Let’s return to the case of Jeff Huber, Google’s senior vice president of Geo and Commerce.
Last week, we published a story headlined: “Depending On Whom You Ask, This Google Exec Is Either ‘Weak’ Or He Just Drew The Short Straw.”
The story posed this question: Is Huber, as one source told us, the “weakest and least respected member” on Google CEO Larry Page’s staff – OR – has Huber unfairly earned that reputation over the past year because he took on a difficult and sometimes messy job, making some talkative enemies in the process?
In the week since, we’ve spoken to several senior sources at Google, and it’s become clear that in the perspective of these long-time executives the answer is the latter.
Their view is that Huber is a top-notch Google executive who asked for the hardest challenge his boss could give him and he got it – in the form of nascent, unproven products and an executive reporting to him that ended up being vastly under-qualified for her job.
This is the story those sources told us. Google declined to comment. We were unable to reach Huber.
About a year and half ago, Google cofounder Larry Page decided he would like to be CEO again. After he ascended to the role in March, he set about re-organizing the company.
Most of this re-org was simple to conceive and execute. Page delineated Google’s major product and business lines and asked the leaders of those groups to stay in their jobs and just report directly to him.
And so the re-org went – until it came to Google’s ads business.
For the eight years before Page became CEO, Google’s advertising business was run by two executives in partnership: Susan Wojcicki (her garage was an early Google office) and Jeff Huber.
When it came time for the re-org, Page, Huber, and Wojcicki had to decide if it still made sense for the ads business to have two leaders.
According to two senior sources, Huber solved the problem when he went to Page and asked for a new challenge: something other than ads.
Merely for asking for this challenge, Huber gets a lot of credit from his colleagues.
One senior executive on Huber’s staff told us, “Jeff has just an amazing tenacity in terms of being willing to take a chance.”
“If you look at a lot of other people on Larry’s staff they said please keep me doing what I am doing. Jeff said give me whatever’s the hardest. Give me a new challenge. How we are going to double Google’s revenue? Give me that problem.”
So Page gave Huber a challenge.
One Google source told us Page said to Huber: “Google is doing great online. We need to be relevant in the real world.”
Page put Huber in charge of a group that would called Geo and Commerce. The products under his supervision would be Payments, Wallet, Offers, Shopping, Local Search, Maps Earth and Travel.
According to the senior executives we spoke to, Geo and Commerce is considered a particularly difficult group to manage for two reasons.
The first is that it is very large. With 2,500 people, it is the largest group at Google, not including Motorola Mobility. And that’s just full-time Googlers. The “Geo” part of the organization – Local Search, Maps Earth and Travel – has 1,100 full-timers and 6,000 contractors.
The second challenge with the job was that while the “Geo” side of it was, by 2011, already a mature business with lots of successful products, the “Commerce” part was very nascent.
By most accounts, Huber has handled the scale problem well.
Says one senior executive on Huber’s staff: “The amount of stuff this team gets done and what a smooth operation it is, from Street View drivers to people flying planes to people drawing maps to people correcting listings to people building new products is like pretty amazing. Jeff has brought a lot to bear on that.”
One of Huber’s colleagues on Page’s senior leadership staff says there is a reason for this: Huber “creates lightweight processes that people can go to when they need help and direction and guidance.”
A senior executive on Huber’s staff says Huber knows all 2,500 people who work for him.
“Probably of Larry’s staff, [Huber] is the most buttoned-up in terms of knowing what is going on with his [group] – knowing what is going on with hiring, knowing not only the overall numbers in terms of where his team is going but literally knowing people at the new hire level. Knowing them by name, knowing what they are working on, knowing what they are excited about.”
The newness of the Commerce side of Huber’s group has proven to be a more difficult challenge than the scale of Geo.
In fairness to Huber, one big reason for this may be that he inherited an an executive running that side of the organization who, according to the sources we spoke to, was not a good fit for the job.
That’s Stephanie Tilenius, the ex-PayPal executive who, in 2011 launched what looks to be a failed product, Google Wallet.
One of the senior Google executives on Huber’s staff told us Tilenius didn’t have “enough of any one of the components you need in order to be successful in that role.”
“She wasn’t enough of a technologist. She wasn’t enough of a product person. She wasn’t enough of an operational executive.”
“Did she have the product vision? A little bit but not enough. Did she have technical insight? She did, a little bit but not enough. Did she have the operational know how, as to how to pull together a team, motivate, hire, and really send them off on a mission to be, to be successful? I think not enough, and I think that is why it didn’t work.”
“I also think she has a tendency to be somewhat political, which came very early in her time here and really hurt her effectiveness.”
In early 2012, Tilenius was moved to a different organization at Google. Last week, she left for a job at Kleiner Perkins. Kleiner Perkins declined to comment on the above quote.
The other reason Commerce and payments in particular have not taken off under Huber? Google might not even know which problems it ultimately wants to solve in Commerce and payments in particular.
One of the members of Page’s senior leadership team says, “It is a very nascent area. You have millions of locations. You have to deal with statutes, and restaurants, and perks and billing and carrier relationships. It is a huge market but getting that right solution is going to take a little bit of time.”
(Our theory is that the consumers Google is trying to reach are plenty happy paying for things with their credit cards.)
So what’s the verdict? Is Huber the “weakest and least respected” member of Google CEO Larry Page’s inner circle?
Certainly not according to the senior Googlers we talked to.
Two of our sources are Huber’s colleagues on Page’s senior staff. One described working with Huber as an “honor.” The other told us that reading our original story questioning Huber’s competence made him “quite upset.”
“Usually I don’t get upset or read the press, but there are very few folks at Google that have the kind of respect that Jeff has.”
As for Huber’s competence, this executive – and several other sources – pointed to one thing: that under 8 years of Huber’s co-management Google’s ad business grew from $1 billion to $40 billion.
“I think if you look at his track record on ads and apps, they stand for themselves, and I think that’s why Larry asked him to take on such a challenge.”