The Untold Story of Larry Page’s Incredible Comeback

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April 25 2014 11:54 AM

The Untold Story of Larry Page’s Incredible Comeback

Google CEO Larry Page at Google headquarters in New York on May 21, 2012.
Google CEO Larry Page at Google headquarters in New York on May 21, 2012.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/GettyImages

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

One day in July 2001, Larry Page decided to fire Google’s project managers. All of them.

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It was just five years since Page, then a 22-year-old graduate student at Stanford, was struck in the middle of the night with a vision. In it, he somehow managed to download the entire Web and by examining the links between the pages he saw the world’s information in an entirely new way.

What Page wrote down that night became the basis for an algorithm. He called it PageRank and used it to power a new Web search engine called BackRub. The name didn’t stick.

By July 2001, BackRub had been renamed Google and was doing really well. It had millions of users, an impressive list of investors, and 400 employees, including about a half-dozen project managers.

As at most startups, in Google’s first year there were no management layers between the CEO, Page, and the engineers. But as the company grew, it added a layer of managers, people who could meet with Page and the rest of Google’s senior executives and give the engineers prioritized orders and deadlines.

Page, now 28, hated it. Since Google hired only the most talented engineers, he thought that extra layer of supervision was not just unnecessary but also an impediment. He also suspected that Google’s project managers were steering engineers away from working on projects that were personally important to him. For example, Page had outlined a plan to scan all the world’s books and make them searchable online, but somehow no one was working on it. Page blamed the project managers.

Some dramatic streamlining was called for, he resolved. Instead of the project managers, all of Google’s engineers would report to one person, a newly hired VP of engineering named Wayne Rosing, and Rosing would report directly to him.

Google’s human resources boss, a serious woman with bangs named Stacey Sullivan, thought Page’s plan was nuts, according to I'm Feeling Lucky, Douglas Edwards' inside view of Google's early years. Sullivan told Page so. “You can’t just self-organize!” she said. “People need someone to go to when they have problems!”

Page ignored her. 

Sullivan took her concerns to Eric Schmidt. In March, Schmidt had become the chairman of Google. Everyone assumed he’d be CEO as soon as he could leave his full-time job as CEO of Novell.

Schmidt agreed with Sullivan. So did Page’s executive coach, Bill Campbell. Everyone called Campbell “Coach” because he’d once been Columbia University's football coach. He still walked and talked like he was pacing a sideline.

As Steven Levy detailed in his own rollicking Google history, In the Plex, one evening, Campbell got into a big argument with Page about his plan. To prove his point, Campbell brought engineer after engineer into Page’s office to offer their perspective. One after another, they told Page that they actually preferred to have a manager—someone who could end disagreements and give their teams direction.

But Page was determined.

Schmidt in particular may have been the worst person for Sullivan to turn to for help back then. Page had never been behind hiring him—or any CEO, for that matter. Google’s investors made him do it.

Before long, Schmidt might have presented an obstacle to Page’s plan. But not yet. It’s July 2001 and Schmidt hasn’t yet officially become CEO. So Page went ahead.

He deputized Rosing to break the news.

That afternoon, all 130 or so engineers and a half-dozen project managers showed up. They stood outside Page’s office amid Google’s mismatched cubicles and couches—which, like the rest of the company’s office furniture, had been bought from failed startups on the cheap.

Finally Rosing, a bald man in glasses, began to speak. Rosing explained that engineering was getting a reorganization. All engineers would now report to him. All project managers were out of a job.

The news did not go over well. The project managers were stunned. They hadn’t been warned. They’d just been fired in front of all their colleagues.

The engineers demanded an explanation. So Page gave one. With little emotion, speaking in his usual flat, robotic tone, he explained that he didn’t like having non-engineers supervising engineers. Engineers shouldn't have to be supervised by managers with limited tech knowledge. Finally, he said, Google’s project managers just weren’t doing a very good job.

As Page talked, he kept his gaze averted, resisting direct eye contact. Though he was an appealing presence with above-average height and nearly black hair, he was socially awkward.

Larry Page at the International Consumer Electronics Show in 2006 in Las Vegas.
Larry Page at the International Consumer Electronics Show in 2006 in Las Vegas.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The news was met with a chorus of grumbling. Finally, one of the engineers in the room, Ron Donlin, started yelling at Page. He said an all-hands meeting was no place to give a performance review. What Page was doing was “completely ridiculous,” he said, and “totally unprofessional.”

"It sucked," one of the project managers present said later. "I felt humiliated by it. Larry said in front of the company that we didn't need managers, and he talked about what he didn't like about us. He said things that hurt a lot of people.”

In the end, the layoffs didn’t stick. The project managers Page had intended to fire that day were instead brought into Google’s growing operations organization, under the leadership of Urs Hözle.

Page’s reorganization didn’t last long either. While some engineers thrived without supervision, problems arose. Projects that needed resources didn’t get them. Redundancy became an issue. Engineers craved feedback and wondered where their careers were headed.

Eventually, Google started hiring project managers again.

"I did my best to advise that there is true value in management, and you can set a tone by how you manage this," Stacy Sullivan recalled in I'm Feeling Lucky. "Hopefully it was a lesson learned for Larry."

By August 2001, Schmidt had fully extricated himself from his responsibilities at Novell. He became Google’s CEO—so-called adult supervision for Page and his co-founder, Brin.

And for a long time, Larry Page was very unhappy.

* * *

Everyone knows the Steve Jobs story—how he was fired from the company he founded, Apple, only to return from exile decades later to save the business.

What’s less well understood is that Apple’s board and investors were absolutely right to fire Jobs. Early in his career, he was petulant, mean, and destructive. Only by leaving Apple, humbling himself, and finding a second success—with Pixar—was he able to mature into the leader who would return to Apple and build it into the world’s most valuable company.

Larry Page is the Steve Jobs of Google.

Like Jobs, Page has a co-founder, Sergey Brin, but Page has always been his company’s true visionary and driving force.

