'I've Been Very Lucky in My Life'

Worth some $17 billion and not even 35, Google cofounder Sergey Brin sees a bright future in Israel for his company, but won't divulge details. In a wide-ranging interview during a visit here, he talks about his business, his Jewishness - and kiteboarding.

Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik
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Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik

Sergey Brin looks completely exhausted. Jet lag is apparently still a problem, even after you've flown in a private Boeing 767, which in this case has been specially outfitted with comfortable sleeping quarters and was designed by Brin and Larry Page, the other young founder of Google.

Here at Google's office in Tel Aviv, Brin blends right in. He is 34, but looks even younger. Dressed in a gray T-shirt bearing Google's logo, jeans and sneakers, Brin could easily be swallowed up in the crowd if he sat down at one of the many computer-programming stations.

I was told you were tired after a very busy 24 hours, and I felt a bit uncomfortable keeping you from catching up on your sleep, but now I hear that after your interview with me, you are going kiteboarding.

Brin: "Well... the wind has come down, so it's looking dicey."

So your time is all ours now.

By the end of the interview, I realized that Brin does not give up easily. The first thing he did after we finished chatting and left the conference room at Google's offices in Tel Aviv's Levinstein Tower was to ask where his helicopter was and how the wind conditions were on Lake Kinneret.

"Where is it exactly?" he asks his local workers.

"Up north," they reply.

"Will they shoot at us?" asks Brin with a laugh.

"No, of course not," they reassure him.

This is Brin's third visit to Israel. The first time was with his parents, when he was still a teenager, and the second was in September 2003, when Google was still a relatively small, privately owned company. Last week, however, Brin arrived here as the head of one of the largest and most influential companies in the world.

How has Israel changed since your previous visits?

"It's pretty impressive just to see how the tech industry has continued to grow. The development, kind of just looking at the city of Tel Aviv. I mean, there are a bunch of buildings. Maybe I'm crazy, but I feel like there are lots of buildings that weren't here when I was here last. And I've just seen some of the companies and their state of development, the levels developed here - it's just incredible."

Naturally, Brin and his partner, Page, attract tremendous media attention in the United States: Not only are they the youngest, most successful pair in the world - each of them own Google shares worth about $17 billion - they also head the most talked-about company in the world, and there is hardly an Internet user who hasn't used Google's search engine at one time or another. Still Page and Brin are very circumspect during interviews and shun exposure. For example, Brin does not speak much about his unusual childhood.

He was born in 1973, in Moscow, to Jewish parents who belonged to the city's educated elite, but suffered from the discrimination against Jews practiced by Russian academic institutions. Brin's father, Mikhail, who became Michael after their immigration to the U.S., applied to the physics department at Moscow State University, in an attempt to pursue his dream of studying astronomy, but the Communist Party forbade Jews from studying physics, for fear they would have access to atomic secrets.

Mikhail Brin then applied to the mathematics department and passed the entrance exams, which Jews were forced to take separately, in rooms referred to as "gas chambers." In 1970 he completed his bachelor's degree, graduating cum laude. The fact that he was Jewish prevented him from studying in the university's master's degree program, so he continued studying on his own. After publishing independent articles in respected math journals, he convinced two lecturers to be his advisors for a doctorate and submitted his thesis at Kharkov National University. All this time, Mikhail worked for Russia's economic planning agency, which had hired him after he completed his B.Sc.

Sergey's mother, Evgenia (Genia) Brin, worked in the research laboratory of the Soviet gas and oil institute after she too earned a degree in mathematics. Like her husband, Genia also fought discrimination against Jews at academic institutions, and won. Sergey spent his early childhood in Moscow. He has mentioned in interviews that he never felt the anti-Semitism that overshadowed their lives, but still felt like a stranger in a foreign country.

'I've been very lucky'

Brin's parents decided to leave Russia in 1977. His father came home from a conference in Moscow one day and said they had to leave. He made the decision after speaking at the event with colleagues from the West, who described all the opportunities that would be open to him in the U.S. Despite fears of becoming "refuseniks" (Jews who were refused exit permits from the Soviet Union, were subsequently fired, and faced economic and other hardships), Genia was convinced Sergey would have a better future outside Russia.

