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High Flier

March 17, 2012
by Joe Brown
Eric Schmidt

CAA’s 2012 Alumnus of the Year Eric Schmidt, M.S. ‘79, Ph.D. ‘82, is a man of unusual hobbies as well as talents.

If you’re curious about Eric Schmidt, M.S. ’79, Ph.D. ’82, there’s really no need to read on. As Schmidt himself says, “Just Google me.”

He’s still a scientist, yes, and still the computer geek you remember. But a few clicks on Google will also reveal many other sides of Schmidt: Executive Chairman of Google (formerly CEO), scientist, venture capitalist, statesman, art collector, controversy magnet, very, very (very) rich man.

And now, one more click on Google will reveal yet another search result: Cal Alumnus of the Year.

It’s hard to remember a time before “Google” was a verb and Schmidt—along with company cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page—was a household name, and the face of one of the major technological forces accelerating and reshaping the world.

It was Schmidt who guided the company through the quixotic decade of unparalleled growth and innovation. He was at the helm when Google figured out how to make its search service pay. He led the company into nearly all areas of business, politics, culture, and life. When he started at Google, he was 45, hardly old by any ordinary-world measure. But in the get-’em-while-they’re-young culture of Silicon Valley start-ups, Schmidt was marked as the designated grown-up. Now, at 56, he remains something of the firm’s father figure.

These days, as Google’s interests have become quite a bit broader than they once were—competition, privacy, patent reform, copyright, H1-B visa reform, renewable energy, and on and on—Schmidt spends much of his time in his native Washington, D.C., and in world technology capitols.

Although he considers himself to be first and foremost a scientist, Schmidt is now known as a corporate lightning rod, technological explainer, and ambassador for one of the world’s most important companies. And though he makes a lot of speeches as part of his job, Schmidt generally tries to keep the media focus off himself, preferring to speak on behalf of the company and the global issues surrounding it. As such, Schmidt has said he doesn’t normally accept awards. But he made an exception for the CAA Alumnus of the Year.

“I’m trying to be appropriately celebratory,” he says dryly, drolly, after being congratulated on being honored. “When I was a student at Berkeley, it never would have occurred to me that I would be recognized by Berkeley for anything.” Google’s executive chairman has set aside 30 minutes from his packed schedule for an in-person interview with California magazine. The one-on-one has morphed into an eight-on-one, as the allotted time has to do quadruple duty as photo shoot, video session, and meet-and-greet with alumni association executives bearing blue-and-gold gifts.

A squadron of artists, technicians, executives, and a journalist have assembled two hours ahead of the appointed time on the Google campus in Mountain View. On this warm, sunny autumn afternoon, the green open spaces between buildings at the 26-acre Googleplex conjure an idealized college experience: Shirtless dudes play volleyball in a sandpit, and the tang of chlorine from an outdoor lap pool meets the aromas of barbecue and Indian spices. International visitors and tech-tourists gather at picnic tables on the lawn, which is graphically punctuated with busts of aquatic heroes such as Jacques Cousteau—other explorers of the deep.

We shuffle into a Google media production studio. Two hours pass. It’s not unlike waiting for a rock star or a movie icon.

When Eric Schmidt finally arrives, he quietly explains that his Ferrari broke down on 101 South. At rush hour. It’s an old model, he explains. Not flashy.

Although he is one of the tech world’s superstars, Schmidt likes to travel without an entourage. A discreet minder whisks him into an elevated director’s chair in a waiting studio, where Schmidt is surrounded by photographers positioning him, while the stylist fusses, interrupts, and mics his lapel.

Whether it’s the presence of all the cameras, or that he is so experienced at this sort of thing, or that his every word is scrutinized for newsworthiness and potential controversy—Schmidt’s answers are precise and polished.

So what, exactly, does a superexecutive do all day?

He’s just returned from Capitol Hill, where he gave his first Congressional testimony on Google’s business practices. That, he says, was “a tough day.” Yesterday, however, was “a normal workday”: Schmidt gave a speech to all the Google employees, then spent the afternoon in management meetings, working on “overall management and strategic areas, mobile devices.”

How did it feel when, after an eventful decade of piloting Google as CEO, Schmidt last year handed the corporate reins to Larry Page and assumed the title of executive chairman?

Schmidt says, “I was CEO for 10 years, and that’s plenty. Now Larry can be CEO. And we’ve worked together as a team forever, of course.

“In my new job, I spend most of my time on external deals, communications; I give a speech a day. I do a lot of press, and I travel almost nonstop,” Schmidt says. The little free time he has he spends at his home in Atherton.