And just as Apple’s investors threw Jobs out of his company, Google’s investors ignored Page’s wishes and forced him hire a CEO to be adult supervision.

Both then underwent a long period in the wilderness. Steve Jobs’ banishment was more severe, but Page also spent years at a remove from the day-to-day world of Google.

As with Jobs, it was only through this long exile that Page was able to mature into a self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses.

Then, like Jobs, Page came back with wild ambitions and new resolve. 

 Lawrence Edward Page

On the cold, clear night of Jan. 7, 1943, Nikola Tesla quietly slept in his suite at the Hotel New Yorker, 33 floors above the streets of Manhattan. Suddenly, his chest erupted in pain. Then his heart stopped.

A day later, a hotel maid decided to ignore a “do not disturb” sign on Tesla’s door. She found his body. The great inventor was dead.

A Croatian immigrant born in 1856, Tesla invented the way almost all of the world’s electricity is generated today. He also envisioned and created wireless communication. But he died having spent the better part of his last decade collecting a pension and feeding pigeons, unable to persuade new investors to fund his latest wild visions. He died believing he could invent a weapon to end all war, a way for power to travel wirelessly across the oceans, and plan for harnessing energy from space. He died alone and in debt.

Tesla was a brilliant man. He spoke eight languages and had a photographic memory. Inventions would appear in his mind fully formed. But he was lousy at business.

In 1885, he told his boss, Thomas Edison, that he could improve his motors and generators. Edison told him, "There's $50,000 in it for you—if you can do it.” Tesla did as he’d promised, and in return Edison gave him a $10 raise.

Tesla quit. He formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. But he soon disagreed with his investors over the direction of the business. They fired him, and he was forced to dig ditches for a year.

In 1900 he persuaded JPMorgan to invest $150,000 in another company. The money was gone by 1901. Tesla spent the rest of his life writing JPMorgan asking for more money. He never got it.

The year after Tesla died, in 1944, New York Herald Tribune journalist John Joseph O’Neill wrote a biography about the inventor, who had been a friend.

"During the last three decades of his life, it is probable that not one out of tens of thousands who saw him knew who he was,” the biography, "Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla,” concludes.

"Even when the newspapers, once a year, would break out in headlines about Tesla and his latest predictions concerning scientific wonders to come, no one associated that name with the excessively tall, very lean man, wearing clothes of a bygone era, who almost daily appeared to feed his feathered friends.”

"He was just one of the strange individuals of whom it takes a great many of varying types to make up a complete population of a great metropolis.”

Forty-one years after those words were published, in 1985, a 12-year-old in Michigan finished reading Tesla's biography and cried.

This was Larry Page.

The child of a pair of computer science professors at Michigan State University, Larry grew up in a messy house. There were computers, gadgets, and tech magazines everywhere. The atmosphere—and Page’s attentive parents—fostered creativity and invention.

In that moment, Page realized it wasn’t enough to envision an innovative technological future. Big ideas aren’t enough. They need to be commercialized. If Page wanted to be an inventor, he was going to have to start a successful company, too.

Tesla’s story also taught Page to watch out for the Thomas Edisons of the world—people who will use you and place your dreams in the service of their own cynical ends.

Larry’s Rules for Management

Google incorporated on Sept. 4, 1998—two years after the idea of ranking webpages by their inbound links came to Page in a dream. He made himself CEO, and his best friend, Sergey Brin, was named co-founder.

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2004.
Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2004.

Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Co-founders are often forgotten by history. Steve Jobs had two at Apple. Mark Zuckerberg had four at Facebook.

Sergey Brin was a different kind of sidekick to Page. They had met at Stanford, where Brin was outgoing and energetic, known among professors for his habit of bursting into their offices without knocking.

To Page’s startup turned global technology company, Brin would bring a much-needed extroversion that Page lacked. Brin excelled at strategy, branding, and developing relationships between Google and other companies. He was a partner to Page, if, ultimately, a junior one.

While Google is often thought of as the invention of two young computer whizzes—Sergey and Larry, Larry and Sergey—the truth is that Google is a creation of Larry Page, helped along by Sergey Brin.

The Google garage.
The Google garage.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Page and Brin had raised $1 million from friends and family to launch their startup, moving off Stanford’s campus and into a rented garage.

By February 1999, the startup had already outgrown the garage, relocating to an office above a bike shop in Palo Alto. Seven months later, Google outgrew that office, moving to a nondescript building in an office park a couple of miles off the highway in Mountain View.

Outside that building, in an asphalt parking lot, yellow police tape marked off an area where Page, Brin, and the rest of Google’s employees—Googlers, they called themselves—played roller hockey. The games were full contact. Employees wore pads and would come back inside from games drenched in sweat and sometimes bloodied and bruised. “No one held back when fighting the founders for the puck,” Douglas Edwards wrote. “The harder you played, the more respect you earned.”

Inside the beige office building, the game was twice as tough. Yes, there was free food for all employees and a massage therapist on-site. And, with brightly colored exercise balls and couches everywhere, the place looked like a kindergarten crossed with a freshman dorm.

But for Page’s employees, working at Google felt more like a never-ending thesis defense. Everywhere you looked, there were know-it-alls ready to gleefully tear into you. Page had originally bonded with Brin over a day of fierce argument, and that’s how the relationship grew. Their debates were not shouting matches. They were a series of blunt points made by one side, and then the other, with a little name-calling thrown in. Page would call one of Brin’s ideas stupid. Brin would say Page’s idea was naive. They’d both called each other bastards.

Page never felt any deterioration of his friendship with Brin after these fights, so he styled his interaction with other Googlers in the same unvarnished way. Page once told a room full of Google’s first marketing employees that their profession was built on an ability to lie.

Page had a tendency to communicate through emphatic body language. He’d lift an eyebrow in a way that made you know he thought your idea was stupid. If you said something that made him angry or uncomfortable, he’d respond in a quieter tone, and wouldn’t be able to look at you while he did it.

