Craig Walker is Google’s group product manager for the Real Time Communications Group, which includes Google Voice, Google Talk and Google Talk Video. Nearly three years ago, on Walker’s 42nd birthday, Google bought GrandCentral Communications—which he created because he was tired of not having control of his phone calls. Walker and nearly his entire GrandCentral team joined the company.
I recently caught up with Walker, who made me call back halfway through our conversation so I could hear him talking to me through his laptop. I must say, it sounded a lot better than a speakerphone.
It’s been almost three years since you sold GrandCentral to Google. What’s the verdict?
Any time you get acquired by a big company, you have no idea what to expect. I got a sense beforehand that Google was a special place. My previous company, Dialpad Communications, got acquired by Yahoo, and I could tell immediately that it wasn't going to be a good fit, so I only stayed there about three months and then left to start GrandCentral. When we started GrandCentral, we had a bias of keeping it as an independent company. And lo and behold, 18 months later Google came calling. We wanted to keep creative control and have the freedom and flexibility to build the product the way we wanted. Over the last three years that has been the case.
How has GrandCentral changed since it became a Google product?
From a back-end perspective, we’ve been able to leverage the strength of Google and build a system that can handle tons of users. From the product perspective, we’ve augmented quite a bit: All our numbers are now SMS-able; we’ve added the ability of voicemails to be transcribed in text; and you can check them online and search them, which saves users a ton of time not to have to listen to the whole message. You can play messages directly out of your Gmail inbox. Also, we can place international calls at extremely low rates and do billing. We’ve been able to roll out a Google-specific app for Blackberry and Android, and you can use that to place outbound calls.
I understand iPhone has blocked Google from putting Google Voice on the phone.
We submitted a really great mobile app to the App Store [last summer], and it has not been approved.
How much does that hurt you?
Not that much because we winded up building a great web-based app that you can use on the iPhone. It cost us a number of months, but now it’s out there. So you go to the website to access it. It behaves as though it is an app, it fires up just like an app, but it’s not an app.
What’s new with Google Talk?
Super high quality voice and video conferencing if you use Gmail. The users just need to download the voice and video plug-in. That has really improved my life. We have video chats all the time here at Google. Video’s a ridiculously good product. In the past the quality hasn’t been so good. Now it’s gotten so nice I think we’re going to see a lot more of it.
What else is new?
In November we bought this company called Gizmo5, which allows me to have my Google Voice number ring me on my cell phone, my desk phone and also my laptop, anywhere in the world. It is such a productivity enhancement. When I’m at home, my cell coverage isn’t great, or the cell is in the car, so I can take a call on the laptop, just by pressing a button. I recently went to Barcelona for the 3GSM World Conference, and that was the greatest. People would call my 925 local California number, and I’d be answering it for free over there in Spain.
You still work really long hours, not too different than your entrepreneurial days. What’s your daily work routine?
I’m on the [WiFi-equipped Google] shuttle at 7, working the whole way in, usually catching up on emails. Sadly, the day has more meetings in it than I’d wish. I catch up on emails again on the shuttle home at 6:30, hang out with the kids and work again for a few hours, which leaves about six hours to sleep.
You’ve always been an entrepreneur. Last time we talked you said, “I’d sit there in college and come up with, say, the best onion peeler.” So what’s it like working at a huge company like Google?
Google is as good as it gets for a big company. I miss the ability to have 30 people within earshot, and to be able to grab people at any time to have a discussion and make a decision. But I have to say, it’s not that different here. We have a very entrepreneurial team. The thing that excites me is creating something that has the ability to change the world. If my team can create a killer product, you really have the ability here to get a ton of people use it and make an impact on the world.
Do you feel like your entrepreneurial wheels are turning slower, now that you’re there?
Certainly the days haven’t slowed down at all. The ability to get things out to the public have slowed down a little bit, because you have to keep in mind that it has to work for everyone—a worldwide audience. As a start-up, you’re just trying to get [a product] out, you don’t have to worry about millions of users overnight. Another one of the differences is that at a start-up, you’re trying to get ideas out there, and you tell everyone all your crazy thoughts. Now I have to wait until it’s actually out there before I talk about it.