John Abel, Technical Director of Google Cloud’s Office of the CTO (OCTO), joins the home team to discuss what a typical day looks like for him. We discuss what he learns from his customers and why his enterprise customers are prioritizing developer experience through platform engineering and managed services in 2023. Plus: The BBC’s surprising history in computing.
John spent 25 years at Oracle before joining Google Cloud’s Office of the CTO (OCTO), a team that’s been called the company’s “secret weapon” in collaborating with major customers to solve their tech problems and drive long-term deals.
For more on his approach to tech and business, you can read this article he wrote on the seven points of driving lasting innovation
Learn more about OCTO from Business Insider.
Settle down for a good read: the full story of how the BBC’s microcomputer changed history.
Connect with John on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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Ben Popper Amazon QuickSight embeds powerful dashboards and visuals into your application to differentiate your product, help customers make data-driven decisions, and develop new revenue streams. Learn more about QuickSight at aws.bpc.digital/quicksight.
BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, joined as I often am by my wonderful colleagues and collaborators, Ceora Ford and Ryan Donovan. Ryan, you are the editor of our blog, you work on our newsletter. Ceora, you are a Developer Advocate over at Okta by Auth0. And we have a great guest today, John Abel, who works in the office of CTO over at a little company you may have heard of called Google. So John, welcome to the program.
John Abel Hey, it's great being here and thank you for allowing me to have time with you.
BP So we always ask folks when the podcasts get started, to the degree that you're comfortable, date yourself a little. What's your journey been like? How did you end up working in the world of software and technology, and what do you do day-to-day now that you're in the role you're at?
JA Yeah, so let's start. So I started with technology back, and I'll be talking about certain computers that probably a few of the people might remember. So I started off on a BBC B back in the late 80’s. I wrote my first bit of code in Basic. Then I went and did a HND, didn't do a degree, did a HND, which is a diploma. And fundamentally then what I did is I joined a college to work with them and then went through typical coding, support, and then I joined another company called Oracle, and then I ended up there for quite a few years. And then I ended up as the Vice President of Technology for two of the divisions there, and then I decided to come across to Google Cloud. So I've now been at Google Cloud for the last three years. So I’ve had a fairly interesting journey along that time.
BP Yeah, and one thing that stands out to me there, for people who don't know this history, I think Americans and maybe even some younger Britains think of the BBC as a public broadcasting corporation. What was their involvement in the world of computing and why was that something that you were working on as a piece of hardware?
JA Yeah, so back then when I first started, the way we used to do coding back then was really interesting. First of all, each week there was a piece of technology that was called a TV, and on that piece of technology there was a technology called CFAX, which is basically a scripted user interface. And they would advertise the code each week, and then you could either download it, or you did what I did, which is you re-coded it into your BBC B. And I started off with a ZX81. Interestingly, I never ever got the code compiled the first time. So I used to have to go and edit it, change it, and I was trying to explain to someone before that you're working in kilobytes of processing power, and mostly bytes. You're not dealing with megabytes. You certainly didn't have that then.
Ryan Donovan So I think most of us know what a CTO is, but what's the Office of the CTO do?
JA It's a great question. So the Office of the CTO, for short called OCTO, we are a group of senior leaders and what we do is we really look at three things inside Google Cloud. First of all, we advise and work with some of our most strategic customers, and also we advise and work with customers that are interesting to us, maybe because of the technology they're trying to do, or are inherently aligned with some of the aspects that we are focused on as a group. We also do pathfinding, which is the ability for us to look at emerging technologies that are coming down the line, things that we feel that we should be exploring. And typically what you find is like a pyramid. You typically see the customers start talking about it, then we have to find some technology, or we start finding technology and the customers aren't yet talking about it. But inherently those sort of come together. Then the last one is, we work collaboratively across the team. We all come from different backgrounds, we've all worked within the industry for a number of years, and it's important for us to work together and actually collaborate on many of these aspects of work, because no one will have a one single answer. So when you're looking at it, you think about team pathfinding and advising. That's what we do on a daily basis.