He became infamous for his lack of social grace. A slow-loading application during a product demonstration would prompt him to start counting out loud.

“One one-thousand.”

“Two one-thousand.”

Page encouraged his senior executives to fight the way he and Brin went at it. In meetings with new hires, one of the two co-founders would often provoke an argument over a business or product decision. Then they would both sit back, watching quietly as their lieutenants verbally cut each other down. As soon as any argument started to go circular, Page would say, "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Just do it.”

It wasn’t that he was a tyrant. It’s just that he connected to people over their ideas, not their feelings.

Early Googler HR boss Heather Cairns remembers once spotting Page talking intently with Google’s janitor after work hours.

She later asked Page what they were talking about so seriously.

“I want to know how everyone does their job,” he replied, going on to offer a detailed recitation of the janitor’s method for placing empty trash bags at the bottom of each barrel so he could replace them easily.

“It’s very efficient,” Page said approvingly, “and he saves time doing that, and I learned from that.”

Page hadn’t been a social child. But in college and graduate school, he’d been able to connect with people over external abstractions—visions of the future, cool technologies. At Google, he kept his interaction with employees on this level. He managed without regard to feelings.

Asked about his approach to running the company, Page once told a Googler his method for solving complex problems was by reducing them to binaries, and then simply choosing the best option. Whatever the downside he viewed as collateral damage he could live with.

When Page went to Stanford after receiving his bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Michigan, he expected he’d have to make a choice between becoming an academic and building a company. Choosing the former would mean giving up the opportunity to become the inventor of widely used applications. But building a company would force him to deal with people in a way he didn’t enjoy. For Google’s first few years, he got to have the best of both worlds. He was building a product that millions of people used, and he created an interpersonal culture intensely focused on ideas and outcomes rather than emotional niceties.

For many years, Google thrived under this type of management.

For many employees, the combative atmosphere was a reasonable price to pay for working at a company with a real clarity of purpose.

Even in cases where the environment left bruises, solid ideas won. In In The Plex, Steven Levy tells the story of how, in 2000, Google hired an associate product manager named Wesley Chan and put him charge of building something called Google Toolbar, a way for users to search without having to open Microsoft Explorer. Chan figured out that no one was using it because it didn’t do anything special for users. He decided it could double as a pop-up-ad blocker.

He pitched the idea to Page in a meeting.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” Page replied. “Where did we find you?”

Chan was undaunted, however. Shortly thereafter, he secretly installed the improved Toolbar onto Page’s computer. When Page later mentioned to a room full of people that he was seeing fewer pop-ups, Chan told him why. The Toolbar was launched.

Page eventually wrote down his rules for management:

  • Don't delegate: Do everything you can yourself to make things go faster.
  • Don't get in the way if you're not adding value. Let the people actually doing the work talk to each other while you go do something else.
  • Don't be a bureaucrat.
  • Ideas are more important than age. Just because someone is junior doesn't mean they don't deserve respect and cooperation.
  • The worst thing you can do is stop someone from doing something by saying, "No. Period." If you say no, you have to help them find a better way to get it done.

The niceties of social interaction weren't the only rules Page was happy to violate.

In 1999, for instance, the method by which large Web companies such as eBay, Yahoo, and Google added server space had become fairly routine. They purchased servers and installed them in cages at giant warehouses owned by third-party vendors. The warehouse companies would pay for the power that kept the servers running and the air conditioning that kept them cool, and the website owners would pay for space by the square foot. Page figured if Google was going to pay per square foot, he was going to stuff as many servers into that space as he could. He took apart servers and began hunting for ways to shrink them. The first thing to go? All the off switches.

"Why would you ever want to turn a server off?” he reportedly asked.

Stripped of useless components and fitted with corkboard to keep wires from crossing, Google developed new super-slim servers. They looked ugly. But before long, Google would end up paying the same price to host 1,500 servers as early rival Inktomi paid to host 50. As a result, Google’s search ran a lot faster, and Inktomi, along with many of Google’s other search rivals, was left in the dust.

Despite all his stunning success running Google during its first two years—or perhaps because of it—Larry Page was about to lose his job.

Into the Wilderness

During the first half of 1999, Google experienced an insane surge in popularity. That ballooning usage necessitated a new capital to invest in more servers and a growing staff. But Google wasn’t making any money yet.

As Page and Brin began seeking new investors, Page had one requirement above all. He and Brin would retain a majority of the company’s voting stock and ultimate control over Google.

At first, Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists laughed off the notion.

Google kept growing, and the giggles faded. Before long, the Valley’s two highest-profile venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital, agreed to invest a combined total of $25 million under Page’s terms.

But the investors had a stipulation of their own. In exchange for allowing Page and Brin to retain a majority ownership of Google, they wanted Page, then 26, to step down as CEO. They wanted him to hire adult supervision.

As Steven Levy reported, John Doerr, the partner from Kleiner Perkins, told Page that a world-class CEO would do a “much better job of building a world-class management team.”

Page took the deal. Google needed the money.

A couple of months after the deal closed, however, when there was no way the investors could back out, Page called Doerr and informed the VC that he and Brin had experienced a change of heart.

“We actually think we can run the company between the two of us," he said.

It is possible that Page had initially agreed with Doerr that Google needed a world-class CEO, only to change his mind later. But probably not.

Page had always been a control freak. A college friend told Levy that even back at the University of Michigan, Page was “controlling and paranoid” because “he wanted to make sure everything was done well and right."

In 1998, Page and Brin decided to take all eight of Google’s employees on a company ski trip to Lake Tahoe. When they went to rent a van, they discovered they could save $2.50 per day if they designated a single driver. Page designated himself. He drove the whole way while everyone else played math games in the back.

This was a given, Douglas Edwards wrote. "Larry wasn't about to put his life in anyone else's hands.”

