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We talked to the head of Google's next multibillion-dollar business. Here's what he told us

Google Amit SinghBusiness Insider/Julie BortGoogle At Work president Amit Singh

Five years ago next month, Google got serious about creating a new revenue stream for itself beyond search ads, and poached long-time Oracle executive Amit Singh.

Until then, Google had been dabbling with cloud computing and software as a service — the idea that you rent apps, delivered over the internet but hosted in someone else’s data center, and pay for them via subscription. Its free version of Gmail was insanely popular. Its Google Apps was a hit with startups, small businesses, and schools.

But big companies were still afraid of the idea. They didn’t think cloud apps were reliable enough and wouldn’t go down. They didn’t think they were secure enough from hackers, either, and could make sure they complied with laws that cover such things.

And Google didn’t even have the sales systems in place woo them, much less to help them after they signed up.

Enter Singh. He had the important but not glamorous job of building for Google its first-ever enterprise sales, marketing, and support systems.

Since then, enterprises, which spend about $US4 trillion a year worldwide on tech, have fallen in love with cloud computing. They are shifting their dollars there at a fast rate. Synergy Research Group says cloud computing generated $US16 billion for its biggest players over the past 12 months.

And 2014 was a stellar year for Singh, too.

In an exclusive interview with Business Insider, Singh told us, “I believe we’re ready for all of them, both in the product and the readiness to support them,” he said, adding, “All the pieces are now in place.”

These pieces include:

  • A bigger set of cloud and other products for the enterprise than you probably realise, all under a division at Google called Google for Work.
  • An ingenious plan that will squeeze customers into Google’s arms without demanding that they completely ditch Microsoft email, or Office.
  • Big marquee customers, including a deal in 2014 that signified to Singh that Google for Work was officially successful.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Business Insider: Exactly how many products or business units at Google are dedicated to “enterprise” or, as you call it now “Google for Work”?

Amit Singh: 1. Search. Search for Work is called Google Search Appliance. [It was the first enterprise product.] It came before the cloud.

2. Gmail. Gmail for Work is why people come. Gmail for Work is part of the suite called Google Apps.

3. Drive is the next thing I would call out. Drive for Work. [Note: this is cloud storage that includes Google Apps]

4. Docs, for collaboration [the word processor that’s part of Google Apps]

5. Videoconferencing which we call Hangouts, which is meetings.

Those are the three big chunks in the Google App suite, although there are other apps in the suite like Sites.6. Then there’s Chrome. [The] Chrome [team] built the browser for Work, Chrome for Work, which is free but we provide support for it.

7. Then there’s Chromebooks. Chromebooks for Work.

8. Chromebox for Meetings. [A device for running secure videoconferencing meetings.]

9. Android for Work [includes special security for business use and also products like Android Auto, Android for cars]

10.Then there’s cloud, that’s a big thing.

11. The last is Maps. Maps is the API for developer really the primary product. We embed that as part of Auto, when you use inside a car like Tesla, but mostly Maps API, Places API, those other products for work.

BI: But you can’t buy some of these separately like Gmail or Docs, you would get them as part of Google Apps.

AS: Yes, but those are the line items, the way I think about our products.

BI: When they brought you on five years ago, did Google already have anything in place to win big enterprise customers?

AS: When I came on board its 2009, we were just starting to build critical mass in education and in small business for apps, for Google Apps. And [around here], it was like, “That’s kind of cute. That’s nice, but whatev.”

But that became such a big thing, education became such a big user of Google Apps, and that’s where the next generation of employees is coming to work.

BI: As I understand, the big problem with Google Apps at that time was classic enterprise support. Google didn’t have anything like that in place and big companies wouldn’t work with you.

AS: Yes. My work, it was building out first-time response so when they call they get an answer. Building a knowledge-base underneath it so all bugs were tracked and there’s an SLA [“service-level agreement”] with engineering where we respond in X amount of time. Building an ecosystem and a deployment and methodology that people can count on.

This is blocking and tackling. It’s not that glamorous.

BI: So, after all that down and grungy work, was there a moment when you knew you were succeeding?

AS: Over the last year or 18 months, it culminated for me, there’s two major, maybe three major events that I would point out, in no particular order.

One was the fact that we indicated we were going to go big in cloud and put the entire company’s resources, and unlock all of our capacity, all the algorithms, the focus internally to make everything cloud centric. That’s one.

It was a growing up. You have to build for everybody, not just internal Google developers. [Note: Google launched Google Compute Engine in 2013 and by early 2014 was waging price and feature wars with Amazon and Microsoft.]

Another was when we won PwC, [announced in October]. They said, “we chose Google not only is it the best, it’s the most secure.” They did a multi-year [test], like any big company. It’s not just their data, it’s their client data, as a consulting firm. For them to get comfortable on how we handle their data, security, it’s a symbol.

Other clients have come to us and said, “If they can do it, they are one of the most conservative brands in the world. We can do it.”

Third, was the commitment we’re putting behind Android, and bringing it to Work, through our ecosystem, OEMs, partners like Samsung with their Knox initiative, etc.

When clients see Google engineering, product management, etc. all building products for them, it creates momentum. Along the way, wins like Costco and some of the biggest retailers in the world now on Google Apps. In regulated industries like Rockwell Collins in aerospace and defence, Roche and Genentech in pharmaceuticals, BBB in finance. These are big 100,000 users all moving to Google Apps this in the last like two years.

BI: Were there other moments that made you feel like Apps was now a genuine competitor?

AS: There was small wins along the way. Drive for Work came on and we signed 240 million users in spite of some good alternatives. When you think about it, that’s probably grown faster than many other products at Google. Drive was announced about 20 months ago [April 24, 2012].

Then we announced Drive for Work last year and we’re signing 1,800 clients every week. You know, that’s just pretty big scale.

