Helping cloud workers cope: Google’s Eve Phillips
How Google is working to make life in the cloud less confusing and more productive.
Google’s Chrome browser and its related operating system, Chrome OS, are among the main on-ramps to “cloud work” for millions of office employees and students. Eve Phillips, Google’s group product manager for Chrome Enterprise and Education, helps to make sure people who use Chrome always have access to the apps and the data they need to get their tasks done. She also thinks a lot about how to make web-based software more user-friendly, and how to minimize the potential for distraction when all the software we use is just one browser tab away from our favorite news, social media, or shopping sites.
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This episode is sponsored by Citrix, the company powering the digital transformation inside organizations of all sizes. In the second half of the show, Citrix's global chief technology officer Christian Reilly talks about the company’s work to create a seamless digital workspace where knowledge workers can access all of the cloud applications they need.
Business Lab is hosted by Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, the CEO and publisher of MIT Technology Review. The show is produced by Wade Roush, with editorial help from Mindy Blodgett. Music by Merlean, from Epidemic Sound.
Show notes and links
Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau: From MIT Technology Review, I'm Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.
This episode is brought to you by Citrix, the company powering the digital transformation inside organizations of all sizes. Later on in the show I'll be joined by the chief technology officer of Citrix, Christian Reilly.
But first, let's talk about one of the biggest transformations to hit workplaces since the rise of desktop computing. I'm talking about the cloud revolution, which is the move from software that lives on your computer or your local server to software that lives in remote data centers and gets delivered to you and your colleagues over the Internet via web browsers or mobile apps.
Over the next three episodes of this show we're going to talk about how technology is changing the way people work in knowledge driven organizations. And the switch to the cloud is absolutely one of the biggest advances. Forrester Research did a study last year showing that already, more than one in four knowledge workers is a "cloud worker." That means they spend at least three hours a day working in a browser using apps and files that are stored entirely in the cloud.
That can bring lots of new conveniences. For instance, it generally means that the software and the information that workers need is available at anytime on any device. But it can also bring new challenges for workers. It means managing lots of different accounts and passwords and having to remember which application each piece of data is sitting in.
Our first guest, Eve Phillips, is no stranger to these problems. Eve works at Google where she's the group product manager for Chrome Enterprise and Education. You probably know Chrome as one of the main browsers available for personal computers, but it's also the basis of a whole operating system called Chrome OS that comes installed on laptop computers from Google, Dell, Samsung, Lenovo, and others. Eve's job is to make sure that people who use the Chrome browser or Chrome OS for work or for school always have access to the apps and the data they need to get their work done. She also thinks a lot about how to make web-based software more user friendly and how to minimize the potential for distraction when all the software you're using is just one browser tab away from your favorite news or your social media or shopping sites.
So let's dig in to my conversation with Google's Eve Phillips. Thank you for joining us.
Eve Phillips: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Elizabeth: Tell me a little bit about your job what your role as product manager for Chrome really means.
Eve: I lead a product team that's very much focused on talking to customers, looking at the market, talking to our partners, and figuring out how we can make, really, the best operating system and management and security et cetera capabilities to deploy Chrome browser and Chrome devices into organizations.
Elizabeth: So what is it, when you go to work each day, that you're sort of aiming towards, with your vision and your mission for Chrome and the overall chrome ecosystem?
Eve: Yeah. I mean, we want folks in schools and in businesses—because that's our particular area of focus within my team—to be able to have a really productive, really secure, and really fast experience in trying to get done whatever they get done. You know, whether that's you know trying to finish off a document or finish an assignment or look up something new. We want to make sure that they have the experience that that lets them do that really simply. So our team's goal is really to figure out how to deliver that to these individuals, and also how to put the framework around it for the organization so they can deploy whether it's the browser or the operating system to folks at scale.
Elizabeth: So part of what we're talking about in these conversations is about this evolution of the way people were working now today and will continue to evolve the way we work in the future. And I know that Google has been doing a lot of thinking and communicating about this concept of “cloud work.”
Elizabeth: Knowledge workers that are working in the cloud. Can you define what a cloud worker is, at least in your mind?
