November 26, 2013

Working at Google is Living in the Future

It's been about two and a half years since I joined Google.

After years of getting to know the company's people and culture nearly as well as I knew their products as a user and as a blogger, I picked up a badge in 2011, and have spent most of my waking hours during the weekdays since in Mountain View. I currently run Google Developers Live.

There are many assumptions about Google out there. I read lots of them. I hear others. Knowing the company and its people as I did when I joined meant I wasn't dramatically surprised by much - but one of the core things that is assumed to be true externally and remains true internally is that working at Google is like working in the future. That's true not just for visibility into longer-term projects which are secret or fall into the category of speculative, but also when it comes to day to day.

It's not uncommon, as an employee, to be aware of future announcements, to be using new services and applications, and more commonly, future versions of these services. Those of us who actively participate in 'dogfooding' of new things have to do an internal check to remember just what features are already out and which ones aren't yet, which devices are launched and which ones aren't, and where's a safe place to use apps to avoid curious eyes and hands. It can even get exciting when one makes a screenshot on their computer or phone, and has to take a quick scan to make sure nothing that's not supposed to get out to the public yet does.

Keeping a mental checklist of what's launched, about to launch, and hasn't launched requires some sort of cerebral gymnastics - making public discussion a challenge for those who have an engaged community, and cementing some introverts' decisions to remain quiet, for the best avoidance of risk is to say nothing and let those who run comms to run comms, after all.

Getting my occasional glimpse into the future here at Google was a definite contributor to the slowdown of posts and observations of the tech industry at large, starting in 2011, after regular daily posts for years many of you got used to. It wasn't just that people assumed I had newfound biases and conflicts due to working for one of the most active and influential companies on the planet, but also because, as you can expect, knowing our future roadmap made comments on current deliverables by us or by others more problematic.

For example, since the world adores car analogies, it's hard to get excited about the 2013 Audi S4, if you work in BMW's concept car division. "Hey! Nice car... now get back to work."

Google's openness is no ruse. It's well-documented that the company, for the most part, has an open sharing policy internally, so those working on one product likely know what the other products are doing. One can easily discover launch schedules and product cycles company-wide. Often, products depend on the other to release improvements to bring value to their own. Instead of a completely siloed organization where working on one project means that's all you know, the average Googler can know, with some small effort, what's next from most places. And this is a good thing in my view. For some incremental risk of leaks, you gain improved collaboration, expanded testing, additional rounds of feedback and reduced paranoia.

Living in the future can be good, especially when you get access to the newest phones, apps and Chromebooks, all in the name of testing. It can be fun to test new services, like Shopping Express, all in the name of being a good corporate citizen. And yes, it can also be challenging, especially, as you can imagine, if you're using two new things in combination, and can't figure out which team should get your filed bug - only that you know it should work better. So yes, we file the bugs so you don't have to see them. We also shield you from a good amount of user experience awkwardness, and in rare cases, can completely change the face of a product before it reaches your computer or smartphone.

By definition every technology company is by some extension working in the future. What's shipped is usually the most stable version of whatever build had to be cut that day, or the highest quality device that could be shipped to the retailer or in time for the scheduled launch event. The one that's not shipped has more features, costs less and is faster, or so they always say. But Google is a different beast, given its incredible ambition.

The company that was once easily defined as "the Mountain View search giant" is doing much more and thinking about ways to leverage technology to improve many facets of our existence. You could be measured by what you used to be, or who you are today, or you could set your sights further ahead, toward the realm of improbability. We call them moonshots. And that stretch goal is where the future is. That's the excitement. We may be experiencing the future every .1 upgrade at a time, or with every notification on Android that our apps need to be updated, but there's more to it, and being inside the Googleplex is a unique experience.

If you want to join us at Google, check out and send me an email.

Disclosure: I work for Google. That's what this post is about. Nobody reviewed this.

November 12, 2013

Are the Big Phone Carriers 'Good Enough' These Days?

Last week, I got my hands on the brand new Nexus 5, and, as you might expect, I've been quite happy with it. The screen is fantastic. The size and weight are perfect, and the battery life is beyond anything I've had so far. But this isn't a post about the Nexus 5. It's about what I also switched when I changed phones - my carrier.

In the process of moving from my aging 2011 Galaxy Nexus on Verizon, I'm now on T-Mobile. This means in the space of five or so years, I've gone from an iPhone on AT&T, to an HTC Evo and Samsung Epic 4G on Sprint, to the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon and now the Nexus 5 on T-Mobile. You could say I've tried all the big carriers here in the US, and experienced their positives and negatives. And in my experience, what they deliver, for the most part, is good enough.