But a lot of the unglamorous stuff is [what it took], like product roadmaps, communicating them regularly to clients. Getting their feedback so it gets reflected. To be sure, we don’t build everything they want … we have to build stuff for everyone.

BI: And a salesforce? Didn’t you have to build out an enterprise salesforce to do this? You had like almost none …

AS: Yeah. We’ve hired Carl [Schachter] from, he was one of the business founders there. [Now, Vice President, Americas for Google for Work] And Sebastian [Marriott] from Oracle [Now, Vice President Google Apps for Work].

We had a good team here. But we really scaled that out. We built out customer advisory boards and teams that just cover certain large customers. We feel like we are now ready for that. The daily thing is a lot of work. Done in the Google way.

BI: What do you mean by “done in the Google way?”

AS: It’s not just the sales and support. We’re really focused on adoption. We want clients to get the most of this platform. And because we don’t have any legacy [older versions installed on PCs and servers], everyone’s on the same code base, which is the beauty of cloud based offerings. How do we get them more utilization? ‘Hey, you are not using Docs the right way. How do we get you more training?’

With traditional software the thing was you deploy it yourself, versus, [us], where you are part of that product experience.

BI: Ok, so other than posting tips online, how do you get them to use Google Apps more?

AS: We created a community of not just IT admins but end users. And we’re going to expand that this year, where they can come in and learn from each other and experts where they can be trained on new things coming out.

[That’s called Google Apps Learning Center]

BI: So are you trying to go after big Microsoft customers? When you’re talking about the F500, they all already have email …

AS: We’re ready for them now. I think the last 12 months we’ve proven to a) ourselves b) the market that the Apps are ready for adoption in large enterprises.

Now I think is the time to actually scale that even further, which is what our intention is.

We want to give them alternatives. Not everybody is ready for Gmail for example, but they can use Drive or Docs or Hangouts.

We had a client that saved in their first six months of $US8 million in travel experience because they had the video experience like we do at Google (because we run Hangouts ourselves).

We’ve enabled people to come in for different things.

For instance, if you are struggling with a customer web site and it needs to scale for a big event. You can totally build it on Google and it will scale on App Engine. Or you really want the most secure environments for you’re employees to use, Chromebooks are good for that.

BI: So you feel like you have a whole package of tech to offer to enterprises, right?

AS: We have the portfolio. So you don’t have to be just the one thing, which appeals to large customers because they are a journey. They have existing contracts. They might not be ready for one thing, but they want to try something else.

BI: Do you have a goal about how many large enterprises you want as customers?

AS: I believe we’re ready for all of them, both in the product and the readiness to support them, to help them in their transformation journey. All the pieces are now in place.

BI: It’s hard to get someone to yank out what they have got and go to something new. In your case, Excel is the thing. Sheets can’t really compete with Excel for those that already use it. Do you care about going head-to-head in such a way?

AS: Our stated goal with Docs is that we want to get to 85-90% of the functionality and in some cases hve new functionality ahead of the curve. I mean realtime collaboration in Docs, there’s no equal to that. I mean Office Web Apps is a poor proxy for that.

There’s actually very few content creators in enterprise. Most people are reading and doing very light editing — our analysis has shown us that.

If that’s the case, why would everyone always have to have Excel, etc.? You have lots of users and you don’t have to licence them all for Excel or Office. That population of creators and content authors is 10% or less.

BI: That’s what you did with PwC. They rolled out Google Apps to 45,000 of their 180,000 people. You are going to get, say, 25% of the users in a company? Or maybe 60%?

AS: I hope it’s more like 80%. And the other way to think about it: People already own their Office licenses. You don’t have to give them up. Let the users choose. Using Google products for sharing or storage, they are just easier.

So give people an option and overtime reconcile your associated licensing on actual usage, not just on some upfront commitment and some long-term contract. That’s the old world of enterprise software. Today you should just pay for what you actually use, not for some arbitrary number of users.

BI: Do you plan to integrate Apps features with with MS Office?

As: We do that today with Drive. All the Office formats have first-class citizenship. You can not only store them properly but when you open it, it opens them in their editor.

We acquired this company called Quickoffice a few years ago, and integrated its codebase into Doc. So you can say, “Hey, I’m on mobile, I just want to look at something really quick and it happens to be an Office format.” It will render it perfectly (or nearly perfectly) you can do light editing and share it back, in native Office format.

You can also open MS Office in Drive and if you don’t have Office installed, it will open up QuickOffice.

BI: So what’s your big goal with Google for Work, the next big thing you hope to accomplish?

AS: Two things. 1. The vast bulk of computing is still on-premise [Note: that means it is installed on PCs and computer servers owned by companies] and most of it will move to the cloud over a much shorter period than people give it credit for.

That will happen and we want to provide cloud infrastructure and the best of Google’s algorithms and computer science knowledge over the last 15 years for developers in enterprise.

You’ll see us make progress in the next six months, two quarters, about all the things we plan to release.

2. This movement from desktop to mobility at work, which has lagged consumers. Consumers are mostly on their phones now. I think that will come to work a lot faster, and we want to make sure Android is a first-class citizen, secure, manageable, etc..

I think those are the two near-term trends.

And if you believe those trends, there will be a new generation of applications written for enterprise, which will be built on cloud, for mobile which combine insights from different backend, legacy apps that people might have, but deliver it in intelligent fashion, as an assistant to you as you are working.

BI: That sounds like Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella’s vision. I hear you saying, “Hello! We’re Google! We’ll have game there, too.”

AS: Yeah, platforms like Google Now, where you have alerts, notifications and all that. Mobile the way they are delivered from many kinds of systems pulled together and delivered.

And in many cases wearables will have much more impact to enterprises. That will probably come closer to reality this year, too.

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