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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