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Why Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat was the perfect fit at Google

  • Porat says giving business-unit managers accurate data to support their decisions is her most important function.
  • She spends more time on the investment side of the business than the expense side.
  • "It's really about data," says the former Morgan Stanley investment banker.
Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet, at the 2017 Code Conference on May 31, 2017.
Asa Mathat | ReCode
Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet, at the 2017 Code Conference on May 31, 2017.

Alphabet chief financial officer Ruth Porat, like company co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, is into data.

"The most valuable thing you can have as a leader is clear data," Porat said Wednesday, in describing her role at the company.

The comment, made during an onstage interview at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, helps explain why Porat, a former executive with the buttoned-up Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley, has been a good fit at a Silicon Valley giant known for its informal ways.

"I was quoting Eric's book before I joined Google," Porat said, referring to a book written by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

Porat laughed when her interviewer, Recode executive editor Kara Swisher, suggested that some at Alphabet refer to her as "Ruth Vader," because of her reputation as a cost-cutter.

"Fantastic. That's fantastic," Porat said, with obvious sarcasm.

Contrary to that conventional wisdom, she said she spends more time focused on the investment side of Alphabet's business than on the expense side.

"We're not just focused on expenses, but on what makes us great, [which is] innovation," Porat said.

Alphabet's top execs make weekly evaluations of its most advanced technologies, which the company refers to as Other Bets.

The question that she, Brin and Page spend the most time on is, "What are the bets that will help us grow?"

Porat said that when the company was restructured into Alphabet two years ago, decisions on what investments the company would make were pushed down to the general managers of its various units.

"Those decisions can't come from the CFO. They have to come from the business leaders. The best thing I can do is give them accurate data. It's really about the data," Porat said.

The biggest risk to the company's future, Porat said, is "not investing, not innovating," adding that the reason the company reformed itself as Alphabet was "to be intentional about innovation."

"We're just in the early days [of innovation]" with several technologies, including artificial intelligence, Porat said.

Eighty percent of YouTube video views come from the site's automated recommendation engine, which is powered by AI, she said.

"It's very exciting."

When asked by an audience member whether she missed Wall Street, Porat didn't hesitate in responding.

"No," she said.

Last week, Porat suggested that the U.S. financial crisis could have been avoided if Wall Street had a culture more like Google's.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox Media. Recode and NBC have a content-sharing arrangement.