While building products, Uber's CXOs are now talking to driver partners in markets outside the US to find out what works and what doesn’t, a possible result of a change in the company culture.
A Head of Products is generally regarded as someone who is the epicentre of a tech company. However, in the last few months, the epicentre of Uber has moved quite a lot after the resignation of key employees, board members and even the company's co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.
The troubled year, however, has been a treasure trove of important learnings, feels Daniel Graf, Uber’s VP and Head of Products.
Uber hired Graf in 2015, who is an entrepreneur who founded and sold his company Kyte before moving to Google.
“The backlash has brought forth collaboration to the fore in many ways. Sometimes when you are on a high growth trajectory, collaboration often takes a back seat. You are only focusing on problems,” says Graf, on a visit to India, one of Uber's key markets outside the US.
Graf is credited with the feat of launching Google Maps for iOS. Before joining Uber, Graf was head of products for Twitter. Currently, he oversees everything at Uber, from surge pricing to dispatching. For him, Uber has been a crazy, but a positive experience.
In the last few months, however, the company has toned down, taking a much more dedicated approach to work in a collaborative environment.
“It was a pivot actually, with Dara (Khosrowshahi) joining Uber as CEO. He is the right person to take Uber to the next level. At Uber, we are taking it as a new chapter; we are taking it to the next level,” Graf says.
Naturally, Uber has little choice but to change its policies.
In June, a law firm hired to run an internal investigation into Uber’s “toxic” work culture, harshly criticised the company.
A 13-page recommendation list of over 40 suggestions touched upon various issues highlighting the need to eliminate certain company values like “Let Builders Build” and “Always Be Hustlin’,” which were used by the company in the past to justify bad behaviour.
The recommendations also suggested the company to tone down its predatory approach to market expansion.
In India too, Uber has been at loggerheads with the government authorities regarding several road transport rules violation.
Uber has categorically said it doesn’t want to adhere to India’s stand against surge pricing.
Now, Graf says, the company is a lot more cross-functional, where conscious efforts are being made to bring members of other teams on product development. The US-based company is basically changing its approach to how it operates.
“This kind of change never would have happened, or would have happened at a much slower pace if we were not forced to look within and re-evaluate business practices,” Graf says.
The change in the company’s narrative is an indication that the company is now moving away from rapid growth and expansion that fueled Uber previously, towards a more thoughtful evaluation of the product.
“We need to earn back respect and trust among our users and driver partners. Technology alone will not do that. It is a lot about being good human beings and listening. For instance, one of the crucial reasons for our visit here in India is to talk to driver partners and listen to them, find out what works and what doesn’t. If I tell you everything is great, that is just not true. There is a lot of room for improvement and we are young,” Graf says.
The Uber senior team – including Manik Gupta, Head of Product, Marketplace and Maps; and Peter Deng, Head of Uber Rider Experience – has been touring Delhi, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad.
In terms of technology, there’s a lot brewing at Uber. To start, the company launched a dedicated marketplace for its driver partners to avail loans, insurance, car maintenance and much more.
Addressing the security issue, the ride-hailing app launched a face-recognition ID approval system for drivers in August that will require them to take a selfie before accepting rides. The move is to avoid duplication of driver details and to curb impersonation by unregistered drivers.
The US-headquartered company also extended the share trip option to drivers to increase safety features for the driver partners.
“The new rider app that was launched also changed the game for Uber,” Graf says.
The company is now running several experiments in-house to increase the use of artificial intelligence to help its driver partners with predictive analysis.
“Our driver partners need stable and predictable earnings and we can help them in that. If next week is a holiday, we need to know that and tell them. That transparency is important. We can predict if a public holiday is going to have low demand based on data. We can also push analysis on weekly basis – which day has higher demand, which will provide flexibility to drivers to plan their days of work,” Graf explains.
“We are automating a lot more and get more data in the system. Our city teams communicate with the drivers on call or SMS at this moment. But I think we can do a lot more about it,” he adds.
Uber has already started pushing a detailed statement to Uber drivers after every ride that elaborates on how much the rider paid, did they get a promo code, how much cut the driver got from the total fare, and how much did Uber retain.
“We are moving towards full transparency and this is the first step,” Graf says.
But a crucial pain point in Uber app still needs to be addressed – the estimated arrival time.
“Maps are central to what we do at Uber. Now the system updates and refreshes itself based on available data but ETA is often not accurate. If a driver goes to a wrong location, we don’t have a way to determine the exact time and distance between the driver and rider, Graf elaborates.
Uber is working on several mapping technologies globally. While in some markets like Singapore, Uber mounts a mapping system on cabs, otherwise it depends heavily on Google maps, layering it with its own APIs.
“We are looking at every market and looking at the available mapping infra to see what we can do and how we can improve it best. We are experimenting things, and then it will depend on several things on how we roll them out,” Graf says.
Last year, Uber had announced plans to spend USD500 million on an ambitious global mapping project.
In India, Uber on Thursday opened an engineering office in Hyderabad, which will house its maps division to address the challenging traffic scenario in the country.
The company has announced a slew of India –specific solutions including a new feature that allows Uber users to book a cab for friends and family in different cities.
Acknowledging the poor reach of internet in the country, Uber also launched a nation-wide number for people to call and book a cab.
This will allow Uber to expand its reach in India to the population who don’t use a smartphone or have a limited network.
Another product Uber launched is offline destination search, targeting to bypass issues of patchy network and fluctuating internet connection.