The tech executive on how she makes ‘moonshots’ a reality at X
Thanks to Obi Felten, there are self-driving cars on the streets, internet-beaming balloons in the sky and burritos delivered by drones. Felten is chief translator for the “moonshooters”. The team she heads at X, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, helps innovators ready their technologies for the real world. X is used to incubate the Silicon Valley giant’s most daring projects — known as “moonshots” because they are supposedly as audacious as launching a spacecraft to the moon.
Fluent in both engineer and earthling, the 46-year-old German explains her unusual role. “I am a translator. No, I’m serious,” she insists, as I smile. “I’m really good at translating between engineers, technical people and non-technical people, who sometimes don’t understand each other.”
Felten is a rare female leader in the technology industry, where maverick men are more usually celebrated. But the questioning spirit she applies to her day job has led her to challenge this male-dominated world to open up to women. She was among those to join the recent walkout of Google employees over the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.
After more than two decades working for global tech companies, Felten is adept at bridging different cultures and disciplines. Born to academic parents in Berlin, she witnessed her first big change as a teenager when the Wall came down. She studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford before getting swept up in the dotcom boom as a product manager for eToys.com. After marketing more conventional Google products, such as Chrome and Maps, she joined X.
As politicians and regulators grapple with social networks that leak data, perhaps even damaging democracy, and smartphones are accused of warping our minds and manners, Silicon Valley needs translators more than ever.
“There’s this misconception that technology is built by technologists in this bubble and then it gets thrown out into the world. That’s partly because there have been bad examples of exactly that happening,” Felten says. “We don’t want to make that mistake. Yes, technology will shape society, but society also has the obligation to shape the technology and make sure it is deployed to solve humanity’s problems and not just create new ones.”
X is possibly the most exciting thing that has ever happened to a suburban shopping mall. The bland, beige structure in Mountain View, California, a couple of miles from Google’s main campus, has been transformed into a workshop to change the world.
In the lobby are examples of outlandish projects that have “graduated” from the lab. There’s a self-driving bubble car with no steering wheel, now part of Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit. Then there’s the Loon balloon, with the translucency of a jellyfish, launched in July to extend internet access around the world. It was used to bring connectivity to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and will soon be flying over Kenya.
Felten first heard about these projects six years ago while talking to the scientist Astro Teller, X’s “captain of moonshots”. “I asked him all these questions,” she says, “like, ‘Is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Have you talked to any governments about it? Are you going to partner with phone companies or compete with them? Do you have a business plan?’”
Teller said these were good questions — but his engineers were mostly working on technical problems. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Why don’t you come here and help us?’”
X’s philosophy is that it is easier to invent a solution that is “10X” — a tenfold improvement on a current idea — than to improve it by 10 per cent. “If you free yourself from preconceived notions, then you can be more creative,” Felten says.
They begin by tackling the hardest part of the problem. This approach is called #monkeyfirst: Teller has written that if you are trying to teach a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you should not be tempted to start by building the pedestal.
With this in mind, Wing, a drone delivery unit that graduated from X, is starting with food precisely because it’s so difficult: hot meals have to be delivered quickly, and demand is uneven.
Teams are pushed to test products in the real world as soon as possible. When X tested semi-autonomous cars on Googlers, they learnt an important lesson: even if you tell people to watch the road, they don’t when they think the car is driving itself, so it’s safer to design a fully autonomous car.
Felten believes other tech companies could learn from bringing in users to test products and even involving them in product development. Silicon Valley should be open to outside voices, be they partner companies or regulators, and by hiring staff from a variety of backgrounds, she says.
Testing helps X to fail fast — but it still prefers to fail quietly. Felten had not yet joined the company when Google Glass, its smart eyewear, arrived, complete with skydivers at Google’s conference and a feature in Vogue. But she vows X will never be so splashy again. “The engineers all thought of it as a prototype, but the world received it as a product because of the way we positioned it,” she says.
“Technology will shape society, but society also has the obligation to shape technology.”
It soon became clear that Glass was not useful enough to consumers for them to put up with wearing a weird mini-computer on their face. It was, however, convenient in businesses, where an enterprise edition is now used by engineers and doctors.
