Innovative Thinking in the Heart of Zurich
Interview with 2017 Tell Awardees Samuel Widmann and Stefan Pharies of Google Switzerland
Each year the Embassy of Switzerland presents the Tell Award to prominent personalities who have been outstanding ambassadors for Switzerland and its innovative spirit. This year the Tell Award went to Samuel Widmann, Director of Strategic Partnerships, and Stefan Pharies, Director of Engineering, at Google Switzerland, who received their awards for the Google Geo Team Zurich for their pioneering contributions to Google Maps applications.
Mr. Pharies and Mr. Widmann, congratulations on receiving this year’s Tell Award!
Samuel Widmann and Stefan Pharies: Thank you and thanks for having us. It’s delightful to be here at the Swiss Embassy in the U.S.
If I had told you 12 years ago, when you started, that your work at Google Switzerland would earn you awards for revolutionizing people’s way of walking through the streets, what would have been your first thought?
Samuel Widmann: I had kind of a sense that maps would become more and more important, but I was definitely surprised that it happened so quickly and on such a scale! What we created started as a niche product and now it has certainly become a mainstream product. Today we have more than one billion people using our product; that’s incredible.
So you already had a concept in mind about making maps digital and interactive for people to use way before people knew they needed it?
Samuel Widmann: Yes, I’d say so. There already were certain types of maps you could use interactively, for example, GPS in your car. But it wasn’t even close to the digital platform Google Maps is today with all the features that Stefan, my colleague and fellow awardee does with his team right now. Those functions that really allow us to explore the world and create a very accurate model of the real world and that let even locals discover new things in their everyday environment. But, of course, it’s a work in progress. We’re not yet where we want to be and there’s still a lot to do (laughs).
What about you, Mr. Pharies? Did you see this coming?
Stefan Pharies: Well to me, to be honest, 12 years ago that would have sounded like science fiction. Sämi has been thinking about it a little longer than me and kind of had the future vision — I, on the other hand, came to maps only three years ago.
So my experience with maps 12 years ago was pretty much limited to the clunky GPS devices that knew five percent of the roads and there was no such thing as a smartphone, the Internet was this crazy unshaped universe yet to be discovered.
I can definitely see the evolution in hindsight, but back then I’d have never expected it to go this far — and me playing even a small part in that would have been even a bigger surprise for me. It’s definitely astounding progress we’ve made.
So, I guess you’d never have said as a kid: “When I grow up, I’m going to work to create something new in the digital sphere.”
How do you end up in the field of geo mapping? What’s your background?
Stefan Pharies: I’d probably not have ruled it out entirely. I got into computers and programming well before university. I took a bit of a detour when going to university, where I went for electrical engineering, but it turns out that it’s way less fun and I really like software. I did some fraud detection algorithms, consumer UI’s for Google Travel and Google Flights from scratch. When I came to Google Maps, I discovered that it’s at the intersection of software, technology and the real world and that’s a really delightful place to work. It has such great direct and obvious, tangible meaning, and yet it’s cool technology innovation.
Samuel Widmann: For me it really already started as a kid. I’ve always been passionate about maps, looking at them, interpreting them. So it was a rather natural choice for me to do something with maps. As a teenager, thinking more seriously about it, I researched what kind of studies would allow me to do something on maps, so I studied engineering at ETH Zürich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Back then GPS was brand-new and I was fascinated by it. After graduating I started my own business called Endoxon in Switzerland.
Back then we only had “stupid” roster maps. I say stupid because back then they were like a picture; we weren’t able to interpret them — nowadays we are, thanks to smart data. And so I saw the potential and thought, “Wow, this is going to be big!”
So things came together. At my startup we had a board member working in the telecommunications industry. He said: “These maps need to go on the phone — whatever it looks like.” This is what also drove the idea of a smartphone to some extent: a phone that can display a map in a rather compelling way. But I never dreamt that it was going to happen like this or that fast.
And what is your role within the Google Geo Team Zurich?
Samuel Widmann: Endoxon was a full-set company with all its components, so during the acquisition by Google, we discussed together how we can best get integrated. That’s what we did and slowly people found their place within Google. I joined what today is called Google global product partnerships, which mainly concerns business developments for maps, such as public transit schedules or ridesharing options.
