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.
Elon Musk continues to make ambitious plans for Tesla Motors, some even call them “ludicrous.” Not content to make a niche product for electric vehicle enthusiasts, he now wants to conquer the mass market, competing in the major leagues against GM, BMW, Ford et al. Musk is promising an annual production of 1 million cars by 2020, a staggering increase from last year’s paltry: 76,000. Is he insane?
On a conference call with Musk and media colleagues this week, Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues learned that Musk is still calm and laser-focused on executing his “Tesla Master plan.” This year is crunch time for Tesla. The future of the company rests on the timely and efficient production of the Model 3, Tesla’s smaller, mass market car. Will demand stay strong, despite intense competition and reservation holders threatening to cancel due to his position on Trump’s economic advisory team? Musk seemed to flounder a bit on this question and refused to disclose the latest reservation numbers, for fear of analysts “reading too much into them.”
During the discussion of Tesla’s 2016 financial results, some anomalies arose. Despite continuing to make massive losses (due to capital investment in the Tesla Factory and the Gigafactories), its share price is still in the stratosphere. Tesla might produce a small fraction of GM and Ford’s output, but the company is valued on par with them. What gives?
“The recent run-up in Tesla stock has less to do, in our view, with anything around the near-term financials, and more to do with the nearly superhero status of Elon Musk,” Barclays analyst, Brian Johnson.
Superhero status? More ludicrousness…The superheroes Tesla is focused on are the mighty robots on the factory floor. Musk has named them after X-men superheroes, like Cyclops and Thunderbird (see photo above); and they’re the ones that’ll have to earn their superhero status as manufacturing goes into top gear in the next few month.
“Tesla is going to be hell-bent on becoming the best manufacturer on earth.” Elon Musk
The BBC’s Fergus Nicoll invited me on Business Matters to help explain more.
Listen to the full podcast on BBC World Service (starts at 37:30) or the 5 minute clip below:
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
BBC Host, Fergus Nicoll: Tesla stock has hit record highs, soaring 50% since December. With investor confidence growing that Tesla will deliver its Model 3 on time. Let’s explore this with Alison in Silicon Valley. Before we get into the nitty gritty of Model 3, and the other numbers, I know you watched Elon Musk do the webcast that go with the Q4 figures. What kind of presentation did he come up with?
Alison van Diggelen: I listened to the (live conference call) podcast. Elon Musk was on the podcast with his (retiring) CFO, answering questions from the media. They were generally upbeat. Elon Musk always over-promises how soon his vehicles will be delivered, but he is confident that they’re going to start deliveries of their Model 3 in July of this year, for employees first…beta testing for employees. He’s hoping for the mass rollout starting in September of this year. They’re pretty bullish about that.
Fergus Nicoll: Here’s the thing: Tesla has a valuation pretty close to Ford. But compared to Ford it makes about five cars! So what are we seeing? A massive future priced into that?
Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. Last year, Tesla delivered 76,000 vehicles (compared to Ford’s 2.5 million), but Elon Musk is very bullish. He’s aiming for the factory to produce 500,000 cars by the end of 2018, and one million a year by 2020. He’s ludicrously ambitious. Brian Johnson, who’s an analyst with Barclays, called this run up in the Tesla stock more “Elon Musk superhero status” than short term financials. What Elon Musk says, he often delivers….eventually.
Tesla merged with SolarCity, the rooftop solar provider, so that is also giving an upside. They’ll be able to cut costs: Tesla showrooms will also become showrooms for the SolarCity solar panels. They’re also doing the other side of the equation: energy storage….
Fergus Nicoll: The household and business batteries.
Alison van Diggelen: Exactly.
Fergus Nicoll: The thing is, Americans drive insane distances. Electric cars have to go a long way….the infrastructure has to catch up with the company?
Continue listening to the podcast clip above, or at BBC Business Matters for more about:
The ambitious supercharger network expansion
The fact that all cars will be equipped to be fully self-driving
Why the market continues to bet on Elon Musk
For Tesla to succeed in becoming “the best manufacturer on earth,” three big questions remain:
- Will the Tesla Model 3 be delivered on time and on budget this year?
- Will demand stay strong for Tesla, despite stiff competition from GM, Ford, BMW, Nissan, etc?
- Can Tesla make the huge capital investment required (for the Tesla Factory and Gigafactories expansion), without running out of money?
Read more about Tesla and Elon Musk from Fresh Dialogues archives
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Since Tesla CEO Elon Musk joined the Trump business advisory team in December he’s been under intense pressure to step down. That pressure intensified this month after Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven countries with Muslim majorities. On February 2nd, Musk’s colleague, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pulled out of the Trump team after a widespread #DeleteUber campaign went viral and his employees urged him to withdraw.
“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” wrote Kalanick to his staff.
Musk faced a barrage of similar criticism, with some saying he’s a crony capitalist and others claiming to have cancelled their orders for Tesla Model 3.