Eve: Absolutely. A cloud worker is somebody who can really work anywhere any time and be able to access the tools and the applications and the data that they need to get things done. So it can be someone who's predominantly using web applications or mobile applications in order to access whatever it is that they need for their particular use case. And it's often someone who is mobile, but they don't have to be. You can be a cloud worker and work predominantly from an office, or you can be someone who's working maybe a little bit at home, a little bit on the train, a little bit in an office, maybe at a client site. And the point being that your location shouldn't matter. Your devices really shouldn't matter. It's really the experience that we can enable through your browser through the operating systems that you choose that gives you the experience of just being able to get what you need to get done wherever you are.
Elizabeth: So what would be the most striking differences, do you think, if someone, let's say an astronaut, were to have left planet Earth in 1999 and come back now 20 years later—what do you think would be the most striking difference is that that person would notice in the way we work?
Eve: I really do think it's that trend towards mobility. So if you think you know going back just those couple of decades, obviously we had we had some cellular phones but the way that people actually now use their mobile devices to get things done is, even though it's only been a couple decades, seems like it's light years ahead, as long as you're using the astronaut concept, from where we were just that brief period ago. And what that means is, people are not so tied down. I think I've talked to folks who started working a few decades before that, and they'll talk about, OK, you know, I had to be tied to my desk and tied to that phone, and if there was somebody that called I had to be there to take it. You just don't hear that anymore. And it's giving people such great flexibility in the ways that they work.
Eve: But I think we still have a ways to go. I think we're at the point where we have some of these tools where folks can work from different places. We're really trying to build that future where people really can pick up whatever device is most useful to them at that point in time, whether it's a mobile device, it's a tablet, it's a laptop, or maybe it's a desktop and then they can kind of get their work done and not have to miss a beat just because they didn't happen to be in the office or they didn't happen to have one particular device with them that had some specific data, because everything's pulled down from the cloud. And the experience is then optimized for whatever device that they're on.
Elizabeth: I'm glad you mentioned not being tied down. And before I ask you this question, I'll say that I am an enthusiastic cloud worker, and so I am, for sure, one of these people who really benefits from being able to work in multiple places, whether it's at a hotel, at my home, on an airplane, et cetera. And yet I think we are in fact tied down in a different way. I think many of us feel that we are tied to the device. What do you see as other kinds of disadvantages or potential drawbacks to cloud work?
Eve: So, absolutely, one of the things that happens when you can work from anywhere is that you can work from anywhere. Which is not always a good thing. And I do think that is the responsibility of the folks that are thinking about these technologies is to put in place mechanisms for folks who want to put, whether it's controls or whether it's just kind of guardrails around what they're doing, so that they can focus when they want to be focused on work and not focus on work when it's not the time to be focused on work. I think another piece of that is letting people switch contexts between what they're doing for work and what they might be doing in their personal life. That's actually one of the things that we've spent quite a bit of time on and feel that we have some interesting solutions around. How I can be doing some things, you're working on a work project but then you know you know it's time for a break and you know what, I need to make an appointment for my daughter. And so I can switch over to my personal profile and I can get that done and then I can switch back and I know that all the data is secure between these two experiences.
These are really important things I think for the technology to enable, whether, again, whether you want to do this kind of at the company or the organization level and have an organization say you know we want people to be working during these hours but not these other ones. Ultimately if we're trying to make people super productive they're not super productive if they're working 24/7. So that's got to be part of kind of just the overall part of the thinking as well. And we certainly have been spending a lot of time both in our group and I think Google as a whole thinking about this too.
Elizabeth: And what about the distraction factor? So you know there's also always the opportunity when one switches between contexts or different applications that you can kind of find yourself getting sucked into various attention rabbit holes.
Eve: Yes, I'm actually a big fan of the concept of flow, and trying to figure out how to optimize more of that. You know just in my day in general, thinking about how our user experience that we're enabling on Chrome OS and Chrome browser can ensure that that's something folks can achieve when they're in that place where they're trying to stay focused and not get distracted. So I think there's actually a number of things we can do. Since these are the same platforms that in many cases are causing the distractions, we need to make sure these platforms are smart about which distractions are actually important. Because there are certain ones you're going to want to get, no matter what. And then there's sort of a stepping stones of importance of those, to the ones that you want to be able to easily turn off when you really want to get involved in something in particular. Since this is a problem that technology created, I think it's also a problem that technology can help solve. So these are some of the areas that we're focused on too.
