Ilana Strauss: Brainstorming a group project? Start a Google Doc. Drafting a report? Share it with your boss in a Google Doc. Menu planning for your camping trip? Google Doc. But collaboration was not always this easy.
The year, 2005. The internet, Web 2.0. It's interactive, responsive, collaborative. New developments in software mean the possibilities are endless – except when it comes to collaborating with a colleague.
Claudia Carpenter: At the time, document sharing meant sending your Microsoft Word document around, so they were trying to come up with a better way to do that.
Ilana Strauss: Adobe wanted it. Pearson wanted it. Google wanted it. Bill Gates, well, he actually made fun of it and wanted to shut it down. The "it" we're talking about is something called Writely. It's this online word processor that would go on to become Google Docs, which I'm actually using right now as I read this podcast script. But when people first tried it, they kinda freaked out.
Claudia Carpenter: It had no save button. We got this litany of complaints because it was just ruining everything for them.
Ilana Strauss: I'm Ilana Strauss, and you're listening to When It Clicked, an original podcast from ClickUp. On this podcast, we meet the people behind the business stories and the products that you think you know and bring you the secret history of how it all came together, to the one moment when it all, finally, clicked. Today, the story behind the most ubiquitous document sharing program of all time, the brilliant people who revolutionized the way we work together, and the way we had to retrain our silly human brains to keep up. This is When It Clicked ... for Google Docs.
So these days, no matter what you do, part of your job probably involves sharing documents in the cloud. Maybe it's a spreadsheet, maybe it's a slide presentation, but there's probably some way that you and your boss and your coworkers are all looking at the same document and editing it in real time. We take that kind of real-time, virtual collaboration for granted today, but once upon a time, if you were working on a paper with a colleague, there were a whole lot of steps you had to take before you could see each other's work.
Claudia Carpenter: Oh God, this is so old. Oh my God, how funny this looks. I'm Claudia Carpenter. I was one of the creators of Writely and the tech lead on Google Docs. I'm a UX designer and a front-end software developer.
Ilana Strauss: That old, funny-looking thing Claudia was talking about? It's an online app called Writely.
Claudia Carpenter: And it was a fiesta of color. And I got to say, mine's still better than Google's, but it's funny to look at, and it looks very cartoony to me looking at it now. I've got everything in the world packed into one thing.
Ilana Strauss: So Writely was the first ever in-browser word processor. And it would ultimately change the way that people work and collaborate forever. But Claudia is the first to admit that her teen self had no idea she would have this effect on the world.
Claudia Carpenter: I got to tell you, I was a party girl, and I was trouble. I was one of those people that my teachers all said, "Oh, but you could do so much better if you would just try." And I'm like, "Try? What's with that? I got places to be and things to do, my mother's signature to forge."
Ilana Strauss: And she ended up in tech totally by chance. A relative encouraged her to try electrical engineering at Stanford and, having no other plans, she did. And she immediately became one of the best students.
Claudia Carpenter: By the time I got to college, I was partied out. I was ready to go. So I was the most annoying student to the other students because I would be in a room of 200 men in a huge physics lecture, and I would be the top score and the teacher would make a big deal out of it. And I was like, "Yeah, this is what I'm doing now."
Ilana Strauss: She switched over to computer sciences in her final year.
Claudia Carpenter: So it was really clear to me that software was the way to go because it's malleable. It's one of these beautifully forgiving things. It doesn't matter what you do. You can erase it and start over. So with hardware, you're committing to a physical thing. Same thing with art, so many things that we do, it's like you get it done and that's it, you can't change it. But software's this beautiful thing that you can just keep refining. And that mindset, for better or for worse, has permeated my entire life.
Ilana Strauss: She first became aware of user experience after finishing university and getting a job as an engineer at HP.
Claudia Carpenter: The UX part of my career really does start at HP, even though, at the time, that wasn't what HP was about. HP, at that time, was still building calculators that they could drop from helicopters and put in ovens, and they would do fine. But one of the things that we did was we had something that nobody else did at the time, which was that we would bring in customers and we would watch them and we would film it. And we had this wonderful woman who set up the first usability lab that I'd ever seen at HP.
Ilana Strauss: She took that experience with her to her next big job at Intuit, the company that makes quick and accounting software and is actually still going strong today with products like QuickBooks.
Claudia Carpenter: And so observing people, I spent, oh my goodness, how much time in the usability lab at Intuit. Because where HP was starting that, Intuit really perfected it and made it part of the entire culture.
Ilana Strauss: That's where she would meet the people who would change her life and who she'd work with to change the world, Sam Schillace and Steve Newman.
