Deep learning; geek nostalgia; Google’s Pixel phone; and why seeking ‘uncomfortably exciting’ opportunities can bring success.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with Google’s Dave Burke, an Irishman, who has risen quickly through the ranks. He leads the Android team, with responsibility for the device and developer ecosystem; and Google’s Pixel phone. How did he succeed so fast, and what qualities does he seek when hiring for his growing team?
I interviewed Burke this month for a BBC World Service report exploring Irish identity and success in Silicon Valley. We had a lively and wide ranging conversation full of insights for tech geeks and entrepreneurs alike, so I’m posting the uncut interview for your listening pleasure.
Listen to the uncut interview:
“It’s his ability to intuit a bold vision for the future, and then be comfortable in the abstract and yet push tenaciously forward over multiple years. Successful mathematicians need a similar personality – they have an intuition that a solution exists but initially have no concrete certainty on how to prove it and have to persist, sometimes over decades. Einstein’s story of deriving his theory of general relativity is a good example. This personality trait attracts other smart people… For Elon, the ‘contagious confidence’ extends out to his customers, i.e. many are willing to pay a high premium for a Tesla car and don’t seem to worry about the future viability of this fledgling startup, simply because have confidence in the founder.” Dave Burke, Google
Here’s are some highlights of our conversation:
On the secrets of Burke’s success @00:20
“Seek out challenges that are uncomfortably exciting…there’s always a risk of failure, but if you succeed, you could make a huge impact.”
Why he’s so excited about deep learning @19:23
“The big hot area is deep learning, using neural networks….applying lots of data. You can make machines do incredible things…The potential for deep learning and for AI to make our lives easier is very exciting.”
On Google’s Pixel phone @27:15
“Software pushes the hardware and hardware pushes the software. To advance the operating system, you need to have them working really closely together. It allows Google to have its own product. If you’re a Google user, this is the ideal phone for you.”
On rumors of a new Pixel phone this year @27:54
“I can neither confirm nor deny rumors. Technology moves very fast, the cadence…Typically every year, you try to do something new and exciting…we are very busy, working on a lot of stuff… The reviews have been great…but I see the potential for so much more, in terms of innovation, product quality.”
We also discussed Burke’s “geek nostalgia” for the BBC Micro computer by Acorn (the precursor to ARM); the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley; the three questions you need to ask to discover if someone is “really Irish”; and flying robotic lemonade stands!
Look out for more “Fresh Dialogues Uncut” featuring Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington, Charlie Rose and Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard.
Check out dozens more Fresh Dialogues podcasts on iTunes.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Irish immigrants have been in California since the gold rush days. On assignment for the BBC World Service, I went looking for the Irish in Silicon Valley and found that you can take the people out of Ireland – you can even take their pubs – but you can’t take Ireland out of the people….
Nevertheless, a new generation of Irish tech immigrants are less nostalgic for the past, and are redefining what being Irish means. They bond over mindset, not heritage; big dreams and an openness to new ideas and cultures. I started my quest at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose where a celebration of St Patrick’s Day and the San Jose-Dublin Sister City program was in full swing….
Here’s my report for the BBC’s Business Matters:
Listen to the podcast at BBC World Service or to the program excerpt below:
Here’s a transcript of my report (edited for length and clarity):
The report opens with traditional Irish singing by the Black Brothers Band “Green Among the Gold: “They played their jigs and reels beneath the skies of their new homeland, For Irish hands have woven strands of green among the gold.”
33 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry, that’s over four times the population of Ireland. With 2.5 Million, California has the highest Irish population of any state. It’s not surprising then that the Irish are making their mark on Silicon Valley…Is it the luck of the Irish, or something else?
Meet Eoghan (Owen) McCabe, CEO of Intercom, a fast-growing startup for business messaging. He and his three Irish cofounders have found a sense of belonging among the software and silicon of the valley.
Eoghan McCabe: One of the most magic things about this place is it does allow you to think big. We’re social beings, we’re all looking for the appreciation, respect, if not love of the people around us…
As well as working on something you’re passionate about, McCabe has this advice:
Eoghan McCabe: Work with people you love and know and respect…don’t try to rush the relationship.
He admits to a chip on his shoulder, an urgency to prove himself. How has being Irish helped him recruit, attract capital, and grow the business?
Eoghan McCabe: The humility goes a long way in the valley…there’s a lot of hubris, people are damn good at selling themselves. So it’s a breath of fresh air when people admit they’re flawed and they can’t predict the future and they might not succeed. That natural humility, that vulnerability, that honest approach goes a long long way…They want to be successful on the basis of their merits. What you don’t find often is people trying to play that Irish card.
Dave Burke, a Dubliner who’s now a VP at Google says his formula for success is seeking out challenges that are “uncomfortably exciting.” But does he seek out Irish techies for his 1000-strong team?
Dave Burke: We’re looking for not really the country culture, but the outlook and perspective culture: the energy, interest in making an impact, being smart. In tech… we want the best and brightest from all round the world, we want diversity…that’s antagonistic to the nationalist perspective. Nationalism looks backward, it looks unsustainable, it’s frightening… It doesn’t readily compute with people. Why wouldn’t you be open to new ideas and people?
But Burke acknowledges that some old traditions endure, especially on St Patrick’s Day.
Dave Burke: A meal of Guinness? Yes! [laughter]
Talking of drinks…Some immigrants were so determined to bring a wee bit of old Ireland to California, that’s literally what they did.
[Audio: Irish pub…] I’ve come to the O’Flaherty Irish Pub in San Jose to meet the owner, Marie O Flaherty.
[Audio: Guinness pouring….Barman: Guinness… 8 dollars ….]
