People

He helped overhaul Microsoft Office — now he’s at Google trying to beat it

Javier Soltero used to be in charge of Office products at Microsoft. Now he's at Google, heading G Suite and trying to challenge his former employer as the productivity suite of the future.

Javier Soltero

Javier Soltero's new job is to figure out how to make G Suite the best work tool on the planet.

Photo: Courtesy of Google

Javier Soltero is six or so months into his job at Google as vice president and GM of G Suite, and he readily admits he still doesn't understand all the nuances and possibilities of the product he oversees. He's still retraining his brain to be more … Googley after five years at Microsoft during which he was in charge of Outlook and ran product strategy for all things Office. He comes from the world of attachments and desktop apps, but now he must think in terms of shared files and web browsers.

Soltero has a story he likes to tell, which serves as a sort of metaphor for everything he's trying to do at Google. It goes like this: One day, Soltero is writing an email. He wants to link to a Drive file, "and I've never figured out — well, I hadn't figured out — do I need to open the file in a separate tab and then go to the share link and copy it and link it that way?" This time, for whatever reason, he did it backward, highlighting the name and clicking to add a link. "And this interesting dialog I had never seen before showed up, and is like, 'What are you trying to link to? Perhaps it's this doc whose name is the file you're talking about?' And I was like, yeah, thank you."

That's it. That's the magic. That somewhat indefinable sense that your productivity tools just get you is the whole thing Soltero is working toward. It's what made him want to come to Google, even when he thought he'd be getting out of the productivity space after leaving Microsoft. He calls these moments "anticipatory" experiences, things that indicate the tools you're using are not holding you back but rather propelling you forward.

Under Thomas Kurian, Soltero's new boss, Google Cloud has a directive to become a big player in cloud services — and fast. Meanwhile, G Suite is in ever-more direct competition with the product Soltero used to work on, Microsoft Office. With more than 2 billion users, more people use G Suite than Office. But in the business world, Microsoft's 60 million paid customers dwarfs G Suite's 5 million. And Office is getting better, more mobile- and web-friendly (you could even say more Googley) fast. Soltero's job is to figure out how to make G Suite the best work tool on the planet, and then convince millions of Office users of that fact. And somewhere in there, he has to finish learning how to use the thing.

Rather than immediately come in and shake things up, as Soltero did at Microsoft — Soltero famously warned the Outlook team that it was on course to become as outdated and loathed as Lotus Notes — he instead sought to understand why G Suite was working so well. Partly to help guide him forward and partly to shake him out of his Microsoft way of thinking.

I met with Soltero in a conference room at Google's offices in Sunnyvale, back when sitting in the same room with another person was allowed. We talked about why he got back into the productivity game after leaving Microsoft, his plans for G Suite, and what to make of Google's haphazard messaging strategy.

···

When you started at Google, did you sit down and come up with a 'Grand Theory of G Suite'? Is there, like, a whiteboard somewhere with the '10 Pillars of G Suite' on it?

A mind map, believe it or not. The engineer in me likes the ability to refactor a short outline and see them as a graph. It's a really effective way for me to just dump out thoughts and quickly brainstorm with people.

So, there are a core set of opinions in G Suite. And they're things like the nature of our clients: We're very, very invested in browser-based experiences and native mobile experiences. And we have some shared traits across those, which are really useful: things like smart compose, smart reply, the use of AI to make typing across both of those more natural. The usage of links, mutable documents, the whole concept of how we treat content is a core opinion. It's stuff like that.

Was there anything you felt like you had to course-correct immediately upon getting here?

No, not exactly. I think the team had gone through its own exercise of really focusing before I even got here. As part of Thomas coming into the organization, there was a lot of much-needed clarity and like, OK, what are we really trying to do with the cloud organization?

So luckily, by the time I got here, the organization had evolved correctly into the model we have now, where we have a team of people doing communications, a team of people doing a content creation, and a team of people doing horizontal things that apply to both. It's a saner structure, upon which you can bring a different set of things, which is kind of what I brought.

···

Within this new structure, Soltero's job is to push things forward. And for him, that means finding ways large and small to make the tools — and the people who use them — more useful than expected. He said it's a way to value users' time, which has always been core to the way Google works. "Like, meetings are 30 minutes long," Soltero said — Google Calendar defaults to that rather than an hour, so most internal meetings run shorter. "And it turns out you can do pleasantries and banter, and still get a lot done in 30 minutes." The hope is to bring that kind of slightly proactive, gently helpful thinking to all of people's workspaces.

