Teamistry Season 1 Episode 06

Finding the Way to Google Maps

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It’s hard to remember what it took to get around before the invention of Google Maps. But the technology has changed everything from daily routes to road trips to navigating unknown territory. Because of Google Maps, the entire globe seems reachable. But the road to inventing Google Maps? That’s another story. In this episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite uncovers the tale of this indispensable technology and the team that built it. In 2001, Lars Rasmussen, Jens Rasmussen, Noel Gordon, and Stephen Ma are developing a product they believe will change the mapping landscape. But like so many great inventions before it, “Where 2 Technologies” – not yet Google Maps – is just a fledgling startup run from a small room in Sydney, and constantly one wrong turn away from a dead end. Rent checks bounce, savings accounts evaporate. The dream could be only a mirage on the distant horizon. But the team discovers a way to keep going, to find new pathways, until they reach their final destination. Hear from Google Maps co-inventors Lars Rasmussen and Noel Gordon as they take us back through the detours and U-turns of the journey, including working alongside competitors, that eventually leads to a creation that changed the world as we know it.

Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.

Episode Extras

Whiteboard of Google Maps team approach mentioned in episode


Google: Continue for 200 feet on Centinela Avenue

Gabriela: I don’t usually go that way, but ok…

Google: In 50 feet, turn left onto State Route 2 U.S. Route 101 Interstate 210 Glendale Freeway Angeles Crest Highway…

Gabriela: Yeah, you could have just said the 210..

Google: Turn left onto State Route 2 U.S. Route 101 Interstate 210 Glendale Freeway Angeles Crest Highway…

Gabriela: Seriously, are you going to say that every time?

Google: Continue for 5 miles on State Route 2 U.S. Route 101 Interstate 210 Glendale Freeway Angeles Crest Highway…

Gabriela: Most of us don’t remember what it was like getting around without Google Maps. I barely remember using paper maps. Or, it seems even crazier, figuring out how to get somewhere by asking people. But even though most of us can’t imagine life without Google Maps, it wasn’t smooth sailing from idea to finished app. There were obstacles and even route changes along the way.

Noel Gordon:
We thought we’re sailing on a wonderful day and the next minute the rain comes in the squall and the waves go to 15 feet and then everything’s terrible. This is when we were deciding, would we do this startup or not.

GABRIELA: In fact, the creation of Google Maps is a story about striving to get to what you think is your destination, only to realize you still have a long way to go.

Lars Rasmussen: Something I can’t emphasize enough that any team, once they reach a certain size, you start getting difference of opinions and disagreements can emerge and people can get a little polarized.

Gabriela: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams…and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.

Gabriela: It’s 2001 and the tech bubble has just burst. Dozens of tech companies have collapsed. Brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen are victims of the crash; they’ve lost their jobs at a small tech firm in California called Digital Fountain. But Lars remembers that his brother was not disheartened. In fact, Jens had been tinkering with an idea for a while now: online maps

Lars Rasmussen: He was like, “Look, the tech world is not hiring, let’s do our own thing.”And mapping he identified, of the 10,000 ideas he has in his head, this was one where a very small team could have a huge impact.

Gabriela: A very small team could have a huge impact because in 2001, online maps are slow and frustrating. The most popular site is Mapquest and to use it, you have to enter in so much information, even a zip code. Then you hit search and watch the dreaded hourglass icon turning over, again and again for what seems like hours. The reason it takes so long is that the maps are being created in real time. When your map finally shows up, it’s kind of hard to read and super basic. God forbid you didn’t get the address quite right and have to click west or east, north or south. Or Zoom in. That would mean another eternity waiting for the next map to be drawn. Lars remembers that Jens had a completely different solution.

Lars Rasmussen: Jens argued, “It is very easy. We just, like, we draw all the maps beforehand in tiles, and we put a lot of computing power into doing that so that we could make them really pretty. And then on the site, we assemble all these tiles so we don’t have to draw stuff on demand, we can just load tiles off a server.” And then we can make the maps bigger, obviously a lot prettier.