Claudia Carpenter: I remember they were in a meeting room and I came in and I had no idea that they were even going to be there. It's like, "Who are these people?" And they happened to be friends with our VP of engineering, Dan Levin, at the time. And this was when there was a crash, the dot-com bubble bursting, and everybody was out of work. So, normally, they wouldn't have needed a job. But things were pretty desperate at the time, and so they were looking to larger companies to work on things. And I remember walking in and seeing them and what the heck? And they just seemed like aliens to me. I mean, good aliens, and to this day, I always accuse Steve Newman of being a martian. And I learned to humor him and, for me, it just added another mindset to be aware of. I collect mindsets and perspectives. I'm fascinated with how people do things, the problems they're trying to solve, and how it's different than my brain. The problem with it is it is martian, and it needed to be translated to earth speak, which is what I then spent the next 15, 16 years doing.
Ilana Strauss: So after a couple years, Sam and Steve invite Claudia to leave Intuit with them to create their own thing.
Claudia Carpenter: I had been wanting to leave for a while, and having my second child was a pivot point for me. It offered an opportunity, in timing, to do that. I just was going to be out of there. I was so excited to go do something with Sam and Steve, didn't know what it was going to be. We had no idea. It was just exhilarating for me. We worked on top of Steve's garage. He had a big room, a big attic room with a big, huge pool table in it, and lots and lots of Lego. That was another thing that they introduced me to. I mean, I knew what Lego was, but nothing compared to the hours that we spent arguing and making Lego bridges. Steve was always trying to make the longest Lego bridge possible without center supports. And we would just sit there arguing while he did it. So the atmosphere, honestly, it's masculine, not macho because it's nerd dude environment, but very free to do whatever. I just never felt like there was any judgment or doing anything wrong.
Ilana Strauss: This is the environment where Google Docs, the software that would go on to change everything, was born.
Ilana Strauss: Of course, Bill Gates was wrong. Writely had one key difference from Notepad. Because it was browser-based, more than one person could work on a document at the same time. That meant no more sending a million versions of Microsoft Words back and forth. And making that a priority was an idea that came from an early test user of Writely, Claudia's brother.
Claudia Carpenter: Luckily for us, at the time, my brother, who was a professor and working on a textbook with a colleague that was remote to him was having trouble sending their Microsoft Word documents back and forth. And he was happy to try it, and it was awesome to have this captive user very early on.
Ilana Strauss: So having a professor for a brother offered other advantages too, a captive pool of testers: his students. But that experiment was not so well received.
Claudia Carpenter: One of the most useful things we had about six months into Writely was my brother had a class of graduate students. He was an MBA professor, and he had the audacity to make his entire class do all of their assignments in Writely. And, oh my goodness, was that controversial at his college because these students were all over the... come from all over the world. And here they were using this terrible software that was the dumbest thing ever. It had very little functionality to it. It had no save button. We got this litany of complaints. They went to the dean and tried to get my brother's idea here rescinded because it was just ruining everything for them.
Ilana Strauss: So Claudia, Steve, and Sam took their feedback and kept working to make Writely more usable. And as the program developed and grew, they realized they needed some help.
Jennifer Mazzon: My name is Jennifer Mazzon, and I was a senior product manager at Google, where we launched Google Docs.
Ilana Strauss: These days, Jennifer is the product lead at a startup called Evidation Health, but before any of that, she worked with Claudia at Intuit.
Jennifer Mazzon: I have a very clear memory. I was at Intuit, in my office. It was early evening, and Claudia called me because we had worked together at Intuit in prior years and had a lot of fun working together. And she said, "Jen, you know that Steve and Sam and I have been working on different projects, and there's this one project that we've been working on that now has users, and we need your help." And I was so excited that I started helping him out right away, in the evenings as my second job.
Ilana Strauss: So, eventually, Jennifer left Intuit and joined the Writely team full-time. And other than the three founders, Jennifer was the company's only employee. And part of her job? Reading all the feedback emails that Writely users sent them.
Jennifer Mazzon: I remember, very distinctly, there was this one early user who really wrote us a note that was so heartening about the fact that his parents were divorced. And so he was not only going back between home and school, but doing multiple households in school and how Writely had really saved him so many headaches because he didn't have to keep track of where his files were physically stored on different computers.
Joe Burgess: I don't remember any feature of it, other than how cool it was that I could type on one computer, open a browser on another computer, and that thing I was typing would show up. It was that live, shared, collaborative typing feature, which is what made me go, "Holy cow, this is incredible."
Ilana Strauss: That's Joe Burgess. He was a teenager who was interested in coding and software development. And he actually discovered Writely at high school. He used it to work on group projects with his friends, and they loved it. It was way better than sending different versions of Word docs back and forth.
