Google Takeout inventor commands ‘Data Liberation Front’ from Chicago
Last month when then-House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) opened a congressional hearing with the chief executive of Google, he cited a “widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people.”
Yet, for a small group of tech insiders and Google employees, the most exciting part of the hearing was the public praise of Google Takeout, the brainchild of Brian Fitzpatrick, who had been quietly working to solve issues around data transparency and privatization from Google’s Chicago office.
Fitzpatrick, known simply as “Fitz” to those close with him, a New Orleans native and long-time Chicago resident, has built a reputation for being something of a disruptor in a field where that term has sometimes drawn ire from its ubiquitous usage by Silicon Valley moguls and hopefuls alike.
This reputation stems largely from Fitzpatrick’s work at Google, where he founded the cheekily named Data Liberation Front and was responsible for Google’s Transparency Report, a regularly published record of all requests for Google user information by government bodies across the globe, as well as the nature and number of requests to remove content. Fitzpatrick also developed Google Takeout, a tool which allows Google users to download personal data that’s been collected by Google across a large number of applications, and remove it entirely from Google’s databases.
Fitzpatrick began formulating the idea for Takeout around 2006, roughly a year after he and his longtime co-worker Ben Collins-Sussman applied for jobs at Google.
They interviewed on the same day, on the same Mountain View, California, campus, even taking the same flight. “I think we were irritating everyone on the airplane,” Collins-Sussman said. “Doing practice coding problems on the airplane and arguing about them.”
Collins-Sussman has co-authored three books with Fitzpatrick and balances his career in tech with work as a musical theater composer, most notably composing music for a Jeff award-winning musical adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s novel, Winesburg, Ohio, which premiered at the Steppenwolf theater.
Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman were both hired within days. While the Google recruiters wanted them to move from Chicago to Mountain View, Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman pitched them a different idea.
The company agreed to allow them to work as remote engineers out of Google’s Chicago office, which at the time was strictly a sales office employing roughly 40 advertisers, and, according to Collins-Sussman, the Mountain View recruiters were unaware even existed at the time.
“Silicon Valley is kind of a dump. It’s just not for me,” Fitzpatrick said, citing unaffordability and a “monoculture,” which he acknowledges big tech companies like Google helped to create.
Fitzpatrick first moved to Chicago from New Orleans to attend Loyola University in 1988. He majored in Latin, a language he can no longer read or write, and minored in ceramics, something he still practices. He met his wife when they were both working at the university following his graduation.
Early in his career at Google, Fitzpatrick and two of his co-workers were interviewed by the Chicagoist, a part of which was picked up by a Gawker-owned publication called Valleywag (“a mean pit bull unleashed on tech executives and even hapless geeks who worked for big companies like … Google,” according to a blog post penned by Fitzpatrick), making the front page under the headline “Windy City Google Engineers Say SF Sucks.”
In his Twitter bio, Fitzpatrick describes himself as a “Chicagophile.”
“People were almost being obsequious to us,” said Collins-Sussman about their start at Google’s West Loop office. “After a couple weeks we took one of our sales friends aside and said ‘why is everyone like going out of their way to be nice to us?’ And he said, you know, ‘everybody knows that once your office gets engineers you get better food and better internet.’”
Fitzpatrick spent his first year-and-a-half working on an open source hosting project called Google Code. Once Code launched in 2006, Fitzpatrick was hungry for a new problem to tackle.
“I wanted to do something like open source, but I didn’t want to do more open source,” Fitzpatrick said. “I started talking to people who I knew who were early Google engineers and I would ask them, like ‘who are some people you consider your conscience here?’”
The subsequent conversations led to the idea which became Takeout.
“Takeout is about your data,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is data that you’ve created, or imported or put in a google product. If you decided you want to leave Google, or tell Google to f–k off, you need to take your data with you.”
Fitzpatrick was given the okay from Google Senior Vice President Bill Coughran to assemble a team in Chicago, effectively elevating Fitzpatrick, as well as Collins-Sussman, to management positions.
One of Fitzpatrick’s first hires was Jeremy “JJ” Lueck, a software engineer who had worked for Google in Mountain View on the now-defunct iGoogle, and is now the lead programmer at Fitzpatrick’s startup, Tock. Lueck was hired by Google specifically to work in the fledgling Chicago office, but “I actually had season tickets to the Oakland Athletics and asked if I could just stay in Oakland ‘til the end of baseball season,” Lueck said. “They were really nice. They said ‘you can stay in Mountain View and become “acclimated to the Googleculture,”’ I think was the quote.”
Hoping to use revolutionary language and imagery to inspire curiosity about Takeout, Fitzpatrick branded his team the Data Liberation Front. (See this Promo. The speaker is Fitzpatrick.)
“He really wanted to make a sort of impact on the public,” said Collins-Sussman, “So he and his team sort of drew this logo that looked like a revolutionary fist and they put up a website … It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, right? Like a bunch of revolutionary banana republic folks saying, ‘we’re here to liberate your data.’
“But the thing is he didn’t actually go through official comms and marketing and branding, right? He got in a little bit of trouble later on with execs in the branding and marketing division.”
