Aug 29 AT 1:47 PM Dustin Earley 15 Comments

What does Hugo Barra leaving Google mean for Android?

Hugo Barra giving keynote address for day one of Google I/O 2011

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last 24 hours, you’ve no doubt heard by now that Google’s VP, Android Project Management, Hugo Barra, has set sail for China to work for the company behind MIUI. We won’t delve into exactly how or why it happened in this piece, but instead examine the two most popular opinions on what Barra’s departure means for Google.

What exactly did Barra do

Before we can understand what Barra leaving may mean for Google, we have to understand what he did at Android. Barra was the VP of Android Product Management. His role at the company would be seen as largely organizational. Generally, Product Managers are fill-in-the-blank positions; they take ownership of the product they’re managing. The degree to which varies based on how the company is structured (more on that in a bit). They concern themselves with consumer-facing problems, spend a lot of time in meetings getting people like engineers and marketers on the same page, and in the case of Barra, represent the brand.

Could be absolutely nothing

Make no mistake, Barra was an important top-level executive at Google. The relationships he undoubtedly helped foster between Google and manufacturers, between other top level executives and between the consumer and Android itself are very important. But it’s not like his departure is equivalent to removing a pivotal cog in a smooth running machine. There will be people at the ready to take over the duties he held as VP of Android Product Management. In fact, they’ve probably already started.

In modern business, companies tend to be structured so that even the loss of a high-ranking executive barely affects daily operations. Again, Barra’s position within Google was an important one, but as for how this is going to affect you, the consumer, it won’t. As for how it will affect Google, there’s a good chance he will be missed. But with a busy fall schedule ahead of them (don’t forget Google reportedly has a watch, game console, new Nexus 10 and new Nexus phone slated to launch in the next four months or so!), Googlers won’t have time to let it affect their work. Things will be business as usual.

Or at least that’s one side of the coin.

Could mean Google is in for a rocky future

In Barra’s Google+ statement on his departure, he said of his new role as Vice President, Xiaomi Global, “I’m really looking forward to this new challenge and am particularly excited about the opportunity to continue to help drive the Android ecosystem.” As you might expect, Barra (and Google) said relatively little on him leaving Android to work with a much smaller, Chinese Android manufacturer. So all we can do is speculate on what kind of circumstances would push a high-ranking executive out of a company for seemingly no reason.

The first words that come to mind are employee (or talent) retention. According to Business Dictionary, employee retention is “an effort by a business to maintain a working environment which supports current staff in remaining with the company. Many employee retention policies are aimed at addressing the various needs of employees to enhance their job satisfaction and reduce the substantial costs involved in hiring and training new staff.”

Barra is not the first executive to leave what most would consider a highly sought after position with Google. Some might even say Google has a talent retention problem. And that’s never a good thing. Lose one brand representative here, no big deal. Another one there, you start to get worried. Employees start to take notice. Yet another loss in this position, no matter how many fail safes you have in place, and the structure starts to get weak and vulnerable.

We can’t say it’s obvious yet, but if they aren’t already, Google needs to be spending some serious time figuring out how to make current employees happy. Because clearly many are not. It may not be a huge problem as of now, but Barra leaving a role that he has been so actively involved in over the last several months could be a sign that Google is for a bumpy ride. Losing one high-level manager is a problem. Losing several? Huge problem. These are the kinds of things that start the downward spiral of a failing company, and no one wants to see that happen with Google.

Wrap up

Take both ends of the spectrum, combine them, and you have the most realistic answer to what Hugo Barra leaving Google means for Android. Things will continue on as normal, but he will be missed. You, as a consumer, won’t notice a difference. Updates won’t slow, and phone releases won’t be pushed back. It could be a sign that Google needs to figure some things out, but we simply don’t know yet. Only time and more executive departures will tell.

It will be interesting to see how Google handles the loss of their frontman with so many rumored product launches on the horizon. Perhaps it’s time for someone like Matias Duarte to step a little more into the spotlight.

Dustin Earley: Tech enthusiast; avid gamer; all around jolly guy.

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  • Arthur

    When Matias first joined Google, he was more of a frontman for Android than he has been lately, with Hugo, and Sundar mainly handling I/O presentations and official Android announcements.

    Back when Matias was at Palm, he was the face of webOS, he not only was the lead UX/UI designer but the leader presenter. I don’t think anyone will forget his introduction of the original Pre. He is a good speaker, a bit odd at times (at least his fashion sense) but very knowledgeable about UX elements and UI design.

    One of my favorite videos still is Josh Topolsky of The Verge at Google’s headquarters last year being shown the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 for the first time. The way Matias showed off the devices, you would think they were made of a rare precious stone like Diamond that if scratched or dropped would be the end of the world lol.

    • Judith R. Driscoll

      just as Leonard answered I’m impressed that a mother can get paid $4147 in one month on the internet. look what i found… C­­A­­F­­E­­4­­­4.â…­­­­O­­­â…¯

  • discography

    Retention policies, and Google does have a problem as a whole, mean little when the co-founder is banging your girl. I know you want to take the high-brow road in avoiding the topic, but to do so and just go about the article the way you did is a bit silly.

    • Jess Blanchard

      We’ve decided to attack this story piecemeal. The scandalous shenanigans have been addressed. Next up is a discussion of what this could mean for Xiaomi.

      • hurric

        coming from “scandalous shenanigans” expert herself.. :D

        • Jess Blanchard

          I have done some pretty scandalous things in my life, but none of them ever impacted a major Fortune 500 company. I guess I need to run in better circles.

          • TAN5150

            Jess is awesome, so be nice. But I would love to hear about those scandalous events….:-)

      • discography

        I acknowledge that, but this piece weighs considerably on Google’s retention policies. I’m pretty sure if Hugo wanted more stock options or his 20% free time he would of had no problem getting it. This wasn’t a problem of whether an employee could be made happy under normal circumstances, these were very abnormal circumstances. I’m not disagreeing with the article, it just glosses over the big elephant in a room about Hugo, employee retention and what really happened.

  • Nick Gray

    Google has always had a talent retention issue. It’s because of the type of people they want to employ. They wan innovators, but many of those people eventually find that Google will not innovate on their specific ideas and look for ways to expand their vision by going outside of Google. Honestly, it’s what keeps the company fresh and moving forward. If employees are only there for 3-6 years, it makes room for new ideas on a regular basis.

    On the Android front, I think things will be just fine. There is a lot of talent on the Android team and I’m sure there are plenty of Google employees who will be able to fill the void left by Hugo. Personally, I agree with Arthur and think Matias should step into the light a bit more and be the new face of Android for Google.

    • hp420

      From what I heard, sergey brin is filling that void

      • TAN5150

        Is that what they call it these days, filling the void?

  • scubabum

    Thanks for the well-written article.

    • nosense

      Yep… But too far from factual the case.

      For every employee that wants to leave Google, there are 50 million qualified ones wanting to get the vacant.

      5% of them would do a better job than the leaving one.

      So it is all about making the best choices, as in life.


    • donger