Waymo’s Dan Chu: His biggest challenge leading during Covid? Uncertainty and a lack of data.

Waymo's Dan Chu: His biggest challenge leading during Covid? Uncertainty and a lack of data.

Editor’s note:Dan Chu, the chief product officer for Waymo, is one of the Silicon Valley Business Journal’s C-Suite Award honorees for 2021. The following interview was conducted via email earlier this month.

The technology of autonomous vehicles is one thing. Getting people to feel comfortable enough to get into a driverless car — and feel safe doing so — is something else, especially during a global pandemic. Yet that’s been a key part of Dan Chu’s job.

Chu, who has led Waymo’s product division since 2014, helped pull off a major feat last October when the Google-owned company opened a fully driverless taxi service in Phoenix. And as a leader, Chu says keeping a focus on Waymo’s culture through all the uncertainty was a necessity.

“Always remember that everyone we work with and interact with are people first,” he says.

Dan Chu, Chief Product Officer, Waymo

  • Company headquarters: Mountain View
  • Career path: Engineer for Icarian Inc., Catapulse and Open Harbor; Project manager and group project manager at Google; CPO of Waymo since 2014.
  • Education: A.B. and B.S., Stanford University; MBA, Harvard Business School; MPA, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Industry: Automotive
  • Company description: Autonomous automotive tech
  • Company type: Subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.
  • Year company founded: 2009

Looking back at the last 12 months, what’s been your biggest challenge as a leader?

I think one of the biggest leadership challenges over the last 12 months has been leading in the face of uncertainty around Covid.

At Waymo, we’ve pioneered fully autonomous driving and consistently prioritized safety as the core of what we do. We take a data-driven and principled approach, as outlined in our safety papers we released at the end of 2020, encouraging a new standard for transparency and safety accountability.

We took that data-driven and safety-first approach with Covid, but especially in the beginning we experienced the same challenges everyone did: lack of data and clarity around the best safety approaches since scientific knowledge was often incomplete or evolving.

Navigating that lack of data and clarity and finding new approaches to innovate and work toward our mission was the biggest challenge. But as data and greater certainty in the science behind Covid and how it spreads became available, we applied that information to find new approaches to innovate and work safely.

How have you managed your team through the Covid-19 crisis?

In the most fundamental sense, we’ve focused on keeping the team, and everyone involved with Waymo, safe.

From a product sense, that means that we introduced a number of new protocols and safety measures in both our cars and our offices. In the cars, this means everything from a rider mask requirement — even when you’re the only person in the car — to our new cabin air flush, a refreshing of the air in the car in between rides. We’ve also integrated Covid-19 testing, symptom and exposure screening, and data analytics for our frontline team members and partners.

But beyond these important safety measures, it’s more important than ever to focus on the culture of an organization. On a personal level, we’re all dealing with something we’ve never been through before, and all the challenges, fears and struggles that have come with it. Managing the team through Covid-19 has meant understanding that Covid has impacted everyone differently, and being flexible as a result.

And what about yourself: How have you taken care of your own needs?

As a family, we’ve had to work together to find what helps us stay balanced.

“Podding” with another family with kids of similar ages that have kept the same Covid prevention habits has been important both for our sanity and that of our kids. We’ve also embraced the outdoors in a way that we never had before, whether through road trips, exploring local hikes, or hosting grandparents in our backyard from a safe distance.

We learned that even if we were less than an hour away, being able to get away when we’re all bottled up at home for work, school and family time can be cathartic.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

Hindsight is always 20/20, but I will admit that the early months of this Covid reality were stressful.

I think one of the biggest challenges for me personally — and I know I’m far from alone in feeling this way — has been trying to balance family and work when the lines between the two are blurred, between remote schooling and remote work and none of the pre-Covid resources that you previously counted on. Especially at the beginning of Covid, I felt constantly distracted, pulled between work and family in a different way than ever before.

But if I had to go back and do it all over again, I would have pivoted from a stressed-out mindset to one that found the silver linings earlier. For example, we actually have much more laid-back weekends now.

Pre-Covid weekends were a different kind of stress, splitting up duties to shuttle kids from one activity to the next. Between school and afterschool activities, we typically would have had only the frantic morning rush to get them to school and the frantic evening rush to get them to bed. We’ve spent much more quality time with our kids this past year than ever before.

What is the main principle that has guided you throughout business?

Always remember that everyone we work with and interact with are people first. At every company there will inevitably be ups and downs, conflicts and friendships, successes and failures. It’s been helpful for me to always remember to put myself in the shoes of others, empathize with them to find constructive and collaborative paths forward.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

While obvious, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was a reminder that striving for simplicity is important.

It can be tempting to optimize for everything. While on paper it may seem to check all of the boxes, the reality of life means that overcomplicated solutions often don’t get fully realized, and reality always throws curveballs — whether a global pandemic or something else difficult to anticipate. One of the best things a product leader can do is find ways to simplify things for the organization, product or customer.


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