The Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center’s main auditorium filled with students, faculty and community members Thursday, Feb. 24 for Google’s Vice President of Product Management Marissa Mayer’s presentation, “Innovation at the Googleplex.”
At 11:10 a.m., true to Poly time, the lights in the auditorium dimmed but the room was still brightly lit by computer and iPad screens.
Computer science department chair Ignatios Vakalis took the stage to introduce Mayer and said he was very happy to see a diverse audience in attendance.
“It’s amazing to see so many people from so many different majors out here for this presentation,” he said.
Mayer took the stage and began with the beginnings of Google. She was the first woman hired by the company in 1999, when the company only had eight employees.
“My first job was to hang the sign outside our first office,” she said. “My first big engineering feat.”
Mayer’s colorful PowerPoint presentation followed the life of Google and her role in its development.
“We started in a garage,” she said. “And grew from there.”
Mayer said she and founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were faced with many questions in their startup stage. The most important question to them was, “Why does the world need another search engine?”
To that, Mayer said, “Well if you can do it better than anyone else, why not?”
Google has always been different from other search engines. The turn of the century was a time of flashy websites and fluorescent ads, and Google wasn’t about any of that. The simple, white website Google is famous for was unheard of when it first launched.
Mayer described a study in which they had Stanford students pair up and search. Many students stopped and waited, staring at the computer screen.
“When I asked them what they were waiting for, they said ‘I’m waiting for the rest of it,’” she said. “They were expecting one of those flashy ‘punch the monkey’ sites.”
Money was a question, too. The site’s revenue comes from sidebar ads, which earn them cents every time searchers click on them. Google has created a billion-dollar company based only on nickels and dimes.
Mayer said the ads on the page are designed to make searches easier.
“If you’re searching for concert tickets, the ads that come up might be even more helpful than the search results,” she said. “They’re supposed to make your search experience better.”
Mayer went on to explain the experience of being a Google employee. The eclectic office, complete with T-Rex statues and colorful outdoor patios, is a place where creative thinking is highly encouraged. While Google employees work hard, the company also gives them time to play and to work on projects they’re passionate about.
“We call it ’20 percent time,’” said Mayer. “It’s when our employees can work on whatever they’re most excited about for a whole day.”
While the idea may seem backward for such a successful company, Mayer said 50 percent of Google’s new launches come from these 20 percent time days.
These times have produced changes and innovations like Google Maps, Google Street View, Google Chrome and Citizen Cartographer.
Street View, Mayer said, sounds like a counterintuitive idea. Driving around the whole world in a car with a camera on it doesn’t sound like a productive use of time.
“It’s something we never would have tried in 1999,” she said. “But taking on these challenges and doing something really great is what changes people’s expectations.”
However, there are places where Street View’s camera cars can’t access, and that’s where Citizen Cartographers comes in. The program was inspired by the fact that Africa’s roads are poorly mapped. Citizen Cartographers has satellite images of these remote areas, and experts have gone in and mapped more than 50,000 miles of African roads.
Now focused on the future, Mayer said the company’s biggest project is Google Translator. Currently, the site gives you an automated answer, based on statistical methods. But those methods struggle translating symbolic languages and languages that are read right to left. Mayer’s goal is to be able to translate something from English, to Mandarin, to Hebrew, and back again while still maintaining the main idea of the phrase.
Google is also developing speech and visual recognition. Today, more than 25 percent of searches are done by speech recognition, and soon searchers will be able to photograph easily recognizable things like landmarks and street signs, and learn more about their surroundings.
Google makes more than 1,000 changes each year to its site and all its additions.
“That means we make three or four changes every day,” Mayer said. “Every day Google gets better.”
By the end of the presentation students were filled with questions, and computer engineering freshman Bria Sullivan said she felt inspired.
“She’s kind of amazing,” she said. “She’s the first woman to be hired at Google, and it just goes to show that gender stereotypes are changing.”
Sullivan said she often feels stereotyped for being a woman in a computing major, and was very happy to see Mayer breaking a lot of stereotypes.
Software engineering senior Issa Araj said he thinks a lot like Mayer and was happy to see somebody who thinks creatively became successful in a world that seems to think in a very linear manner.
“It’s really impressive to see that she set the standard,” he said. “Now I see how, if you think far enough outside the box, you can change the standard. You can change what the world expects.”
Cal Poly alumna Michelle Lee drove three hours from her home in the Bay Area to be at the presentation.
“It says something when someone like Marissa Mayer takes time out of her schedule to come here,” she said. “It says a lot that she came here, to Cal Poly.”