After applying for an exit visa, Mikhail was indeed fired from his position, and Genia was forced to quit her job, too. In order to earn a living, Mikhail translated technical literature from English into Russian, and began to study computer programming. Sergey did not go to preschool, but rather stayed at home. In 1979, the family's exit visa request was finally granted. Shortly afterward, the iron gates of Russia were shut to Jews wishing to leave. Brin was 6 at the time.

Did your family ever consider immigrating to Israel?

"Boy, I need to ask them that. In fact, my great-grandmother lived in the U.S. for a period of time, so we did have some ties to the U.S. I think my dad actually had a colleague who had moved to the U.S., who had given him greater certainty [with respect to] the job market. And those were the big factors. But I can ask. My parents are here with me - I mean, not in the office, but in Israel."

In hindsight, considering what you see now in the U.S. and Israel, if your parents had come here, do you think we would have Google today?

[Laughs] "Look, I've been very lucky in my life, and I'm sure there've been lots of random circumstances that have contributed to that, so I probably would not be the first to change it. But looking at the kinds of innovation and development that I see here now, I certainly think it's possible to enjoy great success coming to Israel."

Your parents left Russia during a very difficult period for the Jews. How significant was your past as a Jew in Russia when you immigrated to the U.S., and today?

"Well, I certainly think the kinds of hardship that my family faced with respect to anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was the principal reason we left, and that certainly had a significant affect on my life subsequently."

In what way?

"I think that we - my family - had a lot of challenges in the Soviet Union. For example my dad never had the luxury of following his career interests. Coming to the States, what few possessions we had in the Soviet Union we had to leave, almost all. So we had to really build up from nothing. And I think that just kind of gave me a different perspective in life than a lot of other people [have]."

Was it difficult for you, personally, starting over in the U.S.?

"The U.S. was very good to us. It was a great place, but we started with nothing, we were poor, we didn't have any stuff, you know. When we first moved to the States we rented a little house, and my parents didn't have a proper room to sleep in. They had to kind of wall off the kitchen. It was humble beginnings."

Do you think this played a role in molding your character as an entrepreneur?

"We learned to get by. I think being scrappy and kind of getting by is important ..."

Now, when you are in a totally different place, what does it mean to you to be Jewish?

"I think probably the most important thing is the background - of just having gone through hardship and being able to survive and thrive. I think that's at the core of the Jewish experience."

What do you think of Israel? Do you share the sentiments of those who are troubled by the threats facing the country in the fields that are close to your heart: education and science?

"I've been very impressed, having gone to some of the sessions at this conference [the "Tomorrow" conference organized by President Shimon Peres in mid-May] ... You know, I was generally familiar with the history of Israel, but really seeing kind of a closer account of what's been really accomplished - once again - out of nothing, just dirt. In a short period of time to build a whole country. So I've been very impressed. I didn't know about the deterioration of education."

I read that when you were 13, you wanted your parents to make a bar mitzvah for you, but in the end they didn't.

"You know, it was never my thing. At least in the U.S., bar mitzvahs are associated with getting lots of gifts and money, and I was never comfortable with that."

Pursuing the wind

In May 2007 Brin married Anne Wojcicki, a biotechnology specialist and the younger sister of Susan Wojcicki, vice president of product management at Google. The two were married in a private ceremony in the Bahamas, with about 60 guests. The ceremony was conducted under a traditional Jewish wedding canopy, but not by a rabbi. Reports were that Brin broke a glass, as is traditional, in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. Shortly after the wedding, Google invested in Anne Wojcicki's startup, 23andMe, a genetics research company.

Is it a coincidence that your wife is Jewish?

[Laughs] "I believe there are lots of nice non-Jewish girls out there. My wife is, I guess, half-Jewish. It's on her mother's side, so technically I guess she is Jewish. But there are lots of great women - both Jewish and non-Jewish alike."

So it was a coincidence?

"That wasn't a concern for me. I don't know, maybe it was for her."

Ten years ago you were a student like any other at Stanford University. Today, you, your partner Larry Page and Google CEO Eric Schmidt head one of the most important companies in the world, which influences the information obtained by hundreds of millions of people every day. How do you cope with that?

"It has been fast, I guess, compared to other companies. But it's really been 10 years, over time, so it's always been gradual."

