ASWEC 2014, Day 2, Keynote, “Innovation at Google” (#aswec2014 #AdelEd @scruzin @sallyannw)

Today’s keynote was given by Alan Noble, Engineering Director for Google Australia and long-term adjunct at the University of Adelaide, who was mildly delayed by Sydney traffic but this is hardly surprising. (Sorry, Sydney!) Whn asked to talk about Google’s Software Engineering (SE) processes, Alan thought “Wow, where do I began?” Alan describes Google’s processes as “organic” and “changing over time” but no one label can describe an organisation that has over 30,000 employees.

So what does Alan mean by “organic”? Each team in Google is empowered to use the tools and processes that work best for them – there is no one true way (with some caveats). The process encouraged is “launch and iterate” and “release early, release often”, which many of us have seen in practice! You launch a bit, you iterate a bit, so you’re growing it piece by piece. As Alan noted, you might think that sounds random, so how does it work? There are some very important underlying commonalities. In the context of SE, you have an underlying platform and underlying common principles.

Everything is built on Google Three (Edit: actually it’s google3, from Alan’s comment below so I’ll change that from here on) – Google’s third iteration of their production codebase, which also enforces certain approaches to the codebase. At the heart of google3 is something called a package, which encapsulates a group of source files, and this is associated with a build file. Not exciting, but standard. Open Source projects are often outside: Chrome and Android are not in google3. Coming to grips with google3 takes months, and can be frustrating for new hires, who can spend weeks doing code labs to get a feeling for the codebase. It can take months before an engineer can navigate google3 easily. There are common tools that operate on this, but not that many of them and for a loose definition of “common”. There’s more than one source code control system, for example. (As a note, any third party packages used inside Google have the heck audited out of them for security purposes, unsurprisingly.) The source code system used to be Perforce by itself but it’s a highly centralised server architecture that hasn’t scaled for how Google is now. Google has a lot of employees spread around the world and this presents problems. (As a note, Sydney is the 10th largest engineering centre for Google outside of Mountain View.) In response to this scaling problem, Google have tried working with the vendor (which didn’t pan out) and have now started to produce their own source control system. Currently, the two source control systems co-exist while migration takes place – but there’s no mandated move. Teams will move based on their needs.

Another tool is a tracking tool called Buganizer which does more than track bugs. What’s interesting is that there are tools that Google use internally that we will never see, to go along with their tools that are developed for public release.

There’s a really strong emphasis on making sure that the tools have well-defined, well-documented and robust APIs. They want to support customisation, which means documentation is really important if sound extensions and new front ends can be built. By providing a strong API, engineering teams can build a sensible front end for their team – although complete reinvention of the wheel is frowned upon and controlled. Some of the front ends get adopted by other teams, such as the Mondrian UI front-end for Buganizer. Another front end for Google Spreadsheets is Maestro. The API philosophy is carried from the internal tools to the external products.

Google makes heavy use of their own external products that they produce, such as Docs, Spreadsheets and Analytics. (See, dog food, the eating thereof.) This also allows the internal testing of pre-release and just-released products. Google Engineers are slightly allergic to GANTT charts but you can support them by writing an extension to Spreadsheets. There is a spreadsheet called Smartsheet that has been approved for internal use but is not widely used. Scripting over existing tools is far more common.

And now we move onto programming languages. Or should I say that we Go onto programming languages. There are four major languages in use at Google: Java, C++, Python, and Go (the Google language). Alan’s a big fan of Go and recommends it for distributed and concurrent systems. (I’ve used it a bit and it’s quite interesting but I haven’t written enough in it to make much comment.) There are some custom languages as well, including scripting languages for production tasks. Teams can use their own language of choice, although it’s unlikely to be Ruby on Rails anytime soon.

Is letting engineers pick their language the key to Google’s success? Is it the common platform? The common tools? No. The platforms, tools and languages won’t matter if your organisational culture isn’t right. If the soil is toxic, the tree won’t grow. Google is in a highly competitive space and have to be continually innovating and improving or users will go elsewhere. The drive for innovation is the need to keep the users insanely happy. Getting the organisational settings right is essential: how do you foster innovation?

