is messaging or video chat or IP voice communications.

“The adoption of the cloud is not just small businesses or Silicon Valley start-ups. Every CIO I talk to, from companies large and small, talk about the cloud as a matter of when, not if. I see more and more traditional enterprise technology arenas falling into the cloud. Salesforce has been doing this quite successfully for some time. If you look at the cloud’s business systems providers, the customer lists include very big companies.

“[In terms of] Google’s own business we have BBVA, a financial services firm with something like 100,000 people using it, and highly regulated companies such as Roche pharmaceuticals, for example. These are big companies – you would have thought, based on the business, that they would have been slow to adopt, but they are not.”

There are around five million businesses around the world that presently use Google for Work products, including around 64 per cent of the of the Fortune 500 companies. Each month 100 billion search queries are handled and every minute 100 hours of new video are uploaded on YouTube.

“I don’t think the cloud has to prove itself anymore. I think as an industry it has to engage with its customers,” Fried says. “What the cloud is doing is making it easier for organisations and their technology departments to focus on the problems that are uniquely theirs. The problems no one else can really solve for them.” That, Fried believes, is one of the highest callings of a CIO or CTO – being able to use technology to help understand their business.

“By using the cloud as you are doing less, you can change faster,” Fried says. “If you take software company Workday, for example, they do a major upgrade twice a year. You spend almost no time as an organisation worried about silly things like upgrades – which are absolutely necessary for security reasons, feature enhancements and so on.”

According to Fried, the benefits to businesses taking advantage of the cloud are not just about being efficient but also very important to the “psychic health” of its users, and can help to unite work and personal lives in a way that is less arbitrary. “The more enterprise technologies we use and reuse, and the more consumer technologies take part in our daily lives, the more we reduce the cognitive burdens on our workforce,” he says. “That is an incredibly important aspect of the cloud.

“The great benefit to CIOs and CTOs is that we get to do fewer, more important things, and thus we get to make a bigger difference in our organisation.”

But there are a number of things CIOs and CTOs need to understand about the cloud to make sure they have a service that runs effectively – in particular, they need to be aware that data effectively lasts for ever.“So much of the value of any enterprise or any organisation comes from the data it creates about itself and its business,” he says. “People think about the next app or the next little bit of technology to solve the next problem, but really the long-term benefits come from thinking about the importance of data, securing it, sharing it and governing it.

“Understand your data, how it flows and how your different cloud providers interact with it, and how you will still be in control of your data. I have said this a million times – data is incredibly important.”

Google is certainly putting its money where its mouth is. The company has more than 450 engineers whose full-time job is looking after the security of its users’  data – a level of protection that would be very difficult for most single enterprises to replicate.

But this is something other companies can, and should, take advantage of. “For CIOs and CTOs it is about understanding,” Fried says. “There are levels of expertise that one can tap into that are inherently going to take place outside of their four walls.”

Businesses should not only look at how the services that they contract to or purchase protect their data, Fried explains, but also how their employees protect their data, and how they structure and share it within the organisation.

As technology continues to develop, the notions of consumer and enterprise technology will become much more blurred. Fried believes businesses will use more and more consumer technology in the workforce as the cloud develops.

Fried says: “I really like the idea that, as users of technology, we do not have to have this complete schizophrenia between our work technologies and our personal technologies. It is going to make for far better workforces, and I think that the cloud is our future.

“It is only a matter of time before the cloud is the primary delivery vehicle and technology mechanism for enterprise. IT organisations need to think about data, internet connectivity as well as important consumer trends to watch and engage in.”

It seems the question for businesses is not a matter of whether they will start using the cloud but one of when – and by extension how they are going to prepare for it. It’s not clear if the weather in New York was cloudy or otherwise, but Fried seems certain that the cloud is here to stay and soon to become a dominant force in the business world.