Ceora Ford Very interesting. So what does a day in your life look like doing this kind of work?
JA Do you know what? I wish I had a day that was every day the same. So today I'm talking from Finland. I try to travel less these days. But I think it's important, I like the day to start off with a bit of knowledge that I didn't have the previous day, so I always do a little bit of reading. So today I was actually reading about some of the ecosystems here inside Finland because I was meeting with some Finnish customers. But also I then start looking at –I'm forgetting doing the inbox because I think everybody does that– and inherently what I was doing was, I spend the morning, generally that's when I ideate, that's when I innovate the best because it's the freshest point. You then will either mix between internal discussions about emerging technologies or you will deal with customers. And I generally blend the two in the day and try to get insight. And I use customer conversations to test theories as well. So I might say to a customer, “Hey, I'm thinking about this at the moment. What do you think about that?” And inherently it's a good barometer to see if it's coming up. So it's a bit of the art of listening and watching is how you sort of gain knowledge that can help you decide what you're going to do next time. So hopefully that gives that a fairly little visibility into our world.
BP Yeah, I think that makes sense. So you mentioned that there's kind of this relationship of sometimes you leading customers to new technology and sometimes the opposite. What have you been hearing over the last six months that's exciting customers, either you're bringing it to them or they're bringing it to you? I know in our world, all over Twitter and Stack Overflow the use of generative AI to make everything from art to code to to-do lists has been the talk of the town. But tell us what you've been hearing about on your side.
JA Well, most of my customers I work with are enterprise customers, so I think what's really exciting is that before there was technical themes that you were hearing, like what you've mentioned. Inherently what we're seeing is actually some regions, and I think it's to do with that some of the regions are working at slightly faster and slower cadences. So example, areas where they could be discussing energy requirements because they've got energy needs, et cetera, understanding how they report on CO2 emissions. It may be that people are talking about migrations. It may be people are talking about cost reduction. There's never one pattern. What I am seeing though at this point, is that in this period, we've got used to being digitized first for many reasons. And because of that, you're seeing technology now as a board level conversation more than ever before. And inherently the scaling of that and the way people get value from that is even a more important discussion for a board to have. So what I like about this era is that IT has become, I think we've been mainstream for a long time, but we are now business mainstream. And actually a lot of the companies I work with are seeing this being a scalable revenue stream. And I think when we look through technology as we go forward, that connection with future users, future regions that can collaborate, and the way that we will do it, will be very different to the way we did it in the past, and I'm super excited about that. So rather than talking about the aspects of actual technology features and the wizardry, I think we're moving into a world where the execs of the future are much more technically or digitally engaged than they've ever been before. And I'm seeing that consistently across all organizations.
RD I think one of the interesting things sort of seeing and talking to enterprise folks is more of a focus on the sort of internal developer, the developer experience, platform engineering, things where they have teams sort of productizing that experience. Have you seen much of that?
JA Yeah. I think that there is something that's happening in the developer community where I'm seeing developers now being very savvy to removing friction from what they do in their day processes. And what you see in any economical cycles is the developer now is having to really think about what IP they want to own. And as you move in the world of cloud-based technologies, et cetera, there's much more services that you can use. And as part of that, you have to really focus on, being a developer, the things you must own versus the things that add very little value to your business because you don't need that IP. So an example might be a managed database. Inherently that gives you huge value as a developer, versus you creating an AI algorithm that is really unique to what your business does. And I think that as we go through this, people are going to have to make decisions of the things they're going to have to give up. When I started my developer career, I wanted to own the stack and inherently I spent a lot of time bolting it together doing architectural wiring diagrams. Now what I'm having to do is think about the stack that I want to give up, because inherently there's no uniqueness in it.
RD Yeah, it's almost an update of the old build-vs-buy conversation.