Well, how do they do it? First and foremost, it’s about producing a culture of innovation. The wrong culture and you won’t get interesting or exciting software. Hiring matters a LOT. Try to hire people that are smarter than you, are passionate, are quick learners – look for this when you’re interviewing. Senior people at Google need to have technical skills, yes, but they have to be a cultural fit. Will this person be a great addition to the team? (Culture Fit is actually something they assess for – it’s on the form.) Passion is essential: not just for software but for other things as well. If people are passionate about one thing, something, then you’d expect that this passion would flow over into other things in their lives.

Second ingredient: instead of managing, you’re unmanaging. This is why Alan is able to talk today – he’s hired great people and can leave the office without things falling apart. You need to hire technical managers as well, people who have forgotten their technical skills won’t work at Google if they’re to provide a sounding board and be able to mentor members of the team.

The third aspect is being open to sharing information: share, share, share. The free exchange of information is essential in a collaborative environments, based on trust.

Info sharing is power, info hoarding is impotence.” (Alan Noble)

The fourth thing is to recognise merit. It’s cool to do geeky things. Success is celebrated generously.

Finally, it’s important to empower teams to be agile and to break big projects into smaller, more manageable things. The unit of work at Google is about 3-4 engineers. Have 8 engineers? That’s two 4 person teams. What about meetings? Is face-to-face still important? Yes, despite all the tech. (I spoke about this recently.) Having a rich conversation is very high bandwidth and when you’re in the same room, body language will tell you if things aren’t going across. The 15 minute “stand up” meeting is a common form of meeting: stand up in the workplace and have a quick discussion, then break. There’s also often a more regular weekly meeting which is held in a “fun” space. Google wants you to be within 150m of coffee, food and fuel at all times to allow you to get what you need to keep going, so weekly meetings will be there. There’s also the project kick-off meeting, where the whole team of 20-30 will come together in order to break it down to autonomous smaller units.

People matter and people drive innovation. Googlers are supposed to adapt to fast-paced change and are encouraged to pursue their passions: taking their interests and applying them in new ways to get products that may excite other people. Another thing that happens is TGIF – which is now on Thursday, rather than Friday, where there is an open Q and A session with the senior people at Google. But you also need strong principles underlying all of this people power.

The common guiding principles that bring it all together need to be well understood and communicated. Here’s Alan’s list of guiding principles (the number varies by speaker, apparently.)

  1. Focus on the user. This keeps you honest and provides you with a source of innovation. Users may not be articulate what they want but this, of course, is one of our jobs: working out what the user actually wants and working out how many users want a particular feature.
  2. Start with problems. Problems are a fantastic source of innovation. We want to be solving real, important and big problems. There are problems everywhere!
  3. Experiment Often. Try things, try a lot of things, work out what works, detect your failures and don’t expose your users to any more failures than you have to.
  4. Fail Fast. You need to be able to tolerate failure: it’s the flip side of failure. (A brief mention of Google Wave, *sniff*)
  5. Paying Attention to the Data. Listen to the data to find out what is and what is not working. Don’t survey, don’t hire marketing people, look at the data to find out what people are actually doing!
  6. Passion. Let engineers find their passion – people are always more productive when they can follow their passion. Google engineers can self-initiate a transfer to encourage them to follow their passion, and there is always the famous Google 20% time.
  7. Dogfood. Eat your own dogfood! Testing your own product in house and making sure that you want to use it is an essential step.

The Google approach to failure has benefited from the Silicon Valley origins of the company, with the approach to entrepreneurship and failure tolerance. Being associated with a failed start-up is not a bad thing: failure doesn’t have to be permanent. As long as you didn’t lie, cheat or steal, then you’ve gained experience. It’s not making the mistake, it’s how you recover from it and how you carry yourself through that process (hence being ethical even as the company is winding down).

To wind it all up, Google doesn’t have standard SE processes across the company: they focus on getting their organisation culture right with common principles that foster innovation. People want to do exciting things and follow new ideas so every team is empowered to make their own choices, select their own tools and processes. Launch, iterate, get it out, and don’t hold it back. Grow your software like a tree rather than dropping a monolith. Did it work? No? Wind it back. Yes? Build on it! Take the big bets sometimes because some big problems need big leaps forward: the moon shot is a part of the Google culture.

Embrace failure, learn from your mistakes and then move on.