Gabriela: Something to consider is that at this point, no one is using their phones for getting around. And that’s because the smart phone doesn’t exist yet. The only platform for this technology is the web. The slow, pre-broadband web. And clunky, not very powerful web browsers.

Gabriela: So Lars and Jens build their first prototype, called Expedition, which looks like a very basic city grid from above. It works alongside a browser. This allows them to use a more robust programming language called C++, instead of having to rely on the web’s HTML. Also, Expedition is really forward looking. Not only is it a separate app, like we use today, but all of the content is hosted in the cloud. And this is, like, ten years before most of us even know what that is.

Lars Rasmussen: And we build this thing, Jens and I, spend maybe six months just the two of us making a prototype of Expedition, and then we tried raising money. And remember the bubble had just burst and there were some funds out there still active but very skittish. And when we went and spoke to, I don’t know, six or eight of them, we never even got a call back and it was kind of tempting to give up.

Gabriela: Tempting because remember at this point, Lars and Jens don’t have any income. They’re paying for all this themselves. Their credit cards are maxed, their pensions cashed in. Lars even goes on social assistance to make ends meet. But faced with this first major hurdle, they don’t give up.

Lars Rasmussen: We have steel in our bellies and we knew this was going to change the world.

Gabriela: The next stage for the Rasmussen brothers is to fully develop their software, so instead of just a local prototype, they’d have something that could work over the web. For that, they need a team of programmers who can take their idea and make it a reality.

Lars Rasmussen: It was difficult to persuade anyone to work on maps. Back then there was this kind of common knowledge that there wasn’t any money in maps, because MapQuest had been sold for, I think an enormous amount of money, more than a billion dollars I think and then they had kind of failed to make any good business out of it.

Gabriela: If Lars and Jens can’t find someone to join them, they’ll never be able to scale up their software to show to potential investors. They can’t do it by themselves. Never mind that they’ll run out of money long before then. So they expand their search for programmers beyond their circle of friends.

Lars Rasmussen: Noel Gordon, we’d worked with just for a brief period of time at Digital Fountain before the company started laying off everyone. I called him up…

Noel Gordon: He says, “Hey, we’ve got some routing software that you might be interested in. Could you have a look at it and see if it’s working?”

Gabriela: Noel, who’s back in his native Australia at this point, is attracted to the idea because it’s a web based app, something no one else is really doing.

Noel Gordon: I sat down at my desk the night before I had to make the decision. I took out a foolscap notepad and I started writing down all the ideas of what I can do with a map. And after I filled two pages in about an hour of thinking about it and quit my job the next day.

Lars Rasmussen: He was, like, sold immediately, and he brought in a good friend of his, Steve Ma, whom he had worked with in Australia. Jens and I flew to Australia, pitched the project to Steven and Noel, and they were up for it. We couldn’t pay anyone, we weren’t paying ourselves, and so we bought some, a few more machines, the cheapest PCs we could find, assembled them ourselves, and set up an office in Noel’s spare bedroom in Sydney.

Gabriela: Yeah, you heard that right. What was to become Google Maps began in classic startup fashion: in the spare bedroom of a small, two bedroom apartment.

Gabriela: It’s now early 2003 and the tiny bedroom startup not only has a team, it has a name: Where 2 Technologies. And on that team are four classic startup characters, beginning with…

Lars Rasmussen: Noel is this incredibly outgoing, charming Aussie that you can’t help but love when you meet him, and a very skilled programmer as well.

Gabriela: Noel describes the rest of the team.

Noel Gordon: Steven, in particular, he’s like the gentle air and smarter than all of us put together. Jens brought his wonderful design aesthetics, his sense of quality. He just has this wonderful sense of beauty in our drawing and so on.

Gabriela: A fun fact to illustrate Jens’ artistic bend. You know that classic location icon in all map apps, the red upside down pear shaped thing? Jens designed that.

Noel Gordon: So then of course the wonderful Lars, who was our eloquent speaker and also one of our favorite coders, so as a team we were kind of an interesting mix.

