President-elect Barack Obama has pooled together a diverse group of economic advisers and some well-known faces like former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. One face seen regularly with Obama is Google CEO Eric Schmidt, but he is probably not much of a household name outside Silicon Valley.
Google is right now probably the mightiest company in the valley. Its shares are valued at close to $90 billion. Schmidt is undoubtedly one of the most powerful people in the tech industry. But he came to Google at a time when the company's financiers were a little nervous.
Its two 20-something founders — Sergey Brin and Larry Page — were too young for the job.
"He gave Sergey and Larry a degree of credibility they didn't have on Wall Street before they took the company public," says David Vise, author of The Google Story. "He was the grown-up."
When Schmidt arrived at Google in 2001 he had just been CEO of software maker Novell — a company that wasn't nearly as successful. Schmidt's background hadn't been so much in business. He started as a computer scientist at Sun Microsystems. Schmidt says it was that and not his stint as a CEO that made him attractive to Google and what attracted him to the company.
"When I first came to Google, I was walking along and all of a sudden I realized that I was hanging out with exactly the same kinds of people with the same odd behavior patterns as I did 20 years earlier when I was at my first or second year at Sun," Schmidt says.
These odd behavior patterns were specific to the offices of Silicon Valley: sleeping on futons under the desk and working for weeks and months on end without a day off.
Schmidt set out to professionalize Google, and he did. Today, he looks every bit the Silicon Valley CEO — casually yet professionally dressed in a carefully pressed shirt, a blue sweater tossed neatly over his shoulders. But, in humble surroundings. His own office is tiny, cramped and kind of disorganized.
Schmidt says he also connected to the politics of Google. He says he is committed to the unofficial motto "don't be evil." The company also believes that technology can solve the environmental crisis. Google has one of the largest solar installations in Silicon Valley.
"I think the green energy is an example of Google caring about something that touches an awful lot of people, where maybe Google can make a small contribution but an important one," Schmidt says. "We're happy to do that."
In his position as CEO, Schmidt already is speaking out. This past year he publicly made a $3 trillion policy proposal to wean the U.S. off oil. In fact, it was discussions about green technology that first brought him into contact with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. The two men discovered they shared a vision of how technology could transform the country. Both believe that more information is a force for good. Schmidt has been advising Obama on how to make government more open using the Internet.
"Much more use of social networking, much more use of involvement, much more than just Web sites for government programs, which was what was achieved a decade ago," he says.
Recently, President-elect Obama announced that documents from all official meetings with outside organizations would be available online; Schmidt has been giving technological advice for making that happen. The idea is to allow Americans to discuss government decision-making, and it's a reflection of Obama's grass-roots organizing background.
It's also a reflection of how Schmidt runs Google, says autnor Vise.
"Google on the technology side runs a very flat organization, which is quite similar in philosophy. Rather than being very hierarchical and having a lot of layers of management, Google, to this day, has tried to keep the size of project teams very small so that the best ideas could still bubble up," Vise says.
Both Obama and Schmidt believe that technology will drive the rescue of the U.S. economy by creating new jobs and new industries. That's a view that people in Silicon Valley think has been dangerously neglected by the Bush administration. Venture capitalist Jon Fieber worked with Schmidt at Sun.
"We need people with Eric's skills, and other people engaged in fundamental discussions with the government," Fieber says. "So, I was thrilled, both because I have a lot of respect for Eric personally as well as it's a general statement that people like Eric are going to be a part of the thinking going forward."
Of course as the CEO of one of the largest tech companies in the world, Schmidt's vision may be more tied up with what's good for the corporate giant he runs rather than what is good for the country.
Obama has also announced that he will be the first president to have a chief technology officer. Schmidt has been mentioned as a candidate, but he has said he would not take the job. He would like to continue offering informal advice.