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Jonathan Rosenberg, We Hardly Knew Ye (But Googlers Did)

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Yesterday Google announced that Jonathan Rosenberg, the senior VP who heads product management, will be leaving this summer.  The reason is interesting in itself: the once and (as of yesterday) current CEO Larry Page asked a number of top execs to commit to staying at Google for the next few years, during which the company would push hard in new initiatives.   Rosenberg, who had long planned to depart about the time his youngest daughter reached college age, declined to commit.   (Google could not name for me another executive who similarly failed to re-up.)   He did tell the San Jose Mercury News that he would be writing a book with Eric Schmidt.  (That brings the total of books Schmidt is writing with current or former Googlers to two, and Eric’s been out of the CEO role for only a day.)

Rosenberg was not well known outside the company, but a major force within.  As the exec who oversaw products, he was the boss of many of key Googlers who worked in search, apps and other areas.  (For instance, Marissa Mayer reported to him.)

It took me a while to arrange an interview with him for IN THE PLEX. Though he often participates in quarterly earnings calls with analysts and the press, he rarely sits down with journalists.  But I found him candid and fun to talk to.  Here’s what he said about the concept of Google being a chaotic company, and his role in company management:

Rosenberg:  “I don’t measure myself by my ability to reduce the chaos. I measure myself by my ability to feed resources to the best most exciting opportunities that we think can win, and at the same time try to create as many of those opportunities bubbling up [as we can]  that can be the next set of winners.  So it is chaos. I think the criticism is valid. but it’s also like the Winston Churchill democracy quote: ‘Democracy is a horrible form of government, except when you compare it to all the others.’ I don’t know a better way to do what we’re trying to do.”

Rosenberg will leave Google a very rich man, an outcome that he foresaw when he took the job in 2001, after turning it down several times, in part because he wasn’t offered a big enough stake in the company.  What finally convinced him was Eric Schmidt’s insistence that he sit down with Google’s CFO and go over the company’s financials, then a closely protected secret.  No one outside the company knew how much money Google was making   Rosenberg later described the moment to me:  “I came out of the room and I said, “Okay, I made poor choices saying no, and what are you offering now?’”

Even though Rosenberg was not an engineer, the founders respected him.  He had a rocky first year when figuring out that Google was not a company where executives directed employees, but presented data that would convince employees to share their views.   And he was smart.  Here is an example:  When interviewing for the job, he was asked to make a presentation to the top executives.  He had just prepared a talk, and suggested that he give it as his audition.  But he made a change:  knowing that Sergey Brin was supposed to be some sort of math Olympian, he introduced a subtle error in a spreadsheet calculation.  When he gave the talk, he stopped when the spreadsheet came up and stared at the screen.

Rosenberg: “And I look at it and I said, you know what, that’s a mistake. There’s got to be a mistake in one of the spreadsheets, because it should be about an eighth of that, and I look at it and I immediately dig into the linked Excel spreadsheet and fix it, and then before I fix it I say, ‘You know, this should actually divide it by eight which should come around to 16.5.’ Sergey’s like, “No, 16.7 or so.? And I’m like, “No, it’s actually like 16.58 maybe,’ and then of course, the answer is correct. So Sergey is sitting there thinking, like, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool.’”

One other consequence of Rosenberg’s departure:  a lot less profanity in executive meetings.  That guy had a mouth.   He was kind of like the Louis CK of Google.

Who will replace Jonathan Rosenberg?  Not clear now.  One possibility: Larry will claim he can do the job himself.