Those of us who were early adopters on the first iPhone here in the US remember that AT&T was the only option - and the service's flakiness was well-chronicled. Many thousands of words were spent in blog posts here and elsewhere decrying AT&T's seeming inability to scale up to the unprecedented data demands brought on by the iPhone. (See: Thoughts on AT&T: What Steve Jobs Should Have Written) Calls that would complete without dropping, even with both parties staying completely still, seemed impossible, and it wasn't unusual for the first words after calling back were something to the effect of "Stupid AT&T".

Moving to Sprint for me was as much a function of switching to Android from iOS as it was leaving AT&T. In 2010 I was making a bet on momentum, app choice and quality, and that choice looks to have played out correctly. But when my family moved across town, we unhelpfully ended up in a place where Sprint coverage was not great - meaning most of my successful calls would have to be made in the backyard. For a year, that was just fine, and we made do - especially as most of the time, we use our phones for data, including email or texts, than we do with phone calls.

In 2011, I switched to Verizon when the Galaxy Nexus came up, and data/voice have been very good. No complaints. But they weren't a partner on the Nexus 5 launch, and while I had considered either going Moto X on Verizon, or keeping my creaky Galaxy Nexus around just a bit longer, I wanted to take another experiment and move to T-Mobile. As Pokemon was best known for saying: "Gotta Catch 'em All!"

Prior to making the switch, I polled people in person and many whom I didn't (via Twitter), to see how they rated their own carrier, on a 1-10 scale, and what mobile OS they were using. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people rated their carrier with a score of 8 out of 10 or above. I had expected to see a lot of lower scores, and to see some trends play out, be it low scores for AT&T on iOS, or lower scores for the smaller carriers, specifically T-Mobile and Sprint. But by and large, people seemed pretty happy - leading me to wonder openly if the only safe business to be universally disliked is that of airlines - who never get any credit.

At the time, my curiosity was as much tied to MotoMaker for the Moto X launching first with AT&T. Was AT&T good enough again to be forgiven for their 2008-10 era quality gap? Could I possibly think of getting back with AT&T after all the frustration I'd seen? I saw people on iOS, Windows Phone and Android all giving AT&T scores above 7, and those from other carriers also being quite favorable. There were no clear laggards.

So when the Nexus 5 came available on Google Play, my internal debate over how to move forward was a pretty simple one. I saw that T-Mobile's LTE coverage includes my work and home. I saw the pricing for T-Mobile was in line (and actually a bit cheaper) than Verizon, and practically the only risk I'd be taking is if it was weak when I traveled outside of my usual stomping grounds. And so far... no complaints.

There's no question that as more and more of us as consumers and businesspeople are expecting more from our smartphones and tablets, that the demands we're putting on our telecommunications infrastructure is dramatically increasing. We've gone from a society that exchanged voice calls and simple texts to one where we expect full HD video and streaming live audio. We expect high speed access on all our devices, practically everywhere.

To build and support that demand, all the carriers are racing to be sure they're not the one who ends up left behind, as all the smart consumers end up attached to the market leaders. It's been a long time since I've read a great rant on AT&T, or seen a wave of people reporting dropped calls. Verizon's commercials promise the widest LTE available, and they do have "the map for that", but the alternatives seem to keep up in users' eyes. So maybe, just maybe, we've hit a turning point when the carriers are pretty good, and the user experience is going to get even better as our hardware improves and the mobile software gets even more excellent. I'm glad we've gotten this far.

Usual Disclosures: I work for Google. Google builds Android, and shaped the Nexus 5. I initially received my first HTC Evo free from Google I/O 2010 before I joined the company. This post isn't aimed to indicate any bias or favor to any Google partners. That'd be silly.

November 05, 2013

Enthusiasts & Evangelists: Pushing Product, Begging for Features

There's a fine line separating an enthusiastic user from that of an evangelist, even if the two terms are often thrown out there as equals. For as excited as a user may be about consuming your product or your ideas, it takes an extra level of effort - working as a partner, testing early versions of products, and seeing where a product is headed to be truly considered an evangelist. An enthusiast is typically on the receiving end, a consumer of the benefits, while the evangelist not only takes in the benefit of your work, but can help accelerate it.

Evangelists are often early adopters of your product, who have been converted to your story and ideas, and are willing to advocate on your behalf. Some of the top consumer-facing companies have turned to evangelists in house, and their fingerprints are all over the successful growth of their customer base, and regularity by which their products are seen in the press, while others rely on end-user evanglists to bring the story to new communities.