Elizabeth: Now let's step back. As I understand it, you joined Google having previously worked in a startup, Empower Interactive. I'm wondering to what extent you brought some of that experience with you to Google. Did you work in the cloud then? And if so, what did you learn about that?
Eve: Yes. So I was a co-founder of Empower, and what we were doing was bringing best practices in psychotherapy into an e-learning system so that we could expand the access and quality of psychotherapy methodologies for things like depression and anxiety to vastly more people than might have had access otherwise. So absolutely, this was a cloud-based business, and really trying to take a process that had a lot of great evidence but not necessarily a lot of great availability, given that a lot of people live in areas where there may not be great resources available to them, or it may be too expensive, et cetera, and try to really democratize that access to to those kinds of tools and services.
Eve: So I very much have worked in that space space with Empower, and so I think about how you kind of use the the Web and the cloud to kind of bring things that might have been inaccessible before but bring it all into one place. It's something that we, that I've thought about a lot. I definitely definitely did there and I'm bringing to this to this new role as well.
Elizabeth: How about the psychotherapy elements of it? Do you think at all about the way ubiquity of devices and constant access and that kind of feeling of being connected to one's phone, do you think about that at all in the context of what you you learned in your in your mental health startup?
Eve: I think it actually connects really well to the question that you asked before about you know avoiding distractions and staying in flow. So you know there's a lot of aspects of the psychotherapy methodologies that we were using, primarily something called cognitive behavioral therapy, which at its essence is really something that looks at how the ways that you think about things will affect the ways that you feel about them. So in essence, your interpretation of an event that happened to you is going to have a strong, it's going to very strongly impact how you feel about that particular event.
And so this is something that I think, when we are at work, these things are happening to us all the time. We're having a lot of communications and interactions with people. Some of these are face to face but a lot of them, and more I think in the future, if we're going to keep going down this mobile flexible route, are going to be through other mediums, and other mediums that may not relay as much information as we're used to in a face to face interaction. So this is just one area where I think there's ways to incorporate the various types of psychotherapy methodologies that let you understand, say, what the limitations of a particular interaction might be, or really just the differences between say a video conference or a phone chat versus a face to face chat. That can help you make sure that you're clarifying any miscommunications or in some cases maybe even in improving on them, just given that awareness of what those differences might be.
Elizabeth: Speaking for most of us, we have a lot of devices and applications at home that are super easy to use and very intuitive. And I think many of us, most of us perhaps, wish that the hardware and the software that we use at work was as friendly to use. Tell me, do you see that consumerization occurring in the cloud work space? And if so, what does that look like. Can it get faster? Can it become even more adept at switching contexts or helping us to juggle the different places that we are connecting?
Eve: Yeah. And it's funny, I think I'm old enough to remember when technology at work was actually better than technology at home. So I think there is something of a pendulum swing, but we've been waiting a long time for the pendulum to swing back the other way. And I think consumer technologies, to your point, and just the user experiences we've created for all the things we do, whether it's you know getting a getting a car, or you know ordering dinner or whatever, are all much better for the most part through the consumer side than through the enterprise side these days. But I am seeing those trends really across the board. People are asking, "Why are these systems that I'm using you know what why are they like this and why can't we make them better?" And I think we are seeing a lot of improvements.
I think the part of the challenge is, over the decades of building up enterprise I.T., there's just a lot of complexity. So it takes a lot more than just kind of putting a nice user experience on top of something in order to make it, to kind of bring it to the level that you can see from some of these new services that often show up as apps on your phone that were able to be built within the last decade on a whole new set of cloud technologies. But that's the opportunity for all of us working in enterprise I.T., is to figure out how to evolve those into these better experiences for folks to help their workdays be more productive and more satisfying, so they're not just spending a lot of time worrying about, from the end user perspective how to get things done, and from the administrator perspective how to keep things updated and patched et cetera.
Eve: And that's certainly one of the themes that we've really tried to follow with Chrome and in particular on Chrome OS and making sure that things like making sure all your updates happen in the background, so you don't have these really long downtimes that you have to suddenly find yourself not able to work when you want to be able to. Or just reduce the likelihood of any kind of threat and things like that. Just, again, trying to make it so you can stay focused on doing what you're doing, and we can really hide a lot of that complexity into the background. And the last piece of that is probably also making sure that the experience is really anticipating of what you need. So when you think about these consumer apps that we use the things that they do well is they present to you what you want and not too much more. That's one of the ways you could tell the differences between stuff that was designed with the user in mind and stuff that was just designed to make sure all the functionality was all listed out. But it's hard to do that. It takes a lot of research. You just spend a lot of time with users. You need to test a lot of things and see what's really important. And I think you know in some ways because we have even more data and there's probably a bigger delta, there's a great opportunity to fix a lot of this in the in the enterprise side too, all the way from you know the operating system all the way through to the applications.
