Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Hal Varian ’69

Google’s chief economist uses math to model behavior.
August 16, 2017

Hal Varian was raised on a farm in a sleepy Ohio town. Growing up, he turned to science fiction for excitement.

“At 14, I read the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov; it was about a future where social science had become an exact science, and you could mathematically model human behavior,” Varian says. “When I got to MIT, I realized that mathematically modeling human behavior was called economics. It shaped my whole life.”

Now chief economist at Google, he specializes in microeconomics and leads a team of 10 economists, including statisticians, operations research analysts, and number crunchers. “One of the big issues in the economy these days is the role of automation, so there’s lots of questions being raised in terms of impact on the job market and impact on prosperity. It’s something we’re intensely interested in,” says Varian, who works on econometrics, finance, corporate strategy, public policy, and the design of advertising auctions.

“Google is booming,” he says. “We’ve got lots of smart, high-energy people doing all sorts of new things, and we’ve branched out from our original model of search and are now working on autonomous vehicles, biological projects, and telecommunications.” He adds that Alphabet, the multinational conglomerate launched by Google’s founders two years ago, focuses on Internet connectivity, life sciences, online video and entertainment, and more.

Varian earned his MIT bachelor’s degree in economics and then a master’s in mathematics and a PhD in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. He taught at the University of Michigan for 18 years, later became founding dean of Berkeley’s School of Information, and is now professor emeritus of information, business, and economics. He also taught at MIT, Stanford, Oxford, and other universities across the world. Fifteen years ago, he jumped to Google.

The author of two bestselling textbooks translated into 25 languages, Varian also coauthored the 1998 best-seller Information Rules with Carl Shapiro ’76, PhD ’81. According to Fortune, it is among the 75 smartest books about business strategy ever written. Varian also wrote an economics column for the New York Times for seven years.

“MIT had a big impact on my life. It showed me what was possible,” he says. “Even now, when I come across a new problem, I’ll jump right in. I’ll say, ‘I can do this.’ MIT gave me the optimism to look for solutions.”

Varian lives in Danville, California, with his wife, Carol, a watercolor artist. Their son, Chris, lives in Denver. When he’s not at Google, Varian likes to read and watch videos, and he is an amateur chef.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.