Eric Schmidt’s career in the IT industry began long before his leadership roles at Google Inc., he reminded a large crowd at Dreamforce, Salesforce.com’s annual conference, last week.

The current executive chairman at Google, Schmidt started his career with Sun Microsystems Inc. as a software manager in 1983, working his way through the ranks before taking on the CEO role at Novell Inc. But it wasn’t until he joined Google as chairman and CEO in 2001 that he really felt “a sense that everything was possible,” he told Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff in their on stage discussion.

Brian Jackson, Associate Editor, ITBusiness.ca
Brian Jackson, Associate Editor, ITBusiness.ca

“Google is still run in a largely decentralized way,” he said. “There’s a surprise every few hours, mostly positive surprises.”

Schmidt talked about a wide range of issues during his “fireside chat” (there was no fire) with Benioff, from his early battles with Microsoft in creating high speed servers to the economic ailments facing the Western world. But he also dished out some dirt on his contemporaries, weighing in with his two cents on some other tech CEOs. Here’s what he had to say:

Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff

Perhaps Schmidt was being overly gracious to his host, but he paid some high praise to Benioff and his leadership of Salesforce.com. The firm was articulating the best vision for how enterprises will organize themselves in the near future, the chairman said.

“It used to be that to do anything in the enterprise, you had to spend $5 million and it was done five years later,” he said, referring to IT projects. “You don’t have to do that anymore.”

The era of PC applications where software was installed on desktops is coming to an end, Schmidt says, and Salesforce.com is one of the leaders in the cloud-computing model that is ushering it out. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a professional, operating at scale and with an incentive to keep you happy? It actually works.”

Apple’s Steve Jobs

When it came to Apple’s recently departed CEO Steve Jobs, Schmidt wasn’t shy about giving compliments.

“It’s certainly the best performance by a CEO in the world in the past 50 years, maybe 100 years. He not only did this once, he did this twice,” Schmidt says. He was referred to Jobs’ charting of Apple’s course to the top of the tech world twice – when he first founded the company and released the Apple II personal computer, and again when he rejoined the company in 1996 and oversaw the invention of many consumer hit electronics devices.

“Apple proves that if you organize around the consumer, the rest will follow,” Schmidt said. “Google runs in a similar way. Try to figure out how to solve a consumer problem and revenue will show up.”

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer

When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is brought up by Benioff, Schmidt’s tone quickly changes. “There’s a difference in ability,” compared to Jobs, he said as the crowd reacted with laughter.

The problem with Microsoft products is that they expose too much complexity, he said. Apple keeps its appearance simple, even though it is built on the complex Unix platform, it managed to hide that.

“I love that complexity,” Schmidt says. “It never occurred to me that other people wouldn’t love it, too.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg

For the CEO that got a big screen treatment in The Social Network, Schmidt says “he will be soon as one of the great leaders of the industry.”

The young CEO is an example of how a newer generation can remap the technology industry by bringing a different visionary view to the table, he said. If your company happens to come across a young person with the drive to achieve their vision with or without you, figure out a way to support them, Schmidt advises. “The kind of people I’m describing do exist, and they exist in every period.”

Himself

Schmidt swapped out of his CEO role and was replaced by Google co-founder Larry Page earlier this year, but reflected back on his decade at the helm as Google experienced incredible growth. Google has earned a profit every year since 2001, and its market capitalization has skyrocketed from $23 billion in its 2004 initial public offering to $166 billion today.

One thing Schmidt credits for his success is Google’s constant improvements that it makes to its product every day.

“You’re much better off if you organize your system around a continuous iteration model,” he says. “Just figure out a way to release a new version of your software every day.”

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  • I think he gives a pretty fair summation here. I think he’s right about Apple trying to make the experience easier for the consumer – it’s one of the reasons why they have a fanatical following.The iPhone is a great example – it makes it easy to surf the next, swap digital business cards and update your social media profiles.