It's been almost one year since Eric Schmidt stepped down as CEO of Google, and sometimes it seems like he's experienced a midlife identity crisis. Schmidt drives a Ferrari, will reportedly divorce his wife, and now he's calling on programmers, like those at Google, to speak out against any evil practices their bosses ask them to perform.
California the University of California, Berkeley alumni magazine, caught up with Schmidt at an emotional moment. The Google chairman is poised to receive the Alumnus of the Year award, which Schmidt called "perhaps the most significant award I'm likely to get in my life." Reflecting on his time as a graduate student in the school's computer science program, Schmidt said he was part of a close-knit group of engineers, and never imagined he would have to speak publicly on privacy and other political issues. But now he believes technically adept people, especially those with high profiles, have a duty to speak out and "get the facts right." Schmidt told California:
"Scientists from Berkeley spoke out on the dangers of nuclear war, on atomic proliferation and things like this. And it was the scientists that got people concerned. It was the scientists who spoke out to make the world a better place. And that's a responsibility that I think I and others have."
The thing is, getting scientists to speak out won't necessarily work in Google's favor, and Schmidt must realize that. The likes of CNET and the New York Observer wrote about a recent blog post from Google engineering director James Whittaker, in which he said he left the company because it had turned into "an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus" involving "learning as much about people's personal lives as possible."
But Schmidt seems to have a new outlook on public debate and disclosure. The man who blacklisted CNET for publishing information from his Google results and who reportedly demanded his mistress take down her Google blog now tells the magazine, "as a public figure, you tend to lose a lot of privacy and people tend to know what you're doing, and I think that's par for the course."
Maybe it's because the state of his marriage is about to be brought out into the open, but Google's longtime CEO finally seems to be taking his own advice: If you don't want people to know what you're doing, you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. So when Schmidt's Ferrari broke down on his way to the California photo shoot, he didn't bother making up some less embarrassing, less plutocratic reason why he was late. And now that Google has been pilloried with harsh blog posts from engineers, his answer seems to be calling for more heartfelt blog posts and more dialog.
If Schmidt is a embracing a new identity centered on openness and a devotion to conscience, more power to him. Let's just hope he can convince other Googlers to go further down that path.