Talk to any large company in Silicon Valley and they’ll be the first to tell you that they foster a culture where innovation is everywhere and engineer imaginations can run wild.
Unfortunately, that’s often just a complete fabrication from the company’s marketing department. But even at companies that really do try to encourage innovation, it’s often tough for engineers to pull themselves away from their workload so that they can tinker on a side project.
That’s an issue that faced YouTube several years ago. No, YouTube doesn’t just pay lip-service to innovation — the company, like its parent Google, allocates a good chunk of time for developers to work on their own projects. But oftentimes engineers simply didn’t take advantage of their 20% time, so YouTube came up with an answer: instead of trying to get its engineers to spend one day a week on side projects, it decided to launch a biannual event where they spend a whole week crafting whatever they can think up.
Earlier this month, YouTube invited me to talk with a few team members about this so-called New Ideas Week and how it got started. They also shared some projects that are currently in the works and got their start during the Week — things like a new version of YouTube built from the ground up for children, and a new Qik-like mobile service for live streaming.
YouTube Director of Product Management Hunter Walk kicked things off by talking about some of the underlying reasons why New Ideas Week exists in the first place. He says YouTube’s goal is to maintain an environment where engineers can test things out, without having to worry if one of their experiments is going to kill their career. The first way to do this is to insulate employees from the “slings and arrows” thrown by partners whenever there is a change to the site. Walk says Engineers are told to test out their ideas with 1% of the site’s users without having to request approval — provided they “don’t do something that would put me in prison”.
From an infrastructure standpoint, YouTube has set up a system that allows engineers to plug-in and monitor their experiments without having to reinvent the wheel. There’s an internal dashboard that displays the current status of each of dozens of active experiments — I managed to catch a glimpse of one, but it was a mundane experiment having to do with YouTube’s lightweight international site. My keen eyes failed me, but Walk did mention an interesting fact about the experiments: at any given moment there is a percentage of users on YouTube who see no advertising at all, which serves as the site’s control group.
Next, I spoke with Oliver Heckmann, an Engineering Director based out of Google’s Zürich office. Heckmann was actually responsible for the formation of New Ideas Week in 2008, after he noticed how little 20% time he and his fellow engineers were getting to actually use.
The results from the first week, he says, “weren’t that great.” But the idea took hold, and the results from the second week, six months later, were much better. This was when a YouTube engineer built a new feature for YouTube’s player that would automatically detect black bars in uploaded footage and adjust the aspect ratio to minimize them.
Of course, there are duds — “most of the ideas in there are bad”, says Heckmann. For example, one engineer noticed that a huge number of videos on YouTube feature the uploader’s messy bedroom as the backdrop. So, the team tried to build a system that could detect motion and replace the background with something else (Apple’s Photo Booth does something very similar). Unfortunately this didn’t really work. “The demo was awful because background detection is not perfect” Heckmann says. “An imperfect beach in Hawaii is not as good as a messy room”.
YouTube for Kids
More recently, these Weeks have led to some bigger initiatives. The most interesting (at least, that I heard about) was a fully revamped version of YouTube designed specifically with children in mind. Heckmann says that children tend to use YouTube differently than adults, and obviously there is content on the site that kids shouldn’t be exposed to. What’s worse, sometimes kids stumble across this content accidentally because of the way the site’s automated suggestions work.
To remedy this, YouTube is building a version of the site that’s been reworked to have absolutely no text, save for the YouTube logo. Videos that do appear will be based off of whitelists, so there won’t be any chance of accidentally stumbling across something unsavory or scary. At this point it sounds like the project still has a ways to go (it was initially created during a New Ideas week last summer), but it’s on the way.
We also briefly discussed a second product that got its start during New Ideas Week: Qik-like live streaming. YouTube has recently been putting a lot of effort into offering live streaming capabilities to content partners, and it’s going to begin allowing them to stream content directly from their phones.
The Awesome Cup
I closed out the day with John Harding, another Engineering Director for YouTube (he’s based out of their San Bruno office). Harding had the privilege of unveiling one of the team’s internal secrets: a trophy that gets passed around the engineering team that’s called “The Awesome Cup”. You can see it in the photo above.
It’s pretty self-explanatory — any time someone does something especially awesome, they’re awarded the cup. It then sits on their desk until they deem that one of their coworkers does something equally awesome, at which point they hand it off. Previous tasks that reached this level of awesomeness include the revamped Watch page and the audio comment preview feature, which was based on an xkcd comic.
Harding also talked about a few of the products that came out of YouTube’s most recent New Ideas Week, which was in December. One subtle but important feature concerns YouTube Leanback — the version of YouTube that’s seen on Google TV. Before now Leanback would only stream one piece of content at a time (the same way YouTube proper does). But now it will actually start buffering the next clip in your queue while you’re watching the first, so there’s no lag when you flip to the next video. He says that in all, around 25 projects were conceived during the last Week — but, unlike Heckmann, he couldn’t think of any that were especially bad. Something about loving all his children equally.
YouTube isn’t the only company that holds special events to spark developers’ creative juices. Facebook is well-known for its all-night hackathons, which have given rise to some of the site’s most important features, including Facebook Video. Of course, many of Facebook’s ideas aren’t so great either — one fateful hackathon led to the creation of Facebook Fax, which let you fax photos to friends. Which, if memory serves, they used to punk me.