An Interview with Google’s Senior VP Engineering, Vic Gundotra about Google+ and Misconceptions

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By: Hillel Fuld (@hilzfuld)

The tech space is so ironic sometimes. While pundits refuse to believe that anyone can compete with Android’s market share and are quick to dismiss Windows Phone with the claim “They are just too late to the game”, the same is happening to Google in the social space.

Google+ is under constant fire, which reached its climax with Comscore’s latest report. The data presented showed that users spend a mere three minutes a month on Google+. Then MG Siegler continued to say that “The only people I know that use Google+ regularly are people who work at Google (and Robert Scoble).”

There was of course Sarah Lacy’s post explaining why Google+ is failing, which she summarized in two words “It’s unnatural”.

Well, I was fortunate enough to spend a half an hour “Hanging out” with Vic Gundotra last week. Obviously, the majority of the conversation was about this topic exactly. Is Google+ really “a virtual ghost town” like the WSJ said or is there something these journalists and critics are missing?

Here are the questions I asked Vic along with his answers:

1:  Who is Vic Gundotra? Please tell me a little bit about your background, personal and professional as far as what led up to your current position as Senior VP of Engineering at Google.

My background? That can take a long time. I will give you the short version. My father was an electrical engineer, had his own company and I fell in love with electronics from a very young age. Then I discovered software and fell in love again.

I found it easier to program than talk to girls so I did a lot of programming in my teenage years and discovered how much of a passion I had for it. I was fortunate enough to meet Bill Gates at a very young age and then worked for Microsoft for 15 years.

My love for software and changing the world was what led me to Google. There is no better way, no better place to do that than at Google. Google is the combination of the internet, connectivity, data centers, brilliant people, and a belief that anything is possible if we work hard enough at it.

That is what makes us a special environment and a great and positive place to work. That is how I ended up at Google and got the social charter a year and a half ago. That is when I had the chance to work with some amazing people and that is how we came up with Google+.

2: I am sure you are aware of all the “negative press” Google+ is getting especially the recent Comscore report published on the WSJ. Yet, Google keeps saying the numbers are great and engagement is up. Where is the discrepancy? Is Google+ dead or is it alive and kicking?

Well, the Comscore numbers differ dramatically from our numbers.  Our numbers are not even in the same ball park as what the WSJ reported. We actually told them that as well but they went with their number anyway. We highlighted many things that Comscore doesn’t measure and which they admitted they don’t measure. Mobile usage for example.

That is one problem. The other issue is that the WSJ and others largely don’t understand our strategy. If you think about how our competitors report their usage, they don’t break their product up into sections. They don’t talk about photos, events, groups, notifications, or like buttons on 3rd party sites as different things. They just report all that as you are using their product.

What most people don’t realize is that Google+ is the next generation of Google! What we measure if you are a Google+ user, is how often do you come back to Google? Are you using the new search capability that is optimized for Google+ users? Are you using Android Market where you can +1 an app and let your friends know you like that app? Are you using Circles in Gmail? And are you using the new Google experience that we are building and is far more personalized? THAT is our strategy, the new Google! When you measure YouTube and search and Chrome and Android, Hillel, do you believe that is three minutes a month?

Obviously, you can see the huge errors. We are absolutely stunned and thrilled by our usage numbers, our engagement numbers, it’s amazing to see the continuous disbelief. But it’s ok about the disbelief because we have never seen software grow this fast and we have never seen this type of engagement. I think often the WSJ and Comscore would like to measure one little piece but that is not our strategy. You have to measure the totality of where we are using our social graph and its ok because at the end of the day we are not doing this for critics, we are doing it to make the user experience better.

I suspect you already have family members and friends who use Google every day. Our focus is on them! We want to make a simpler more beautiful Google experience. That is what we are working on and that is what Google+ is about. We really are just getting started down that road.

Young people are our fastest growing demographic on Google+; we see massive uptake. The people that use Google+ see it. There is no other way to say this. Three minutes a month is simply absurd and wrong!

It’s a simple fact. Hundreds of millions of people use Google already today! We are upgrading their experience. That is what we are focused on and it is working out quite well.

3: Moving onto mobile. Just as these critics are saying Google is too late to the social game, many think Windows Phone is too late to the mobile game. What do you think about that claim?

It is never too late! If you can innovate and push the bounds of technology, delight users with better functionality and lower cost, you can do amazing things. Technology is filled with such examples. Android for example, people were very skeptical. Other companies as well have done very disruptive things. Look at Apple! If you just innovate, you can do amazing things. We don’t believe it’s too late, otherwise we would have never built Google+.

4: I am not sure if you heard but the invites to the iPad3 event were just sent out. What do you think about this new category of devices and Apple’s dominance? The iPad sells in one quarter more than all of Android tablets sold ever. Can anyone really compete?

Well this goes back to what we said before. Innovation can come from anyone. As long as you keep innovating, the right things will happen in terms of consumer demand. Now we are just focused on making Android better. It is a strategy that worked for us in the beginning with the first years of Android. We sold a relatively low number of Android devices that first year but we never gave up. We kept focusing on what we thought the consumer wanted and the numbers took care of themselves in time.

I think the same thing will happen in other spaces we will continue to work with out partners of the entire ecosystem, application developers, hardware developers, and if we just keep innovating and making Android better, I think everything will work out in the tablet space as well.

5: The story goes that Steve Jobs told Larry to focus and drop many of Google’s products that are not related to its core business. Is that something Google simply ignored or implemented differently than Apple? How do you explain Google’s “lack of focus” with products in so many different unrelated spaces?

Well I think anyone would give a lot of consideration to advice they got from Steve Jobs, he was a man of great wisdom. Sergey answered this question beautifully at Web2.0. Google used to have a philosophy of let a thousand flowers bloom and then at some point you realize it is time to curate a bouquet. We are at the stage of our career, our development, our growth that we are now creating a bouquet. To pick a few things and do them unbelievably well.