The truth was, Page did not think he needed any help running Google—at least not beyond the help provided by Brin—and that’s what he told his new investor.

Doerr flipped out. It was obvious to him Page wasn’t ready to lead a major corporation, and the way he’d conveyed his views on the issue wasn’t encouraging.

He suggested that Page meet with a bunch of big tech CEOs—Apple’s Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—and ask them about their jobs. Doerr thought Page would come away convinced he could use help.

Page readily agreed.

After all the meetings, he called Doerr and delivered some surprising news. Page was convinced that Google could use a CEO after all. But only if that CEO was Steve Jobs.

Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen—but Doerr was glad to hear that Page believed someone in the world could help. Together, they started interviewing other candidates. Doerr introduced Page and Brin to the CEO of Novell, Eric Schmidt.

Page liked Schmidt OK. Unlike most executives, Schmidt had been a programmer. In fact, years ago he had written code for a software tool that Google was still using. Brin liked Schmidt because he was a Burner, an attendee of the annual psychedelic Burning Man festival held in a Nevada desert.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt in San Francisco in 2002.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt in San Francisco in 2002.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google hired Schmidt. He joined as chairman in March 2001 and became CEO in August.

Page went along with the arrangement but wasn’t happy about it. He fretted about his place in the new hierarchy—his title would be president of products—and even began to wonder if he’d become unnecessary to the company he’d founded.

It was during this uncertain period that Page dragged Google through his misbegotten engineering reorganization in July 2001, immediately proving to most observers that Doerr had been right all along.

Page may also have had another motive for the move: Getting rid of managers who might have ended up reporting to Schmidt may have seemed like a way for Page to maintain his control.

"I can't think of anything that people at Google were ever so upset about—at least in engineering,” former Google engineer and Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit told Edwards. “People had some sense of ownership of the company, that it was this big happy family. And all of a sudden, some of your friends were kicked off the island. You're, like, 'This isn't what I thought it was. I thought we were all in it together.'"

Google had come a long way with Page running the place like a hockey game crossed with a thesis defense. But quietly, Google employees were thrilled to have someone with a more deft, empathetic touch now running the show.

That’s What Schmidt’s For

Over the next several years, Google grew into a massive global business.

Always in consultation with Page and Brin, Schmidt kept things on an even keel. He hired a team of executives, built a sales force, and took Google public.

Everyone inside Google still regarded Larry Page as their ultimate boss. He approved every hire, and it was his signature on the day of Google’s initial public offering, Aug. 19, 2004, that turned hundreds of people into millionaires — and Page himself into a billionaire.

But gradually Page became a more distant, remote figure. To use a metaphor from Google’s earlier years, Page was no longer driving the van. He’d hired a driver and was daydreaming in the back.

It was a slow retreat. During the first few years, Page kept a tight grip on Google’s product development.

One of Schmidt’s first efforts after joining as CEO in August 2001 was to convince Page that Google needed to hire a vice president of product management. Page thought the role was superfluous.

Nonetheless, Schmidt persuaded him to hire Jonathan Rosenberg for the job. Rosenberg came from Excite@Home, a massively funded high-profile startup that failed in the late 1990s.

But just because Rosenberg got the job and had the title didn’t mean Page was going make room for him at Google.

“I would come to the staff meeting with my structured agenda, the market research we needed to do, the one- and two-year road maps that we needed to develop, and Larry would basically mock them and me,” Rosenberg later told a reporter.

Rosenberg also had a very hard time hiring product managers. He kept bringing in top graduates from Harvard’s and Stanford’s MBA programs, and Page kept rejecting them.

Rosenberg eventually asked Page what he was doing wrong.

Page told him to stop telling engineers what to do—and to stop trying to hire other non-engineers to do it too.

Marissa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo, at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 22, 2014.
Marissa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo, at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 22, 2014.

Photo by Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

One of Page’s closest confidantes at Google, a rising executive named Marissa Mayer, finally clued Rosenberg in, as Levy tells it. He should stop trying to hire MBAs to be product managers and start hiring computer science graduates with an interest in business.

The only way Page was ever going to loosen his grip and allow a management layer to come between him and Google’s engineers was if that layer was made up of other engineers.

Rosenberg took the advice and it worked. Soon Google had an army of product managers. Page took a step back.

A couple of years into Rosenberg’s career at Google, he met Larry Page’s mom. Her son was showing her around campus.

“What does he do?” Page’s mother asked about Rosenberg.

“Well, at first I wasn’t sure,” Page told her. “But I’ve decided that now he’s the reason I sometimes have free time.”

The Slow Fade

None of this is to say Page ever stopped reviewing, approving, and contributing to the products Google shipped.

Along with Brin, Page controlled a majority of the company’s voting shares. Basically, he owned the place. And doing work on products interested him in a way that dealing with people did not. Plus, he was really good at it.

Before Google launched Gmail in 2004, its creator, Paul Buchheit, brought it to Page’s open cubicle office for a review.

As Buchheit called the program up on Page’s computer, the boss made a face.

“It’s too slow,” Page said.

Buchheit disagreed. It was loading just fine, he said.

No, Page insisted. It had taken a full 600 milliseconds for the page to load.

“You can’t know that,” Buchheit said. But when he got back to his office, he looked up the server logs. It had taken exactly 600 milliseconds for Gmail to load.

Page remained a deciding voice in big strategic initiatives like Google’s multibillion-dollar bid for wireless spectrum and its $1.65 billion acquisition of video-sharing site YouTube in 2006.

But to Googlers, it felt like Page was much less involved with the day-to-day management of the company.

When Eric Schmidt held big meetings with his direct reports, a group called the Operating Committee, or OC, Page would show up, but he’d have a laptop open in front of him the whole time. Brin would do the same.

Neither would participate in the meeting until Schmidt said something like, “Boys, I need your attention now.” Then Page or Brin would look up and offer a sharp opinion on the matter at hand. Characteristically, Page would offer his two cents while staring off into an empty corner of the room.

