Arbiters of Cyberspace - The Google Guys

The Google Guys: Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Chapter 1 Arbiters of Cyberspace

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ptolemy I was a childhood friend of Alexander’s. Born in Macedonia, a Greek-speaking region at Greece’s northern border, they arrived at the peak of Macedonia’s power. The Greeks, however, considered Macedonians to be barbarians, and refused, for example, to allow them to join in the Olympic games. Alexander’s father, King Philip II of Macedonia, changed the status quo by conquering the Greek city-states and uniting them under one country. Although a ruthless conqueror, Philip instilled in his son a dedication to Greek culture. As a youth, Alexander studied under Aristotle, who taught him philosophy, science, medicine, rhetoric, and literature. Philip’s goal, passed on to Alexander, was to spread the enlightenment of Greek culture to the rest of the world. His friend Ptolemy, who studied with him and was a historian and a poet, was the one who accomplished this by creating his library at Alexandria. Alexander and Ptolemy were conquerors, but they were also idealists, trying to spread Greek learning, literature, art, and science throughout the world.

Larry and Sergey’s families came from just beyond the outskirts of the status quo. Before either of them was born, their families crossed that border into academic life. They lacked the wealth, the connections to the business elite, and the capitalist instincts that Bill Gates showed when he was still in high school. But neither did they rise from extreme poverty as did Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel who drove the company to great heights after arriving in the United States as a young, brilliant, and penniless Hungarian refugee with a bulldog determination to thrive.

Larry and Sergey came from highly intellectual families that had faced more than their share of battles against powerful institutions. Larry’s family waged labor union battles against the American auto industry, while Sergey’s family suffered through government oppression and discrimination in the Soviet Union.

The Leftist

Larry has more in common with left-wing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore than with Microsoft founder William H. Gates. Larry’s family had working-class roots in the General Motors company town of Flint, Michigan, the hometown of Moore portrayed in his film Roger and Me.

Larry’s grandfather was an autoworker and a politically leftist member of the Teamsters during its antagonistic battles with the youthful auto industry. The union was led by factions with communist influence. Larry’s grandfather participated in possibly the greatest labor struggle of the early twentieth century, the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937, when the workers took over a major auto factory. Larry still keeps a memento from those days: a hammer that his grandfather carried with him for protection during the acrimonious strike.

But Larry’s father, Carl, broke out of that environment and became a leading computer scientist, a talent his sons inherited. Born in 1938, Carl Page survived childhood polio, which left him somewhat fragile throughout his life. He was also the first person in the family to graduate from high school (in 1956). He then went on to the University of Michigan to study engineering. While still an undergraduate in 1959, Carl Page was hired to work in the university’s Logic of Computers Group, a pioneering research team headed by legendary computer scientists such as Art Burks and John Holland. He earned two bachelor of science degrees in engineering in 1960, one of them in the specialty field of computer science—the first graduate with a degree in that field at the University of Michigan. In 1965, he earned his Ph.D. in computer science from the same university.

The sixties was the time of Sputnik and the race to the moon, when good computer scientists were in demand from the aerospace industry, but Carl decided to remain in academia. After graduating, he had a short stint teaching at the University of North Carolina, but returned to Michigan (where Larry was born in 1973) and joined the faculty of Michigan State University in 1967. Although MSU did not have the prestige of the University of Michigan, Carl was a talented pioneer in computer artificial intelligence. He was also a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the 1974/75 academic year, and spent a year as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in 1978.

Most of the Page family is scientifically and academically oriented. Larry’s mother, Gloria W. Page, taught computer programming at Michigan State. (His parents were later divorced.) He has an older brother, Carl, Jr., who served as his entrepreneurial role model. After earning a master of science degree at the University of Michigan, Carl, Jr., went on to become cofounder of a dot-com company called eGroups, which was sold to Yahoo in the summer of 2000 for $432 million in stock. Larry’s younger sister, Beverly, still lives in Michigan. Sadly, their father, Carl, Sr., died of pneumonia in 1996, just as Larry was starting the research to create Google. The loss affected him deeply.

