ChannelLife NZ - Goggle-eyed over Google

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Goggle-eyed over Google

Google’s Engineering Director, Craig Nevill-Manning is a Kiwi born and bred and has recently been named a World Class New Zealander. The Channel talks to him about his nomination, his work ethic and his ‘Kiwiness’.

The World Class New Zealander awards are run by the Kiwi Expat Association, known as Kea New Zealand, to recognise New Zealand’s “tallest poppies” from all industries. With over 25,000 members in its talent network of expats, Kea New Zealand’s CEO, Ivan Moss, says “the network holds huge value for all New Zealanders, particularly when it comes to promoting New Zealand internationally and building global connections”. Nevill-Manning has found this to be true, explaining: “In the last few years this organisation Kea [...] has been a great way of connecting with other New Zealanders, especially on a business level”. Nevill-Manning is the winner of the Information and Communications Technology category, most notably for his contributions to the Maori language option on Google, and is among eight winners, including fashion designer Karen Walker. The supreme award will be announced at an awards ceremony in Auckland at the beginning of April.
Nevill-Manning says he was nominated for the award by “some mysterious person”, whom he has not yet identified. Despite this he is “thrilled” and “pretty surprised” to have been chosen. “It was a great honour, although I have to say it feels like I’m being honoured on behalf of a lot of other people’s work,” he added modestly, referring in particular to the huge effort made by the translators who worked on the Google Maori project, which has had a surprisingly strong user uptake.
He will be coming back to Auckland for the ceremony in early April, where he will receive his trophy, however, it is unlikely to make it home to his New York residence as it will probably end up on his parents’ mantelpiece in New Zealand. Apart from visits to his family two to three times a year, Nevill-Manning maintains his ties to his home country through a number of other projects and ventures, not least the Google Maori endeavour. He provides support for Greenstone, an open New Zealand digital library project that helps to share knowledge with the developing world. Google also sponsors ICT programs in New Zealand, such as the Computer Science Unplugged program run out of Canterbury University, and research internships for New Zealand PhD students at the Google offices.
The story really began, however, when Nevill-Manning became friends with Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, when they were at Stanford University together. Although he turned down their original offer to co-found Google, he joined them just two years later. More recently he has been managing the company’s first remote engineering centre in New York, where he is an engineering director. However, he has recently found that he misses “getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the technology”. He has now cut back on his management workload and started writing code again. “I’ve got some ideas for some new products and new ways for us to approach search at Google,” he confides. “I try to spend a couple of days writing code and building prototypes and getting a sense of whether it is going to be successful.” 
Building prototypes is something that Nevill-Manning sees as essential to the Google philosophy. He sees getting to the core of the problem and building a prototype that either proves or disproves the concept as one of the keys to innovation. “I’m a big proponent of building things very quickly, seeing how they work, and then iterating, and that’s something that Google does on a larger scale,” he explains. By building products quickly internally and getting them out to the public, the company can make improvements faster. “Part of the polish comes from real people using these things day to day and then giving us feedback,” he explains, saying it has worked pretty well for a lot of Google’s products. He suggests that other companies could learn from this, remarking that some products really need to be experimented with and not over-designed. It is this innovation and constant critiquing by staff and external users that have honed the Google applications and product suite, and put them at the forefront of the cloud computing age.
Many of these applications were born out of Nevill-Manning’s Kiwi passion for getting stuck in. “I’m a big fan of building things and I feel that is a fairly strong New Zealand trait – the mythology of the New Zealand pioneer building everything out of number eight wire is not completely without substance.”  Although New Zealanders like to think about things, he says that, at the end of the day, they just want to get their hands dirty. This is a philosophy that he recognises within Google as an organisation, and he muses that  “that’s what maybe sets Google apart from some other organisations [in the States]” where there might be a little bit too much theorising and not enough practice.
As the financial markets dip and swing it is no time to be caught theorising; it is a time to act. Nevill-Manning urges the IT industry “to keep our eyes on the ball”. Although he acknowledges that there will be hard times ahead for many, he affirms “there’s no recession in terms of the amount of innovation that’s going on”. As we’ve often reminded The Channel readers recently, companies must continue to innovate in difficult times, as it is that which sets them apart from the pack and will put them in much better shape for when the markets finally resolve themselves.

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