Right now, the biggest thing on Soltero's mind is communications. Not just because, thanks to coronavirus forcing people to work from home and shelter in place, Hangouts usage is spiking all over the world. It's been a running joke for years that Google can't figure out messaging. It seems to constantly, haphazardly create new messaging tools: Allo, Buzz, Wave, G Chat, Google Talk, Hangouts, Hangouts Chat, Google Meet, Messages, Voice, on and on. Most don't survive long.

At least on the G Suite side, Soltero believes Google has a grasp on communications. Or is getting one. The way he explains G Suite's approach, it almost makes sense.

···

It seems like in communications, there's messaging, there's email, and there's meetings. Do you feel like Google has those things down?

OK. There's real-time and asynchronous communication. And here's a way to think about it: Humans tend to make their own decisions about what tool to use to communicate in what circumstance. And the question is, what are the criteria by which they tend to make that decision?

I believe it's three things. The familiarity with the person: Do I know you? What information do I have about you that enables me to communicate with you? Two is the urgency of the message: Is it something that I need to talk to you right now about, or can it wait even a little bit? And third is the density of the content. And if you think about it in those terms, you can plot just about every single communication tool, including voice calls, across that sort of three-dimensional axis.

What does that look like in practice?

Take something like voice. You may not have given me your phone number, but I could have discovered it. And if, regardless of my motivation, I wanted to reach you now and have a rich conversation with you? Voice. Conversely, email: There's a piece of information that you need, which people are generally OK with sharing. And it is at your discretion when you read it, if you read it, whether you reply to it, etc. And it provides you with a reasonable amount of density. The moment you find yourself wanting to mark a text message as unread is the moment you realize you shouldn't be texting.

···

For G Suite, the three pillars of communications are Gmail, Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet. Hangouts Chat is a particular focus for Soltero now — "it's a product you're going to continue to hear a lot about," he said, but together the three products cover Google's bases. Soltero recognizes that currently they lack some essential Googleyness, that better-together quality that is so core to G Suite. "It's like, how do you make it seamless? Nobody needs to experience the organizational chart of a company as they move from one product to another," he said.

He seems to worry about the sheer weight of shoving a bunch of apps into one Voltron Messaging Platform (which is to say, he worries about becoming Outlook), but understands that there's opportunity in making it easier for people to communicate in more than one way per app.

Of course, there's plenty to do everywhere in G Suite. Google is working on improving its native apps, redesigning Google Groups, integrating more services into Gmail and lots more. Soltero also said he's committed to integrating more with other productivity tools. That's mostly so enterprise customers can use G Suite alongside their many other tools, but also to keep Google on its toes. "Without that sense of choice, and making sure you've built the right product and have the evidence to prove it," he said, "there's a real risk that you could become Lotus Notes, right?" And as tools change, as tech changes, as the very idea of where and how people work changes, Google's always going to be scrambling to keep up.


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Soltero had one more story to illustrate what he's going for with G Suite. It starts in a customer briefing with "a very, very large financial institution," which was considering a switch to G Suite. "So I go to talk with their CIO and their leadership team, over in our Cloud Space. And again, because I just like making things exciting and interesting for myself, I brought my computer and my phone and I was like, you know what? I don't want to use a presentation. I just want to have a conversation with them. I'm going to go unplugged. Acoustic."

Their conversation starts really well, and eventually turns to upcoming products. Soltero decides he wants to show them some stuff after all. "And I decided to do something that in my prior life, I would've never attempted because it would've been a recipe for disaster for sure. We're in a meeting room, there are international people connected via Meet on the other side of the world, along with their leadership in this room in Sunnyvale. A big screen behind me. I open up my phone, and I open up Slides on my phone — my iPhone, by the way — and the list of documents it's showing me includes the deck I want to show. Open up the deck, hit Present, and you know, ordinarily, present would normally think, slideshow on my crappy tiny screen, right? But I see an option that says 'present to Room Whose Name I Didn't Know But Was The Room I Was Presently In Based On Its Knowledge Of My Schedule.' Hit present, hit the room, boom. And it worked."

Soltero did all this holding his breath, not sure if it'd work, then gleefully told the room what he'd just done when the presentation appeared on screen. "I'm like, Office could never do this. And they agreed."

That's it. That's the whole thing. Soltero just wants G Suite to know what you need, and to work.

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