Making Contact With Mr. Gmail
Google’s Todd Jackson carries the weight of the web on his shoulders. As the product manager for Gmail, it’s his responsibility to make sure your inbox experience is fast, secure and always available. Jackson is also the product manager for Buzz, Google’s real-time social sharing system that launched in February and was promptly criticized over privacy issues and its “noise” problem. Talk about a tough gig.
We got the chance to ask Jackson about the inner workings of the Gmail team, what’s ahead for Buzz as far as user controls, and what it feels like to bear the collective rage of Gmail’s 140-million-plus users when the system takes a dive.
Webmonkey: Do you think we’re going to see the death of the desktop e-mail client anytime soon?
Todd Jackson: We don’t like to think of it that way (laughs). No comment! Seriously, though, we think deploying an app in the browser is something that easily makes sense to users now. They can log in on any computer, all their stuff is in the cloud. It’s just easier. And for us, we can push frequent updates and improve the product iteratively.
At Google, we run our own business on Gmail — we call this “eating our own dog food.”
Webmonkey: So do you suffer the same service outages as the general public?
Jackson: We do. When Gmail goes down, it goes down for us. That’s one of our first alerts.
Webmonkey: What happens in your office at Google when Gmail goes down?
Jackson: Everybody freaks out (laughs). Our Site Reliability Engineers — SREs, whose job it is to keep the servers alive — have extensive monitoring systems. They have this giant wall of dashboards that chart the system health. They also carry pagers. Even in a very small outage that only affects 0.01 percent of users, the SRE guys will get paged. They run to the dashboards and figure out what’s gone wrong. In a larger outage, we all switch to an alternate communications channel like IRC. We also use the bug reporting system inside Google to communicate during outages.
Our response time has gotten much better. But we definitely feel the pain. When Gmail goes down, that’s one of the worst feelings in the world.
Webmonkey: I completely agree.
Jackson: The outages we’ve had, we’ve learned from, and it’s made the system better as a result. For example, we changed things so one component going down can’t bring down the system as a whole. Gmail used to be reliant on the Contacts system, so when Conacts was unavailable, Gmail would be unavailable. We changed it so that won’t happen anymore.
We’ve also gotten better at communicating with users. We built something called the Google Apps Status dashboard. Every day, we log anything that went wrong with the system. It answers that question, “Is Gmail down for me or is it down for everyone?”
Webmonkey: How much effort do you put into improving Gmail’s speed and performance?
Jackson: Performance is huge. We think of it as a feature. Speed is the best feature your product can have.
Last year Google introduced these performance enhancements to Picasa to make flipping through photos faster, and the usage more than doubled. When a site gets twice as fast, it often gets more than twice as much usage.
Webmonkey: Gmail is one of the most high-profile products at Google. Because it’s so popular and widely used, do you have to be more careful when you change it?
Jackson: It’s a very demanding product to work on, and there’s a very high bar for everything we do. We know that when we’re shipping something, it’s going out to a very wide and very large audience. This is why whenever we launch new features, we have such rigorous testing requirements.
Whenever we do something new, all the Googlers are using it and immediately giving us feedback. They’re very boisterous. And most new features go through Gmail Labs as experiments first.
Webmonkey: What Gmail Labs experiments are your personal favorites?
Jackson: Undo Send is my favorite, without question. I use it all the time, it saves a lot of embarrassment. One of my other favorites just graduated, it’s Search Auto-Complete. We’re all power users internally, so I navigate Gmail almost entirely through keyboard shortcuts and search.
Keyboard shortcuts are used by less than two percent of our users. Then again, they’re kind of nerdy. How do you explain to somebody that J goes down and K goes up?
Webmonkey: How much do you use Buzz internally?
Jackson: A lot. We have a very dense network inside Google, you see all kinds of stuff. It’s become a secondary communication channel. You can be kept up to date on what everyone is doing in a way that wasn’t possible when internal communications were just e-mail and chat-based. The level of transparency in passive communication has improved.
Webmonkey: When Buzz launched, there was friction among Gmail users over things like inbox control and the increased level of noise. What was your reaction to that?
Jackson: We learned from it very quickly. We bring certain Buzz items into your inbox when you get involved in a conversation: when people comment on your posts, when people comment on your comments or when you’re @replied.
On one level, it works really well, because on a lot of these services, people comment on one of your posts and you never find out about it. When we deployed this publicly, we found that especially for accounts that have a ton of followers, these notifications would get out of control.
To fix this, we launched two new features: Settings for which Buzz items come into your inbox, and a second feature which shows a banner above each item that comes into your inbox that tells you why it’s there — “Mike, you @replied to this” — along with a link to mute that conversation.
One of the things we heard loud and clear is “Buzz in my inbox is cool, but it gets noisy.” We’re trying to improve things as fast as possible.
Webmonkey: Personally, I found it troubling. When I tweet or check-in or comment, those are things that happen “out there” on the web. But when I’m in Gmail, it’s like my inner sanctum, my bedroom. Buzz launches and all of a sudden, there are people who are friends of friends, people I may not even know, who are showing up and hanging out in my bedroom.
Jackson: That’s something we need to improve. We want you to be able to engage in the conversations that you want to engage in, but not be spammed by the conversations that you don’t care about. The controls we launched recently get us a step towards that, but we’re not there yet. We want to give you the controls to manage what comes in to “your bedroom” and what doesn’t, but we also want to get it to the point where you don’t have to think too hard about how to manage it.