The Tinkerer

Coming from such a computer-literate family, Larry Page naturally developed an early fondness for computers. In 1979, when he was six, his family obtained a very early home computer called the Exidy Sorcerer. His brother wrote an operating system for the machine, not long before a young company called Microsoft began modifying an operating system for the first IBM PC. With the help of a homemade typing program and a dot-matrix printer, Larry used the computer as a word processor to complete an assignment for a school class. It was the first time anyone at the school had ever seen something produced on a word processor—or heard of such a thing.

Larry attended a Montessori school early on, and thrived in its self-paced learning environment. His parents encouraged his curiosity and love of tinkering. When Larry was nine, his brother gave him a set of screwdrivers, and he immediately set to work dismantling every power tool around the house he could get his hands on. The popular account is that his parents were less than thrilled because he couldn’t put them back together again.

It’s an event that Larry laughs about today. When I ran into him at Google recently, I asked him if the story was true. He looked up and smiled. It wasn’t that he couldn’t put the tools back together, he said. “I just didn’t.”

That’s believable, because he has always been more likely to build things than tear them apart. He got his undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Michigan in 1995, winning many honors, including the university’s first Outstanding Student Award. But he’s fonder of telling people how he built a working programmable plotter and inkjet printer in a casing he made out of Lego blocks while at the University of Michigan. He also started showing his entrepreneurial interest at Michigan, taking business classes and joining the LeaderShape program, which teaches its members the skills to be leaders in society.

When he entered the Ph.D. program in computer science at Stanford, he arrived with a strong foundation both in computer science and in liberal politics. As with many academic families, Larry’s had never lost its leftist roots, and remained politically active. When his father died, the family requested that friends give donations to the Democratic Party rather than buying flowers. That political bias dominates Larry’s personality—and that of Google as well. More than 90 percent of political donations by Google employees today go to the Democratic Party, and employees overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008. CEO Eric Schmidt campaigned for Barack Obama and served as one of his economic advisers. Schmidt, Larry, and three other Google executives donated $25,000 each to fund a $150,000 party at Obama’s inauguration.

The Refusenik

If Larry Page carried the hammer of his family’s past, Sergey (or Sergei) Brin carried the sickle. He was born in Moscow, also in 1973, when it was still the seat of power of the old Soviet Union.

Both Larry and Sergey are Jewish, but that ethnicity has affected Sergey’s family more than it has Larry’s. Sergey’s father, Mikhail (changed to Michael when he came to the United States) Brin, was a curmudgeonly intellectual and a gifted mathematician. At first he wanted to study physics at Moscow State University and become an astronomer. But he was turned down because the Communist Party banned Jews from the physics department; the government didn’t want them to have access to Soviet nuclear secrets. So he decided to study mathematics instead, and took the entrance exams in rooms reserved for Jewish students, appallingly nicknamed the “gas chambers.”1 Mikhail graduated with distinction in 1970. Sergey was born three years later.

Considering the Soviet hunger to prove its technological superiority over the United States in the 1970s, a talented mathematician would normally have been recruited into the space program or military research. But this choice was not offered to Mikhail Brin. He wanted to continue his studies at the university, but was turned down, again because of the anti-Semitism prevalent in the USSR.

Without a graduate degree, he settled for a meaningless job at Gosplan, the Russian economic policy planning agency. His Orwellian task was to come up with the right statistics to demonstrate that the standard of living in the Soviet Union was higher than that of the United States. He hated the job, but it was better than being shoved off to some research station in Siberia. His wife, Eugenia, also managed to endure the anti-Semitism and got a degree in mathematics; she later worked in a research lab at the Soviet gas and oil institute.

In his spare time, Mikhail continued his studies in mathematics, and managed to publish papers in respected math journals. He probably would have had an easier time getting a Ph.D. in economics, but he obviously did not have much love of Soviet-style economics and was more interested in an academic career. He convinced two lecturers to be his advisers for a doctorate in mathematics, submitted his thesis to Kharkov National University in the Ukraine, a backwater compared to Moscow, and earned his Ph.D. in 1975. “He pursued his work against great odds,” says Anatoly Katok, a longtime friend and colleague from Moscow. “There was resistance from the establishment. They didn’t want Jews and they didn’t want outsiders.”