On occasion, Page would grow more animated, and Schmidt would carefully shut him down, saying, “We heard you, Larry. Thank you."

On some issues, Page’s opinion was simply ignored. For example, after Google had become the Internet’s most successful advertising business, Page decided the company should destroy the advertising agency industry. To his thinking, it was obviously a highly inefficient system that could be erased with the help of technology. Not only did the company opt not to take on this battle, but Schmidt and his top advertising executives, Tim Armstrong and Sheryl Sandberg, did their best to make sure none of Google’s many important ad agency clients caught wind of Page’s ideas on the topic.

Over time, Page came to appreciate Schmidt’s strengths very much. Page’s goal had been to invent something that made the world better, and to see it become properly commercialized. Google search had definitely done the former, and Schmidt had played a huge role in building the kind of company that could capitalize financially on Page’s vision. He wasn’t like any of the villains who had plagued Nikola Tesla’s life.

As his comfort level with Schmidt increased, Page receded further.

In 2007, he decided he was going to too many meetings. He tended to turn down these requests, but Google executives who wanted his input had found a workaround — sending their meeting invitations straight to his assistants, who would dutifully load up his calendar. So Page got rid of his assistants. This forced anyone who wanted to meet with Page to stalk him through Google’s office. In this situation, his longstanding social deficiencies served him well: He got good at dismissing people with a friendly seeming nod over the shoulder while he kept walking.

He also grew tired of giving interviews. In 2008, Page told Google’s communications team that they could have a total of eight hours of his time that year. Why should he have to talk to the outside world?

That’s what Schmidt was for.

Maybe There’s More We Can Do

One day in late 1998, Google’s first HR boss, Heather Cairns, walked into the company’s garage office and caught Larry Page and Sergey Brin playing with Legos.

“What the hell are you doing?” Cairns asked, in her brassy but congenial way. The contraption on the table in front of Page had robot arms with rubber wheels at the end of them.

“We’re trying to figure out how to turn pages of a book without a human hand,” Page explained. “Someday we’re going to put every publication in the world on the Internet so everybody has access to it.”

“Sure,” Cairns said. “Sure.”

Later in Google's early history, Page spent an entire day driving around Palo Alto with a small handheld camera. He’d drive for a few feet, and then stop and take a few pictures. Then he’d drive another few feet and do it again. He came home and uploaded the pictures to his computer. What he saw convinced him his latest big idea was feasible. Google could put a number of cameras on a number of cars and drive every street in the world, photographing all the way. The result would be a digital, searchable representation of the entire physical world—or the most relevant parts of it—available online.

During the Schmidt years, both the books and the photo project would become popular Google products. Google Books, launched in 2003, has come to encompass 20 million volumes, and it continues to grow. Google Street View launched in 2007, and, by 2014, made every thoroughfare in 50 countries viewable from almost every Web browser on the planet.*

A Google Street View car explores Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 7, 2012.
A Google Street View car explores Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 7, 2012.

Photo by Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

Even in Google’s earliest days, Page had always wanted the company to do more than just basic Web search. Since he was a kid, he’d been dreaming up world-changing schemes. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, he’d proposed that the school replace its bus system with something he called a PRT, or personal rapid transit system—essentially a driverless monorail with separate cars for every rider. Later, at Stanford, he’d peppered his adviser, Terry Winograd, with thesis ideas that sounded as far out there as some of Tesla’s later schemes. One idea involved building a super-long rope that would run from the Earth’s surface all the way into orbit, making it cheaper to put objects in space. Another proposal called for solar kites that would draw energy from space.

With Google now essentially minting money from advertising and Schmidt managing its steady growth, Page began to realize that he was finally in a position to bring his visions to life.

By 2005, one of Page’s visions was to put handheld computers with access to Google in the pocket of every person on the planet. So, that year, Page directed Google corporate development to buy a small startup with the same ludicrously huge ambition. This startup was Android. Its CEO and co-founder was Andy Rubin, a former Apple executive who had also developed a failed but once popular Internet-connected phone called the Sidekick.

The Android acquisition was a Larry Page production. Page didn’t tell Schmidt about the deal—which set the company back about $50 million—until after it was done. Brin knew all about it, but he didn’t take much interest.

Page set up Android as a separate entity, one that was only nominally a part of Google, and allowed Rubin wide latitude to run it without interference from the parent company. Android even had its own building, one that regular Googlers couldn’t access with their employee badges. Schmidt essentially acted as if it didn’t exist, mostly because $50 million wasn’t enough of Google’s massive money pile for him to worry if it had been well spent.

For his part, Page turned Android into a passion project. He spent huge amounts of time with Rubin, so much that he often felt guilty that he wasn’t looking after the rest of Google more closely. Then again, that’s what Schmidt was for.

Over the next two years, Rubin developed what he thought would be a state-of-the-art mobile operating system.

Then, during a 2007 trip to Las Vegas, Rubin flipped open his laptop in a cab to watch Steve Jobs introduce Apple’s version of an Internet-connected phone.

This was the iPhone, and it was amazing.

Holy crap, Rubin thought. We’re going to have to re-do our phone.

Rubin had his cab driver pull over so he could watch the rest of Jobs’ demo.

A year or so later, in September 2008, T-Mobile launched the G1, the first phone using the software developed by Rubin’s team. The operating system looked and worked like an iPhone knock-off. But it was a good knock-off, and free for phone makers to install.

The OS proliferated as manufacturers raced to keep up with Apple and carriers tried to remain competitive with AT&T, the only network to carry the iPhone. In the second quarter of 2009, Android-loaded phones captured 1.8% of all sales. During the same quarter in 2010, Android sales made up 17.2% of the market, topping Apple, which had 14%, for the first time. Soon, Android would become the world’s most popular operating system.

A model displays smartphones with Google's mobile operating system Android during its first launch in Jakarta on Feb. 22, 2010.
A model displays smartphones with Google's mobile operating system Android during its first launch in Jakarta on Feb. 22, 2010.

Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

By 2010, Page had now played a key role in creating two ubiquitous technologies that had arguably improved life for people around the world. Google, which had begun life as a thesis project, had helped make the Internet a vastly more powerful tool for everyday users. Then, without any adult supervision, Page fostered the development of Android. Now, Android was turning smartphones into such cheap commodities that it was only a matter of time until everyone on the planet owned a computer connected to the Internet.

Achieving such a resounding second success—as a manager this time—gave Page enormous confidence in his own executive abilities. Page had enough self-awareness to realize that earlier in his career he’d been bad at delegating. He was glad to see he’d been able to do that with Rubin.

Page had always had issues trusting people. That was changing. Maybe it was because he had a family now. In a May 2009 commencement speech at the University of Michigan, Page talked about his father, his mother, his new wife, Lucy Southworth, and their child. “Just like me, your families brought you here, and you brought them here,” he said. “Please keep them close and remember: They are what really matters in life."

While Android boomed and Page matured, Google’s core business built around search and advertising blossomed under Schmidt’s management. By 2010, Google had a $180 billion market capitalization and 24,000 employees. It was a big company.

It had also developed some big-company problems. New York Times reporter Claire Clain Miller detailed several of them in a November 2010 article headlined "Google Grows, and Works to Retain Nimble Minds.”

In her story, Miller quoted several Googlers and former Googlers who said the company had become too bureaucratic and bloated. She wrote that Google used to limit groups of engineers working on projects to 10, but that number had swollen to 20 or even 40 in recent years. Worse, she reported, "Engineers say they have been encouraged to build fewer new products and focus on building improvements to existing ones.”

One project manager told her he knew it was time to quit Google because of all the people he had to copy on his emails. He said, “I think that there is a class of person who is able to walk away from this relatively easy, consistent money because they are so dissatisfied with the processes of a big company.”

Another product manager told Miller he was considering leaving because working at Google meant working on products that got very little public exposure.

Miller even quoted Schmidt saying he was worried about the situation.

“There was a time when three people at Google could build a world-class product and deliver it, and it is gone,” Schmidt said in the story.

When Miller’s article ran, Schmidt was furious. A Google spokeswoman called the paper and demanded Miller be removed from the beat. (She wasn’t.)

Besides bureaucracy, Schmidt’s Google was also dealing with another big-company problem by 2010. It wasn’t the cool new mega-power in Silicon Valley anymore. Facebook was.

In 2007, a product manager named Justin Rosenstein quit Google for Facebook. He then wrote a memo to his former co-workers describing Facebook as “the Google of yesterday … that company that’s on the cusp of Changing the World, that’s still small enough where each employee has a huge impact on the organization.”

By 2010, 142 of Facebook’s 1,700 employees were Google refugees.

Among Google’s more senior executives, the company’s age was felt in another way. Schmidt had never fully reformed the argumentative, heated way that decisions were made at the top during the Page era. A decade on, repeated clashes had turned executives into bitter rivals who nearly refused to work with one another.

In fall 2010, Page felt all these new weaknesses in Google. He also sensed another issue that he found even more worrying. Under Schmidt’s otherwise successful tenure, the company had dialed back its ambitions.

In 2009, Google made $6.5 billion in profits and had 20,000 employees. Page looked at those numbers and thought, We have all this money, we have all these people. Why aren’t we doing more stuff?

He couldn’t help think about how the only really big thing Google had done lately was Android, which Schmidt hadn’t been interested in.

Page, happily married and more or less out of the public eye, was enjoying his life as the visionary behind-the-scenes leader of Google. But he had begun to wonder if Schmidt was the right person to lead the company into the future.

Late that year, Page sat down for an interview with Steven Levy for what would become In the Plex. Levy asked Page if he hoped to become CEO again. Page offered a bland reply. “I really enjoy what I do,” he said. "I think I’m able to positively affect a lot of things, which makes me feel really good, and I don’t see any likely change in that.”

Then he got up and left the room. The interview was over.

A minute later, though, Page came back. He told Levy, “I just feel like people aren’t working enough on impactful things.” He said Google was "not yet doing a good job getting the kinds of things we’re trying to do to happen quickly and at scale.”

Page recognized that Google’s search-advertising business, with its insane profit margins and sustained growth, was exactly the kind of cash-generating machine that his hero, Nikola Tesla, would have used to fund his wildest dreams. Now, he had the chance to do things differently. Seeing Google work on anything short of insanely ambitious was driving him a little nuts.

The frustration was audible in Page’s voice when he gave that commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 2009. He told the graduates about how he and his wife had gone to India a couple of years before. They visited a poor village where sewage ran in the streets. The sewage, Page said, was infected with polio—the same disease that killed his father.

"He would have been very upset that Polio still persists, even though we have a vaccine,” Page said. "The world is on the verge of eliminating polio, with 328 people infected so far this year. Let’s get it done soon.”

In the fall of 2010, Page’s frustrations flared out into the open during a product-review meeting. Eric Schmidt, Brin, Page, and Google’s top product executives were there along with their respective senior staffs. Page, as usual, sat quietly at the table looking at his phone. Up front, an executive pitched a new product that helped users find the right offline store to do their shopping.

The executive was well into his pitch when, suddenly, Page interrupted him.

“No,” Page said emphatically. “We don’t do this.”

The room grew quiet.

“We build products that leverage technology to solve huge problems for hundreds of millions of people.”

He went on. “Look at Android. Look at Gmail. Look at Google Maps. Look at Google Search. That’s what we do. We build products you can’t live without.”

“This is not it.”

Page didn’t shout. He didn’t have to. The message was loud and clear.

That December, Page, Brin, and Schmidt met to discuss the obvious.

During Google’s earnings call on Jan. 20, 2011, Schmidt announced he was done as CEO. The job was once again Larry Page’s.

Schmidt, who would become executive chairman, sent out a tweet later that day: “Adult-supervision no longer needed.”