Schmidt’s impressive professional CV shows he’s up to the job: He held a series of technical positions with IT companies, including Bell Labs and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He joined Sun Microsystems in 1983 as its first software manager, and became director of software engineering, vice president and general manager of the software products division, and ultimately president of Sun Technology Enterprises.

In 1997, he became CEO and chairman of the board of Novell. And after he left that company, he was interviewed by Google founders Page and Brin, who invited him to run their company in 2001, under the guidance of venture capitalists John Doerr and Michael Moritz.

But before all of that, Eric Schmidt was a Cal graduate student. He still remembers late nights, fast-food joints, getting an A+—and best friends.

“I was a very nerdy student,” he says. “A programmer. And I really went to Berkeley because the program set up by the faculty at the time was literally the best in computer science that I could get into.”

Schmidt apparently thinks he didn’t give a complete answer, so he pauses and rephrases, something that happens several times during the interview. “The computer science program at Berkeley was one of the best in the nation,” he says, “And the faculty were particularly welcoming and interested in my sort of approach and style. Much of computer science at the time was very theoretical. And I was interested in doing things—making things happen. And Berkeley was an unusual combination of some of the best theoreticians in the world, as well as very strong programs around making things happen, literally writing code to change the world.”

Schmidt would like his Cal contemporaries to remember him as a serious student, and a very social one. Urged to reach back for amusing or enlightening grad-student memories, he obliges with an anecdote that hints at his wilder side: “To combat the image that people had of engineers, I of course had my motorcycle with my black leathers,” he says. “So I would go to computer science class in my leather outfit with my helmet in hand. It didn’t seem to make the grades any better or worse. It certainly made me a lot cooler.”

While on the subject of his Berkeley days, Schmidt suddenly, urgently wants to celebrate best friend and mentor Bill Joy, M.S. ’79, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, who, along with Schmidt, played an integral role in the development of BSD UNIX.

“In my view,” Schmidt says, “this honor should really go to another graduate of Berkeley, Bill Joy, who during the 1970s when I was at Berkeley defined the entire era of computer science for us.” One of Schmidt’s first assignments was to write something called a lexical analyzer. “Well, I had written one over the summer, so I wrote one again in class. He gave me an A+, and we [have been] friends ever since.

“Bill defined an era of computer science and programming that led to Berkeley UNIX. Berkeley UNIX became the basis for the operating system that was used by Sun Microsystems and many other platforms over the next decade. Many people believe that the modern Internet is a direct successor of the work that was done at Berkeley by Bill Joy and the team that he led.”

Joy, when contacted, is happy to share the credit and return a few compliments. “Looking at computing today, it is clear that the most important ideas originated at Bell Labs and PARC, and adapted by myself, Eric, and others into Berkeley UNIX.

“Eric, before coming to and while at Berkeley had, more than any person I know, truly intimate understanding of and connections to the work in both Bell Labs and PARC. It is no surprise to me that, after working at Sun Microsystems with me, Eric went on to such success at Google.”

After his ode to Joy, Schmidt also wants to point out that one of the four in his study group was Randy Katz, M.S. ’78, Ph.D. ’80, who invented much of the modern storage architecture that Google uses today. “Amazing,” says Schmidt.

Katz, now a senior professor at Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, attests to Schmidt’s combination of playfulness and seriousness of purpose. “I do remember Eric’s motorcycle, and the fear it caused in his mother,” says Katz. “Little did she realize he would be driving a Ferrari someday.” He remembers Schmidt as cultivating “a certain laid-back, good Southern old-boy personality.”

“I kind of think of Eric in those terms often attributed to Southern women: a steel fist in a velvet glove,” Katz says. “He is a real gentleman, courtly and refined, and good at putting people at their ease—but when he has to, he is as tough and as driven as any high-flying executive.

“I always expected him—and still do—to end his career in some high-level job in Washington, something like Secretary of Commerce. His expertise would certainly help give a 21st-century kick to the way we think about job creation, regulation, and doing business in this country.”

As a scientist, Schmidt says, he never could have imagined having to speak to the ever-increasing range of personal and global issues that he is called on to address today: privacy and Net neutrality, intellectual property and piracy, international censorship and freedom, health initiatives and communication. At Berkeley, he had been part of a close community of engineers. “So when we [at Google] crossed over, when all of a sudden people started to ask us our opinion of things that were not in engineering, it was sort of a shock.” And with that “celebrity,” he says, comes a responsibility to speak out on things that matter to the globe—”and to get the facts right.”

He takes it back to World War II, for example, and the postwar era. “Scientists from Berkeley spoke out on the dangers of nuclear war, on atomic proliferation and things like this. And it was the scientists that got people concerned. It was the scientists who spoke out to make the world a better place. And that’s a responsibility that I think I and others have.”