In 1977, Mikhail attended an international conference, where he met foreign researchers and academics. It was a life-changing event. He went home that night and told his wife that they had to get out of the country and settle in America, where real opportunities lay. The problem was that just expressing a desire to leave the Soviet Union put them in danger of being declared “refuseniks,” which would have caused even more discrimination.

But the one advantage Russian Jews had at that time was that they were among the few who were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Katok, also a mathematician suffering from the same ethnic advantage as Brin, had developed connections at the University of Maryland, and with their sponsorship, he managed to emigrate first, in 1978, and secured a teaching position at the university. He then worked to help his friend Brin find a position there as well.

In 1978, Brin’s family applied for an emigration permit, one that included Mikhail’s mother. They told the authorities that they wanted to settle in Israel, which is what many Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union did. But applying for emigration got Mikhail fired from his job; Eugenia had to quit hers, and the family had to relinquish its Soviet citizenship. While they were waiting for their application to be reviewed, Mikhail earned money translating technical documents from English to Russian. Without jobs, they struggled for several months, but in 1979 their application was approved—just in time. Soon afterward, the Soviet government ended all emigration.

Leaving almost all their possessions behind, the Brin family set up temporary residence in Paris, often the first stop from Moscow. Some families end up as refugees, stranded in a country for months or years until they manage to obtain a visa to their new country. But Katok and other colleagues helped Mikhail (now Michael) secure a visa and a teaching position at the University of Maryland.

“Both myself and Michael Brin were fortunate because there was tremendous empathy and solidarity from our colleagues,” says Katok. “We were able to avoid being refugees in the usual sense.”

Sergey didn’t know the extent of the anti-Semitism his parents faced until much later in life. But it affected him nevertheless; he has said that even as a child he never felt at home in Russia. Although the family was never deeply religious, Sergey has visited Israel three times, the first time as a teenager with his family. While there in 2008, he gave a rare interview to Ha’aretz magazine, and confirmed that the difficulties his family had experienced in Russia “certainly had a significant effect on my life subsequently.” He noted, “My family had a lot of challenges in the Soviet Union.... I think that just kind of gave me a different perspective in life.”2

The Brins had very little when they reached the United States. Sergey told Ha’aretz: “The U.S. was very good to us. It was a great place, but we started with nothing. We were poor. . . . When we first moved to the States we rented a little house, and my parents didn’t have a proper room to sleep in. They had to wall off the kitchen. It was a very humble beginning.”

What role did this play in molding his character as an entrepreneur? “We learned to get by,” Sergey said. “I think being scrappy and getting by is important. . . . The most important thing is the background [of being Jewish]—of just having gone through hardship and being able to survive and thrive. I think that’s at the core of the Jewish experience.” But he never went through the process of having a Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen. “At least in the U.S., bar mitzvahs are associated with getting lots of gifts and money, and I was never comfortable with that.”

The Math Prodigy

The family did thrive, although not nearly to the extent Sergey has. Michael Brin is now a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland. His mother—over sixty when the family emigrated—taught Russian for several years at the University of Maryland. Eugenia became a scientist at NASA. Sergey was six years old when his family landed in Maryland. His brother, Sam, was born in Maryland in 1988.

The elder Brin is still a curmudgeonly and short-tempered man, although, says Kenneth Berg, a fellow professor at the University of Maryland, “There is not a ruthless bone in his body.” But he was a tough professor, gruff enough to hand graded papers back with the comment “My sincere condolences.” He’s also a stern parent. “Michael has always been very demanding and judgmental,” says Katok. “Sergey was certainly very bright, but kind of quiet. His dad had exacting standards and I don’t think at an early age he really appreciated the brilliance of his son.”

Michael Brin discovered his son’s promise one day when Sergey was eight or nine years old. Katok and other colleagues from the university were sitting around the Brin house listening to Michael complain about how stupid his undergrads were. He had tried giving them a graduate-level math problem, just a little above the capabilities of most undergrads, he grumbled, yet not one of the students had had the brains to solve it.