That looks good….
Marie O’Flaherty: This is an authentic Irish pub – it came on a boat from Ireland everything you see – the signs, pictures, the bar, the stools, everything….
Over 15 years ago, her late husband Ray O’Flaherty bought the pub in Dublin on a birthday whim. Today, it’s a landmark in Silicon Valley, and ground central for St Patrick’s Day festivities in the South Bay.
Alison van Diggelen: Is fearlessness part of the recipe for success?
Marie O’Flaherty: You have to have a lot of guts to take it on, self confidence to know whatever it is, you can do it…
Being open to new ideas, like embracing craft beers, keeps the pub popular with the “young uns” she says. The family business nurtures connections with Ireland and the world, through tourism, close links to the Silicon Valley Innovation Center & sporting ties…
Marie O’Flaherty: All the rugby teams…New Zealand did the haka up on the bar here…they drank 11 kegs of beer that night.
Having a heart of gold is also part of the Irish success story…
Marie O’Flaherty: See this poor soul here…He’s a homeless…they give him a drink and send him on his way…You have to just look out for everybody…
Marie O’Flaherty and Mark Finn singing:
Oh Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven, and a stroll down Stephen’s Green
No need to worry, no need to hurry…
If you don’t believe me:
Come and meet me there
In Dublin on a sunny summer’s morning…[laughter]
END of Report
Listen to the BBC Podcast or the audio above for a lively discussion with the BBC’s Roger Hearing and Bloomberg’s Nisid Hajari about the tech community in Silicon Valley; and how the President’s proposed travel ban is already having an impact on business and academia in the United States.
Check out the Fresh Dialogues Silicon Valley “World Series”
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Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard calls himself a “benevolent dictator” who levies a 1% “Earth Tax” from his company to fund environmental activism. Currently Patagonia is funding a campaign to protect Bears Ears National Monument, now under threat from President Trump’s executive order this week.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with this revered pioneer of environmental responsibility. Chouinard explains how a Scottish rugby shirt inspired his Patagonia business; why he believes regenerative agriculture could save the planet; and what he’s doing to ensure Patagonia’s environmental mission continues after he dies. Chouinard’s book: “Let my people go surfing” is an attempt to challenge business as usual and the culture of conspicuous consumption. The interview took place at the Heritage Theater in Silicon Valley in October, 2016.
Listen to this special Fresh Dialogues “Uncut” podcast:
Here are some highlights of the conversation:
On his 1% for the planet “Earth tax”
Yvon Chouinard: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their business. We believe it should be done in the business as well. I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. I think that’s called taxation with representation… So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue is given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
On Private vs public ownership
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve said that your stock holders are ‘the people of the planet’
Yvon Chouinard: That’s right. When you’re CEO of a public company you have no power. Your board, your stockholders tell you what to do. I can do whatever I feel like. We’re sole owners. We can make quick decisions, be a lot more efficient, move quickly. I would never think of becoming a public corporation….I’m a dictator…
Alison van Diggelen: A generous dictator?
Yvon Chouinard: The most effective form of government is probably a benevolent dictator. Things get done. Look at American politics. The best you can ever achieve is a compromise. And compromise never solves the problem. It leaves both sides feeling cheated.
Alison van Diggelen: What else have you been able to do because you’re a private company and you have this “dictatorship”?
Yvon Chouinard: [Laughter] It’s all through the company. There’s no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s a level society throughout the whole company. Outside the company we’re getting to be very visible. I can’t believe the power we have. We’re getting invited to the White House all the time to advise on policy (under President Obama).
On Patagonia’s business conflict: making money vs saving the planet
Yvon Chouinard: I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon.
And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
On Being a Reluctant Businessman
Yvon Chouinard: I never wanted to be a business man. I was a craftsman. I just happened to come up with ideas that people wanted. I love working with my hands. I slowly got trapped…I had no desire to get rich. I’ve done a lot of climbing on every continent and became aware of all the destruction to natural world…I decided to use my resources, which is my business, to do something about the natural world. That’s the reason we’re in business.
On the Scottish inspiration for Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard: I was in the business of making climbing equipment…I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in department store in Edinburgh. Back then, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts and pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said, ‘Woah!’ A light went off…I imported a few. I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
On Steve Jobs, Apple and influencing businesses to be green
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What’s been your biggest influence in greening the world? Business side or consumers?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” – that has gone around in 9 languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
On Patagonia’s business philosophy
Yvon Chouinard: I never liked authority, I never liked telling people what to do. We decided to do it in our own style. That’s the title of my book “Let My People Go Surfing.” I don’t care when you work as long as you get your work done. You go when the surf’s up. Not next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. So it’s affected our management style. It’s created a way of managing a business so that we’re not tied down. We don’t drag our butts to work every day. We skip up the stairs two steps at a time. You don’t have to do it like everyone else. We don’t hire MBAs; we don’t have advertising agencies. We do most things ourselves because we can’t trust other companies to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: Beyond your lifetime, how will you ensure Patagonia keep the environment central to its mission?
Yvon Chouinard: We’ve become a B-corporation company… In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society.
Alison van Diggelen: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Yvon Chouinard: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you grooming them to do so?
Yvon Chouinard: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
Alison van Diggelen: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Yvon Chouinard: [laughter] When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains and our attitude was: you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.
Listen to my report on Chouinard and consumerism on the BBC World Service (starts @16:00 on the podcast)
Here are Fresh Dialogues Transcript & Highlights of my BBC Report
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This is the second in the series: Fresh Dialogues Uncut
The “Uncut” series launched with an in-depth interview with Google’s Dave Burke