The Key To Gmail: Sh*t Umbrellas

Today at the Gmail Behind The Scenes panel at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, key team members of the Gmail team revealed the true secret of the service: Shit umbrellas.

Product manager Todd Jackson made the humorous revelation when explaining how the Gmail team works as a group of about 100 people, the vast majority of which are engineers. “You can either be a shit funnel or a shit umbrella,” Jackson says.

What he means by that is that as a product with hundreds of millions of users (and a company with thousands of employees) there’s a lot of stuff constantly being hurled at the team — as a shit umbrella, the product managers protect the engineers from getting distracted. It’s not enough to be a “shit funnel” where they would pass some of the junk down to engineers, they need to fully protect the engineers.

This sentiment was echoed by Edward Ho, who is known as “Mr. Buzz,” as he’s the one who built up the Google Buzz team (a sub-unit of the Gmail team). Ho noted his hatred for unnecessary meetings, and has made sure that when the Buzz team needs to have them, they are based around demos, not talking about things. “It’s all about what you’ve done,” Ho says.

Some other interesting notes about Gmail:

  • The original invites system wasn’t a marketing ploy, it was simply an engineering decision to make sure they could scale
  • There’s a 30-1 engineers to products managers ratio in the Gmail team — it’s certainly one of the biggest ratios at Google
  • The Gmail team is spread over a few offices around the world (including Zurich), it used to be more, but they consolidated to help the product.
  • There are “hundreds of million of users” — the third-largest email provider
  • In India, Gmail is the number one email provider
  • Gmail is growing fasters internationally than in the U.S.
  • Gmail is available in 53 languages
  • Internally, the Google Buzz team was known as “Team Taco Town” after an SNL skit
  • Google uses Gmail internally (obviously), switched over from Microsoft Outlook at launch (about 6 years ago)
  • Gmail is slow for some users mainly because they have a ton of emails saved. A fix for that is coming soon
  • Most of gmail is written in Java, JavaScript, C++
  • There are several hundred thousands lines of javascript in Gmail – one of the biggest in the world
  • No new feature can launch for Gmail that adds latency to the product

[photo: flickr/atomicjeep]