JA Yeah, I think that the build-vs-buy back then was very much I would say around the application type packages that you had. And it was a bit like we inherently went through that journey of saying, “Well actually, if I buy it does it constrain me because there's features in it, or should I build it because I want that freedom?” What we're inherently saying in this era now is that you can have the freedom as well as the constraints, because the constraints you’re getting actually don't add value to your business.
BP Your point about where you can reduce the friction and the overhead so that your developers are happy so that your platform is lean and so that the IT and IP you're creating is your own is really interesting. Ryan and I have been working on a blog post for a while. The public cloud continues to grow at Google Cloud and all of its sort of peers, but at the same time there's this sort of fat middle of private clouds and middleware vendors. And then even interestingly, a little bit of a pendulum swing back for folks who are doing AI where they might have some of the hardware on-prem, because they just want to run the models locally and they don't want the latency of sending it off to the cloud. And so in each of those examples, I think as you say, you're considering what is universal, and I won't gain any value by building this myself. In fact, the organization will be wasting time. Versus, what do we need to have that's unique to us, or even in the case of this sitting right next to me in a cabinet that I can control?
JA Yeah. And if you think about it, quite a few months ago I was trying to work out what is the DNA of a company wanting to create lasting innovation. It's very easy to innovate, but creating lasting innovation is super hard. And it might be useful to share it now. I'd love to see what you think.
BP Test out your thesis on us.
JA Yeah, let's test this out. Let's talk seven points of lasting innovation. The very first is to know the reason you're doing it– the why. Now, what's interesting about that, the second word I'm going to use is to know why you're doing it to be famous, and that's different from the why. The why is a bit like our journey as an organization, where the fame could be individual to a team. And inherently the companies where multiple people are executing different aspects of what we're famous for gives them the ability to create a platform. The next after that is, all costs remove friction from your business process, which we just had a little talk about, because friction costs money and adds very little value. And inherently, being passionate about removing things that cost money but add no value is your number one job. The other one is empowering people to make decisions and make them accountable for their actions, because that allows people to scale. Also, the ability to listen, and hopefully people are listening to this blog. And actually the art of listening intrinsically allows you to understand bias, understand beliefs, understand things like culture. And then we want to go fast, and fast means you're prepared to give up stuff, which again, we just mentioned. And then the very last is creating space to reflect, because it's very easy to be busy, but it's hard to create space to allow you to actually reflect on the things you did as a technologist to say, “Does it actually do what I expected it to do?” So through those companies I've worked in my career, those are seven little things that I've seen that help organizations understand what you need to create. What do you think?
CF I think I agree with that. We've had a lot of conversations with different founders of different startups and some of them have started a business before that didn't go well, and then they started another one, and I feel like a common theme is that when they start a business that doesn't do so well and they have to start from scratch again, usually I find that they are missing one of the things that you mentioned. For instance, I've heard some founders say that they didn't focus enough on the reason why they're doing something, or they didn't focus enough on listening to customers and what they actually need and what they actually want instead of just building what they want. And then another thing that's really important, like you mentioned, is the friction in business. Because sometimes if you let little things slide in the beginning they become huge later on and they become a much bigger issue.
JA Ah, in technology we call that tech debt.
RD Comes back with interest.
JA Ah, yeah. Look, when I started my career, you were so busy you kept the Friday list, as I called it, and you never got to it because the Monday list hit you on the Friday. So it's a bit like that when you come to upgrade software, when you patch it, and I think inherently taking that time out to reflect on the things that you're not proud of and get rid of them because it's caused friction, adds huge value, but especially to a developer. I think developers are artists. I don't think developers are coders, and I think code is the skill, development is an art.
BP Yeah. I think, Ceora, to your point, there's a few folks who have been on and maybe, John, this gets to your second one about what are you famous for, who thought they had built a better mousetrap or they had an idea for something and they sort of took some time off and spent six months ideating on it, and then they got to the first customer meeting and realized, “This person doesn't want what I'm selling,” or, “I don't even really know how to get from slide 8 to slide 10.” And so I guess one of the things that maybe is useful these days is that a lot of that can happen in public. You can use social media to test your ideas. You can do things in beta way easier than you would've in the past. Or you can be open source, at least at the beginning, and then have other people kind of contribute.
