Driving Change With Rapha Cohen, Chief Product Officer at Waze
Rapha Cohen on carpooling, the future of mobility, and how to think like a product manager.
Driving Change explores how leaders at Waze balance big-picture innovation with day-to-day challenges.
We caught up with Rapha Cohen, the chief product officer at Waze, to learn more about the inspiration behind Carpool, how the Waze community influences the product, and his vision for the future of transportation.
The decision to join Waze:
I joined Waze because I saw the vision of convenient, safe, and sustainable mobility. To put it more bluntly, I viscerally hate traffic. I believe cars are dangerous rage engines and roads are scars on the faces of our cities. And contributing to making driving safer and more enjoyable — and more importantly, taking cars off the road with Carpool — was incredibly appealing to me.
How Carpool subverted expectations:
I joined Waze four years ago as one of the first product managers working on Waze Carpool. With Carpool, we started with a simple hypothesis: we could bring the same quality of service as a rideshare but at a lower price point because the drives are happening anyway. What we learned is that it’s not just a more convenient way of commuting; it’s also solving acute mobility issues. For many people, the alternatives would be taking three buses for two hours just to get to work. And this puts us in a totally different mindset when we think about our users.
We love when people become friends from Carpool and when they share pictures on social media of their crew grabbing a beer on Friday after a week of commuting. But the most inspiring part of my job is hearing testimonies from people whose lives are significantly easier with Carpool. I heard one recently from a user in Brazil whose commute used to take an hour and 45 minutes every day. Now with Carpool, it takes her 25 minutes, and it’s completely reliable and fun. That’s how I know we’ve done something significant.
Expanding the product vision:
In the Waze Navigation app, we’re focusing more on trip preparation because we’ve realized we can help our users so much more that way. If we interact with our users at the beginning of their trip, we can help them save four or five minutes by suggesting an alternate route. But if we can meet them before they leave — either the night before or even just a few minutes before — we can have a much bigger impact by letting them know the best time to leave or who to ride with.
Two of our newest features, Waze Trip Suggestions and our new Traffic Notification Angels, were designed with this in mind. With Trip Suggestions, we’re letting drivers know what to expect along their route before they leave. That may even mean telling someone to leave later than they usually would because it’ll help save them time.
With Traffic Notification Angels, we’re looking out for our users on any frequent trips they make and on any planned drives. The feature knows when traffic is building up and sends users a notification letting them know they should head out so they’re not late.
We’re able to do this because we have data around all the different traffic events that are happening, like the peak times for congestion or when an accident happens. Making this data accessible to our users (while they still have time to plan around it) is an extremely powerful tool.
Looking beyond cars:
Personally, I hope the future of transportation doesn’t involve cars. I don’t think it’s a good solution. Although in sprawling cities, suburban areas and many other use cases, I do think cars will remain an important part of the transportation network. But they’ll need to be clean, efficient, safe, cheap and, of course, shared.
In dense areas, cars need to be replaced by mass transit systems and vastly improved biking and walking infrastructure. This will cut down on pollution, traffic and car accidents, as well as open up public spaces, which will make cities safer and healthier.
Right now, Waze is focused on driving, but in the near future, different types of transportation will become part of our focus. For instance, more cities will close their city centers to cars to make their streets more walkable and cut down on air pollution. So for example, if you wanted to get to Central London, we would tell you where to park at the city entrance and how to use public transportation to go the rest of the way.
How to think like a product manager:
Product managers need to be product philosophers. They need to have a strong yet adaptive worldview. It’s about how they see the world, how they think the world should look, and then expressing hypotheses about how they can impact it for the better. My product philosophy is to inform my worldview with as many disciplines as possible. It’s not only technical skills, business, or design skills — those are just the basics. History, anthropology, sociology — all of these things are super important to the product manager skill set.
Collaborating with the Waze Community:
It’s challenging to find the right balance because the Community members who we work with closely — the ones who bring us ideas and give us feedback — are all very engaged. They’re power users. They know a lot about Waze, how to use the product, and where to find every feature — sometimes more than the product managers themselves.
So typically, we work with the Community more at the top of the funnel of the ideation process. They bring us the hyperlocal insights from where they live, and the problems they’re facing that we can’t think of because we don’t live them. Then when it comes to the solution, we usually will expand the circle of testing and research to involve more and more non-power users, or even prospective users, to see how it could make their lives easier. So there’s a balance in the ideation process.
What everyone should know about working at Waze:
Waze shows that you can build great things at scale while having an incredible working environment. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it makes people grow professionally and personally.
Part of our vision is a moving world without traffic — not just a world without traffic. COVID-19 has eliminated traffic, but that’s not what we want. As a company and as people, we believe in the power of physical interactions and meeting face-to-face. And of course, that’s difficult now.
We’ve been working well during the pandemic because we already knew each other and have had meaningful experiences together. But I think in the long run it will become difficult, especially when onboarding new people. Physical interactions in the context of work, and in general, are important. Getting people together is part of the mission of Waze, and I’m looking forward to when we can safely collaborate on this mission in person again.
What three things are always on your desk?
Sparkling water, espresso and a crayon I’ve borrowed from my daughter that I use for doodling, which helps me stay focused.
What is your biggest pet peeve on the road?
What people become when they’re a couple of car windows away from each other. We have built our cities and our communities around an engine that can bring out the worst in people, and that’s terrible. There is one exception: when you’re with someone else in the car, you do behave like a better person.
What is your favorite thing to listen to in the car?
Podcasts. Ran Levi, Sam Harris, Scott Galloway — those are my three favorites.
How would you describe Waze in three words?
Learn, improve and impact.
Which Mood do you relate to the most?
I like Skeptical because I think that skepticism and critical thinking are among the most wonderful human traits. And Carsick because, well, I get carsick easily.