How Google’s Next 100 Hires Could Change The World

When I headed out to TechCrunch Disrupt this week, I was geared-up to see and touch the hottest startups in the land – and I’ve seen some great ones, but I’ve also had my share of Seth & Amy “Really?” moments. I’ve heard people pitching product-based check-ins where users gallivant around a grocery store scanning barcodes on frozen chicken with their iPhones to get points – sounds realistic. I’ve also been told a pink dragon is going to change the way CPG brands allocate media dollars – and it’s all because he’s a hilarious, irreverent fella. What I didn’t expect from Day 2 of Disrupt was that conversations around Google would be the most interesting thing I heard.

First off, it’s been 5-6 years since I’ve been in a room with Eric Schmidt speaking and I now remember it’s an amazing event. Even in the old Novell days at tech industry show classics like Net Interop, Eric had a way of articulating a future vision like few CEOs. His talk today was no exception, and he outlined three key trends that will shape the next phase of technology as we know it: 1) the rise of the smartphone; 2) an era of pervasive connectivity; and 3) cloud computing. With these three building blocks, he outlined Google’s desire to “build an augmented version of humanity.” Big words, but he’s really just talking about optimizing tasks for the combination of humans and computers – with each focusing on what they do most efficiently. For example, he contends it’s a bug that cars were invented before computers because computers are much more suited to operate cars than people. And these three key building blocks create a scenario where you have a supercomputer (the cloud) connected to a smartphone via pervasive connectivity. He cites the example of being able to translate languages on-the-fly during a real-time telephone conversation. These are the types of things Google engineers are cranking away on, and there’s not a better guy in the world to be leading them than Eric.

That being said, the sharpest question of the day was posed by TechCrunch’s MG Siegler of Brad Horowitz, Google’s VP of Products: Are designers to blame for Google’s lack of success on the product side – specifically social applications? Brad was quick to say no, but I believe the answer is slightly more complex. Perhaps the existing designers aren’t culpable, but few would argue Google’s at the top of the product game. (Hell, some I know would debate if Google even has any designers.) Witness the debacle of Buzz from a software perspective, and the death of Nexus One from a hardware perspective. Google simply may not have the right people in the mix.

So here’s my hypothesis: immediately divert all engineering job reqs to UI/UX, design, and front-end coding – and let it ride for about 100 people. In essence, stand up a product design and build function that can effectively wrangle all the innovation coming out of Google. And don’t worry, there are plenty of PhDs in areas like Human Factors if they want to remain somewhat academic inside this group. But also step out and grab a bunch of agency creatives with deep project-level experience and a work-around-the-clock mentality. They won’t fit in very well with the culture, but start out with them in a quiet corner (or separate facility) until they have 3-4 big wins under their belt. After that, their value will be undeniable.

This is exactly what my small team did at UPS in 1999-2000, and it’s paid huge dividends over the last 10 years. Massive volume applications like Tracking and Shipping were pared down to manageable beasts by sheer determination and relentless usability testing. For the first time ever, interactive professionals had strong influence over the product roadmap, and were in direct charge of the UI. Eventually, we even assumed development responsibilities over the front-end code with a team of 50-60 people. This exact approach could bolt directly into the Google business, and I’m not sure it’d be more of a shock than we created at Big Brown. It simply takes visionaries in the IT and interactive spaces. Not easy, but so worth the pain…

So under Eric Schmidt’s visionary leadership, why not make every possible move to dominate the world? If half of what he’s thinking could be brought to market, Google would be our generation’s most important technology company. They have undeniable engineering horsepower and amazing leadership, but lack the ability to formulate and launch a product that captures the hearts and minds of consumers. If they cross that chasm, our world will be a different place. I, for one, hope they do.


0 # Alex 2010-09-29 03:34

Thanks for the post. I watched a stream of Eric's talk from IFA in Germany, many of the same themes about computing power + mobile = human augmentation.

Re design at Google, I read this yesterday, thought you might find this item (and some of the pages it points to) interesting:

-- Alex
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-09-29 03:53
Great article Alex, and exactly what I'm talking about. I can imagine the environment is every bit as hostile as Douglas Bowman describes. It takes serious top-down pressure to change that dynamic...
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0 # Josh 2010-09-29 11:13
I would argue that products like gmail, maps and google docs are actually considerable success. Google's success stems fro their ability to rapidly create and explore new ideas, even if the UI is lacking the functionality is typically ahead of the industry. Typically google focused on getting the usx right first and design later, though admitted they have some failures in the ui space.

And, with all due respect you do realize that UPS's tracking system is one of the most confusing and frustrating systems out there compared with it's competitors right?
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-09-29 15:35
Google has shown the ability to create decent products, but have better features than UIs. Threaded messaging and Priority Inbox are unique plays in email, and represent high water marks. The UI for Buzz on the other hand was kludgy and died a quick death.

In the case of UPS Tracking, I can't speak to how it's changed since I left in 2004, but the modifications we made significantly improved the experience for ~15M daily sessions. These changes took multiple users steps (and some of the complexity) out of the process, which saved UPS more money annually than many companies ever make.

The real win is creating an environment where top quality UI designers and engineers work hand-in-hand. That's a smart move for anyone, Google included.
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0 # Carey Landon 2010-09-29 21:15

I enjoyed your overview of the "next generation" of technology & design work in I.T..

Jumping further into the future, I believe the greatest challenges will come from determining "what" technology can achieve...not "how."

For example, home automation has been an emerging market for years, but little if any critical mass has yet developed in the field. Imagine the potential cost/savings benefit to climate control in the home (not to mention skyscraper workplaces).

Another example would be mass transportation. Given the sparce capacity utilization and repetitive, inelastic consumption of fixed routes, how much could be saved with dynamic, flexible transit routes? or alternative modes of transport?

To close, the future of I.T. rests with "futurists;" individuals who can identify socio-economic needs and benefits and apply current technological solutions...AT A PROFIT.

If 5 out Google's 100 each have a single "breakthrough," Society and industry will be substantailly changed over the next 25 years.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-09-30 15:52
Carey: I couldn't agree more on the role of futurists, of which Eric Schmidt is a stellar example. And sitting on billions in cash and the Google engineering talent should be a prescription for some amazingly cool innovations. They'll get there, but they'd be well-served to insert a UI/UX approach alongside the engineering focus.
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