Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Singapore: Government that Works?

As some of you may know, I spent last week working in Singapore. I have to say, when I decided to move to Africa, I didn't expect my job to take me through an entirely different continent. Three months in, and I may have to reassess the name of this blog and start calling it Google's Man in Transit. But that's the subject for another blog post. For now, I want to highlight a few observations I had in Singapore, another truly fascinating place.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Launching Google Trader in Ghana

In between getting 200 Nigerian businesses online and flying off to Singapore for my month in Asia, I had spent one day in Ghana to help launch the country's largest classifieds website, dubbed Google Trader. We had launched Trader as a pilot in Uganda over a year ago, and after months of iteration and improvement, we're seeing it spread to the other side of the African continent. Since I had been involved in much of the pre-launch preparations, I decided to come back to Ghana in between my two other stops for the big day. And boy was it a big day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

One Day, 200 Nigerian Businesses Online

There I stood, in front of my first group of 100 small business owners at ChamsCity, the world's largest cybercafe, in Lagos, Nigeria. I had just been informed that none of the equipment I thought I would have was functional. No projector and only a broken microphone. And then, to top it off, due to a last minute schedule change, I was going to be giving the entire workshop rather than just the second half. Lovely. If I were going to pull this off, I would need to be quick on my feet.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lagos, Nigeria: One of the Most Fascinating Places I've Ever Been

When I got off the plane in Lagos, I had very little idea what to expect. As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, I had gotten very mixed reviews. One colleague called Nigeria "extreme Africa". Others warned me about the constant mortal danger. And another colleague told me about all the money there. Without actually visiting, it was hard reconcile all of these observations, but now that I have, I can say it all makes sense. Sort of.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Being Thankful

I have a confession to make. It's not easy for me to say, because I try always to be grateful for my life, through the ups and downs regardless. But on Thanksgiving last week, sitting in my hotel alone, eating the same dinner I had eaten for days before, and working away on my project for work, I'll admit it: I was pretty miserable. It was the first time that I had been away from home on Thanksgiving, and while the holiday may not mean a lot to many American families, it always has for mine. Tonight though, maybe a few days late, I was blessed to be invited into the home of some fellow American expats, people I didn't even know before, for their version of an expatastic American Thanksgiving. I can't even express how thankful I am.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Strategy in Africa Part IV: Looking Toward the Future

No matter how much resources Google, or any other company, pours into Africa, our bets will never pay off unless we keep an eye out for the long term. How can we help develop not only an Internet ecosystem in Africa, but also one that's sustainable? In this final installment of my series on Google's strategy in Africa, I'd like to put the spotlight on one specific initiative that's been underway for many months aimed at achieving this very goal: Google's G-Africa events, run by none other than my friend and colleague, Bridgette.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What Will Our Legacy Be?

What motivates today's young leaders? What factors from our collective youth have given this generation its unique character? What legacy will our generation leave behind? These are the questions David Burstein, author and founder of Generation18, is trying to answer. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with David over VC from Ghana about my work, his background, and our opinions on where this generation is headed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Landed in Lagos, the Heart of Nigeria

Today is day three in Lagos, and day two of a national holiday for the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. As a result, I haven't seen too much, but I do have some initial observations about this city that garnered such polar reviews. But first, some background. With a population nearing 160-million, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the eighth most populous country in the world. It's largest city, Lagos, alone has roughly one-third the population of all of Ghana. When I told people I was coming here, I got the full range of reactions, from "Oh Lagos is a real city; have fun!" to "Good luck buddy, see you in the next life." I was intrigued. How could one place evoke such different opinions? One thing I knew for sure was that in West Africa, Lagos is certainly a place whose reputation precedes itself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Conjuring Stability from Chaos