Elizabeth: It's clear that you're in a position where you can have a lot of influence on the way quite a lot of people work. That must be very exciting. Tell me what, to you, is the most rewarding or fun part of all of this?
Eve: What you just described is pretty rewarding. But I think for just on a personal level the fact that I get to put these concepts and these tools to work in my own job is actually really fun. So I get to work with a great group of people who are in fact scattered around the world. I think we very much represent that kind of cloud worker model that, that we are trying to help other organizations adopt as well. And so you know my day may be full of meetings, sure, but what it is really video conferences with folks maybe in you know in Seattle and Montreal Munich and Mexico City, literally all over the world every day. And I get to work with, these are all great people that we get to interact with. And it's as if we don't really other than the time zones sometimes getting in the way, it creates a great human bond between the folks who are, this team that is going after this this opportunity to kind of make work better for everyone, and it makes it a lot of fun to try to try to do all of this together.
Eve: We would love to be able to bring this model to more folks and hope that that that we can be successful in doing so of course. But I think at the same time we need to be humble and listen to kind of what the challenges are and what we need to do differently. And so we're always excited to talk to organizations that are in the process of these shifts and learn more because you know we're not going to come up with all of the ideas. We're here to try to figure out how to kind of execute on the concepts and just really make it more available and more accessible.
Elizabeth: So, Eve, thank you very much for talking to us.
Eve: Sure. Thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it
Elizabeth: This three-part series on the future of knowledge work is sponsored by Citrix. Citrix is a company that's widely known in the business world for its work in cloud computing. We wanted to round out this episode with a conversation with Christian Reilly. Christian is the global chief technology officer at Citrix. And just like Eve Phillips, he spends a lot of his time trying to figure out how to balance the upsides and the downsides of cloud work. He says Citrix is trying to bring everything information workers need into a single place so that workers don't have to worry about where their applications and data actually live.
Christian Reilly: We are an organization that, very simply is allowing all of our customers, our 400,000 customers around the world, to securely deliver the business applications and data to any of their employees or other stakeholders in their business anywhere around the world, in a secure way. So what that really means is that we are effectively known for our ability to be the underlying technology to allow people to work from anywhere, to allow people to be productive at a time and a place that suits them, and to deliver any type of application, whether that is a traditional application that's based on Microsoft Windows, or a more complex application that runs on Linux or web applications or software as a service applications. We are the company that allows you to choose whatever works for you in the business and deliver those applications securely to any individual on any device on any network under anytime.
Elizabeth: You certainly laid out, and I think most of us listening can understand, intuitively grasp the benefits of cloud work. So there's the flexibility and you mentioned the productivity. The sense that you know you don't need to always be in the office in order to get work done. And I think there is a lot of complexity in all of that. So sometimes, and I can speak personally, sometimes I've got everything I need and then I realize that something I need as is still back at the office, or I'm toggling between different applications and it can be a little bit difficult to pull it all together. Can you talk a little bit about this complexity, and whether that's an important issue? Is that something that you all are looking at helping us resolve, so that workers like me don't have to kind of grapple with some of the clumsiness or kludginess of this?
Christian: Yeah, absolutely. It's a really important part of our strategy. We actually recognize—the very point that you made about the fact that people have to switch between different tasks or different applications, you know, they don't always work on the same types of devices they don't always look the same on different types of devices. I mean I think if you try and frame the challenge that we're after, it's really about trying to simplify the traditional and the new worlds of enterprise I.T.. I think what we've seen is that lots and lots of applications generally are now being built for a specific task and not an entire workflow. So I think what we've actually done is, as we've thought about these applications in a different way and tried to make them a little bit better from the end user viewpoint, we've actually disaggregated everything to the point that we've made productivity a little bit more complex overall.