Last week, I joined the BBC’s Fergus Nicholl on the BBC World Service program, Business Matters. We discussed Silicon Valley tech’s furious reaction to the Trump travel ban and Elon Musk’s high pressure predicament.
Listen to the podcast excerpt below (it includes commentary from the always provocative Lucy Kellaway):
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicoll: Elon Musk has run into Twitter trouble…when he spoke to Mr. Trump in person and when he was seen having a drink with Steve Bannon in the White House, a lot of people said: “What on earth are you thinking?” And he came up with a fairly strong defense…
Alison van Diggelen: His key message is: “Activists should be pushing for more moderates like him, to advise the president not fewer.” And he asks, “How could having only extremists advise him possibly be good?”
Alison van Diggelen: He’s faced a lot of criticism, people even saying they’re cancelling their orders for the next generation of cars, the Tesla Model 3. He is under this pressure, but he is a powerful influencer, a poster child for Donald Trump’s manufacturing jobs being in the U.S. Musk is an idealist, he wants to save the planet. He’s bringing his message of climate change and green jobs, almost as a Trojan horse, into Trump’s meeting rooms. I think a lot of people who think about this deeply deeply, are not having this knee jerk reaction and saying don’t associate with Trump. Instead they’re saying this might be a good conduit for Trump hearing this green point of view.
Here is some of the pushback Elon Musk received on Twitter and his responses:
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
In the beginning…there was no word from Silicon Valley tech leaders on Donald Trump’s presidency, despite his kingly proclamations: Let there be Two Pipelines, Let there be a Wall…Let there not be TPP!
But on the seventh day, tech leaders arose against Trump’s dominion over them when his immigration order unleashed chaos for their people. And so, on the 16th day, they filed a legal brief saying the order inflicted “significant harm on American business, innovation and growth.”
Today in San Francisco a US Court of Appeals will decide oral arguments in the case: State of Washington et al. vs Donald J. Trump et al..
I joined the BBC World Service’s Business Matters last night to report on Silicon Valley’s furious reaction to Trump. Venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse spoke for many in the valley:
“The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie…to be offensive, to be homophobic, to be xenophobic. Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!” Jean-Louis Gasse, Silicon Valley venture capitalist
Listen to the BBC World Service podcast, (my report starts at 5:15).
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of my report:
Fergus Nicoll: Donald Trump says he is pro-business. But a lot of businesses, it seems, are not pro-Trump. They’re certainly not in favor of his attempt to restrict immigration. Almost 100 mainly tech companies have filed an amicus brief arguing that the ban – already the subject of a separate legal process – inflicts significant harm on American business. Who’s signed up? Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and belatedly Tesla. I’ll hand over to Alison in a moment – but first, let’s hear from Emily Dreyfuss at the tech news website Wired in Boston.
Emily Dreyfuss: By some estimates, half of unicorn startups in America were founded by an immigrant. These big companies, Apple, Google, Facebook: they depend on H1-B visa holders. 85,000 H1-B visas go to the tech community every year in America. This is affecting their bottom line. Yes, there is some risk but I think these technology companies are calculating that together they are stronger which is why they’ve signed on to this amicus brief. I think what we’re seeing here is a clash of ideology and business acumen. In this instance, Trump saying he’s pro-business is actually just talk.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that a fair summary then, Alison…the way it’s seen on the west coast?
Alison van Diggelen: Trump is saying that he’s pro-business (and I believe he intends to be), but it looks like his immigration ban has not been thought through… as to the impact it’s going to have on business. It’s been severely criticized .
I’ve been closely watching Silicon Valley’s reaction to the Trump presidency since inauguration day. When Trump issued that immigration order some Silicon Valley leaders were compelled to break their silence and take action. It’s an issue that’s split the US in two. A CNN poll shows about 53% oppose the ban. But today Trump has said that negative polls about the travel ban are “fake news.” He accused the NY Times of making up stories and sources. So my report explores why Trump is getting under Silicon Valley’s skin via this travel ban and the role of lies and fake news.
The day after he was inaugurated, Silicon Valley took to the streets to protest. Tens of thousands of marchers carried placards saying “Stop the hate”; “Words Matter”, and “Never Again.” I asked Patrick Adams, a local science teacher…What’s your message for Trump?
Patrick Adams: Get out of the way…this is a tsunami, this is people who care deeply about what this country really stands for – which is inclusion and love and hope – it’s unstoppable. This idea: that the trickle down economics of neoliberalism and the strange backward thinking of racism is going to lead us to a better world? It’s not, it’s a dead end.
Alison van Diggelen: In the first week of Trump’s presidency, it appeared like “business as usual” here in SV. On day seven, Trump’s immigration order lit the fire under SV.
By day 10, protests had broken out at several tech campuses; and business leaders came out of their bunkers to voice concerns about the order’s morality, not just its economic impact. It was personal: almost 60% of Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born.