Sergey, who had been quietly sitting in the corner, decided to speak up, and in his “squeaky little voice,” according to Katok, offered a solution to the problem. At first, his father dismissed him. Katok then interjected: “No, Michael. That’s the correct answer.” Adds Katok: “In my memory, it was the first time Michael took his son seriously.”

Sergey was also fascinated with computers at an early age. He got his first computer, a Commodore 64, around 1982, when he was nine years old. He soon discovered the Internet. For a while, he frequented primitive chat rooms, then called IRCs, or Internet relay chats, but later recalled that he grew bored with them once they became dominated by “10-year-old boys trying to talk about sex.”3 He, on the other hand, was a ten-year-old boy interested in computer games, and graduated to multi-user dungeons (MUDs) where computer whiz kids stayed up late to battle each other as virtual warriors. He even wrote his own MUD game.

Like Larry, Sergey also attended a Montessori school until about age ten, and was quite happy there. But he was bored with high school and dropped out after three years. There was simply nothing left for him to learn there. His father started calling him the “high-school dropout.” Instead, however, he applied to the University of Maryland and was accepted a year earlier than the average high-school graduate. He was taking senior-level mathematics classes after about a year, and took several graduate-level courses before he graduated. He also took summer jobs at prestigious research labs at Wolfram Research, General Electric Information Services, and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

Around 1993, he downloaded an early version of Mosaic, the graphical interface that evolved into the Netscape browser and turned the esoteric Internet into the point-and-click World Wide Web, leading millions of people online. “I thought it was pretty cool,” he said in January 2000. “It was a fun thing to play with.”4

Kenneth Berg, from whom Sergey took a differential equations course at the University of Maryland, knew he was a very promising mathematician. Berg recalls writing on the board a geometrical proof of a problem when Sergey politely raised his hand and explained, from a purely conceptual level, why that proof could not possibly be true. Berg looked at the board and realized he had written down the proof incorrectly.

“It was really impressive,” Berg says. “He really understood how to think mathematically from a very young age.” Even then, adds Berg, Sergey offered his opinion without arrogance. “He simply saw something wrong” and felt the need to correct it, says Berg. Still, no one today would accuse Sergey of any lack in the ego department. He always had a tendency to correct teachers, professors, and colleagues, and retains that habit today.

Still, Berg adds, “He’s a super nice guy. There’s a gentle spirit about him. He seems to be somebody who wants to use his intellect to do good.”

Sergey graduated in 1993 with a dual degree in math and computer science, and entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford in 1994. He had turned out to be such a brilliant mathematician that his father expected big things from him. But business mogul was not one of them. After Google was started, Michael Brin told the University of Maryland student newspaper, “I expected him to get his Ph.D. and become somebody, maybe a professor.”

Dr. Larry Brilliant, who is now chief philanthropy evangelist at, the company’s philanthropic arm, believes that both Larry’s and Sergey’s family backgrounds are what make them idealists with a tendency to favor small corporations and individuals over the business elite. “Inside their minds, what’s at the core of Larry and Sergey—and they’ll disagree on this, so it’s not like it’s an absolute—but they come from a very moral base,” he says. “Sergey was raised in the Soviet Union and his family went through a hell of a lot. He doesn’t ever want to see that happen again. He approaches things not necessarily looking at them from the top of the food chain. He’s much more sympathetic to regular people.”

There’s no denying Sergey’s brilliance. In fact, when he joined the Ph.D. program at Stanford, he passed all his qualifying exams in the first couple of months after arriving. Most students don’t pass all the exams until their third year. That meant he didn’t actually have to take any classes—just write a thesis in order to get the degree (which he never did). “Sergey didn’t have to take the Ph.D. program seriously,” says Scott Hassan, a grad student at Stanford who worked with him (and later went on to cofound his own company, eGroups, now part of Yahoo).

But Sergey Brin is not simply a pasty geek with no life outside his math and his computers. He’s an athlete with many interests: dancing, sailing, gymnastics. He trained on the trapeze as a youth and once said he seriously considered running off to join the circus. He’s physically fit and known to walk around on his hands for the fun of it (and to impress women).