Christian: So the point that you made about having to switch contexts or switch applications or remember to go to this location or that location to get what you need, actually underpins a lot of the Citrix vision. We want to be the overlay to all of that the single place that you go to bring all of the applications and the data and the content that you need to be productive into one place, irrespective of which device you use, irrespective of which network you're on, irrespective of where you are in the world, irrespective of what time of day that suits your work better. Bringing all of that together is absolutely 100 percent what we're trying to drive at with the Citrix Workspace and the Citrix Workspace experience.
Elizabeth: What do you find, when it comes to thinking about cloud work and the employee experience, do you have examples of companies that are doing this particularly well? And does it make a difference to the way they are able to manage their teams so such as hiring retaining talent? Who do you think is doing this particularly well?
Christian: Yeah I think maybe we could focus on that talent question. I think that's extremely important, if we take a sort of a global view. And some of the research that we've done suggests that by 2030 there could be as much as an 85 million global person deficit in the overall talent war. And that means there'll be 85 million more opportunities than people to fill them. And when we talk to CEOs, and we've done a lot of conversations at high levels in big customers, CEOs are really concerned about the lack of specific skills that are going to inhibit their growth plans within the business. And as you mentioned, this challenge is exacerbated by the generational transition.
So we've known for a long time that the baby boomers are heading out of the workforce and then of course they take with them a lot of experience and a lot of institutional knowledge, institutional memory. And so you know the question about how do we best get the knowledge that they have and transfer that into, whether that's a millennial, a Gen Y, or more interestingly now, a Gen Z. So you know by 2022 there's likely to be about just under 40 percent of the global workforce will be Gen Z. I think the question then is will they have the same work expectation? Will they look at alternative ways to do work? Maybe we'll see a freelance world where we've got part timers and consultants and contractors working for multiple organizations.
So I think the ones that we see doing it best are the ones that are actually doing a combination of a couple of things. They are reimagining how they acquire and retain talent. And that can be everything from a better social presence to a better presence at universities and schools globally, not just within the Western world but globally, to try and find and attract the right talent; to providing flexible work, to providing well-defined career paths, to providing technologies that enable them to work how will they want to work.
Elizabeth: I've heard many people say that information technology in the office works best when it's kind of unobtrusive. First of all, is this something you buy into at Citrix? And/or, are there any exceptions of times when you don't feel that it makes sense for technology to be out of sight or to disappear?
Christian: Well I mean I think that from a Citrix perspective of course you know we try every day more and more to put ourselves in the shoes of customers and you know to walk the talk in terms of what we provide. So of course we are a 100 percent flexible working company. You know we actually had a phrase in Citrix that was coined a couple of years ago that says, "Work is a verb, not a noun." So that means work is something that you do, not a place that you go and we stand behind that. We have a huge mobile workforce within our sales team, and our core engineering and product teams, who are constantly on the road meeting other teams and meeting customers and learning and sharing and collaborating, and that's at the heart of the company. So I think the fact that we try as much as we can to get technology out of the way is a real leading indicator for how we believe it needs to be for our customers.
I think irrespective of the generation, even the older workforce will happily have technology in their life if it makes their world simpler. If the technology is in the way then it becomes a problem for everybody. So I think just from a general perspective, the notion of having simple technology is a great thing. I think it was actually Arthur C. Clarke who made a famous statement where he said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And I think in many cases that's actually true. You think about, even when you make a purchase from Amazon or you watch a movie on Netflix the amount of technology between you and that ultimate thing being delivered is absolutely incredible. And yet you know we expect it as much as we expect the light bulb to appear when we turn on the switch.
So I think there's always a case for simple technology. But I would caveat that with, the technology has to be fit for purpose. It has to do what it's intended to do. And it has to drive productivity and it has to drive business results.
Elizabeth: Great. Well Christian, thank you. This has been wonderful. It's been wonderful to hear from you about these issues and to learn more about Citrix.
Christian: Well, thank you.
Elizabeth: That's it for this episode of Business Lab. I'm your host Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau. I'm the CEO and publisher of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us in print, on the web, at dozens of live events each year, and now in audio form. For more information about us please check out our Web site at technologyreview.com. This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode we hope you'll take a moment to rate and review us at Apple podcasts.
Business Lab is a production of MIT Technology Review. The producer for this episode is Wade Roush, with editorial help from Mindy Blodgett. Thank you to our sponsor Citrix, the company creating people centric solutions for a better way to work. Thank you for listening. We'll be back soon with our next episode.
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