Total Pageviews

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Larry Page Gets Personal at Google\'s Conference

Google's I/O developers conference was light on major announcements. But the company's chief executive, Larry Page, made news with a surprise appearance on stage, during which he took questions from software developers in the audience.

Mr. Page's remarks ranged from the need to encourage children to pursue computer science to competition and negativity in the technology industry and people's resistance to technological change.

“Computer science has a marketing problem,” he said, after waxing nostalgic about how his father got him interested in technology when he drove him across the country as a child to attend a robotics conference.

Making computer science cool, he said, is the reason that Google agreed to participate in “The Internship,” a movie scheduled to come out in June, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as Google interns.

Another problem slowing technological progress, he said, is needless competition among tech companies and the media's thirst for reporting on it.

“In every story I read about Google, it's us versus some other company or some stupid thing, and I just don't find that very interesting,” he said. “We should be building great things that don't exist. Being negative is not how we make progress, and the most important things are not zero sum.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Page proceeded to take shots at two of Google's rivals.

In a conversation about developing for Web platforms, he said, “We certainly struggle with people like Microsoft.” In response to a question about the Android operating system and Oracle's Java, he said, “We've had a difficult relationship with Oracle, including having to appear in court.” He added, “I think money is more important to them than having any collaboration.”

A day after revealing that his soft, nasally voice is caused by a medical problem with his vocal cords, Mr. Page said he wished that he had told the full story sooner. For a year, since skipping public events because of his voice, he had refused to explain the problem.

“I had this notion that this stuff should be very private, and I think at least in my case, I should've done it sooner,” he said. He veered into a broader statement on the need for health care reform. People keep their medical history private, he said, because they are worried about being denied insurance. “That makes no sense,” he said. “We should change the rules around insurance so they have to insure people.”

He acknowledged that new technologies and technological change make many people uncomfortable, and he lamented that there is not an easier way to test things in the real world. He showed a bit of his hippie side, saying he wished for a Burning Man type of environment for new technology, where people felt safe trying things.

“In tech, we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society and what is the effect on people, without having to deploy them in the whole world,” Mr. Page said.

Overall, his message seemed to be that technology and the developers to whom he was speaking have the ability to make vast changes in the world. He revealed a bit about his leadership strategy when he said companies should step outside their comfort zones and focus less on incremental progress.

There should be no reason that computers haven't yet solved problems like world hunger, he said.

“As an engineer, a technologist, go to first principles and say, ‘What is the real issue around our power grids?' or ‘What is the real issue around manufacturing?' ” he said. “I think people don't usually answer those questions, and as a result, most of the work done is very incremental and we don't make the progress we need to.”

A version of this article appeared in print on 05/16/2013, on page B11 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Chief in Surprise Appearance at Google Conference.