JA Yeah. And I think you've just raised something. Actually, I did this the other day as a test. If I'd have created a company in the 90’s, I think we could be pretty sure that a typical budget would be in hundreds if not millions, to get something as a new project out into the world to someone to use it. Today, you can do it for less than $2. This is mad that you can actually build an entire business in your living room, you can get an entire workforce to work for you that don't actually work on your payroll. You can build an entire experience and I think that's super exciting for the future because it allows innovation to come from anywhere, and competitors.
RD Yeah. And I think to one of your points about empowering your developers, I think there's a lot of big companies that are trying to get that startup juice. Like you said, you can get that easy product to market, but with that kind of scale, you sort of need some guardrails in place. You need to make sure there's ways to keep y'all on the same page.
JA And that's why I think these services, where I talked about managed services, will be important because they can give you guardrails like security, availability, scaling, and they still give you the freedom to be a very creative developer or engineer.
CF Yeah, I think based off what I'm hearing from different developers in the community and whatnot, I think kind of the expectation now is that developers are looking for tools they can use that are as frictionless as possible, and opinionated enough that it gives them the guardrails they need while also still giving them freedom to do what they want with the tool. And I feel like, again, some of the founders we've talked to and engineers we've talked to on the podcast, when they have a successful developer platform or product, that's kind of the core of it. They're doing something that's making developers jobs easier by still allowing them to have the amount of freedom that they need to do what they really want.
BP Yeah. I think the idea that John expressed and you, opinionated and artist, those aren't necessarily things that you hear in CS 101, but once you get out there and you start working on things, they can have a lot of value.
JA Yeah, I'll tell you the other thing as well which I found fascinating. I started a year ago, a degree, and I don't have a classical technology degree. I'm a technologist, but I've not had a classical tech whole story there. But what I did is I did a computer science degree, so I'm doing a computer science degree. I found the way you learn now is so exciting, because inherently when I started learning, I had to go and buy a book, I had to go and read the book. I had to know which section of the book to read, which meant I had to do research. Remember, I didn't have the internet. Then what happens now? I go on YouTube and someone's telling me how to do it. It's super easy. I get coding example blog pages, I can listen to podcasts, and inherently your ability to learn now is much faster, much faster.
BP Yeah, it's a golden era for the autodidacts out there.
JA Yeah, you can be a genius so easily.
BP Yeah, exactly. John, anything you're looking forward to in 2023? Stuff that's on the roadmap or predictions about what we'll be talking about this time next year?
JA I think when we're looking at this, and the reason I'm pausing is because there's so many things we could talk about, but I think if I say one aspect, I'm excited in 2023 because I think people will realize how important digital-based solutions are for their businesses. Meaning that anybody that's a developer, an engineer, an IT person, is going to be a boardroom conversation more than less. I think people realize there is also the ability to now get rid of your technical debt because you're going to have to to be successful in the future because of those conversations I had about the whole digitization and the revenue alignment. You can't afford to keep waiting all the time, because time is your biggest pressure point. So if I were saying to your listeners, one, be proud of being an engineer and a developer and keep being an artist. Two, make sure you focus on the things that you want to be famous for because they're critical to your business. Three, get rid of tech debt. And four, be ready for the crazy world we live in.
BP Yes, it will be different.
RD I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow, stackoverflow.blog. And you can find me on Twitter @RThorDonovan.
CF And my name is Ceora Ford. I'm a Developer Advocate at Auth0 by Okta. And you can find me on Twitter. My username there is @Ceeoreo_.
BP John, let folks know who you are, what you do, and where you can be found online.
JA Yeah, so John Abel. I'm a Technical Director in the Office of the CTO within Google Cloud. And you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. Just look up John Abel, Google Cloud.
BP All right, everybody. Thanks for listening and we will talk to you soon.
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