What does a team leader in the most famous Incubator in the world actually do?Visionary? Inspiration? Team leadership? Entrepreneur? Not even close!
Alphabet’s Google X ‘helps innovators to ready their technologies for the real world’; it is used to incubate the Silicon Valley giant’s most daring projects – known as ‘Moonshots’.
As head of Moonshots, Obi Felten calls herself ‘a translator’; ‘I am really good at translating between engineers, technical people and non-technical people, who sometimes don’t understand one another’, she says. ‘There is this misconception that technology is built in this bubble and then it gets thrown into the world; and there have been bad examples of exactly that happening.’ ‘Yes, technology will shape society’, but we have to ‘make sure that it is deployed to solve humanity’s problems and not just create new ones.’
Among other projects, Google X has been responsible for a self-driving bubble car, now part of Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit; and for the Loon Balloon, with the translucency of a jelly-fish, launched in July 2018 to extend internet access around the world, especially in remote areas.
‘I was talking to Astro Teller, X’s Captain of Moonshots and I asked all these questions, like is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Have you talked to any governments about it? Are you going to partner phone companies or compete with them? Do you have a business plan? And he asked me to come and help them’.
Google X’s philosophy is that it is easier to invent a solution that is 10X because it frees you of preconceived notions. Wing, a drone delivery unit that graduated from Google X, is starting with the delivery of food precisely because it is so difficult: hot meals have to be delivered quickly and demand is uneven.
Teams are pushed to test products as soon as possible. When X tested semi-autonomous cars, they found that people tend not to watch the road when the car is driving itself, so it is safer to design a fully autonomous car.
She feels that tech companies should bring in users to test products and even involve them in product design; Silicon Valley should be open to outside voices and people with a variety of backgrounds.
‘Google Glass, its smart eyewear, arrived to a huge fanfare at a Google conference; and while the engineers thought of it as a prototype, the world saw it as a product because of the way we positioned. It soon became clear that it was not useful enough for consumers to put up with wearing a weird mini-computer on their face. But it was convenient in businesses, where an enterprise edition is now used by engineers and doctors.’
It can be hard to abandon an idea, but she sets ‘kill’ criteria with her teams: they agree that if certain things happen, they will dump the project. ‘We accept that we are going to fail often, because the more audacious your endeavour, the more likely you are going to fail along the way’.
With around 80% of places in Silicon Valley filled by men, she argues that women offer a pool of exceptional talent that is more readily available, and should be drawn upon.
Her list of problems to solve is endless. She is excited about using algorithms to understand biological data, and applying machine learning to improve food production. But the biggest challenge is climate change. Some problems in this field have failed; others, such as Dandelion, which brings thermal energy into people’s homes, are now companies.
John Whatmore, January 2019
Precis of an article by Hannah Kuchler, FT correspondent in San Francisco, published in the FT magazine Dec 8/9 2018.