Gmail Team Offers Lessons on Innovation, Project Management

A continuing theme at South by Southwest Interactive is figuring out how to foster innovation at organizations. A team of Google employees shared some thoughts on Sunday about how they create and improve upon services such as Gmail, Google Talk and Google Buzz.

It became clear that although these people have achieved plenty of successes, they are familiar with failure — mostly private, sometimes public.

Their thoughts are relevant for any organization, particularly news organizations, trying to change how they do their work.

Strive for a goal, even if you don’t know how to achieve it. Jonathan Perlow, a senior engineer on the Gmail team, said the e-mail service was created to achieve three things:

  • Offer e-mail that didn’t require people to delete messages
  • Create a user experience comparable to desktop e-mail applications
  • Block spam — all of it

When these goals were outlined, Perlow said, no one knew how to accomplish them, but they firmly believed that they were worth striving for.

“Either we’re going to figure out how to make a great user experience or we’ll die trying,” Perlow said. “Most of the things we try, fail.”

Create a culture of execution. Edward Ho, the technical lead for Google Buzz, described how he set up his team to achieve their goals. For instance, he made sure his engineers could work on various aspects of their projects so that anyone could step in when an emergency arose.

People on his team sit in an open area, “unnaturally close together,” so they can communicate immediately, face-to-face. “Without leaving a chair,” Ho said, “I want to be able to turn to the lead of the back end [of the system] and say, ‘Do you think it will scale?’ No e-mails, no IMs, no meetings, just move on.”

And he avoids regular team meetings in which people update others on their work, opting instead for demonstrations when they’re ready. His theory: “It’s all about what you do, not about what you say you’ll do.”

Protect your employees so they can do the work they’re supposed to do. Todd Jackson, a product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, said that he’s learned any manager is either a “a shit funnel or a shit umbrella.”

Every manager, he explained, gets suggestions from others — in the organization, their friends, their family — about ways to improve their products. The manager has to decide if he will funnel those ideas down to his employees, which could end up diverting them from the agreed-upon focus, or shield them from such distractions.

Empower your employees to take action on their ideas. Many products and product improvements at Google start with one person having an idea, sketching it out, showing a prototype to others, getting feedback, and soliciting support from others.

“Any engineer on our team is empowered to try something they feel strongly about,” Jackson said.

One example of this is the “undo send” feature. For several years, people at Google debated whether they could or should enable users to pull back an e-mail they sent.

Then an engineer in Japan — who didn’t even work on Gmail — decided he wanted this feature and built it. At that point, “we didn’t have to argue about whether it would work,” Jackson said.

Don’t damage the existing experience in an effort to add features. Engineers at Gmail constantly balance adding new features against maintaining speed.

It’s such a concern that every feature must be tested before launch to show that it will not slow down Gmail, said Arielle Reinstein, who handles product marketing for Google’s consumer apps. Some features have been ready to ship, only to fail the test and be sent back for recoding.

Overcommunicate with your users so you know how they’ll react to changes. This isn’t something Google did well. Danah Boyd noted in a talk on Saturday that Google failed to understand its users’ privacy concerns when it launched Google Buzz, spurring a backlash.

Google generally doesn’t tell people about upcoming changes, but some on the Sunday panel suggested that could change. “We’ll probably have to engage our users better” on future developments like this, Jackson said.

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And if people complain about a problem that can’t be addressed immediately, tell them you’re working on it. The team has done that on Google Buzz, and users have said they appreciated knowing that the company has listened.

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