Unknown Android. Chapter 4: Hugo Barra

March 30, 2016
Personality
Android
Xiaomi
Andrey
Rudenko
Editor

From the MIT graduate to the product specialist

In 2013, Google lost another one of their valuable employees. Right after Rubin, Hugo Barra, chief of product management, left the company. Barra was born in Brazil, and after getting a major in electrical engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Barra entered the legendary MIT in Cambridge, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in administrative science and an expertise in electrical engineering and IT. During this time, he worked extensively on artificial intelligence, held the post of the class president and obtained his first experience in public speaking. 

Barra started his career in the LOBBY7 company, founded in 2000 by his university friends, where he worked on voice recognition software. Five years later, the company was taken over by Nuance Communications, and in 2008 Nuance itself became a part of Google. In 2010, Barra was appointed product manager. 

People person

Had you been an Android employee at that time, you could have felt that Rubin was somewhat distant from the other Google departments. It was up to Barra to blur the boundaries, to be fun, energetic and talkative with everyone, to be able to describe in plain language the product’s capabilities to whoever the need may be. 

The Nexus OS and Nexus devices required improvement, and feedback collection was an integral part of solving this challenge. With his friendliness and sociability, Barra became the face of Android. On Google I/O, LeWeb and other conferences, Barra showed the general public Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and KitKat, demonstrated the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 phones and Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets, presented the personalized Google Now search engine and the Google Voice Search system. One of the former Android employees called the “Rubin-Lockheimer-Barra” combination a triumvirate that could lead any enterprise to success. 

Office romance

The retirement of the Android’s negotiator might be one of the most gossipy events in the hi-tech world. Insiders told AllThingsD of a romantic relationship between Barra and a Google employee who later left him for their common colleague, Sergey Brin. Later the woman’s name turned up in the press; it was Amanda Rosenberg and she was the marketing manager for the Google Glass product line launched by Brin, who was undergoing a divorce with Anna Voyjitski at the time. Some claim that this affair was the reason for Barra’s retirement, others say that Barra had decided to leave before he knew of Amanda’s new boyfriend. 

Whatever the truth, the farewell letter was courteous and friendly, wishing Hugo Barra the best of luck. While the company will miss him, they were pleased to hear that he would remain within Android’s ecosystem. 

Chinese stage

In October 2013, Barra became the person responsible for the global promotion of the Chinese mobile device brand Xiaomi. Once an obscure name, Xiaomi is now known for debunking China’s reputation as a manufacturer of cheap and shoddy products. 

Barra was relentless in elevating the brand to the “Chinese Apple” status. On the Mobile World Congress that took place in February, he compared the recent Xiaomi Mi 5 model to iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy, and the result was not in favor of the Western devices. Barra shows off this stunning success in mischievous viral videos, made in support of the new Chinese flagship model, in which he skips rope and solves a Rubik’s cube. Xiaomi is now recognized globally thanks to the person who once presented Android to the public. 

Transition in Facebook

Barra wouldn’t stay in Xiaomi for long, and on January 25, 2017 it was announced that he would join Facebook as head of the VR department and leader of the Oculus team. Barra himself explained that this decision was the result of him missing his family and his old way of life in the Silicon Valley that he had to leave for the Chinese corporation: “Seeing how much I’ve left behind these past few years, it is clear to me that the time has come to return”. 

However, the media pointed out that some of the reasons to leave could have been more mundane. Xiaomi’s estimated value dropped from $46 to $3.6 billion within two years. In 2016, its sales dropped drastically as well (by 12% globally and by 45% in China), while European and American markets proved to be off-limits due to patent issues. To put it bluntly, Barra left the sinking ship. He also made a headline-making confession a couple of months beforehand: Xiaomi makes no money at all with its smartphones, and all the profits earned from sales are spent on salaries, developing new products and extending the store chain. In his own words, revenue would instead be generated by native software, smart home devices, accessories and other electronics. 

Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, highlighted his old friend’s passion for virtual technologies by posting the image of an office in which Barra and Zuckerberg’s virtual avatars are sitting together.

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Andrey
Andrey
Rudenko
Editor