Industry Speaks! (May The Better Idea Win)

Alan Noble, Director of Engineering for Google Australia and an Adjunct Professor with my Uni, generously gave up a day today to give a two hour lecture of distributed systems and scale to our third-year Distributed Systems course, and another two-hour lecture on entrepreneurship to my Grand Challenge students. Industry contact is crucial for my students because the world inside the Uni and the world outside the Uni can be very, very different. While we try to keep industry contact high in later years, and we’re very keen on authentic assignments that tackle real-world problems, we really need the people who are working for the bigger companies to come in and tell our students what life would be like working for Google, Microsoft, Saab, IBM…

My GC students have had a weird mix of lectures that have been designed to advance their maturity in the community and as scientists, rather than their programming skills (although that’s an indirect requirement), but I’ve been talking from a position of social benefit and community-focused ethics. It is essential that they be exposed to companies, commercialisation and entrepreneurship as it is not my job to tell them who to be. I can give them skills and knowledge but the places that they take those are part of an intensely personal journey and so it’s great to have an opportunity for Alan, a man with well-established industry and research credentials, to talk to them about how to make things happen in business terms.

The students I spoke to afterwards were very excited and definitely saw the value of it. (Alan, if they all leave at the end of this year and go to Google, you’re off the Christmas Card list.) Alan focused on three things: problems, users and people.

Problems: Most great companies find a problem and solve it but, first, you have to recognise that there is a problem. This sometimes just requires putting the right people in front of something to find out what these new users see as a problem. You have to be attentive to the world around you but being inventive can be just as important. Something Alan said really resonated with me in that people in the engineering (and CS) world tend to solve the problems that they encounter (do it once manually and then set things up so it’s automatic thereafter) and don’t necessarily think “Oh, I could solve this for everyone”. There are problems everywhere but, unless we’re looking for them, we may just adapt and move on, instead of fixing the problem.

Users: Users don’t always know what they want yet (the classic Steve Jobs approach), they may not ask for it or, if they do ask for something, what they want may not yet be available for them. We talked here about a lot of current solutions to problems but there are so many problems to fix that would help users. Simultaneous translation, for example, over telephone. 100% accurate OCR (while we’re at it). The risk is always that when you offer the users the idea of a car, all they ask for is a faster horse (after Henry Ford). The best thing for you is a happy user because they’re the best form of marketing – but they’re also fickle. So it’s a balancing act between genuine user focus and telling them what they need.

People: Surround yourself with people who are equally passionate! Strive of a culture of innovation and getting things done. Treasure your agility as a company and foster it if you get too big. Keep your units of work (teams) smaller if you can and match work to the team size. Use structures that encourage a short distance from top to bottom of the hierarchy, which allows for ideas to move up, down and sideways. Be meritocratic and encourage people to contest ideas, using facts and articulating their ideas well. May the Better Idea Win! Motivating people is easier when you’re open and transparent about what they’re doing and what you want.

Alan then went on to speak a lot about execution, the crucial step in taking an idea and having a successful outcome. Alan had two key tips.

Experiment: Experiment, experiment, experiment. Measure, measure, measure. Analyse. Take it into account. Change what you’re doing if you need to. It’s ok to fail but it’s better to fail earlier. Learn to recognise when your experiment is failing – and don’t guess, experiment! Here’s a quote that I really liked:

When you fail a little every day, it’s not failing, it’s learning.

Risk goes hand-in-hand with failure and success. Entrepreneurs have to learn when to call an experiment and change direction (pivot). Pivot too soon, you might miss out on something good. Pivot too late, you’re in trouble. Learning how to be agile is crucial.

Data: Collect and scrutinise all of the data that you get – your data will keep you honest if you measure the right things. Be smart about your data and never copy it when you can analyse it in situ.

(Alan said a lot more than this over 2 hours but I’m trying to give you the core.)

Alan finished by summarising all of this as his Three As of Entrepreneurship, then why we seem to be hitting an entrepreneurship growth spurt in Australia at the moment. The Three As are:

  • Audit your data
  • Having Audited, Admit when things aren’t working
  • Once admitted, you can Adapt (or pivot)

As to why we’re seeing a growth of entrepreneurship, Australia has a population who are some of the highest early adopters on the planet. We have a high technical penetration, over 20,000,000 potential users, a high GDP and we love tech. 52% of Australians have smart phones and we had so many mobile phones, pre-smart, that it was just plain crazy. Get the tech right and we will buy it. Good tech, however, is hardware+software+user requirement+getting it all right.

It’s always a pleasure to host Alan because he communicates his passion for the area well but he also puts a passionate and committed face onto industry, which is what my students need to see in order to understand where they could sit in their soon-to-be professional community.