Would you believe that in the five months since I graduated college, I haven't stayed in any one place for more than three weeks at a time? At the beginning, it was easy. I was traveling around Europe with friends or bouncing around between a few of the places I consider home, places that I have solid friends and family to visit and enjoy. Africa has been its own challenge. This post is my attempt to tackle one of the great challenges I face in this chaotic, ever-changing life: the lack of permanence, the lack of any routine, fundamentally, the lack of stability.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Our Strategy in Africa Part III: Making the Internet Relevant and Useful

Did you know that Africans represent 14% of the world's population and yet only 2% of the Internet users? With numbers like that, it shouldn't be surprising that there isn't much African content online or very many products aimed solving African problems. Thus, we hit a bit of a chicken-and-the- egg problem. Because there are so few Africans online, there is very little useful or relevant content, and because there is so little useful or relevant content, there's very little reason for Africans to get online in the first place. We're hoping to shake things up, and here's how we're going to do it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Google Tech Talk in Kumasi: Meeting Bright and Motivated Students

We arrived about ten minutes late after getting thoroughly lost driving around the campus of KNUST, Kumasi's science and technology university. Fortunately, in Ghana, ten minutes usually isn't late at all. It was my first time giving such a talk to university students, but it felt like a natural thing to do after being on the other end of so many at Cornell. To our surprise though, when we got into the lecture hall, there were already about 50 students eagerly waiting for us.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Life's Getting Better All The Time

This post is adapted from an email I sent to some friends and family a few days ago. My apologies to those of you reading it twice.

I was sitting in my apartment the other day trying to think of a song that adequately summed up my experience over the last few weeks since I got back to Africa, and this was the first thing that popped into my head: "It's Getting Better All the Time" by the Beatles. I have to admit, it's getting better. Life here wasn't easy from the start; in fact, it was really damned hard. But so much has changed in such a short period of time. Since visiting my colleagues in Europe, I have a deep understanding of my job and what's expected of me, and more importantly, I feel like I'm being effective at it. What's more, all of a sudden, I have a thriving social life here. I had no idea how easy it would be to make friends once I broke into the social scene. Last Thursday night alone, I was invited to four different functions ranging from an expat mixer to an MIT alumni gathering. Hard to believe only a matter of weeks ago, I didn't know a single soul.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Introducing Google Baraza

Yesterday, Google launched its newest Africa-centered product in Ghana, and I had the opportunity to play an active role in the festivities. Google Baraza is a community-based Q&A service that was created specifically for the African continent. As I've outlined in my previous posts on Google's strategy in Africa, one of the big obstacles to a thriving Internet ecosystem in Africa is the lack of locally relevant content. Baraza lets African users work around this issue by posing their questions  directly to other Africans and encouraging a community of users who both provide and acquire value from the product. At this point, you're probably wondering what makes Baraza special/different from all the other Q&A services out there, why the name Baraza, and most importantly, what sort of launch activities I got to participate in yesterday.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Perched at a Tipping Point: Let the Price Wars Begin

Over the last several weeks, technologists in Africa have begun to see an extraordinary phenomenon starting to take place across the continent. Price wars have begun. In Kenya, consumers have seen a 30% reduction in broadband prices, a 50% - 75% drop for calling, and a shockingly high 94% decrease for SMS. Similar trends have emerged in Ghana last months with the first real price war in calling and SMS and bandwidth prices plummeting by up to half. But this sudden new occurrence begs several questions: Why now? Who will benefit? And how does Google fit in?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Home, Sweet Home

On Monday night, I landed once again in warm, muggy Accra, but unlike the first time, this time I was greeted by a feeling I hadn't at all expected. Arriving in Accra Monday night, I felt like I was home. Sure, gallivanting around Europe had been fun, and sure, I had been reluctant to give up all of the Western luxuries, but I have to admit it; I'm starting to see the virtue in the whole concept of home, even if it is fleeting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our Strategy in Africa Part II:
Eliminating Barriers to Access