At this point in the interview, Brin suddenly stops and asks, "Can I go back to the Jewish wife question, just in case you print a quote and my wife reads it? I married her because I love her, not because she was Jewish. I want to make sure this comes out well."

It's okay, Sergey, I'm married, too, and I know that if any part of the interview must not be misquoted, this is it.

"Anyway ... in 10 years. I mean, it is a short time for a company, but it's a long time for a person. I've had a chance to witness the evolution, but day to day it doesn't change that much."

You have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders: responsibility for 12,000 employees and responsibility to investors and shareholders in a company valued at $180 billion, responsibility to over a billion people who use your search engine, and essentially responsibility to the whole world - since Google is such a significant company in this era of information. Which of these do you feel is the weightiest?

"I'd probably go with the entire world, followed by users, not that employees and shareholders are unimportant. But fundamentally we believe that if we create value for the world, we'll find a way to reap the rewards of that down the line. Certainly employees are key to that. We spend a lot of time recruiting great employees and making sure they're happy and productive. Ultimately, I certainly think about what we can do to make as big of an impact on the world as we can. And having grown quite rapidly, and now enjoying great fortune, we do have a lot of resources, so we have opportunities that no or few other companies [have]."

Then do you feel a heavy weight on your shoulders, or do you simply live your life?

"Yeah I feel some responsibility, but I have to be - you know, you have to balance things. That's why we'll see how the kiteboarding pans out after this. I don't want to be just traveling on business."

How often do you manage to sneak away from work and go kiteboarding?

"Depends on the wind."

What time of day do you go?

"Well it depends - if it's a weekday I'll go late after work, but if it's on the weekend, then maybe midday. The wind doesn't usually pick up til the early afternoon or so, so that'd be the earliest."

So you prefer kiteboarding to finishing your doctorate?

[Laughs] "No, it's not instead of. I might pick up inspiration for my Ph.D. while kiteboarding."

This afternoon you met with employees of Google's Israeli office. What type of questions did they ask you?

"Oh, a long list of questions, my goodness, I don't even know where to start.

"There's some question about [working on Fridays and] whether we can shift schedules around to make videoconferencing [on Fridays] easier. Part of the challenge is we have these no-meeting Thursdays, that actually makes it challenging, because we don't overlap on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so if you take out Thursday, that takes out another day."

So it turns out that even at Google the workers complain.

"There's a long list of complaints, but it was in good spirit."

The question of privacy

If I had to ask you a question about something that bothers many Google users, it would be about privacy. I use Google hundreds of times a week, and have concluded that Google knows more than anyone else in the world about the average addicted user - what he looks for, his interests, what bothers him and even his plans for the future. Sometimes I think it's frightening. Can you calm my fears?

"I would disagree with that. I mean, first we don't know that you are interested in any of these things, all we know is that somebody was searching for these things."

That's not exactly true. Sometimes you know my IP (Internet Protocol) address. Sometimes you discover details via cookies (files saved on a computer by a Web site, which follow the user's activity), and sometimes via a Gmail account.

"Well, sometimes, sometimes. I don't know. And furthermore, we just know somebody used it, it might not have been you, somebody else could have used your computer. But ultimately, I think those privacy concerns are misplaced. I think the bigger area to look at [concerning] privacy on the Internet is the information that's actually on the Web about you, that maybe you posted, maybe somebody else posted, maybe it's on a social network. Lots of kids these days, they get drunk, they go to parties, they post pictures of themselves on their social networking sites and then later they're embarrassed about it. Things like that happen a lot."

But what difference does it make? Even if the information is not uploaded to the Internet, you have it on your servers.

"It's never been released."

But it could leak out. Information breaches happen every day, and I figure Google is no different than all the other companies in the world.

"Well, look, I do think we're somewhat different, in that we do tend to be more secure. But if you're concerned about those sorts of things, e-mail is typically far more significant than searchers which may or may not have been. Pretty much all people keep their e-mail on a server of some kind, and that's sort of a risk that they're willing to bear. Some people try to keep their e-mail and things on their personal computer, but those are probably much more vulnerable to data leaking or being stolen or whatnot, than actual monitored and secured servers."

When people send e-mail, they take into account the possibility that it will reach a stranger, but when they search Google, that's only between you and the Google server. The concern over privacy is greater.