He’s a competitive swimmer, and when he first entered the graduate program at Stanford, his father groused that he “majored in swimming.” Michael Brin has claimed that the only course Sergey ever took at Stanford that required him to write a paper was one on computer cryptology. When he asked his son if he was planning on taking any advanced classes, Sergey reportedly answered he was “thinking about advanced swimming.” His father didn’t know about Sergey’s fondness for skinny-dipping with friends or picking locks to office doors in the old Economics Building at Stanford. “He’s a phenomenal lock pick,” says Brian Lent, a former Stanford colleague. But Lent insists they never did anything illegal, such as entering the dean’s office to change grades. But they thought about it.

As smart, precocious boys with access to education and technology in the 1980s, both Sergey and Larry became very early users of the Internet, absorbing its culture, the world of Dungeons & Dragons and MUDs, and the free software on offer.

The Shire

Sergey and Larry are the hobbits of the Shire of the Internet. Although they were born a generation after Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer’s cofounder and the original technology hobbit, they were more like him than like Steve Jobs or most of the Bubble generation of Internet entrepreneurs.

Internet technologists are comfortably rooted in their personal shire of science and technology and academe, leagues away from the turmoil of the modern business world. Many of them have day jobs. They’re prone to being easy-going pranksters with a fondness for a good online party with others like them. In 2001, when the first Lord of the Rings movie was released, Larry and Sergey rented out an entire theater and took the Google staff to see it.

They grew up in an environment that encouraged open programming, and they shared their creations freely in the academic tradition. What college student doesn’t appreciate free beer, music, games, programs, and information to get them through the next exam? The Internet provides everything but the beer.

Larry not only used Legos to build a computer printer in grade school, he repeated the stunt when he built Google’s first computer server at Stanford. However, he did not actually use Legos at Stanford, but rather knockoffs of larger blocks called Duplos. “They’re imitation Duplos, because they were cheaper than the real thing,” Sergey once explained. “This turned out to be a big mistake, because the tolerances [the deviations in the way the parts fit together] on the imitation Duplos are much worse than the tolerances on real Duplos, and as a result our system would crash from time to time, because these things would fall apart and the whole disc array would go down and you couldn’t do any searches.”5 (The device is now on display in the Gates engineering building at Stanford.)

Even today, Sergey and Larry—especially Larry—are still shy when outside the circle of other technologists. In person, they don’t generate that air of superiority so common in Silicon Valley CEOs. They even seem deferential. Still, having succeeded so effectively in school and as entrepreneurs, they developed the luxury of rarely dealing with outsiders, a trait that many people see as arrogant and dismissive—which it often is.

When Larry and Sergey met at Stanford and started working together, they found they shared not only a profound love of computers, but also a strong left-wing bias and a devil-may-care attitude. They distrusted business moguls.

This is true also of the rest of the technology elite who helped build the Internet. The original designers of the Internet never intended it to reach out and touch anyone beyond the domain of the universities and government labs for which it was created. These groups used the Internet to share their research, ideas, and software programs—all for free. Most of them are advocates of the Open Source movement, which believes technology standards should be built not on patented, corporate-owned software, but on generally agreed-upon technology available to anyone. They contributed technology to the Internet’s growth as well. In the 1980s, the Internet started quietly growing in capability right alongside the much noisier personal computer industry.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 1990s. Since anyone sufficiently technical could tap into the Internet with their own computer, it was soon co-opted by groups of invaders its builders never envisioned. The true Internet pioneers were hackers, online game players, software pirates, and independent programmers who wanted to share their creations with the world. The Open Source advocates soon came to power.

But Larry and Sergey have now ventured beyond the truly dedicated Open Source movement by creating a corporate giant. And for that, most of the Internet purists have labeled them as evil. Blog postings from the tech elite complain that the pair has created a dangerous monopoly, a huge corporation that is taking over the Internet, filing patents and exploiting the Internet for profit.

Larry and Sergey still dominate Google. One or both of them—usually Larry—still interviews major candidates for employment, particularly those in engineering. They are rabidly dedicated to Google, and promote its mission—to organize and make available all the world’s information—with the zeal of evangelical cultists. And they’re willing to take on anyone, or any company, that stands in their way.