<!-- show content if JS disabled --> <style> .delay-enter { opacity: 1 !important; } </style>

Ben Fried is on a mission to make work meaningful

Ben Fried’s career spans the most transformational decades of computing. In the 1970s, Fried dove into programming, learning all he could from books, magazines, and a small community of programmers. As a teenager in the 1980s, he nabbed his first programming job at a particularly forward-looking bookstore. Later, in college, he managed the IT help desk. By the 1990s, he was a professional programmer, then joined Morgan Stanley as an IT manager. In 2008, he became CIO of Google.

You’d think, as CIO of Google, he’d spend most of his time focused on technology. But for Fried, it boils down to something completely different: the people.



“If you want to maximize your potential for impact, you have to be able to explain yourself, understand others, and bring people together,” he says. “An awful lot of why organizations are slow about anything has to do with people not wanting to change their habits.”



This idea of business as a human endeavor has shaped Fried’s career. It’s in his drive for impact, his focus on communication, and his view of IT as an integral part of the business. IT’s core purpose lies in using technology to solve human problems. What makes Fried unique among CIOs is that he assigns equal value to technology problems as he does to human ones.



On a windy spring day at the Google office in his native New York City, Fried sat down to share the story of how a computer-obsessed kid became the CIO of Google.



Ben Fried_1

From “glowing white letters” to $6 an hour

The first time he saw a computer, Fried was hooked. He recalls in vivid detail the day his father, a history professor, took him to the computer room at the Columbia University library. Fried was fascinated by the glowing white letters on the black screens. “By the time I got to college,” he says, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”


I liked seeing people’s lives

improve as a result of something I

made.

Looking back on nearly four decades of computing, his enthusiasm is still palpable. “I always liked doing advanced things with computers,” he says. “I liked seeing people’s lives improve as a result of something I made.”


For Fried, computer science wasn’t an obvious choice. Both of his parents had graduate degrees in history. His mother worked as a copy editor at Fortune magazine, and his father taught history at State University of New York and Sarah Lawrence College.



In those early days of computing, Fried had to find his own way. With very little available material on computers or computer science, he scoured libraries, universities, and bookstores for computer science textbooks, reading them obsessively. He also convinced his parents to give up some of his college savings to buy him the now-classic Apple II computer, on which he taught himself to program.



In the early 1980s, he got his first programming job, earning $6 an hour working for a visionary bookstore owner who wanted to digitize his entire store’s inventory. “The leap of faith he must have made to trust this 14-year-old kid,” he laughs. “I can’t even imagine.”



By the time Fried entered college at Columbia, computers were becoming more accessible. But the only way for him to access the most advanced computers was to work at the college computer center. It was there, working with and managing his peers at the help desk, that he learned the value of basic communication and management skills: showing up on time, being able to explain yourself, understanding other people’s viewpoints, and following the big picture vision. “I saw that brilliant people struggled to explain themselves and understand others, and that it was a real impediment, even for brilliant people,” Fried says. “It was something I internalized pretty deeply.”

“I’m absolutely certain I never want to be a CIO”

After graduating from Columbia with a degree in computer science, Fried entered the workforce as a full-time programmer, writing code for dBase, Unix, Windows, and Mac systems. He joined Morgan Stanley in 1994 — his first real taste of corporate culture.



It was also the first job in which he spent a lot of time in meetings. He quickly found that the meetings generally boiled down to a simple scenario: Two different groups within the organization didn’t understand each other. “One group had really important business problems, and one group had really great engineers,” he says. “I sometimes felt like I was the only one who could understand both groups and make them understand each other.”


If I have the right people on the

team, then my obligation is to

make sure they understand the

problem the way I do.

Fried built his reputation on being “an engineer's engineer” — and it paid off. He rose in the ranks at Morgan Stanley, eventually leading the group responsible for the firm's web infrastructure and its custom software infrastructure and reporting directly to the CIO. “As a manager, I never saw my job as telling people what to do,” he says. “If I have the right people on the team, then my obligation is to make sure they understand the problem the way I do."