"I don't know. Yes, no. I mean, the e-mail actually says something explicit and the search query could mean anything. Look, the known incidences of this sort of thing happening - [it] has never happened with Google, mind you ... But AOL did at one point post a collection of searches, and they were foolish about it, it was a dumb decision, but anyway they put it out there and people were able to infer in a handful of cases who someone was. So, look, that was clearly a bad incident, it was horrible, they should never have posted that information, it was a very poor judgment. But ultimately, I think the risk and the threat from that sort of thing is substantially lower than, say, e-mails. Ultimately we take our security very very seriously and don't release any sort of things like that. We anonymize after 18 months."

Do you erase the link between the IP address and the searches?

"Ultimately, I don't know any cases where somebody has been somehow exposed by virtue of their search logs on Google."

Do law-enforcement authorities ask you for information on searches people conduct?

"Well, we had one case where the DOJ [Department of Justice] wanted it and we fought them in court and we won. By the way, the other search engines did not go to court."

I have been reading Google's financial reports every quarter since it became publicly traded, and I'm impressed. There is only one issue that bothers me, and that is that half your cash flow is immediately reinvested in infrastructure - servers and equipment. What are you doing with all the servers and computers you are buying? Are all those billions of dollars being spent on machines designed to maintain your existing services, or on financing new, classified innovative services that you are planning?

"Well, they're a combination of both. We certainly need to continue to invest to enhance our capacity in services like Web Search and Gmail and so forth, to both handle more users as well as handle larger search indexes, greater e-mail boxes, things like that. But we also are watching new services all the time, [and] have to spend capital on that, too."

That means we will continue to see half your cash flow being reinvested in equipment?

"I don't think we'd necessarily target specifically numbers like that. In fact you'll see it fluctuates on a quarter-by-quarter basis."

Google is aiming to organize all the information in the world, but it is also the most difficult company when it comes to obtaining information on its business dealings. How do you explain this contradiction?

[Laughs] "Well, I don't know that we're the most. We certainly get the most requests and maybe we're not able to satisfy them, but we've definitely been working on being more and more transparent. And we've put more and more information out there. There are some metrics we don't like to give out, but I wouldn't agree that we are the most secretive."

'Impactful to the world'

What is your personal ambition? Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? You are not even 35 and have already accomplished a lot in your life. What else would you like to do?

"Apparently I look it, if you ask the news interviewer ... He thought I was 35, apparently I look 35. I've had very good fortune so far in my life. I guess I want to continue to be impactful and helpful to the world, given the opportunity that I have."

Do you think you will ever leave Google?

"Oh, leaving? Not planning to, in the next 10 years anyway. I'll probably be there forever."

Allow me for a moment to play devil's advocate. At the end of the day, Google is a company with a single product - contextual advertising services AdWords and AdSense - which generate the overwhelming majority of your profits.

"A very large proportion of our revenue is advertising on search and on content."

Is that a matter of concern?

"When you say concern, I mean, it's about $20 billion of revenue, which is a lot - but we could always use another $20 billion. I think we're happy that we've been so successful in that area. We also have other successful things, such as our recently developed Google Apps for the domain, which serves enterprises, universities, things like that. And I think that's really doing well and growing. If it was evaluated on its own, and was not a part of Google, it would be viewed as an extremely successful startup."

Are you planning any acquisitions in Israel in the coming year?

"There seem to be a lot of great companies."

Are you aware of anything that is due to happen in the next 12 months?

"I'm not gonna tell you whether there are acquisitions that are going to happen. I think there's a pretty good environment for it, so I think it's likely."

What is the most exciting thing happening on the Internet today?

"I can probably give you a couple. I think one exciting thing is the availability of phones that actually kind of fully support the Internet and Web-browsing ... [This] could really bring the Internet to far more people around the world. In many parts of the world it's not common to have PCs, but they all have mobile phones. I think, you might think this is passe, but video on the Internet is really becoming quite useful."

Is there anything that is important to you to tell our readers?

"I think it's important to note the contribution of our Israel offices. And I mentioned Google Trends, [which] you're familiar with. Google Suggest comes out of Israel. Charting capability comes out of Israel."

What can you tell us about your activities concerning sales in Israel?

"We don't really announce what we're going to do. Business is going very well. And online advertising as a whole is [too]."

Dafna Maor contributed to the preparation of this article.

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