A few weeks ago, I outlined Google's overall strategy in Africa and mentioned that three posts would follow doing deep dives on each of the central components: access, relevance, and sustainability. This entry will tackle the first issue. Access is still a monumental hurdle, and probably the most significant one, to developing a thriving Internet ecosystem in Sub-Saharan Africa. High quality connectivity is extremely expensive and very hard to come by. Google has a plan for helping the people of Africa overcome this challenge though.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life in High Contrast

This last week and a half in Europe has been hard. Hard for a number of reasons, not the least of which including food poisoning, not staying anywhere for more than a few days, and not knowing my way around. But more profoundly, these last several days have made me realize that I live life in high contrast and just how much my perspective has changed from my short time in Africa.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Venturing into the Night

The dirt road was dark and uneven, and I had been walking for some indeterminably long time. I had tried to follow the directions given to me: turn left on Oxford Street and keep going on Papaye Down, but as anyone who has lived in Ghana knows, most roads here do not have commonly known names. I had walked, and walked, and walked. A hair salon, a mobile phone voucher hut, a series of makeshift homes... Nope. It was nearly 8:00; they were all shut up, and I was sure I was lost.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Getting African Businesses Online

Yesterday I spent the day with two colleagues from Google at the West Africa Trade Hub ICT Conference. The two other Googlers, Eve and Estelle, and I gave training sessions for small business owners from Benin, Togo, and Ghana to help them develop basic web presences with Google Sites. It was fascinating to work with these small exporters, some of which did not speak English or had never used a computer or the Internet before. By the end of the day, over a dozen small enterprises were online with email addresses and easy access to their content, but the SME owners weren't the only ones who left better for the experience. As you might expect, we probably learned just as much from them as they did from us.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Strategy in Africa

First of all, full disclosure, everything I discuss in this series of posts has been approved for external dissemination by the PR folks at Google, so you're not getting any insider information from me. That said, obviously this comes with my own personal commentary, so that's something! The plan is to write four posts about Google's objectives and strategies in Africa; this first one will be a general overview and the next three will be deep dives into each of the obstacles we're seeking to overcome. Here goes...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TEDxAccra: A Day of African Luminaries

On Monday morning, many of the world's great thinkers and doers gathered in solidarity around the world to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the unveiling of the UN Millennium Development Goals. This worldwide event was termed TEDxChange, styled in the format of the TED conference, and convened by Bill and Melinda Gates on behalf of their foundation. In an open letter, Melinda declared the aim of the gathering to be "to reflect on the Millennium Development Goals ten years in, and to look forward to where we’ll be [by 2015, the MDG deadline]."

Very luckily for me, I got to be a part of this movement, this moment in time.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Would You Like Fries With That?"
Western Cuisine Meets West Africa

Chicken and avocado wrap from Smoothy's.
When I travel abroad, one of my absolute favorite activities is to sample the local cuisine. You can learn a lot about a culture by the types of foods they eat, the types of seasonings, and so on. Italian food, for instance, is robust, flavorful, passionate, whereas French food is more subtle, complex, and dry. So one of the first things that really hit me when I got to Ghana was that traditionally Western food seemed vastly more prevalent than African food around town. Sure, I had gotten used to seeing burger and pizza joints across Europe, but I expected something a little different when I came to Africa. And perhaps that's exactly what I got: a little different.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Broadband Dongles & Malaria Pills

Since I got to Ghana, two technologies have become especially important to me, one that we in the high tech industry would normally perceive as "technology" and one that we wouldn't. The two things I'm talking about are mobile broadband dongles and anti-malaria pills. Within my first few days here, these two objects became essential parts of my daily life, though obviously for drastically different reasons.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