When presenting a problem to his team, he learned to frame it in terms of business impact: “What is the fundamental problem our employer has, and why is worrying about this problem the right thing for us to do?”



“I try to really deeply understand — and personally own — the decisions of the team,” he says. “Not that I make decisions for them, but I collaborate and raise questions so that if someone asked why we did something a certain way, I can deeply defend it.”



Eventually, Fried came to a crossroads. He needed to decide whether to move up in the corporate food chain and become a CIO himself, or to continue making a series of lateral moves. His then-boss sent Fried to a CIO academy for a week, urging him to take the classes, talk with other CIOs, and figure out what he wanted.



“I came back and said, ‘Thanks, that was terrific — I now know with absolutely certainty I never want to be a CIO,’” Fried recalls, laughing. From talking to the CIOs at the academy, he’d learned that many of them managed their company’s largest cost center — and while money conferred power, it also increased risk, especially in companies that considered technology a costly liability rather than a competitive differentiator. “I didn’t want to be the executive bearing the biggest cost in the company, with a giant bullseye on my back,” he says.



Until Google called.



Ben Fried_2

How an “engineer’s engineer” became a corporate CIO

It wasn’t the company’s name that first caught Fried’s attention, or the idea of a new challenge. It was Google’s unique approach to the CIO role. “They thought it was an engineering job, and it reported into engineering leadership.”


Leading teams that build things

was what prepared me for my job

here at Google.

The more Fried heard, the more he was intrigued. Google had a reputation for building things in-house, and Fried wanted to build. “Leading teams that build things was what prepared me for my job here at Google,” he says. “In that way, it wasn’t such a huge jump.”


It seemed like the kind of CIO job he’d actually want.



In 2008, Fried made the leap. In this first year, he took on an ambitious project: building an in-house, video-conferencing system. As Google expanded into global markets, video-conferencing was becoming increasingly important. Google was one of the world’s largest purchasers of commercial video conferencing equipment. That is, until the leadership decided to stop buying video-conferencing hardware, build it in-house, and deploy it globally. It was Fried’s job to make that happen.



It wasn’t going to be easy. The company would need to transition from signing checks to writing their own software. Fried had a team of brilliant engineers who were excited to be a part of something big, but he keenly felt the pressure to deliver on a critical business need as quickly as possible — “and that was terrifying!”



The project tested Fried’s perspective on IT as a human business, though this time in a different way. Google’s emphasis on openness and transparency translates into a culture of frequent, direct feedback — a positive but sometimes difficult experience. Colleagues were brutally honest about how important the project was — and when they thought things weren’t working.



Once, during a trip to the New York office, a senior executive sought Fried out. “He made time to find me to say, ‘The video-conferencing situation is terrible, and it’s a result of this decision you made. What are you going to do about it?’” he recalls. “That made me feel pretty bad.”



Fried chose to take the human interaction as business. He chose to not dwell on the negative feedback and, instead, embraced the opposite: he chose to view it as an opportunity to make a stronger product.



“You can’t and shouldn’t ignore criticism,” he says. “It’s driven by everyone’s desire to see things get better. And if you accept it in that form, you depersonalize it. It’s quite manageable.”

You can’t and shouldn’t ignore criticism. It’s driven by everyone’s desire to see things get better.

Ben Fried

“The bar is always being raised”

Fried now leads a team of more than 2,000 including engineers, UX designers, and program and product managers — and those early days of building video-conferencing software seem like distant history. Over the past nine years, he’s overseen the company’s transition to a mobile-first workforce, transformed tech support, and is now undertaking a series of projects to implement machine learning across the organization. His daily mission is to find a balance between what’s possible using cutting-edge technology with what’s needed at a human and business level.



“As I’m sure all CIOs would recognize, your users can very quickly go from thanking you to taking each new innovation for granted,” Fried says. “The bar is always being raised on us — but I think that’s what makes the industry and the job so interesting.”