Asking for forgiveness instead of permission is something Fitzpatrick considers a tenet of his management style when dealing with higher-ups. Another take on Fitzpatrick’s management style, according to Collins-Sussman: “I think he sometimes enjoys creating conflict to get things done.”
In its first year, Takeout was added to fringe Google applications, one by one, but Fitzpatrick and his team wanted to allow users to liberate all their data, across platforms, at the same time.
Lueck said it took “some education and cajoling, mostly through Fitz” to get the higher-ups at Google on board with a program that would effectively allow Google users to more easily move to a competitor’s platform.
Fitzpatrick, however, remembers it differently. “It wasn’t really a pitch,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “I’m like, ‘hey, I’d really like to make this happen. And [Pichai] was like ‘of course. That’s really important. Let’s make it happen.’ It was the shortest, easiest meeting I think I’ve had.”
This sort of reflexive contradiction when Fitzpatrick is confronted with praise is not uncommon. When told that multiple employees called him impressively “entrepreneurial,” Fitzpatrick offered a different view.
“I wouldn’t characterize myself as entrepreneurial, even though that’s what I do today,” Fitzpatrick said. “I guess I’ve worked in small companies, but I’ve never started companies before Tock, and I was 44 when I started Tock. I feel like I’ve gotten some element of that today, but I wouldn’t characterize that as a defining characteristic of myself or anything.”
In 2014 Fitzpatrick left Google to start Tock, having accomplished much of what he wanted with Takeout. The owners of Alinea, perhaps Chicago’s premiere upscale dining restaurant, Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz, had made a stop at Google’s Chicago office on their book tour. A mutual friend introduced them, and they all kept in touch. Kokonas told Fitzpatrick how he hoped to build a website for customers to book restaurant tickets, and, eventually, Fitzpatrick decided to take on the project.
“I was out of my f–king mind,” Fitzpatrick said about his decision to leave Google. “It was the best job in the world. I reported to a VP in Mountain View who let me do whatever the f–k I want. I had an expense account, traveled the world and talked about data liberation. It was super cushy.”
By the time Fitzpatrick left Google, he and Collins-Sussman were the two senior managers of Google’s whole Chicago office. The two had written three books, “Subversion,” “Team Geek” and “Debugging Teams,” the latter two based on popular talks the pair would give about management at tech conferences.
They were driving to one such conference in California when Fitzpatrick laid the news on Collins-Sussman that he would be leaving Google to pursue a startup.
“I think he deliberately waited for that moment where I was trapped in the car- the speeding car- and I couldn’t get out,” said Collins-Sussman.
When asked about Collins-Sussman’s recollection, Fitzpatrick confirmed his version of events and added, “It was fun for me to tell him that.” The two still try to eat lunch together once a week.
A month after Tock launched in a West Loop office, formerly occupied by Threadless, in December 2014, Google’s Chicago office moved across the street with Fitzpatrick’s and Collins-Sussman’s windows facing one another.
Fitzpatrick was the first to set up a flickering light to flash messages in morse code (he knew Collins-Sussman, a HAM radio operator, would be able to understand). The first message: “Tock is hiring.”
“Then their team built a responsive thing out of a super-duper, overpowered, crazy flashlight that’s brighter than like two car lights,” Fitzpatrick said. “That was flashing back the IPv6 URL to OpenTable’s jobs line. Except they made a mistake in it and it was the wrong address.”
While restaurant ticket booking may be a large departure from data liberation, Fitzpatrick sees a parallel.
“It’s a solution that is the kind of solution I like,” Fitzpatrick said. “Takeout, for example- was a solution that solved two problems. It solved the problems of Google and it also solved the problems of their users at the same time, which happens to be most of the internet. I thought that was really great … What I saw in Tock was a solution to a problem that’s better for the restaurants and better for the guests.”
Fitzpatrick’s closest co-workers describe him as a person who goes after a problem from a moral point of view. And his sense of morality is very tied to the idea of two sided solutions.
“They didn’t have diverse people on their team,” said Fitzpatrick. “How many great people have not had the opportunities because they weren’t a white dude?”
Acknowledging criticism of the tech world for a lack of diversity, Fitzpatrick says the change is slower than he’d like to see.
Fitzpatrick’s interest in programming began when he was 13 after his mom, Eileen Fitzpatrick, bought him and his brother, Eric Fitzpatrick, an Apple II in 1983. It was $1700, and at the time Fitzpatrick didn’t realize the sacrifice that took for a single mother.
That led him from hacking video games shared with his friends on floppy disks, to web programming, to his first paid job in tech, putting the Mercantile e
Exchange’s delayed quotes on the internet in 1995.
“If you look at my career, I didn’t do anything the easy way,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s like going from Chicago to Evanston by way of Connecticut.”
Tock officially launched in June 2015. Fitzpatrick is currently focused on growing its user base and adding more restaurants. There are between 50 and 55 employees working in the Tock office (Fitzpatrick himself doesn’t remember the exact number), and he hopes to be up to 60 employees by the end of February.
“I feel like Tock is trying to, to some extent, disrupt the hospitality industry,” Fitzpatrick said. “But really what we’re trying to do is make it better for both sides, as opposed to just, like, take everything we have and throw it out. Remember you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”