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Innovation, Imagination, Creativity -- Google VP of Search Products Tells Story of Gmail

by Tom Johnson on Oct 26, 2007 •
categories: technical-writing

Marissa Mayer PodcastIn this iinnovate podcast, Marissa Mayer -- Google VP of Search Products and User Experience -- talks about the innovation and methodology behind some of Google's products.

What's most interesting is the story behind Gmail, specifically how Marissa almost killed its ad integration. Apparently one of the coders -- despite the request from Marissa to stop trying to integrate ads -- stayed up all night (literally until 7 a.m.) finishing the ad integration.

He downloaded an open source semantic analyzer from the web that extracted one or two keywords from an email message; he then ran those keywords against ads in Google's ad database. The ads with matching keyword criteria then appear in the sidebar of your email.

Below is a screenshot from my Gmail showing this ad integration.

Gmail ad integration

At first Marissa felt the integration of context-sensitive ads with Gmail was invasive and a bit creepy in terms of privacy. She told the coder to stop working on the ad integration and almost told him to remove what he'd spent all night integrating.

But then over the next few hours (allowing him a little time to sleep), she began typing an email about hiking, and saw ads for hiking boots. She later received an email announcing a campus visit from Al Gore, and saw Gore's books from Amazon in the Gmail ads.

She started to realize that the ads could be useful (showing you products related to your actual interests). And it was also fun to see the extracted keywords from your email. (For example, in my sample email above, what connection does Banking Job News have with the keywords DITA and podcast?)

Listening to this podcast made me realize that IT is more about technical know-how, code mastery, and carefully followed software development methodology. Innovation, imagination, and creativity are what fuel some of the really interesting developments. The image of the coder staying at work through the night to pursue an idea that the VP of Products discourages is a strong image that ties back to the Romantic era, where poets followed their intuition and passions against reason.

Although being a coding genius is certainly an asset in any IT organization, the ability to envision new products, to look at different ways of integration, explore different revenue models, and persist despite discouragement from others are all qualities that we should value and apply more thoroughly in our work.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.