Jim Miller, LGO '93, VP of Worldwide Operations at Google: In the Engine Room of Cloud Computing

By Joshua Jacobs
June 20, 2011

Jim Miller

Jim Miller

Jim Miller's career since graduating from the MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program in 1993 reads like a history of major technology innovations and the evolution of some of the world's leading companies. LGO is MIT's dual degree graduate program in management and engineering, and Jim holds the MBA degree from Sloan as well as the S. M. in Mechanical Engineering. As Jim began a recent web seminar for LGO students and alumni, he ran through the impressive career arc that includes Intel, at the birth of the Pentium; Amazon.com, in the early stages of e-commerce; Cisco, when broadband exploded; First Solar, as part of the green/solar resurgence; and now Google, where as Vice President for Worldwide Operations he is in the engine room for the emergence of cloud computing. Along the way, Jim has had the opportunity to work with and learn from leaders like Andy Grove, Jeff Bezos, John Chambers and now Eric Schmidt and Larry Page at Google.

How Jim developed the tools for leadership at Google from LGO—formerly named Leaders for Manufacturing—shows how much the program focuses on the fundamentals of leadership and on developing its graduates' capacity to build from one technical management role to the next. "The landscape of the Internet didn't exist when I graduated from LFM. I value immensely what the program taught me. Google was looking to fill this role with someone who could think big, looking ahead to the company being a lot different in three to five years than it is today. I think I'm characteristic of many LGOs: we walk into situations where there isn't a precedent for our roles. I don't think I have all the prerequisites to hit a home run in cloud computing today, but I have the foundation to build upon, while I help build and lead our team to a new place we don't see yet."

Jim's experience on the operations side of Google provides a window into the enormous scale, complexity and rapid evolution of the challenges the company faces day-to-day. "I viewed Google as being a software-only company and even when I initially started to appreciate the scale, I didn't think it was that compelling from an operations perspective. Boy, was I naïve! Within a week or so after starting, I realized that the scale of what we are doing is immense, and that the challenges we take on are monumental. I was in a leadership meeting where one of my counterparts said his medium-term goal was to 'fix the Internet,' in terms of speed and latency. I laughed, but my colleague said, 'yeah, we're the only company on the planet that can fix it, because of our domain knowledge and global reach. So yes, my one- to two-year objective is to fix the Internet.'"

When we asked Jim what his comparable goal was, he gave the example of the operational requirements to launch Google Instant Search earlier this year. "Essentially we had to rip out the guts of Google's infrastructure and replace them in six months. I can't give the quantitative bounds but this was a massive challenge. Usually we create and launch a software platform, contingent on getting hardware out to enable our ramp rate. At the end of the day, it's usually my organization that constrains Google's ability to launch new services."

The systems engineering problem that Jim faces in maintaining the Google infrastructure draws equally on his experience in the high tech and energy sectors. The interaction of hardware, software, and servers is inextricably linked with the overall energy requirements of the platform as well as the shifting user patterns over any 24-hour period. Jim reached for a truly global metaphor to characterize his team's and Google users' interaction with the platform: "There are lots of analogies between Google and the Gaia concept of earth as a living, symbiotic organism. The Google infrastructure never sleeps, and it's always doing something interesting, which means that our work with the platform requires a lot of people."

At Google, Jim does not struggle too much to convince potential recruits that manufacturing and operations is cool, but he tempers the cool factor with the reality of what his team takes on each day. "I was on the phone with a candidate this morning, trying to convey that yes, Google is cool, but we have to solve some really tough problems. Every day is different: after this interview, I'll interview candidates, then sit in on what we're doing with space initiatives with NASA, then work on some very tough technology problems that we have to solve that nobody in the industry has been able to solve to date. And in fact, the coolness of Google and other technology companies is overblown: the challenges they face at Ford are just as intense." Jim's pitch to candidates was successful with three members of the LGO Class of 2011, Catherine Liang, Derrick Ongchin, and Ben Wheeler, and Wheeler will be part of Jim's organization, focusing on the cloud computing infrastructure's energy efficiency.

In talking with these new LGO graduates, Jim's career advice is to take the long view and build on the strengths of the program. "The foundation of the LGO program that has made it successful over 20-plus years is the value it places on speed, innovation, systems thinking, and leadership based in a very solid academic foundation in business and technology. These qualities will always be germane and paramount to any operations system. The people graduating from LGO today will look back in 15 years and laugh at what passes for technology now."