A Different Larry Page

Page took on the CEO job with fast-moving determination.

First, he re-organized the company’s senior management. He took a handful of the company’s most important product divisions, including YouTube, Ads, and Search, and put a CEO-like manager at the top of each. Page wanted to repeat the success he’d had with Rubin at Android.

Then, Page and Google finally responded to the threat of Facebook with its own social network, Google+.

By the end of that first summer, Google had redesigned all of its products with a single, coherent look.

In 2012, Page spent $12.5 billion to buy Motorola, mostly to acquire patents to protect Android from lawsuits by Apple and others.

Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, introduces the new Chromebook and Chromebox in San Francisco on June 28, 2012.
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, introduces the new Chromebook in 2012.

Photo by Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/GettyImages

Google got into hardware, unveiling the Chromebook, a laptop run on a Google operating system, and a futuristic Web-enabled computer that users could wear like eyeglasses called Google Glass.

At the end of 2012, Google began installing fiber-optic Internet cables in Kansas City, providing anyone in town with a free Internet connection 100 times faster than broadband.

These moves surprised the wider world but not those who knew Page. Ever since he was a kid, he’d been a guy with big, improbable dreams who did everything he could to make them reality, as quickly as he could.

It wasn’t until later, however, that it became clear to those who worked closest with Page how much he had changed during his years away from the thick of the action.

In February 2013, Google's senior executives flew in from around the world to meet at the Carneros Inn, a rustic resort in the hilly vineyards of Napa Valley. This was Google's annual two-day top-secret retreat for senior executives.

Among the attendees were Susan Wojkicki, responsible for Google's massive advertising business; Andy Rubin, head of Android; Salar Kamangar, the CEO of YouTube; Sundar Pichai, leader of Google's Chrome division; and Vic Gundotra, the Google+ boss. Each brought his or her senior staff members.

On the first day of the retreat, everyone gathered in the Carneros Inn’s white-curtained Napa Ballroom for a speech from Page.

In his raspy voice, Page told the room that Google's ambitions were incredibly high, but that it would never reach its goals if the people in that room did not stop fighting with one another. From now on, Google would have "zero tolerance for fighting.” Page admitted that the organization, in its younger days, had demanded its leaders be aggressive with one another. He himself had been perhaps the most aggressive of all.

But that was when Google's problems were linear problems—for instance, the need to grow the market share of all its products from nil to competitive to winning. Now, with Google leading the world in most of the product categories it competed in, the company faced what Page called n-squared problems. Google needed to grow by "10X." It needed to create whole new markets, to solve problems in as yet unimagined ways. To solve n-squared problems, Google executives would have to learn to work together.

The speech surprised the Google executives, particularly the company veterans. Since the days of Page and Brin calling every idea they didn’t like “stupid”—if not “evil”—fighting was the way things got done at Google.

Some of them remembered that day in July 2001 when Page had insulted and fired a handful of project managers in front of all their peers. But when the people in the Carneros Inn ballroom looked at Page that day, they saw someone who looked very different than the kid who built Google’s first server rack in his dorm room. Page’s hair had turned gray. He'd put on a middle-aged man’s weight around the waist and in his face. As the result of a vocal-cord paralysis, his voice had grown gravelly and worn.

Understanding Every Want and Need

On March 19, 2014, Larry Page gave an interview at a TED conference in Vancouver. During the keynote, Page and his interviewer, Charlie Rose, sat in tall chairs on a stage with a table between them.

The interview was essentially scripted. Page, his chief PR executive, Rachel Whetstone, and Google’s CMO, Lorraine Twohill, had spent the day before in a Vancouver hotel room working on the presentation.

Now, Page and Rose were looking away from the audience at a giant screen above and behind the stage. On the screen, there was a video-game boxing match. One boxer had the other trapped in a corner and was mercilessly whaling on his opponent.

The winning boxer was being controlled by an artificially intelligent computer program created at Google.

This, Page explained to Rose, was the future of Google. Page pointed out that all the Google artificial intelligence could “see” were the same pixels on the screen that a human player could see. It had learned to play the game all by itself. Look how well it’s doing, Page said. Imagine if that kind of intelligence were thrown at your schedule.

Rose, enthusiastic but a little confused, chuckled. Likewise, the audience had no idea what Page was getting at. The rehearsals hadn’t worked. And neither Whetstone nor Twohill were to blame.

In terms of his ability to relate to other humans, Larry Page has come a long way since that one awkward day in July 2001. But he’s still bad at public speaking. All the content is there, but it’s buried in a jumble of half-finished sentences and digressive run-ons. Steve Jobs, Larry Page is not. He’s not even Mark Zuckerberg. As a result, the public is essentially unaware of what, exactly, Google and Larry Page are up to these days.

As Page enters his fourth year again in charge of Google, the company is in fantastic shape. The stock price is above $700 per share, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Google revenues will cross $100 billion per year.

And yet Page believes the company faces an existential question. Can Google come up with another great business after search?

Between Google search and Android, Larry Page and Google can take credit for creating two technology platforms used worldwide by billions of people.

But Google gives Android away for free. Android’s contribution to Google’s bottom line is that it puts Google search, and Google search ads, into the pocket of millions of people around the world. In that sense, it’s not a great new business for Google at all. It’s merely an extension of Google’s primary business. Google still makes 90% of its revenues from advertising; 70% of Google’s total revenues still come from search ads.

One danger to Google is that eventually—not this year, not this decade, but inevitably—it will be so huge that it will capture nearly all the money any businesses on the planet spends on marketing. As crazy as this sounds, it’s plausible. Google revenues are already bigger than all the money marketers spend on magazine and newspaper ads. It already owns all but the tiniest sliver of the online ad market. Google search is running out of room to grow.

For Page, this means he now spends much of his time asking himself, What is that future going to be, and how do we create it?

He’s got lots of ideas, and now that he’s in charge he’s got his engineers hacking away at plenty of them.

