Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Hugo Barra and America’s Technology Blind Spot

Hugo Barra is a long-time veteran of the technology industry. Raised in Brazil, he came to MIT in 1996 and completed B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in computer science and electrical engineering before joining wireless software company Lobby7. From there, he joined Nuance Communications and later, Google, working on the Android team, where he rose to Vice President of Android Product Management, becoming one of the public faces of the company, introducing new phones and software to audiences at trade shows.

Most people, even those who follow tech closely, didn’t know who Barra was until he announced in August of last year that he was leaving Google for Xiaomi, a Chinese manufacturer of smartphones. The departure of a non-Chinese Google executive for a Chinese company was surprising enough to merit coverage throughout the tech press and in the Guardian, where Charles Arthur saw the move as a coup for Xiaomi and reason to ask questions about Google’s strategic leadership around Android.

Stories about Barra’s job change took on a tabloid quality when writers began speculating that his real reason for leaving Google was a romantic rivalry. Business Insider reported that Barra had been involved with a Google Glass product manager, Amanda Rosenberg, who was now dating Sergey Brin, and Sydney’s Morning Herald reported that Barra’s departure from Google was a “collateral casualty” of the complicated love life of Google’s founder.

After all, a star executive at America’s most-admired company would never leave for a Chinese phone company because he saw opportunity there. Putting the Pacific between you and a vengeful software billionaire is one of the few logical explanations for an American to want to work in China.

Barra patiently explained to reporters that he’d come to Xiaomei to work with Bin Lin, the head of Xiaomi, who had been the head of Google’s mobile engineering unit in China. While he was at Google, Barra was impressed with the ways Lin’s team had extended and modified Android, and frequently brought Xiaomi products to the Android team to show off their functionality.

Barra re-entered the tech press limelight in December when he spoke at Le Web in Paris. His speech was, unsurprisingly, a celebration of the new corporation he joined. But it was, more broadly, a education for European and US techies on the wonders of the Chinese technology industry. Business Insider’s crib of his talk makes Barra sound like a latter-day Marco Polo, returning to Venice with tales of 600 million internet users, 15% annual growth rates and billion dollar IPOs.


Hugo Barra at his favorite dumpling joint in Beijing

On the rare occasions American geeks think about the internet in China, they tend to think about the Great Firewall and the 50 Cent Party. This focus on censorship – which is an important fact of life on the Chinese internet – tends to blind Americans to the creativity and vitality of the Chinese internet. (This 2010 article by David Talbot for Technology Review, China’s Internet Paradox, explores this idea in depth.) As a result, we are surprised to learn that China’s most popular social networking site, QZone, has over 600 million users. That Jingdong, an Amazon-like online store offers three hour delivery in major Chinese cities. That tools like WeChat and MoMo offer functionality that’s surprisingly different from social networking models offered by most American and European social networking tools.

I used the story of Barra and his reports from China to open a recent talk on Rewire at Harvard’s Coop. Our surprise that there’s a thriving and interesting tech industry in China strikes me as a symptom of a larger phenomenon, the ways in which we are insulated from information from places that are culturally distant, even if we’re tightly tied to those nations in terms of migration and trade.

I give dozens of examples in Rewire of ways in which barriers of language, culture and interest keep us from learning about what’s happening in other parts of the world. But the lack of knowledge of Chinese internet tools is a wonderful example I wish I’d included. QZone, with over 600 million users, is represented in the English-language Wikipedia with a 3k stub, while Twitter, with a slightly smaller userbase, has a massive, 140kb article whose table of contents is longer than the QZone entry.

When I speak about Rewire, I try to explain why I think it’s important that increased internet connectivity doesn’t inevitably lead to increased interest in or understanding of other cultures. I talk about the challenge of solving massive international problems like global warming without international cooperation, or the missed opportunities to think creatively by maximizing cognitive diversity and approaching problems from different points of view.

But Hugo Barra’s story offers a much more straightforward motivation: there’s a ton of opportunity in China’s tech industry and Americans and Europeans will be shut out of that opportunity if they’re not aware of what’s going on. Americans may not be especially interested in building tools for Chinese users, but Chinese companies are looking aggressively at overseas markets. Xiaomi recruited Barra precisely because they are excited about expanding beyond manufacturing phones for Chinese markets.

There’s a massive information asymmetry because the US and China right now. Teams of volunteer translators work to render US and European political and tech media into Chinese – one community, Yeeyan, features more than 100,000 registered translators. Other teams work to subtitle US television programming in Chinese within 12 hours of broadcast. Information in the other direction is brokered by small, underfunded, hardworking projects like Tea Leaf Nation, which provide great translation and contextualization of Chinese stories for the small audiences interested in them.

Perhaps Barra’s celebration of Chinese internet culture will inspire others to follow his lead and work with Chinese technology companies. Perhaps others will learn what’s exciting about the tech industry in Brazil or Kenya. At the very least, Barra’s story might remind us that there’s a huge world out there we don’t hear enough about and that it takes work on our part to learn more.

2 Responses to “Hugo Barra and America’s Technology Blind Spot”

  1. Hugo Barra says:

    Thank you, Ethan, for your write-up and kind words. I am just trying to survive and tell a story that I think everyone in tech should hear :)

  2. Ethan says:

    Thanks for weighing in, Hugo, and hope I got the details right. You’re doing really important work in helping balance the world’s understanding of China.

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