How to be more innovative | Sam Schillace (Microsoft deputy CTO, creator of Google Docs)

How to be more innovative | Sam Schillace (Microsoft deputy CTO, creator of Google Docs)

Sam’s background

  • Sam Schillace is the corporate vice president and deputy chief technology officer at Microsoft.
  • He is known for inventing Google Docs with his company Writely, which became the foundation for Google Workspace with over one billion active users monthly.
  • Sam has a diverse career history, including founding startups, serving as senior vice president of engineering at Box, and working at Intuit and Macromedia.
  • The conversation focuses on innovation, thinking big, career advice, and the importance of optimism.

The first Google Docs file

  • Sam has the very first Google Doc document from 2005, created by his company Writely before it became Google Docs.
  • The document has undergone multiple back-end and front-end migrations, raising questions about its authenticity.
  • Sam had a humorous exchange with the Computer History Museum about curating the document.
  • The successful migration of Google Docs to the Google infrastructure was achieved in a sneaky way without drawing much attention.

Disruptive innovation

  • Sam emphasizes the importance of disruptive innovation and its role in transforming everyday items and technologies.
  • Disruptive innovations can be threatening initially and often face resistance, leading to 'why-not' questions.
  • Sam advocates for asking 'what-if' questions to explore the potential of disruptive ideas and to avoid being overly pessimistic. He believes it is better to be optimistic and wrong than pessimistic and right.

First-principles thinking

  • Steve Jobs quote: designs by people not necessarily smarter
  • Every new idea looks dumb at first
  • Disruptive ideas often feel dumb initially
  • Key signifier: if people say it's a toy, it's potentially real and threatening

Recognizing disruptive ideas

  • Binary reaction: understand & excited or reject
  • Disruptive products elicit strong love or hate reactions
  • Impactful products either loved or hated, not in between
  • Bifurcation of love and hate indicates impact

Examples of first-principles thinking

  • Exploring why-not stories around generative AI
  • Challenging assumptions, asking "what if"
  • Transformational mindset for disruptive innovations
  • Examples: Tesla, SpaceX, and visionary questions

The power of optimism

  • Optimism/growth mindset in the face of pessimism
  • Choosing optimism despite natural tendencies
  • Focusing on possibilities over problems
  • Optimism facilitates trying new things more easily

Sam’s motto: Get to the edge of something and fuck around

  • Experiment and try new things without dismissing ideas too quickly
  • Sharpen tools to enable cheap experiments and observe the results
  • Optimism and receptiveness lead to noticing surprising results
  • Example with a project at Microsoft where a surprising discovery was made

User value and laziness

  • The importance of identifying real user value in technology
  • Being skeptical about the actual user value in technologies like crypto
  • Users are lazy and prioritize making their lives easier
  • Elon Musk's products articulate clear user value, which is crucial for success

People are lazy (and what to do about it)

  • Product builders should focus on making users' lives better, as users are lazy
  • Products that add significant value experience quicker adoption
  • Users will only adopt if the energy expended is less than the resulting ease in their lives
  • Simplicity and low friction are essential for user adoption
  • Example with Writely focusing on minimal friction during onboarding
  • Users need to see significant value in a short time to engage with a product

Building Google Docs

  • Made a trade-off to focus on ease of use and zero installation over numerous features
  • Deliberately removed most features, facing complaints in the early days
  • Competed with Microsoft Office using the innovation model, chipping away at the market

The evolution of Google Docs

  • Almost immediately felt the product was working after starting it
  • Collaboration feature was discovered accidentally and led to motivation to build it out
  • Collaboration feature was a challenge to solve due to the lack of existing techniques
  • Excitement about the potential of collaboration motivated the team to solve the problem
  • Faced opposition and negativity within Google during the early stages of building Google Docs

Lessons learned

  • Successful innovation requires a balance between being rigid about the mission and flexible about feedback
  • Entrepreneurs need to find a balance and be open to feedback while staying focused on their mission

Finding product-market fit

  • Google Docs team was surprised by the quick adoption of their product
  • Experimented with advertising on Google and gained attention
  • Positioned themselves as a different paradigm, attracting attention from VCs
  • Experimented with functionality and collaboration
  • Realized the importance of offline features but later abandoned them

The future of documents

  • Envisioned a future where documents are interactive and conversational
  • Predicted that linear, static documents will evolve into dynamic, interactive artifacts
  • Believes that intention and interactivity in products will become essential
  • Foresees a radical change in how documents are handled in the next few years
  • Shared an anecdote about the early days of G Docs and the challenges faced with JavaScript development
  • Sponsored message from Ahrefs, a tool for search engine optimization
  • Discussed the criticism faced as an engineer and the challenges of working with JavaScript at the time

The value of playing with technology

  • Working on technology before finding a specific problem it solves
  • Playing with technology and understanding its potential applications
  • Setting specific goals and north stars to guide experimentation and innovation

Taking risks and embracing failure

  • Importance of taking risks and experimenting to find good product ideas
  • The value of getting familiar with various tools and combinations of tools
  • The need for a broad perspective and understanding of different technologies

Thinking in the future

  • Building the skill of thinking about future possibilities and where things are heading
  • The potential impact of the willingness to take risks and embrace failure on innovation and problem-solving
  • Challenges in the current environment that affect the ability to experiment and fail gracefully

Finding joy in your work

  • Failure is essential to achieving extraordinary results in your career.
  • Linear effort leads to a slow, predictable career progression, while taking bigger risks can lead to extraordinary returns.
  • It's important to pursue activities that bring joy and are easy for you, as this can lead to high impact and career success.

Just do the best you can

  • The advice to do the best job in any role can lead to greater enjoyment and success.
  • Bringing your unique strengths and intensity to your work can lead to high impact and personal fulfillment.

The transformational power of AI

  • AI is not just a feature of a product, the product itself is a feature of AI
  • Building apps and solutions that are dependent on AI will create transformative massive value
  • AI is leading to a disruption in the software industry, making distribution of information free and pixels easier to produce
  • The future of software will be more dynamic, intentional, semantic, fluid, and personalized as AI technology evolves
  • Generative AI will lead to significant changes in software and businesses, with a new category shift imminent

Advice for approaching AI

  • Play with it, but also pick a specific goal to achieve with the technology
  • Choose goals that lead to interesting and meaningful outcomes
  • It's hard to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advancements
  • The zero to one phase is the most challenging, but once an idea is understood, the optimization process is quick
  • Professionals need to read, think, play with technology, and choose their battles to learn effectively

The culture at Microsoft

  • Satya Nadella is considered a great leader and motivator
  • Microsoft has a humble culture that values hard work and unglamorous tasks
  • The company has a large number of talented individuals and a positive attitude
  • Luck also plays a role in its success

Closing thoughts

  • The speaker's opinions represent personal views and not official Microsoft stands
  • Encourages listeners to build and solve problems, highlighting the importance of energy and initiative in the process

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