Gabriela: As the next few months pass and the group works away on their technology, Lars says they discover a team superpower.

Lars Rasmussen: Small team, heads down, clear mission, no money, maybe not the most enjoyable part of it. But it does help you focus that you’re out of money, living on ramen soup

Gabriela: Lars calls this superpower a ‘Heightened State of Motivation.’ It keeps them incredibly focused on their task.

Noel Gordon: We’d have a shared lunch together every day. My wife, Nicoletta, would prepare food, buy bread, sandwiches, whatever we wanted. She’d put them in the fridge, so at lunchtime, we never had to leave the place. We’d get into this tiny little kitchen together, we’d all make our lunch and sit there and, sorry, stand there, there wasn’t sitting room in the small kitchen, and eat our lunch together and talk about things.

Gabriela: This tight knit set up leads to a tight knit group, one of the big lessons Noel takes from the whole experience.

Noel Gordon: Different opinions were heard. We’d sift them all together and then the ones that percolate to the top, we’d all decide they’re the best ideas, no matter where they came from and we just go with them together. And when we make a decision as a team together, we move on, just continue to move forward as a team.

Gabriela: In other words, the team didn’t second-guess decisions. They committed to them once they were made, embraced and acted on them as a group. Unfortunately, just when they’re getting their prototype ready, when the team is really gelling, they face an existential threat.

Gabriela: It’s late 2003 and Jens, Lars, Noel and Stephen feel their software, Expedition, is ready for prime time. But at just this moment, Yahoo launches their own map software. Funding that the Where 2 team was hoping for, from a venture capital firm, falls through. There goes plan A.

Noel Gordon: There was always that question above us that, “Let’s just say plan A doesn’t work, what’s our plan B? What’s our backup? And should we consider stopping?”

Gabriela: Plan B is to pitch their idea to a real estate company. But they know, in their hearts, that this is really unlikely. There isn’t enough money there or enough interest to take Expedition to the next level, to compete with Yahoo. But here, at their lowest point, when it looks like they might have to throw in the towel, a sliver of hope. The venture capital folks, wanting to help out, introduce the Where 2 team to legendary businessman Ram Shriram, one of the first investors in Google. He likes what they’re doing. And while he doesn’t provide funding, he does have a great idea.

Lars Rasmussen: He said, “Look, the same reason that investors are nervous about investing in you, namely that Yahoo, big player Yahoo is rumbling in your space, might actually make Google want to buy you,” because Google and Yahoo were big competitors back then.

Gabriela: The team decides to change direction and go all in on this new plan. If the guys can get Google to buy them, they’re sure that with the company’s might behind them, they could leapfrog the competition. Without Google, they will never be able to scale up their software. It will all be over.

Lars Rasmussen:
My rent check had bounced and I had like $16 left in my bank account. It was really quite scary.

GABRIELA: There’s only one problem, Google wants to keep everything in the browser. They’re not so hot on the idea of a separate app. Which is, of course, how Expedition works.

Lars Rasmussen: We tripped over some online articles written by a guy at Microsoft about what they called dynamic HTML back then, so then those having JavaScript manipulate the HTML on a webpage. We really dug into this and found to our surprise that if you really pushed the limit of our browsers back then, you could actually get almost the same experience.

Gabriela: In other words, the Where 2 team might be able to replicate some of their more complex coding, the C++ stuff, because browsers now have their own more robust coding, thanks to JavaScript. Figuring out how to do it starts with a brainstorming session in front of a whiteboard. Noel has a photo of that whiteboard.

Noel Gordon: This is the only photo we took at the time. This is the only record of it. This is in the second bedroom. This is the whiteboard we put on the wall. And just as we are exiting the place, somebody said, “Oh I better take a picture of that.” And it was the only picture of the whole Where 2 endeavor that we photographed.

