When I wrote a cover story on Google for Time magazine in 2006, there was a widespread sense in the industry that CEO Eric Schmidt had been brought into Google (he had previously been CEO of Novell) to provide "adult supervision" to the kids who had founded the company. I referred to his role as the "third Google guy" as something akin to being the fifth Beatle, but far more lucrative.
While I reported the story, Schmidt was remarkably generous, offering me access to nearly everything the company did and giving as much of his time as I needed to understand the specifics of Google's business. Yet it seemed clear that, even after five years as CEO, he was still the odd man out.
At one point we asked to take a photograph of the Google triumvirate — co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Schmidt — inside Google's headquarters at Mountainview, California. Page and Brin, who were still riding a reputation as inspired nerds who had retained their fun-loving youthful ways, donned white lab coats for the picture. Schmidt put one on too. The co-founders shook their heads dismissively. Schmidt took his off, and retreated to his role as straight man in the quirky company.
At another point, I sat down with the three over a table of Legos — Brin and Page are constant tinkerers — and asked them the question that all of Silicon Valley wondered: whether Schmidt actually played a substantial role in the company, or if he was brought in primarily to calm shareholders. "That's been the buzz since I joined. My answer is simply to let the company's results speak for themselves," Schmidt answered. "Good answer," Page quickly added.
The fact is, Schimdt wound up playing a critical role in Google's development, including driving the move to the company's odd, but ultimately successful, IPO in 2004 — an experience he wrote about for HBR. He tended to be more cautious than the co-founders (Schmidt, for example, tried to find a compromise with China in Google's row with Beijing over censorship, while Brin, in particular, took a harder line). But he played an active role in growing the business, and in presenting the company's public face — in Washington, at Davos, and beyond.
Schmidt announced today that he is stepping down as CEO, to be replaced by Page. I don't have any inside knowledge on why the decision was made, and why now. But in a tweet that he sent out today, Schmidt referred back to that old phrase: "adult supervision no longer needed!"
I guess it was only a matter of time.