I spoke with Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a company born here in 1939:
Meg Whitman: Our view is that this was a mistake. We are a nation of immigrants and a broad-brush sweep of seven countries, of Muslims in those seven countries, is not what America is. So I hope that the president rethinks…
If you think of the innovation that’s been done in the valley over the last 75 years, much of it is from people who came here from someplace else … that’s an economic engine of the country and an economic engine of the world…
Alison van Diggelen: Alphabet’s chairman, Eric Schmidt even described the Trump administration actions as “evil” but many responses were muted.
I contacted companies, from oil to solar; from startups to Fortune 500, but many declined to talk, even LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman who was an outspoken critic of candidate Trump. Why the silence?
Is it the prospect of Trump unleashing his Twitter followers? Kevin Surace, CEO at Appvance, a software company, sums it up:
Kevin Surace: No one wants the current leader of the free world to unleash something against them. And frankly as a CEO of a corporation, it’s your duty to your shareholders to not have the US government hate you…the last thing you want is the president saying: I’ve had it with your company, I’m going to slap tariffs on you…
Alison van Diggelen: Surace emphasizes that the stock market is up over 8% since the election and the Dow hit the symbolic 20,000 point milestone last month. Trump even hosted a “cordial” tech summit with many of the valley’s leaders. Three juicy carrots are now dangling their way: the prospect of infrastructure investment, a corporate tax cut and a huge tax break for the repatriation of $2.5 Trillion in corporate profits lying offshore.
Kevin Surace: If that all comes back to the US, it’ll be the biggest boom to the US economy, possibly ever. For the next 10 years, the economy will be on fire.
Alison van Diggelen: Nevertheless, venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse addresses the disquiet in Silicon Valley. He points to H1-B visa concerns as well as a flood of uncertainties:
Jean-Louis Gasse: The stock market is up, up, up right now which we know could turn around on a dime…
It’s not good for biz to have too many uncertainties on immigration, on trade wars, on interest rates, on spending, on building a wall with Mexico…
Alison van Diggelen: Gasse was Steve Jobs’ right hand man when Apple first expanded into Europe. I asked him to sum up the Valley’s reaction to Trump:
Jean-Louis Gasse: They’re waking up to the fact that just like you need clean air and clean water… you need clean information for society to be healthy. It’s an issue of conscience for the people in tech to get up and say we’re going to fight fake news – especially the ones that stem from the top. The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie. … to be offensive…to be homophobic, to be xenophobic… Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!
Check back soon for part II when we discuss:
Elon Musk’s role in Trump’s economic advisory council and why his decision to stay is so controversial, especially after Uber’s CEO stood down.
And Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s CEO Carl Guardino’s advice to Trump.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
This evening, I dashed up to Stanford University to take part in a live discussion on the BBC World Service about last night’s Presidential Election Debate. I intended to recount the cautionary tale of Brexit, when all the pollsters got it wrong; and the many reasons why Trump would be a dangerous president, and bad for women and minorities. But in the end, technical difficulties prevented me from joining the show immediately. My fellow panelist, Madhavan Narayanan, an editor and columnist from New Delhi, India contributed this powerful insight, “It’s not Trump vs Clinton, it’s Trump vs Democracy.”
When we did eventually connect on the ISDN line, I had about 30 seconds to share my thoughts, so I just had to cut to the chase. As it turned out, my remarks were echoed by President Obama, just seconds later. How validating is that?
Listen to the podcast at the BBC’s Business Matters. My contribution starts at 10:10
Here’s a transcript of this segment, edited for length and clarity”
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, are you with us? We were about to pass on to the news headlines, but I must get your thoughts on the debate last night…where do you think it all leaves the election?
Alison van Diggelen: I think Donald Trump is basically threatening anarchy. He’s just whipping up his supporters and they’re face down in his Kool-Aid. It’s very dangerous. He’s a dangerous candidate and he’s stirring up division and xenophobia.
Roger Hearing: It looks as if the election – some say now – is almost in the bag for Hillary. We’ll see if that actually happens. It’s still almost three weeks to go. Let’s get up to date with the latest headlines with Eileen McEwan
Ilene McEwan: President Obama has described claims by Donald Trump that the US Election is being rigged as dangerous and corrosive to democracy. Mr Obama accused the Republican candidate of sewing the seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of the election without a shred of evidence of electoral fraud….
Live from Las Vegas
To hear an excellent report about the debate – and the Brexit angle – by the BBC’s North American Editor, Jon Sopel, listen to the podcast at 27:00
Are we going to Mars to be useful?
We also discussed the case for space exploration, Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and the technical breakthroughs that the public and private race to space has produced. Listen at 47:00
NB: As with all my BBC Dialogues and Reports at Fresh Dialogues, the copyright of this audio report remains with the BBC.