Even in Silicon Valley, where praising failure has become a cliché, it can be hard to abandon an idea. Felten sets “kill” criteria with her teams: they agree that if certain things happen, they will dump the project. “We accept that we’re going to fail a lot of times, because the more audacious your endeavour is… the more likely you’re going to fail along the way,” she says.
When Felten arrived on the West Coast from the UK, she was surrounded by men. In London, she had role models from other industries or in politics. But in Silicon Valley, large tech companies are almost all run by men. About 80 per cent of technical positions are filled by men, and 70 per cent of all roles. Venture capital is even more male, with female start-up founders receiving just 2 per cent of VC dollars last year.
This situation inspired Felten to become an “active” rather than a “latent” feminist. “I actually sought out other women, because I realised quickly that was a shortcut to finding the really talented people,” she says.
Simmering discontent with the Silicon Valley status quo burst into the open last year when Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, wrote powerfully about how sexual harassment was ignored at the company. Her post led to an investigation at Uber, which contributed to the departure of chief executive Travis Kalanick. “Susan’s blog post was a watershed,” Felten says. “The fact that it changed Uber, the way it kicked that off, is a really extraordinary thing.”
Admitting she may be an “incurable optimist”, Felten sees some improvement in the Valley since then, with more women demanding change and more men committing to improving women’s lives at work. As momentum built in the #MeToo movement, women increasingly reported harassment and denounced tech companies, including Google, for their treatment of the female workforce.
A recent New York Times article claimed that two senior Google executives had left with significant departure packages, one of $90m, despite allegations of sexual harassment that internal investigations found credible. One director at X also left following reports of sexual harassment but did not receive a payout.
The story provoked a Google-wide walkout, with employees of both sexes accusing the company of hypocrisy for not living up to its professed values of diversity and inclusion. “I didn’t even think about not participating,” Felten says. “I thought it was a great idea. It was a statement to draw attention to some of the issues. Everyone here was incredibly supportive.”
Google responded to some of the organisers’ demands, including dropping forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims. But many employees have said it needs to do more to close the gender gap. I ask Felten if, given her position, she thought there were other ways of pushing Google to take action. She begins by talking about promoting diversity. The list starts to sound like many well-meaning efforts in tech companies — but Felten is, of course, thinking bigger.
“When we grew up, it was very much like, you’re a girl or you’re a boy, right. In high schools here, people talk about gender fluidity. But what if we actually think about it much more in terms of femininity and masculinity?
“So yes, we need to empower women and our girls, and teach them how to adopt some masculine traits because those still get you propelled in the way society works at the moment. But let’s also give boys and men permission to use some of the more feminine traits. I almost think it’s harder for a boy to be feminine than it is for a girl to be masculine.”
“We need to teach girls how to adopt some masculine traits. But let’s also give boys and men permission to use some more feminine traits“
A less binary approach might also help calm the gender debate. A men’s rights movement is simmering on the internet and inside Google, where engineer James Damore was fired last year for circulating a memo that, among other things, said women were biologically better suited to “jobs in artistic or social areas” than engineering.
Felten is unconvinced. “You can’t cast half the population as villains and the other half as the victims. A, I think that’s not great for women either. I don’t want to be cast as a victim. And B, there’s many, many men who are incredibly supportive,” she says.
Is that the 10X idea for solving discrimination against women? I ask. Felten cups her hands on her face. “I don’t know,” she says. But she thinks making our workplaces more inclusive can only help us to crack the world’s biggest challenges. “Think about it. If you brought all this talent to the table that’s currently neglected, not just in our society but in countries across the globe, you would have all that much more brain power to apply to these problems.”
Felten’s 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 — or #monkeyfirst — challenge may be tackling climate change. X has done several projects in the area. Some have failed; others, such as Dandelion, which brings geothermal energy into people’s homes, are now companies.
“If we don’t solve climate change within the next generation or so, then there will be a tipping point where it will become much more difficult,” Felten says. “It’s really hard — and it’s definitely a moonshot.”
Hannah Kuchler is an FT correspondent in San Francisco
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018
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