Enthusiasts, while excited about your product, are likely to be found breathlessly awaiting morsels of information, be they rumor or news. They may have their fingers on the buy button and refresh your product pages as they get ready to buy, and make cash available. They debate your benefits and beg for feature enhancements, but if their demands aren't met, they'll just as soon as wait for the next one, debate amongst their peers where you went wrong, and suggest why it just might be high time to switch to a competitor. Enthusiasts are never employees of the company, though they may be close to the teams, be courted in user groups and given early access to items to provide beta stage feedback.

Some of the Best Evangelists I Know

The most well known evangelist in Silicon Valley lore is very likely +Guy Kawasaki, who while at Apple in the early Mac days, fought to bring the Macintosh story to developers, schools and customers everywhere. Guy's moved on to promote other products, including +Motorola Mobility, but his Apple legacy remains intact. More recently, the work done by Shak Khan for Spotify and +Thomas Meyer of Sonos put both those products on the map for me. In both cases, Shak and Thomas delivered a 1:1 relationship with me as an early adopter, providing access to products, trading feedback on improvements, and finding ways to get their services in the hands of new users.

The ideal scenario is one telling many who tell more.

The best evangelists can help to convert enthusiasts into evangelists. As discussed in depth as the first stage of early adopter behavior, the enthusiast can graduate from being a consumer of your work, and instead works as an unpaid advocate for your story and your ideas - accelerating the network effect. As the 1:1 relationship at the initial touchpoint cannot scale past several dozen or even hundreds of top-tier influencers, one must hope that they evangelize on your behalf why your product is better, why you can be trusted to keep coming up with exciting new innovations, or, if you're behind in a certain area, why you can be counted on to bridge those gaps.

Seeing Potential Instead of Problems

An evangelist can believe strongly in a direction for a product and buy in early - in the same way as an investor can see potential a company and buy its stock. In 2010, my move to Android from iPhone was done at a time when the case could pretty easily be made that iOS' user experience was better and the list of applications available was longer. The debate as to which installed base was larger was also up for question. But I could see the trajectory, and, as I was later proven correct, the applications caught up, the user growth accelerated, and in the minds of many, the user experience is equal, or at least arguable. Even from a point of perceived weakness, I believed strongly that their choices as a platform were right.

The same could be said for Spotify's early trial back in 2009. While iTunes was the big fish in the pond, Spotify changed the game for me almost overnight - and every online music service has followed their model, even if the product hadn't yet officially shipped in the US, and there were occ

Crossing the chasm from enthusiast to evangelist is a lot like moving from a hobby to a religion. It's one thing to dabble, and quite another to commit. It's no surprise then, that evangelists are most commonly associated with religious institutions and converting people to the one true way.

Like a good religious person, one publicly glosses over the challenging parts, promising only purity and bliss. For example, in a 2007 post I wrote for +GigaOM, I highlighted "five lesser-known tips for being an Apple fanboy". The number one rule? "Never admit fault with Apple around non-Mac people." Giving the perceived opposition a weapon to use against you was never a good idea. It was better to suffer in silence, or quietly find a peer to help you with your issue than to growse publicly. The same goes for the converted evangelist. It is better to report product issues back to the company or their rep, or a fellow user than to complain publicly. Obviously enthusiasts have no such shackles - as they're all too eager to break apart your product and tell the world where you've done wrong.

My father raised me to believe that bad news travels much more quickly than good news. A person with a bad experience will tell seven people, and a person with a good experience will tell three. That requires a higher percentage of positive interactions, and to make this success repeatable. But while an enthusiast will share the good news and the bad news at equal volume, an evangelist will simply amplify the good news, and constantly work in the background to solve the bad stories. It's not blindness, but discretion.

Especially in the fickle world of consumer marketing and outreach, you need to find evangelists, who will find you enthusiasts. If your product can't convert people to share your story, your story probably isn't that good. Your service has to be that much better that an early adopter or evangelist will take that bet and invest their time and effort to tell your story - like I did with FriendFeed and Google Reader years ago, later Spotify and Sonos, and now with great stories like ChromeOS - which I strongly believe presents the platform of the future. People like Shak and Guy and Thomas are rarities, but they can be the accelerant that moves your flame to an inferno.

Usual Disclosures: I work at Google. Google is the proud owner of Android and ChromeOS, of course. We also make Google Play Music All Access, an assumed competitor to Spotify. Any bias is my own and I'm not speaking on behalf of Google at the moment.