Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I alluded last week to having been travelling a lot with work recently.

Before I get going, though, some background. I consider myself extremely lucky to work at Google - it's an incredible place with a great attitude towards the people it employs. Frankly, the free food alone is enough to convince me - getting to work with so many wizards is just an added bonus.

One of the most incredible things about being here is that everyone delivers over and above what's required - "underpromise, overdeliver" is a much used phrase here, and people really do work like that. Basically, don't promise something if it's not going to be ready in time.

So, with that in mind, let me take you back to the very beginning of November 2008. It's not so long ago. We were just winding up our Google Developer Days, with the last one planned for Tel Aviv, in Israel. A few of us had arrived directly from Moscow (we hit 8 countries in 4 weeks, which was pretty awesome overall).

Now, you might not know this, but Israel has its weekend on Friday and Saturday, instead of Saturday and Sunday. Not really a problem. I'm out with some people from the office on friday night, and we're having a few drinks, when one mentions that there's a trip to Ramallah the following day. Without really knowing what that meant, I offered myself as tech support. At least, I think I did. Timbo and I were putting away the vodka shooters pretty aggressively at the time.

Anyway, the next morning, we had a sober chat, and I reaffirmed my offer - to head into the West Bank and meet some technology companies. So, off we went in our armoured car. Yeah. Armoured car.

In the UK, our only mainstream coverage of the West Bank is when there are clashes, so I really had no idea what to expect. Thanks to Wikipedia, I was able to get a bit of clarification.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, getting in was no problem, and once you were past the checkpoint. It was just a regular town, with places to eat junk food, billboards everywhere and construction work going on. Oh, and a starbucks rip-off.

An amazing guy called Omar from DAI had tried to get in contact with people in Google, and had been bounced around for a bit. The email had eventually ended up with one of our directors, who had read it, and decided to do something about it. So, Omar had set up a few meetings with various companies and organisations, like g.ho.st, and PICTI.

So, we met a few companies and learned some things. Like, there are 600k homes in the west bank, but only 60k ADSL lines. 40% of the country is online, though, albeit using dialup. And even though the population can't really leave the west bank, they have a number of high quality universities, who are churning out around 1500 highly qualified computer programmers every year, who are largely fluent in English.

Cool, huh? Well, it is until you realise that there are only around 1300 IT jobs available, in total. So every year, lots of new engineers appear, but are almost guaranteed not to get a job. Unemployment is pretty high, as you can imagine. (Actually, it's even worse in Gaza - around 70%).

As I'm sure you can imagine, they don't really even have the opportunity to start new online businesses easily. This is because to start a new online business, you need space in a datacentre. And there aren't a lot of datacentres in the West Bank.

It struck us immediately that App Engine would be of huge interest to the engineers out there. If you know what App Engine is, you can skip the rest of this paragraph and the next one too. If you don't, well, then, get reading! App Engine lets you write software to run on Google's hardware and infrastructure. I've worked at (and started) and handful of startups, and I can tell you, hand on heart, that this is one of the biggest things Google has ever done. Especially in the current financial doldrums the world is experiencing.

For any startup, one of the biggest costs is building a robust, scalable infrastructure, and hosting it, and deploying servers in advance of predicted load. You need, at a bare minimum, a network architect, a sysadmin/network admin, someone to unpack boxes and plug things in, and, if you're doing anything that requires uptime, a group of people to work on shifts in case something goes down. And then the machines themselves. For a new startup trying to get off the ground, £100k is a pretty decent figure to get up and running in 3 months. And then there are ongoing hosting and staffing costs.

App Engine removes that entire problem, and all the costs associated with it. You simply write software and push it to Google servers, and it runs. There's not even concept of virtual machines, just software processes. We just scale automagically.

Which is obviously pretty awesome, especially in a place where finding startup money isn't easy. With App Engine, you get enough free quota to handle around 5 million pageviews per month, for free.

In addition, we have a massive range of free APIs that let you add cool stuff to websites simply and easily. Like maps, search results, videos, docs, presentations, and more. Check out http://code.google.com/apis for more on that. So, it seemed like a pretty obvious step that we'd try and train some of the students on some of the tools we have available, including, but not limited to, App Engine.

Over the course of the next 4 months, people inside Google went to town on what they do best. There were meetings. There was planning. Cables were laid. Visas were acquired. Hotel bookings were made, and flights were booked. This was also a 20% project. (At Google, we're allowed to spend 20% of our time working on things which are not related to our core jobs, but important to the company. It's an incredibly good way of letting people try out different things, and gain experience outside their job role, and also keep them excited working here. It's another reason I love this place so much.)

I have to admit that I was little to no help when it came to the planning, but it evolved into something pretty major.

The GPalsDay, 2009. Here's the website.
As you can see, it ended up being a 2 day event, focused on 2 separate things. 1 day for the developers, and 1 day for business people and content creators. I was mostly active in the developer day, running the gadgets and opensocial session, and then a hackathon in the afternoon.

The registration opened, and was full within a few hours, which was amazing. The email address associated with the event was filling up rapidly with messages from people as well, wanting to make sure they'd registered, or asking if there was a way they could be bumped to the top of the list.

So, off we flew, to brave Israeli customs again, and then headed over the checkpoint to prepare for the first day.

I can honestly say I've never seen a room of people so excited to be learning about code. You could almost feel the buzz, and everyone was smiling and super-excited for Google to be there.
Now, there's a funny thing about developers. Very few of them will ask questions in front of a crowd. I guess because they don't want to appear stupid. But here, everyone was highly engaged. There were a lot of great questions that showed they'd really absorbed the material presented. In addition, USAID had had a 30 meg intertron connection fitted to the hotel, and we had free wireless for everyone, so people were playing around with the products as they were being presented.

In the afternoon, we ran a 4 hour hack session, where we taught people about OpenSocial and had them write apps. There were also prizes awarded.

Personally, I feel it was one of the best developer events we've ever done - thanks in no small part to the incredible level of engagement of the participants. We're still waiting for the videos to go online, and I'll update this post when they do, but you'll be able to see what a great success the day was, and, more importantly, anyone who couldn't attend can watch the full content in their own time.

On the second day, I presented, at record speed, Webmaster Tools, Analytics and Website Optimiser, which seemed to go down very well.

In the end, 12 people from Google attended, and it was an amazing 2 days. We had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life - students to government ministers - and everyone in between. And it seemed that everyone got something from the day.

And what did I get? The knowledge that the western media really spin the bejingles out of everything. Palestine is much like any other citiy where we've hosted developer days; it's full of lots of people with great ideas and wanting to learn. Oh, and Stones in the centre of town do a great stone-baked pizza.


*Word of warning - Israeli airport security is insane. If you're planning to visit, expect to have your bags turned inside out, and to be waiting for hours at the airport. And that's both entering and leaving. It's all about ensuring safety, so I applaud them for their diligence (and I've seen enough airports for it not to be a big deal), but, well, just warning for those thinking about visiting.

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