Driving Change With Noam Bardin, Chief Wazer
Waze CEO Noam Bardin talks life in lockdown, getting more from our roads, and why staying in your lane is sometimes the best way to innovate.
Driving Change explores how leaders at Waze balance big picture innovation with day-to-day challenges.
Hot on the heels of “Waze On,” a global gathering of Wazers, CEO Noam Bardin filled us in on the company’s “extreme” approach to community, what it’ll really take to quash traffic, and what he’s been up to during the lockdown.
Driving smarter together
Our evolution today stems from our mission: We believe we can drive smarter and end traffic altogether. When we started out, we were looking at traffic from the standpoint of a small player taking on the big bad world. There were only a few Wazers, and we were trying to find shortcuts for them to outsmart traffic. Now we have our unique map, our volunteer Communities, and partnerships with cities and organizations around the world to fundamentally change mobility.
The next stage for us is about moving beyond just understanding traffic and how to get around it, to actually influencing it. In the past, that would’ve meant investing more in road infrastructure, but now we know we can’t just build our way out of this problem. It’s been proven all over the world that the more roads we build, the more we drive and the more traffic we end up stuck in. We have to dramatically change this.
It all comes back to the fact that we, the people, are responsible for traffic. Traffic is not the result of some other person doing this to us. It’s us. We’re the ones. So we have to be part of the solution.
Three ways to take out traffic
We can address traffic in different ways, but one thing we’re working on is helping drivers plan better. Typically, we connect with drivers once they’re already in the car. But at that point, there’s only so much we can do to help them. If we can meet them earlier on, though, like the night before or even an hour before their trip, there’s a lot we can do to make their drive better. Like telling them to leave 15 minutes later to avoid traffic. That helps other drivers, too, because the more we can disperse peak traffic, the faster everyone moves.
We’re also trying to address traffic with Carpool. We want people to share those empty seats in their car. A lot of people like to talk about how autonomous cars are going to change everything. None of that matters if we’re still shuttling around one person per car, right? Doesn’t matter if it’s you, me, or a computer driving. If we don’t take cars off the road, we’re not really addressing the problem.
The third approach is cooperating with traffic organizations and authorities. We provide them with data and tools to communicate with users back and forth, and they can see what’s actually happening on the road and work faster to improve them. Like the city of Joinville in Brazil. They built traffic models based on our data and then synced them to traffic lights. Just making that change helped people save around 18 minutes in major corridors. That’s huge.
An “extreme” approach to community
We’ve taken the community approach to the extreme in the sense that we’re extremely open with our volunteers, sharing info that other companies may not typically share. We host meetups all over the world to meet them in person (or at least we did before COVID). Our community continues to surprise us by asking to do more and more, and we’re continuously surprised by their willingness to help. It really goes back to the mission and the idea that traffic is pretty much the worst part of your day, or at least it used to be when we were all commuting. If we’re all against traffic, good — let’s rally against traffic.
If you report an incident when you’re driving, you’re not helping yourself, you’re helping the person behind you. You’re doing it with the collective agreement that someone ahead of you would do the same thing for you. We’ve found that most people, most of the time, want to do the right thing… if you give them an easy enough way to do it.
This Community has become even more involved over time. It’s not only responsible for our map and reporting traffic, they also test our app, translate it, weigh in on features and functionality like HOV lanes and toll roads, and so many other things.
The Community’s response to COVID
When the pandemic happened, we saw a huge burst of volunteerism in our Community. They started marking roads, health centers, drive-through testing centers, and food banks and doing everything they could to help other people during the outbreak. But this response hasn’t surprised me. We have a Crisis Response team at Waze that works with our Community when natural disasters happen, so we’re used to seeing them rise to a challenge and lend a hand.
We’ve also been opening our data up via our Waze COVID-19 Impact Dashboard to help people and organizations understand how business is coming back. When Italy shut down, traffic dropped by about 97 percent and that clearly reflected the situation the country was in. Now, it’s back to about 99 percent of where it was before, so you can start to see the signs of recovery there.
Innovating in your lane
Innovation and risk-taking are often conflated with doing something new, outside of the scope of what you’ve been doing. Personally, I don’t agree with that. The challenge with innovation is figuring out how to innovate within what you’re already trying to do. It’s easy to choose to do something else completely. It’s harder to maintain your mission while trying different ways to get there. We’ve worked really hard to create an environment where the destination is clear, but there are multiple paths that people can take.
Life in lockdown
For those of us lucky enough to be working right now, this work-from-home experiment has been very interesting. It’s viewed differently by each person, depending on how old your kids are and how big your apartment is. I have two daughters who are 15 and 16, so the first few months were an amazing time. They were locked at home with me, so I had a bonding experience with my kids that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
There are pros and cons for sure. I found myself more efficient at managing my time, and not traveling has freed up time too. For business as usual, it’s good. But when you want to try something different, or brainstorm on a new problem, it’s complicated. It’s tough for new people who join Waze, too. When you join a company, you get to meet people over coffee or lunch. Now, not so much. People who have joined during COVID-19 know the team they work with, but they don’t really know anyone else. That’s something we’ve been trying to figure out: How do you get to know other people in the company? We’re thinking of little experiments like setting up virtual lunches with coworkers on different teams in different countries who don’t normally interact with each other to make sure that connections are still happening.
I think what we’ve seen, though, is we’re not going to go back to a world the way it was. I’m not sure what the new world will look like, but one thing’s for sure: if you used to spend an hour in traffic each way going to work, and now you’ve got two extra hours in the day because you’re working from home, it’s going to be hard to go back to sitting in traffic again.
What three things are always on your desk?
Bottle of water, computer, and a pack of aspirin.
What is your biggest pet peeve on the road?
People trying to push their way into the intersection. To me, that’s the ultimate expression of selfishness. For your extra three seconds, you’re willing to back up everyone else.
What is your favorite thing to listen to in the car?
I mostly listen to stand-up comedy. A comedian I really like is Hannah Gadsby — she uses comedy to convey serious social issues and makes them funny. That kind of contradiction of emotions is powerful in getting the message across.
How would you describe Waze in three words?
The driving platform. All we do is driving. That’s the world we’re in. We’re not doing bicycles and walking and a million other things. We’re not necessarily a map app; we’re a driving app.
Which Mood do you relate to the most?
On a good day, the happy Sunflower. That’s always my favorite — even if I don’t always feel that way.