Stefan Pharies: I worked with Microsoft before I joined Google and I lead the engineering team that works on local search; either through Google Maps or Google Search coming up, when you’re looking for something. We have several feature teams working on that.
Now, it takes an innovative mindset and a creative approach to develop something completely new. You’re working on what users (might) need in the future. There’s no pathway you can follow, but you create it. What drives your direction?
Samuel Widmann: Creating the pathway is our day-to-day business, it’s our challenge. Inspiration can come from everyday life. I can give you an example: Recently I traveled to Tokyo with my family. I’ve already been there a couple of times and know it a bit. This time we tried to travel to a place near Tokyo for the weekend and Google Maps was able to tell me the route it would take us by train. But in reality the challenge was standing in front of the train station and trying to find out where the entrance was, how we could buy a ticket and what kind of ticket we’d need to get there; things that took me quite some time to figure out by myself since everything was in Japanese. So that might be an approach, to identify things that are a challenge to many others as well and with a technical solution we might actually really make things easier for not just us, but many people.
Stefan Pharies: I really like that question because innovation and creativity are at the core of what we do. So, for one thing, we do user reviews: “What do people need, how are they currently using Google products and what are the current gaps that we could fill?”
And we go out into the world to find out: Last year I went to India with a group of Googlers to visit regular people to see how they use Google Maps and to see how they do so in real world situations. We do these kinds of researches all over the world repeatedly.
How does the company culture of Google allow you to envision the future of geo mapping and to create innovation?
Stefan Pharies: Google’s culture is intended to create innovation and does so in a lot of aspects. First of all, there are high-level company-wide structures allowing that. For example, we have the 20% program that allows every engineer to work 1 day a week on a personal project that is not part of his core work; some of these ideas later become regular services. Ideas can and do come from anyone on the team. We identify something as a topic and then ask: “How are we going to solve this and who do we need on board for that?”
We also use Hackathons, for example, where a group of engineers can get together and tackle an idea in a short time, say, a week long, where they can work on specifics and try out things, sort of shielded from their daily demands and tasks at work. Those are ways to try and fail in small increments.
Samuel Widmann: Yes, and I think this is really unique for a company the size and scale of Google to still have and live this culture: trying out things and making mistakes is actually not seen as something bad because you can learn, improve and iterate. I’ve never seen that before in any other company.
Why, from your perspective, does it make sense to have Google’s biggest engineering center outside of the U.S. in Zurich, Switzerland?
Stefan Pharies: When I started, there were 40 people working at Google in Zurich. It has grown quite a bit in the past years, to over 2,000 people. The reasons why it makes sense to be in Zurich are the people and the environment.
The people are the thing that makes a company work or not work. We have been able to find really great people in Switzerland. In particular, having the ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology so close in Zurich is an asset, as it is an excellent university producing really capable people that come to work with Google. And then there’s the general environment: The infrastructure in Switzerland is very strong and reliable, creating very good conditions for our company. And in addition to that, Switzerland offers a very high quality of life which then feeds back into my first point, the people. It’s easy to attract people to come work in Switzerland.
Samuel Widmann: I’d have never dreamt of Google coming to Zurich, but for me being born and raised and always having lived in Zurich, it makes perfect sense, of course (laughs).
What does the Tell Award represent to Google Geo Team Zurich?
Samuel Widmann: It’s a big honor for us to be recognized for what we do in Zurich! Usually when people think of Google, they think of our headquarters in California. It’s big recognition for the whole office in Zurich that motivates us to continue and do even more.
Stefan Pharies: I can only second that. If we look at people who have received the Tell Award in the past such as the Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier, that’s like “Wow, we’re in that group?!” That’s definitely something to be proud of.
Especially for me personally as an American citizen living in Switzerland for a long time now, I really love this mixture of honoring the Swiss and American engineering tradition it symbolizes.
Samuel Widmann and Stefan Pharies were handed over the Tell Award by Ambassador Martin Dahinden during the Soirée Suisse on September 13, 2017.