Our goal is to make those products exceed user expectations when they see a Google brand on a product. That may mean doing a fewer things better. Certainly if you look at Google+, you see that focus, that unbelievable attention to the product, attention to what people are saying about it, and how we iterate and improve and ship a new build of Google+ every single day.  That epitomizes the kind of focus we want on our products.

6: OK, clearly Google has laser focus on product development but how do driverless cars and augmented reality glasses fit in with Google the advertising company, Google the search company, and Google the mobile company. In fact, what kind of company IS Google?

Well that is a great question. I think you will see Google double down its focus on its core areas including search, advertising, mobile, Chrome, YouTube, and social, among a few others. While that is more than three areas, it is not 50! Those areas are what we will focus on and what will get the attention of the leadership team.

Of course, we will always have crazy research projects where we have a chance of changing the world if we get them right. We are large enough to have some of those things but we acknowledge that they are not core. They are not the things we are going to focus on every day as a company. Android, YouTube, and our enterprise business for example are doing incredibly well and they demand our focus.

There are also projects that don’t get our attention anymore and that we should stop doing. Time will tell.

7: Sorry to make the comparison too often but as two of the leaders in the tech space, the comparison to Apple is only natural. While Apple won’t generally release a product that has a screw sticking out a millimeter too much, and strives to perfection in all its products, Google repeatedly releases half baked products, gets user feedback, then updates the software on the go. What is the thought process behind that strategy of releasing products that are not 100% ready for the market?

Well first of all, we are striving to release higher quality software than you have seen from us in the past. Having said that, software is very different than hardware. Particularly with Google+, we release a new version of Google+ every single day. That would be like Apple updating your iPhone hardware every day. So when you ship hardware that is going to be with a user for two years, you better make sure it is great.

With software, when you know it is gong to change, why not make it change every day? That way you can respond to user’s bugs, feedback, and deliver innovation. It’s a continuous service delivery model. That doesn’t mean that the software you are delivering to users every day should be crappy, it should be great. Users should expect it to get better.

Going back to Google+, if you remember when we started Google+ and released it to field trial in June, it blew our mind how many people wanted it, our models were much smaller at the time. We also heard feedback from users. They wanted games, they wanted business pages, they wanted pseudonym support, and we heard that feedback.

By building the software we are able to add those features, we were able to reprioritize our engineering efforts. As for your core point about shipping and iterating, yes, but you should ship beautiful software, not junk.  That’s what we aspire to.

8: One last question: What do you say to the claim that “Google is evil” with the Google Plus Your World and the privacy issues?

We understand there will always be critics but what we care about is our users. Our users have to love our innovation. We monitor that very closely. We constantly hear stories about users who are just delighted and excited by what we are doing. They demonstrate that by coming back and using our products. So we are a company that is laser focused on, not critics, but users. We measure that carefully and based on that we continue to make improvements in our products.

Just wanted to thank Vic and his staff for granting me this interview, trust me, it was not as easy as you might think, the man is busy. So thanks for your time, Vic and like i told you, looking forward to meeting you sooner than later.


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hilzfuld

Hillel is Co Founder and Chief Marketing Officer at ZCast, a company taking on the pain of modern audio broadcasting. Hillel also blogs for many influential sites including TechCrunch, Mashable, The Next Web, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, Venturebeat, and others. Additionally, Hillel mentors startups across Israel in different accelerators including The Google Launchpad, the Microsoft Ventures accelerator, Techstars, The Junction, and more. Hillel has been named Israel's top marketer, has been featured on CNBC, Forbes, and many others and was recently added by Google to its marketing experts program. You can find and talk to Hillel on Twitter. He is @Hilzfuld.

 

19 thoughts on “An Interview with Google’s Senior VP Engineering, Vic Gundotra about Google+ and Misconceptions

  1. Hi Hillel,

    That is quite an interview you did. He makes many interesting points, and you asked some great questions. Some I had no idea about.

    I love all of Googles constant changes and innovations. I hope they keep it up.

    Thank you for the education 🙂

    Gaye

  2. great read. clear and concise. detractors are great motivators. they keep one to always improve and delight the community.kudos to G+!! no one, no detractor can keep a good idea down. let nature take its course. a great idea naturally snowballs, detractors or no detractors

  3. Although google plus might not be a rage as of now but it is going to be extremely important if google uses google plus as an input to its new semantic search algorithms.
    In that case all of a sudden the equations will change. So why to keep all the eggs in one basket. Join google plus, use it and be ready for any kind of surprises.

  4. Great interview! Two key insights for me:

    Google+ is not just a social network, but the new Google, integrating all properties.

    People dismiss any innovation saying ‘it’s all been invented’. Great to see Google asking the question ‘can we do better’ – just like they did for GMail.

    G+ seems to have a challenge with viral growth compared to Twitter making G+ a place to follow tech celebrities, but not for your real friends (yet). I wrote a post wondering why. Once they fix it, G+ will be even better.

  5. Hillel, great job landing the interview first and foremost. Secondly, great set of questions that really brought out some great questions. Definitely helped me better understand what Google has in plan for the future for their vision of Google+. Normally not a fan of reading interviews but keep them coming, love reading interviews well done like this one!

  6. I thought they kind of didn’t really respond to your last, pointed question, hillel. some masterful equivocation, on their part!

    I had heard that ‘google is evil’ accusation only recently from another techie friend of mine. his objection to google was to their privacy policies.

  7. Great interview, I really want to see how G+ would look like once all those services link together seamlessly so when I use YouTube, G+, GMail, Android etc there is a seamless process and they are getting there.