Gabriela: This whiteboard is kind of like the classic “back of a napkin” drawing of what their map software was going to become. But honestly, looking at it, it doesn’t make any sense to me. There’s a few boxes here and there, words like “Starfish” and “Champ” and “Newport” and then arrows pointing this way and that way. There are letters A and B and a line running through it all. It looks like either brilliant code, or totally random doodles. But in reality – those scribbles are actually a roadmap for the next three crunch weeks: things they must achieve before it stands a chance to impress Google. First, though, there’s the technology side of things. How will they get the Maps to work seamlessly? Noel looks at the whiteboard picture on his computer and explains:
Noel Gordon: There’s a bunch of scribbles on the right hand side of the whiteboard, in the middle on the right, where we have square boxes and round circles. This is actually a picture of our maptile server, where a front-end client is making requests back to the back-end tile server, and pulling out tiles that we need to deliver and construct to make a map.

Gabriela: This is how it’s supposed to work: once a user types in a location, the server sifts through the correct tiles and pieces them together to form the image of a map. Ok, so that’s what that part of the whiteboard means. A lot of the other stuff captures their hopes for the future.

Noel Gordon: I’m seeing on the left and in the middle, there’s a bunch of company names. They’re all venture capitalists. So this just reflects that our thinking was, “Well, how are we going to fund this arrangement? How are we going to make a sustainable business out of this? Do we sell our business? Do we get venture capital funding?”

Gabriela: But the most critical drawings on that whiteboard, are points A and B. “A” is their map technology in its current state: a C++ application that people have to separately download and install onto their browser. “B” is the point they need to get to if they want Google to buy in. And that means running the map completely on the web, by using dynamic HTML and Javascript to send and retrieve map data in the background. This means the browser won’t freeze up or have to be reloaded while searching for an address or displaying map tiles—the experience won’t be interrupted. Well, getting from point A to point B is the most testing journey for the founding team.

Noel Gordon: It wasn’t a straight line, even though that line on that white board looks to be a straight line. Actually, if I drew the line, maybe the line should go all the way around the whiteboard with twisty little turns in it, because that’s what it’s like. And through all of this we stuck together. That was the important thing. Through thick and thin, whatever happened, we believed in ourselves. We believed we could make something better. Our team was robust and adaptable and we had to take it on the chin a number of times during the process.

Gabriela: These ups and downs sound like the script to any startup struggle. But Noel says the stumbling blocks in getting from point A to B tell us something about successful projects, a team superpower, that sometimes goes unnoticed.

Noel Gordon: What you are looking at is hope. This is us changing and thinking and moving on, right, as things change. The AB line is like, all right, change direction and let’s go this way. If some person landed on the earth 500 years from now, they’d just consider it hieroglyphics and wouldn’t actually know the hope that was behind it.

Gabriela: That hope is a key part of another team superpower in this story, what I’ll call “Embrace the Detour.” The Where 2 team is able to take their passion, drive and commitment—their hope—then iterate and head in a new direction until they find a path to success. In this case, that means three intense weeks of coding to get an app that works in the browser. Which they present to Google co-founder Larry Page.
Lars Rasmussen: We showed them this thing that was quite, I think unique not just because of ideas and maths, but because of the way it used the browser, a new way of making much more dynamic webpage. Everything is built like that now of course, but back then it was quite novel. I think we quite impressed them and we’d actually quite impressed ourselves to be honest.

Gabriela: Ok, they did more than impress Google.

Noel Gordon: We only, what, three weeks before felt we were dashed and on the rocks and without options. And then we were introduced to Google and three weeks later it’s all over and we’re getting acquired.

Gabriela: That’s right, in October of 2004, Google acquired Where 2 Technologies. And you may think, that’s it, they’ve done it, end of story. The dream of every startup, to be bought out by a huge company. In other words, you’ve arrived at your destination. But Expedition is still only a prototype. A new challenge, a new road lies before the Where 2 team: they’ve got to figure out how to complete their app within the new working environment of Google.

Gabriela: It’s early 2005 and Lars, Jens, Noel and Steven have finally moved out of their tiny apartment and into Google’s Australian campus. They got here by doing things their way. A shared apartment with a small team that trusts each other. But Google is unfamiliar territory. And there’s one challenge in particular that they aren’t used to: working with other startups and teams.

