The Man Behind the Google Curtain
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s why everyone wants to work for Google.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The Google fairy tale is a familiar one by now. Employees feast on farm-fresh fare and take on-campus naps. Corporate drudgery is banished from the lush Googleplex. Instead of cubicles, you’ll encounter bright primary colors, zippy golf carts, bikes connecting distant buildings and even the skeleton of a life-size T. rex — a not-so-subtle company reminder for employees to never become obsolete.
It all contributes to the mythology of the company, the so-called Googliness, that X factor. Equally responsible? Matt Teper, Google’s chief wordmaster, and former speechwriter for Vice President Joe Biden. Teper and his team in the company’s little-known editorial department are tasked with both the big and small of telling the story of one of the most important companies in the world. They pound out op-eds, pen speeches for top executives, blog and handle social media. As Google’s Head of Editorial, Teper sits at the cusp of a changing profession within corporate-identity construction. In an age where companies must not only be high-performing, but also exude rock-star status like celebrities and politicians do, Teper is part of a fleet of Olivia Popes–cum–Sam Seaborns. Many are alums of Washington, D.C. who flocked westward to Silicon Valley and now wield their talents to manage the image of a company through crisis and growth.
On the day I swing by to meet 39-year-old Teper, he’s retreated outside, away from the noisy Mac-clacking workspaces and onto a sunny patio. In this techno-utopia, deeply Midwestern Teper is a tad out of place. He’s got silvery hair and doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a typical millennial programmer. After growing up in Milwaukee, Teper studied journalism at the University of Texas and earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teper never intended to be a lawyer, but that’s when he honed the “creative juices that come from writing and storytelling mixed with policy pushes and persuasive thinking,” he says. After a few brief stints of speechwriting at nonprofits and advocacy groups, he landed the job under Biden, writing up to eight speeches a week, mostly on the fly, aboard Air Force II.
These days, Teper still bears “the soul of a speechwriter,” says David Murray, the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. “He’s still got bags under his eyes from working with Biden years and years ago. He’s young, but there’s an old weariness about him.” Jaded after three-plus years of nonstop travel and crushing White House workloads, Teper eagerly traded his black suit and tie, which “felt like a costume,” for jeans and sneakers. Basking in the sunshine today, he doesn’t look nostalgic for his once mercurial schedule or Biden’s habit of speaking off-script. Before Teper came along, Biden was infamous for gaffes like “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent” in 2006 or describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” in 2007. But Teper was one of the rare few who could both stomach an unpredictable agenda to hammer out speeches at a moment’s notice, says Murray, and embrace his boss’ embarrassing flubs. (The Office of the Vice President did not respond to requests for comment.)
Later on, Teper’s knack for handling scandal and slipups helped him shine as Eric Schmidt’s speechwriter — quite an undertaking, given how many public faux pas the former Google CEO committed in the past. Teper’s explanation of the job is simple: “Google strives to be your cool, interesting friend that you run into at a party who knows a little bit more than you,” he says. In Silicon Valley, tech titans like Google and Facebook now have in-house speechwriters where they didn’t decades before. “Silicon Valley touches so many different aspects of people’s lives and is one of the hotbeds of change, and wherever there’s a change, you need people to communicate what that means,” says Ian Griffith, an executive communications strategist. Teper’s outsider “ignorance” helps his fellow techlorians weed out wonky software jargon that simply won’t resonate with Google’s global audience. “My ability to have a bigger picture helps bring people out of their gilded tech silo,” while also harnessing the style and gravitas of the nation’s most seasoned political leaders, he says.
Now, Teper is retooling Google Insider, an internal news channel for 60,000-plus employees, and presiding over the launch of Keyword, the company’s official blog on product updates, company culture and business strategy at Google. He doesn’t have to touch the tough stuff often — like privacy snafus or tax-evasion allegations — and instead gets to remain comfortably in the role of internal propagandist-slash-cheerleader. In that sense, the stakes of Teper’s words today may not be as high as they were during his Washington days. But his power — and that creativity — comes in the broad license he’s given to tell Google’s more offbeat stories, ones that touch on the larger zeitgeist the company is fueling.
And in those tales? Self-driving cars as a boon for sex, spooky street views from Google Maps and how their machine-learning tech could save, um, a sea cow. Looks like he’s got plenty of material with enough humor and color to make Uncle Joe proud.