He never gave up on the transportation system he pitched to the University of Michigan, so now he has Google engineers working on self-driving cars.

There’s artificial intelligence. Besides dominating video games, Google’s AI was also able to watch all of YouTube, learn from the experience, and draw a picture of a cat.

There’s a Google subsidiary called Calico that’s working on solutions to the problems of aging and death.

Google has another subsidiary, Google Fiber Inc., connecting homes in Kansas City, Austin, and Provo with Internet that’s 100 times faster than broadband. Google Fiber may soon expand to nine other cities, including Phoenix, Charlotte, and Portland.

In 2013, Page moved Andy Rubin from the top of Android and asked him to start working on robots. Page envisioned a world in which robots could do things like take care of the elderly and load our self-driving cars with groceries and household supplies while we’re busy at work. At the end of 2013, Google bought a company called Boston Dynamics, which makes humanoid and animal-like robots — some of them for the military.

A Nest thermostat.
A Nest thermostat.

Photo illustration by George Frey/Getty Images

Also in 2013, Page met former Apple executive Tony Fadell—the guy who designed the iPod—and persuaded him to sell his new company, Nest, to Google for $3.2 billion. Nest makes thermostats that are connected to the Internet. Just this month, Google purchased a company, Titan Aerospace, that produces drones.

At Google, they call the biggest ideas moonshots. There are many more of them, from hot-air balloons that broadcast the Internet spectrum—providing access to areas of the world that have lacked it—to plans to produce Android-powered watches.

Page admits that the diversity and number of ideas leave some of the company’s investors anxious. They worry: Can Google keep its focus? Or is about to follow in the footsteps of so many technology giants before it, spreading itself too thin, chasing too many wild ideas? And really, who needs a computer that can beat a human at a video game?

Page’s answer to those concerns is two-fold. First, he believes that it will be easier for Google to work on moonshots than on more mundane products. His logic: There’s less competition. Also, the best people will work for Google because the best people like working on ambitious projects.

Secondly, Page argues that all of these schemes are part of providing the world better search.

Page has, over the years, come up with a broad definition for what Google search should be.

In 2012, he told a reporter that “the perfect search engine would understand whatever your need is. It would understand everything in the world deeply [and] give you back kind of exactly what you need.”

During a keynote at a Google conference in 2013, Page said that in the long term—“you know, 50 years from now or something”—he hopes Google’s software will be able to “understand what you’re knowledgeable about, what you’re not, and how to organize the world so that the world can solve important problems.”

So, in Page’s vision, if you walk into your house and feel cold, your Google-powered wristwatch will be performing a search to understand that feeling. The search result will be for your Google-powered thermostat to turn up the heat.

Likewise, if you run out of milk and your Google-powered fridge notifies your Google-powered self-driving car to go collect some more from the Google-powered robots at the local grocery warehouse (no doubt paying with your Google wallet), it will all be a function of search.

The key to understanding the diversity of Google’s moonshots is understanding that Page’s vision of “perfect search” only works if all the products you interact with are compatible with one another.

For example, Google’s most advanced search product today, Google Now, is able to do things like alert Android users that they need to leave now if they are going to beat traffic and make a flight on time. But it can only do that because it has access to the Android users’ inboxes, Google Maps, Google Flight Search, Google Calendar, and, of course, the users’ smartphones.

So while it may seem random for Google to get into businesses as diverse as cars, thermostats, robotics, and TV production, there is an overriding objective behind it all. Page is envisioning a world where everything we touch is connected with and understood by an artificially intelligent computer that can discern patterns from our activity and learn to anticipate our needs before we even know we have them. Some day, Page has said several times, this AI will be hooked directly to our brains—perhaps through an implant.

Some of these ideas would scare people if Page were better at talking about them. He is, after all, directing billions of dollars every year toward making them a reality as quickly as possible. He’s said several times that Google should be employing 1 million engineers. With all of Google’s money, that’s actually possible.

The good news for the world is that Page’s goal of developing a pervasively connected AI that understands and provides for our every need is not about taking advantage of us.

He is, at heart, a passionate utopian—one who believes that technology has overwhelmingly made life better for humans and will only continue to do so.

In a question-and-answer session at a Google conference in 2013, Page told attendees that, in the future, people would look back on how humans lived their lives today the same way we look back on our ancestors who spent all their time hunting and farming as “crazy.”

In 2014, Page is living an alternate ending to the Nikola Tesla biography that made him cry when he was 12 years old.

Instead of ending his life destitute and ignored, Page, still just 41, will spend the final half of his life pouring billions of dollars and countless hours into his wildest visions.

"Anything you can imagine probably is doable,” Page told Google investors in 2012. “You just have to imagine it and work on it."

Page speaks during the opening keynote at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco in 2013 in San Francisco, California.
Page speaks during the opening keynote at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco in 2013 in San Francisco, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

* * *

A Note on Sources

This story is indebted to the work of two authors of books on the history of Google: Steven Levy and Douglas Edwards. Levy’s book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, is a crucial and deeply-reported must-read for anyone who wants to dive deeper into the workings of Google than this story goes. Few early Googlers are responsible for the way you think about the company as Douglas Edwards, who for years wrote all the words that ever appeared on Google.com. After his time at the company was done, Edwards wrote a fascinating book about his experience called I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59. It’s a must-read for anyone curious about what it’s like to join a tiny, weird startup and ride it to the top.

This story is also based on conversations with a few dozen current and former Google employees, people from Larry Page’s past, and other with first-hand knowledge of the events described.

* * *

Acknowledgments

I'd like to thank BI's long form editor, Aaron Gell, for spending so much time helping me get this story into shape. It was a doozy! Thanks also Daniel McMahon and Jill Klausen for saving me from so many typos. 

*Correction, April 28, 2014: This post originally misstated the name of Google's Street View technology. (Return.)

Nicholas Carlson is chief correspondent at Business Insider. Follow him on Twitter.