As a Cal student, Schmidt says, he studied the success and comportment of the many distinguished lecturers invited to speak to the International House audience. “I wanted a global perspective, which I got when I was at Berkeley.”

Schmidt once famously said, “Search has changed people’s lives.” And Google’s original mission statement was (and still is) “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

He has seen for himself how that accessibility has changed both teaching and learning at Cal. In his day, he says, students worked solely from textbooks and research, which meant going to the library. Now, as soon as the professor says anything, they can “immediately look it up. So education changes as a result of search. I think life changes because of search.”

Google, of course, is a particular, peculiar Bay Area admixture of the blue and the red—the cultures of Cal and Stanford.

“The computer science programs at Stanford and Berkeley are very competitive, and that competition benefits us all,” Schmidt says, sounding amused or, more likely, bemused. “Let’s just say that the two founders of Google are from Stanford; I of course, am from Berkeley, and we balanced each other out. But we brought some of the top, top smartest people in the world out of Berkeley and at Stanford here to Google, one of the reasons Google is so successful.

“We have actually tracked the percentage between Stanford and Berkeley, and there’s more from Stanford, but I think it’s because they have a geographical advantage.” He grins. Next question.

Google has helped fund a number of search initiatives within Berkeley, as well as providing jobs for top graduates. “And we love that,” Schmidt says.

To Schmidt, the global reach of the Internet means that the technology and business opportunities for computer scientists and engineers are vast. “One of the messages that is most important to deliver, in my view, is that the way America gets out of its current mess is through innovation. And the way innovation occurs is because of those two or three graduate students working hard in the lab with their favorite young assistant professor, and they discover something new.”

But success, he makes clear, is dependent on mutual cooperation. “Imagine a school where everyone’s information is hyperlinked, and all the work is in one big set of servers—again, powered by Google. All of a sudden the sharing and knowledge occurs much more quickly.” And, he adds, “we can do things that we could never do by ourselves.”

Which, if you think about it, is kind of the very definition of a university.

So, is there anything Google doesn’t know about Eric Schmidt?

“First, almost everything that everyone should know is on Google,” he says, his voice wry and dry. “If it’s not, it’s a bug.”

He pauses, and comes up with something: “Perhaps the most interesting thing about me that people don’t know is that I’m an airline transport pilot, and I fly jets.”

It turns out that Google knows about that, too, of course. But carry on.

Schmidt, who flies a company jet around the world, says he became interested in flying in the 1990s, when he was working at Novell and “needed a distraction.” Flying, he says, involves intense focus or “you’ll sort of die.” And the mild-mannered Schmidt also seems to enjoy speed in general—hence the motorcycle, the Ferrari, the jets, which together smack a bit of nerd’s revenge.

“Well, I enjoy 1-G travel,” he says, chuckling softly.

He has apparently made his peace with how much Google knows about him. “The fact of the matter is that as a public figure, you tend to lose a lot of privacy and people tend to know what you’re doing, and I think that’s par for the course.”

And being so distinctly high-profile won’t hurt him in the next phase of his life: philanthropy. He and his wife, Wendy, M.J. ’81, founded the Eric Schmidt Family Foundation to address issues of sustainability and responsible use of natural resources.

“For me, the next step is to have a more global public stage around the things that we care about,” Schmidt says, as the lights shut down and the camera operators prepare for some outdoor shots. “The values and the lessons from Berkeley and from Silicon Valley are not universally shared around the globe. It’s important that people like myself speak out and try to be heard, to try to make sure that governance and policies and understanding of technology and information are done in a way that’s right.”

Meanwhile, he says, he’s looking forward to seeing his former Cal classmates again, perhaps at the Charter Gala.

“This is perhaps the most significant award I’m likely to get in my life, simply because it ties the beginning and end of my career,” Schmidt says. “Berkeley was the place that taught me how to operate at this level. Berkeley was the place that gave me the aspiration to do what I have been able to do. And Berkeley introduced me to the people who made that happen—how would I know that I would have met Bill Joy, all the UNIX stuff, my family and everything. I had no idea that all of that was going to occur the day I showed up at Berkeley. But thank God it did.”

And Cal classmates like Randy Katz are eager to see their old friend again, too.

“It really has been a pleasure to see how Eric—and many other Berkeley CS graduates—have gone on to amazing, highly visible, and highly successful careers,” says Katz. “He has had a hand in changing the world—putting the world’s information at your fingertips—and how many people can say something like that?”

Joe Brown, who has worked as a writer and editor for more than 25 years, has been fascinated with tech since he got his first transistor radio. He now works as an editor at tech news website D: All Things Digital.
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