I have been lucky to work at such a dynamic and exciting place for years. Google routinely plays host to amazing academics, political figures, and mind-blowing technologists. The culture is very open and our most important visitors are encouraged to spend their time with us, not locked away in closed door sessions with executives, but in rooms filled with employees from across the company for dialog and exchange of ideas. We have found that this is not only great for Googlers and the direct access it brings to such fascinating minds, but the VIPs who come routinely remark on how refreshing it is to visit such an unpolished and sincere place.
That said, a recent visit by three-time Grammy winner John Legend raised the bar on our tradition and put on a show that none of us will forget.
To grasp the gravity of that day, I think it is first important to understand that John is a geek. Yep, before his music career he graduated early from fancy schools, got insane grades, and did a stint as a BCG consultant. He uses Gmail, mixes rough cuts on his Mac, carries a Treo, and can hang in any conversation about DRM. The guy could very easily have been one of us and could likely get a job at Google tomorrow. Yet, the world of entertainment from which he now hails can sometimes feel far from the DNA of our company. Thus, when John offered to come to Google and do a quick performance along with some audience Q&A, I jumped at the chance.
His visit started like any other. I met him in our lobby and walked him around the campus pointing out some of the idiosyncrasies that make Google so unique. However, rather than engage in the traditional pleasantries, within moments John was debating me on issues of the digital divide and the populations of landlocked African nations. (I was off by 200 million on one number and he called me on it.) This tone never stopped. As we grabbed food from our wonderful chefs (thanks, N8, Will and Shon!) the discussions continued. How can the industry fix the music buying process for users? How to get the developing world access? How to find the best charitable organizations? What impact does blogging have on cross-cultural understanding? John was on it, and the the dialog was rich.
If the day had ended there, it would have been a success. But we were just starting. Because, just outside the conference room where John was warming up his voice, about 2000 Googlers had amassed on a Tuesday afternoon waiting to hear his stuff.
The excitement was palpable when John took the stage (carved from the corner of our cafeteria) and launched into a few of his newer songs. I make for a pretty awkward MC, but nonetheless, had a blast interviewing him on stage between his playing. We talked about his songwriting process, his hopes for future products at Google, and then threw it open for some audience questions. Googlers are sharp, genuine people, and their questions were well informed, insightful, and thought provoking. John was having a laugh answering them and always found a segue back into his next piece. He had originally planned to play three or four songs, but the vibe was right and he was feeling good so this kept going - for an entire hour. It was a treat and we were all having a great time. Then, on the last question from the audience, the day took an unforgettable turn.
I had never before met Brian Bautista, a sharp young guy who works on the team that does user support for Google Maps. He is a really unassuming Googler of Filipino descent who dresses very modestly and is known for his trademark smile. Since I was traveling much of this past summer, I also didn't know that during the company's summer picnic, Brian had entered the "Google Idol" talent competition performing a rendition of John's hit "Ordinary People." So, maybe I shouldn't have been completely surprised when I called on Brian to ask John a question and Brian flat-out asked if he could come up on stage and try a duet.
I won't try to fully describe what happened next. I would rather let the YouTube clip of their collaboration speak for itself. Suffice it to say, the crowd went bananas. This little guy with the shockingly booming, sultry voice, up there with one of his heroes putting together a wonderful performance. John showed so much class in sharing the stage. You could see he was having such a good time himself and the audience felt it too.
I could ramble on about how this was one big metaphor for the future of the Net. Professional content, mashed up with user-generated performance, and direct fan access to artists, all just one click away from any viewer. . .
Instead, I will skip all the analysis and just note that, for those reasons and more, this was my favorite day at Google so far.
Thanks to John Legend, Lisa Ellis, Seth Friedman, Jonathan Levine, as well as Googlers Sean Johnson, Will Wyer, Marty Lev, the Google Chefs mentioned above, Pam Shore, Michelle Stribling, and the indispensable Ronny Conway for making it happen!