Ada Lovelace Day: Shona Brown

Image: Ada Lovelace
Image: Ada Lovelace

Suw Charman has asked people to join her today on Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the first computer programmer, in writing about women in technology that they admire.

Now, I’m a cultural rather than a tehcnical geek, so the woman who leapt to mind that I admire most in the tech industry is Shona Brown, SVP of Business Operations at Google.

Shona Brown took on responsibilities for Google’s business operations in 2003, following almost a decade consulting with technology clients in Toronto and Los Angeles for McKinsey & Company.

Image: Shona Brown, Google's SVP of Business Operations
Image: Shona Brown, Google’s SVP of Business Operations (image source: Google)

I first heard about Shona Brown in this 2006 profile of her in Fortune called Chaos by Design. She took on one of the most interesting cultural and business challenges in the world when she stepped into  Sergey and Larry invited her to come and take all of this on after reading Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos:

Brown has made a career of arguing that anarchy isn’t such a bad thing — which is why Page, co-founder Sergey Brin, and CEO Eric Schmidt hired her in 2003. A business theoretician in a company dominated by engineers, she considers Google the “ultimate petri dish” for her research, though her job is anything but theoretical. In addition to overseeing human resources (called “people operations”), Brown runs a SWAT team of 25 strategic consultants who are loaned out internally on ten or so projects at a time — restructuring a regional sales force here, guesstimating a market size there.

This isn’t about just management. It’s about how you manage companies and people in the age of networks, when hierarchical approaches are inadequate and an embrace of chaos.

The company’s goal, says Brown, is to determine precisely the amount of management it needs — and then use a little bit less. It’s an almost laughably Goldilocksian approach that Brown also advocates in her book, co-written with a Stanford business professor. The way to succeed in “fast-paced, ambiguous situations,” she tells me, is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either. In other words, just make it not too hot and not too cold, and you’re done.

Early on in my iCrossing experience I had left a lot of the certainties and structure of the PR agency world and embraced a start up mentality, drawing heavily on Guy Kawasaki’s thoughts in Art of the Start. when I read her interview Fortune magazine, I felt reassured and inspired simultaneously when I read her quote: “If I ever come into the office and I feel comfortable, if I don’t feel a little nervous about some crazy stuff going on, then we’ve taken it too far.”

It still inspires and informs the way that I think about the way that organisations need to adapt to be successful in networks, in an age defined by the complexity and pace of the web revolution.

Via Euan Semple.

One response to “Ada Lovelace Day: Shona Brown”

  1. […] world. The first post deals with the concept of ‘command and control’ being dead. The second talks Shona Brown’s contribution in exactly that area to how Google organises and manages […]

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