Career Advice Jul 05 2012

A Googler's Recipe for Success

By Joseph Walker

If there are eight million stories in the naked city, one for every New York City resident, then there are at least 33,100 stories at Google, one for every employee. This is one of them.

It's about a guy named Fuzzy who learned how to use Microsoft Excel when he opened his own Subway sandwich franchise after college. He soon began moonlighting on Wall Street, where he came up with the idea for what became Google Spreadsheets when the bank he was working for, J.P. Morgan, wanted to find a way to share collateralized debt obligation formulas with its clients.

Farzad "Fuzzy" Khosrowshahi, 45 years old, never dreamed he'd work at Google, a company known more for hiring Stanford University graduates with perfect SAT scores than former fast food chain operators. But that's how Khosrowshahi, who is now director of engineering for the Google Docs team that makes free, Internet-based word processing, presentation and spreadsheet tools, got his start.

The result is a product, Google Docs, that is used by tens of millions of users, the popularity of which has prompted boxed software giant Microsoft to build its own Web-based, or cloud, offering of its signature Microsoft Office.

After graduating with a history degree from Columbia University, he and his new wife opened a Subway sandwich shop in 1993 in Mamaroneck, N. Y., a Westchester County suburb 25 miles north of Manhattan. Their motivations were romantic. "My wife said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we opened up a business and worked all day together?'" Khosrowshahi remembers. "And I was very naive and I thought, 'Yeah, who wouldn't want to spend all day with me?' "

Spreadsheets

While the Subway shop only lasted nine months, Khosrowshahi learned what would become a valuable skill: how to use spreadsheets. Subway corporate offered a computer program for franchise owners to report their expenses and revenues, but it cost $2,000, a sum that "at that time meant a lot to me," Khosrowshahi says. So he decided to replicate Subway's reporting system with his own method, using spreadsheets and some computer programming he'd learned in college.

The Subway franchise wasn't exactly a moneymaker, so Khosrowshahi took a temporary job at Lehman Brothers, the now defunct investment bank. He would take the handwritten presentations of bankers and convert them into digital with MacDraw Pro, an Apple drawing program. He'd open up the Subway in the morning, head into Manhattan during the afternoon, and make it back by midnight to close the shop.

While attending business school at New York University a few years later, he did similar work at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, then later worked at Morgan Stanley in equity research. He hated it and quit after three months. "I realized you have to love what you do," he says. "I thought this was what I wanted to do, but realized that programming was what I wanted."

So he went back to J.P. Morgan to maintain spreadsheet models for CDOs, the complex algorithms that J.P. Morgan and other banks used to securitize the huge volume of home mortgages they were backing and trading. The bank wanted a way to share their calculations with clients.

"They had all these commercial mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, basically the stuff that caused the recession," Khosrowshahi remembers. "The logic of the model was in the spreadsheet, but what they wanted to do was allow their clients to go in and change some rates and see what the results would be. But they didn't want to give them the entire spreadsheet."

Sharing CDO Formulas

Khosrowshahi figured he could develop a computer program that could automatically generate Web-based versions of the formulas. He and his boss at J.P. Morgan decided to start a company, 2Web Technologies, that could do just that.

Through a connection from his nephew, Khosrowshahi pitched his idea to Adam Bosworth in 2002, then a vice president at the software company BEA Systems. Nothing came of the conversation until Bosworth left BEA to join Google. Google ended up buying 2Web Technologies, launching its spreadsheets product in 2006 along with a shared word processing program developed by Upstartle, another start-up.

Google Docs not only drew a strong following among Internet users, it's also played a role in the transformation of software applications from things that are installed on people's computers to applications hosted on someone else's computers ("the cloud") that can be accessed through an Internet connection.

Now a manager of 100 employees, Khosrowshahi marvels at the differences between his role at Google and his first job at a Subway sandwich shop in Westchester. The motivation tools available to him at Google far outstrip the incentives that he could offer employees at Subway, he says. Google employees are eligible for big cash bonuses, complimentary dinners at nice restaurants, and off-site vacations and trips for a job well done.

"At Subway, I could give free food away. I could maybe give out a quarter raise. I could give a person a day off," he says. "I learned to be very patient with customers and vendors and Subway headquarters. At Google, I am very patient with everyone."

Write to Joseph Walker at joseph.walker@dowjones.com



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