One Week In: The Culture Shock Sets In

Almost exactly one week ago, I landed in Africa for the first time, in a different world, far away from home and anything I had ever known. And it's been quite a week since then. My first week of work here was relatively uneventful with the office being mostly empty, and Friday was actually a national holiday for the end of Ramadan, so it ended up only being a three-day work week for me. On Friday, I met up with a friend of a friend whom I had been introduced to, and she showed me around the downtown area of Accra. (Really, when I say downtown Accra, I really just mean one main road called Oxford Street, perhaps the only road in the city that just about everyone knows by name.) It was my first time really seeing any of the city, and I have to say, it was a lot to take in. Besides obviously being singled out by all the vendors on the street, the most remarkable observation from the experience was just the abject poverty of the area. My friend, Kimmie, introduced me to a local girl around our age and her mother. We saw where she lived, in a house without running water, any sort of temperature control, or electricity. We started talking with the mother, and mentioned how she knew my friend, through a UN program that provided food for her because she was HIV-positive. Like I said, a lot to take in.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

They Call Me Monday: Naming in Ghana

A few days ago, I got to speaking with a fellow Googler who's spent a lot of time in Ghana, and among the many useful pieces of advice she gave me, one interesting bit stood out. "You need a Ghanaian name!" I soon discovered that in Ghana it's traditional to name children based on the day of the week they were born. What's more, each day of the week is supposed to have certain characteristics associated with it. A child born on Sunday, for instance, should tend to be passive, sensitive, and warm, and also a good secret keeper. I also learned that being able to introduce yourself with a Ghanaian name makes a big difference when interacting with locals, so clearly I should have one!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Can Voice Messages Replace SMS in Africa?

This is the question posed by Professor Eric Brewer and his team at Berkeley. Eric is a Visiting Scientist at Google, and I had the privilege to chat with him last week while I was in New York. One of the subjects we touched upon during the conversation was a study his team had done last year, implementing a new system of asynchronous voice messages in rural Uganda to supplement voice calls and text messaging (Heimerl et al, 2009). SMS (i.e. text messaging) has become hugely popular in Africa for several reasons: low cost, asynchronicity, and the unreliable cell phone coverage. Let me unpack each of these components.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Landing in Accra, Beneath the African Sun

Yesterday morning, I landed in Accra, Ghana, where I shall remain for a time yet undetermined. The flight took the full 11 hours, starting 4:20pm EST and landing 7:20am GMT. It may have been long and mostly sleepless, and I may have come close to crying for all that I was leaving behind, but alas, I made it in one piece. After a year of planning, I'm in Africa.

Very fortunately, Google's driver, Daniel, was waiting for me at the airport, and I only got mildly swindled by the scam artists waiting there. (I suppose it was inevitable, but I still felt dumb.) Daniel took me to my hotel where I dropped off my luggage and promptly realized that I had no idea what to do with myself. So I went to the office, the empty office. You see, this week is Google's G-Kenya conference in Nairobi, and the entire Subsaharan Africa team is there. Thankfully the receptionist had been alerted that I was coming, so she showed me in, and I got to work trying to figure things out. I wish I could express how comforting it was to be there. Even if it's only two, disconnected rooms, the Google office in Ghana feels like a Google office nonetheless. For lunch, I ordered some traditional Ghanain food, basically seasoned rice and chicken, which was brought to me by someone I can only describe as the office footman. The seasoning was not what I expected since it looked so close to something I might get in the US, but once I got over the initial hurdle, I rather enjoyed it.

Around 6:00pm, I headed back to my hotel, watched a movie and the news on TV, and tried to get some work done on my laptop. That didn't work as well as I would have liked. The Internet connection in my hotel, and from what I hear, in many places across Ghana, is shoddy at best. This resulted in a nontrivial amount of frustration especially since so many of the people I need to work with are in time zones so different from mine.

Today was my first full day in Ghana, and very kindly, the Google Ghana Country Lead, Estelle, who's out of the office this week, sent her personal driver to pick me up and show me around the city. We hit some of the major tourist sites like the soccer stadium and the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park as well as a decidedly less touristy market where they sold mostly traditional clothing, masks, and even swords. Being led through by a local, it was starkly clear how singled out I was as a white man. On the upside, I learned a new word from the experience, obruni, which means, you guessed it, white man. In the afternoon, I headed back to the office to get some more work sorted out, finally met one of my sometimes office mates, Ego, who's from Britain, and got lots of advice on the expat life.