Gabriela: An example of this challenge, and how they overcame it, is the development of Google Earth. It’s the product of another startup bought by Google, Keyhole, which used to be Where 2’s competitors. The reaction at first is to feel like they’re still in competition, fighting over resources and trying to outdo each other. But working in the small campus environment, hanging out together, having lunch, naturally leads to a connection.

Noel Gordon: I remember that a contest arose over a lunch. There was bet on that we couldn’t integrate satellite tiles into Maps in some number of days. If I recall correctly, it was something like four weeks. And the Maps team said, “Sure, we’ll take that bet. Losing team takes the other team out to dinner, okay?” “Sure, so it’s game on.”

Gabriela: Just five days later, the Maps team has done it, they’ve integrated Keyhole’s satellite tiles into their own software. Sure, they get a free dinner and bragging rights, but more importantly, they’ve expanded what their Mapping software can do—it now includes a satellite view, not just illustrated tiles. Just as important, they’ve started building a relationship with their coworkers. This is partially thanks to the environment Google nurtured for their teams, which encouraged collaboration over competition.

Lars Rasmussen: Rather than forcing us to integrate the two, they let us have these two products that played actually quite a different role. And then we did a bunch of cross pollination in particular, Google Maps got all of the amazing satellite images that the Keyhole team had assembled, and some of the search technologies that we built with Google around searching for addresses, searching for businesses, searching for things on a map, we then made available in Google Earth.

Gabriela: But despite the challenges of joining Google, Lars says it worked because Where 2 and Google’s core values were very closely aligned

Lars Rasmussen: We learned a lot of our values from looking at Google, looking at how Google thought about always putting the user experience first and letting monetization come later. It was more like Google already had the culture that we were inspired by, and going there, just like, enhanced our ability to do that.

Gabriela: It’s February 2005 and after years of development, integration and more development, Google Maps launches.

Lars Rasmussen: Back then Google didn’t have a lot of products. It had search, it had just launched Google News, Gmail was sort of on the verge of launching, was still in beta so had very little traffic back then, and Google Maps just kind of took off so much, it actually almost destroyed Google’s data centers. Rather, it clogged the pipes with all of those tiles of mapping images flying back and forth, almost used all of Google’s bandwidth. It was amazing. It was a huge hit from day one.

Gabriela: But even as Google Maps is gaining in popularity, Lars and Jens have something in the backs of their minds.

Lars Rasmussen: When we joined Google, we decided when, how long should we stay working on this product that’s no longer ours and now it belongs to Google? And we decided, “Look, we should probably leave on the day that Google Maps is the number one mapping site in the world,” When Comscore announced in 2007 that now Google Maps was the number one mapping site in the world by just the numbers of users, that’s when we decided to leave.

Gabriela: And so Lars and Jens, inspired by the lessons they’d learned on this journey, left to pursue new projects.

Gabriela: Google Maps, meanwhile, has continued to grow and succeed. It has even changed how we live our lives. We all know that we rely on paper maps or directions much less, but Lars and Noel see bigger, social changes brought on by their team’s accomplishment.

Lars Rasmussen: I think one of the biggest impacts that Google Maps has had is that people go to new places much more often because we’re so used to this idea that you can comfortably go to a place you’ve never been to before and it’s not that much harder than going to a place that you know.

Noel Gordon: I agree with Lars. It makes people want to go to different places because it looks inviting or they can see what it looks like a priori and have a feel about whether I want to go. Yes it encourages travel. Another important thing about Google Maps, our vision was once we had all the world’s geographical data in a web browser that was easily accessible, or any mobile phone that was accessible to everybody, that we’d all see each other from above in all parts of the globe. And it might help us realize that we are all in this together. It would tell us what’s going on on the surface of the earth. It would tell us the true story of what’s really going on so everybody could see it. So I think hopefully Google Maps has the ability to bring us all together.

Gabriela: The team behind Google Maps harnessed key superpowers to get them successfully through their startup phase and then to integrate with Google. To find out more about those powers, and to see the actual whiteboard drawing Noel describes, check out the “extras” page…