From my two days here, a few basic observations have stood out to me. The first is the culture of servitude. It's been discomforting having someone wait on me; I've always just taken care of myself, more or less. Stranger still is the attitude servants seem to have have, that of utter, well, subservience. In the US, even people in service professions usually seem to have a sense of entitlement that doesn't exist here. Another significant lesson has been about the state of Internet connectivity/telephony. I knew it would be bad, but that's entirely different from actually understanding it. Between not being able to do my work online and having to ask people to repeat themselves every other sentence on phone calls, I can tell I'm already starting to make headway on one of the pieces of advice I got before leaving: Feel people's pain. The last observation I've had is a less serious one, basically about how people carry things here. I wish I had a picture to illustrate it, but I've never before seen everyday people carry so much atop their heads, and without using their hands to balance it.  Huge baskets of everything you could imagine: eggs, pineapples, hair brushes, everything, all perched feet high atop their heads. The notable exception to this rule is for carrying a baby, which is invariably done on one's back, strapped on with a large shawl. Pictures to come, I promise.

For now, that's it. This weekend will consist of lots of apartment shopping as I seek to find somewhere more permanent to live. Wish me luck!

Pictures after the jump!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New York, New York

I've noticed a theme in my life recently: as soon as I begin to feel settled into one place, I know it's just about time for the next. This last week in New York has certainly had its ups and downs. Five days to scramble around, trying to coordinate logistics across three continents certainly wasn't easy; in fact, it was probably the most stressful week I've spent at Google in any of my internships, but I suppose that was to be expected. On the other hand, there has been so much awesomeness too: tons of delicious food courtesy of the Google NY Culinary Team (I think I ate a full meal every other hour), a new smart phone, and most importantly, catching up with lots of old friends and getting to make a few new ones.

Aside from the scramble to get ready, I spent the week meeting with some key players on the Google Africa team, getting as much advice as I could amass. Here are some of the interesting tidbits.

  • Understand the user. Do as the locals do. Go outside major cities; see where people live. Try to spend a night living with a local 
  • Feel people's pain. Try the Internet connection and cell phones that the locals use. Understand their experience.
  • Beware of corruption. When money is so hard to come by, many people have to engage in unethical behavior to make a living. I heard about a project that was sabotaged by the people it was built for because it made selling services on the side too easy to track.
  • Use my novelty to my advantage. There's no arguing that I'm clearly going to stick out like a sore thumb wherever I go. Instead of taking it as an obstacle, turn it to my favor. Don't be apologetic for being different.
  • Go with the flow. The work culture in many of the countries I'm going to is just fundamentally different. People won't follow schedules in the way we do, for instance. Just accept it.

Another fun part of the week involved the six-foot talk K'Nex Ferris wheel that I (and three other interns) built two years ago. It used to sit up on the sixth floor with sales but has since been moved to a new seat of honor, at the very entrance to the office that nearly everyone passes going in and out of work. On every tour I gave this week, I would point it out and note, "I built that." The reactions ranged from laughter to respect to disbelief. My favorite was a friend proclaiming, "only at Google do the interns get paid to play with K'Nex." A true statement if I've ever heard one. In fact, we got quite a bit of publicity for it when we did.

Our K'Nex creation in its original location two years ago.

Tomorrow, to Africa! More pictures after the jump...

Monday, August 30, 2010

New Beginnings

One week from today, I will be on a plane headed for Accra, the capital of Ghana and, for the next several months, my new home. It's hard to believe that after this long journey, after all of the trials and roadblocks overcome, that the day has finally arrived. Today, I rejoin my old company and my old community. A little bit of background...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Blog Launch

This blog is set to launch on the first day of my new adventure, August 30th, my first day of work at Google in New York.

See my personal info page for more information about me and my journey.

Sign up for email updates here.