Joe Burgess: You just made less mistakes, actually, because inevitably, with the version one, version two... I mean, this is still something I see people doing a lot, especially in the legal profession, where you email a version back and forth and then, inevitably, someone accidentally opens version four when the latest version is version six, and then you have these divergent worlds and it's a pain. Where with Writely, there always was one very obvious "This is the document we are working on." And so what that meant is that writing was still less frustrating and a little bit less error prone and, to be honest, a little bit more fun. I think collaboration is really different when you're working on something literally together, in that moment, versus partnering on something. That's the difference between working on a whiteboard together in person on a problem and sending emails back and forth.
Claudia Carpenter: Most of the feedback we got was just fabulous, and the uptake of it was so crazy. We had this plan that we were going to go to Hawaii when we had 10,000 users. And that happened so quickly that it was like, "Oh no." And Steve Newman, one of the co-founders, tells this story of me looking at the usage, and I said, "Make them stop," because, frankly, it was just more than we could handle. We were always two weeks away from being completely overwhelmed on our servers, just provisioning them, and keeping up with it that it was a great problem to have, but it was still terrifying.
Ilana Strauss: Now they needed to scale up in a way that only a large company could. From the start, Claudia, Steve and Sam were inspired by Google.
Claudia Carpenter: We don't often discuss this, certainly not on a podcast, but yes, from the beginning, we designed Docster, which we then renamed Writely – I spent I don't know how long coming up with that name, and that was another thing we argued about. And we always wanted to sell it to Google because here was Gmail and it was email, and they had revolutionized email for us. And we thought we could give them document sharing.
Ilana Strauss: But of course, it wasn't quite that simple.
Claudia Carpenter: So we loved Gmail. We wanted to add to that portfolio that Google had. We had this idea. This was sort of the stew that was cooking, all the different parts, and that started Writely. And then we realized we really liked what we were doing. It wasn't necessarily something we wanted to give away the control for. So it became its own thing, and we stopped focusing on Google. That was just a nice way to get where we wanted to ago. And then we were trying to build this thing, but it was unclear how we were going to make it into a business because this was back when all software was free and nobody bothered to figure out how that was going to work. So we were talking to just everybody about how we were going to move this into a real business.
So we met with just everyone at VCs, like crazy. We used to get 10 phone calls a day from VCs. It was nuts. Everyone wanted to give us money, and we knew that if we took money, then we would be beholden to them. So we didn't, but that left us in a bind. Because we weren't funded, how were we going to keep scaling? Because we were always, always two weeks away from melting down and not being able to keep up with the demand, and I didn't always know that. Sometimes Sam and Steve would hide that for me, because they knew I'd freak out. So when Google came knocking the very first time, we took a meeting with them and we were interested. We were like, "Okay, this is how we're going to save things."
Ilana Strauss: Interested, but not desperate. At least smart enough not to seem desperate.
Claudia Carpenter: I wasn't actually at the first meeting. So again, we're talking Sam and Steve. So with Sam, particularly, the abundance of confidence is noticeable when you meet him. He's an amazing guy, and he's a VP of I don't know what at Google now.
Ilana Strauss: He's the VP of engineering at Google now.
Claudia Carpenter: But he took the meeting by himself and we didn't go. We were just like, "Yeah, we're busy doing stuff." And Google's like, "Wait, where's your team?" They expected us to come and grovel and be thrilled and we didn't. We were just like, "Here's Sam." So I think they were a little bit surprised by that. It's okay. They said, "No." We were fine with that and moved on from there, but we continued that attitude as we went. Whoever we met with, we underplayed and it wasn't theater, although, in hindsight, it could have been. It wasn't. It was just how we were. We were very confident about that what we were doing was a game changer and interesting. We just didn't know how to get to the next place.
Ilana Strauss: So that first meeting with Google, it didn't go anywhere. But there were still tons of companies that were really interested in Writely, even if not all of them had the best intentions.
Claudia Carpenter: One of them wanted just to buy us and kill us, and I'll let you guess who that was.
Ilana Strauss: Yeah, so we asked Claudia to elaborate and she would not. But if we had to guess who the mystery company was, who wanted Writely dead, we might think back to this clue Claudia laid out earlier...
Claudia Carpenter: Bill Gates made fun of Writely.
Ilana Strauss: But regardless, what we do know for certain is that Google called them again.
Claudia Carpenter: We said, "No thank you." And I don't think that they were prepared for that. I think that they weren't used to having somebody say no thank you. So then things really took off, and we were back in the same boat again. It's like, "How are we going to keep up with this?"
Ilana Strauss: At this point, Claudia, Sam, and Steve are all working in an office above a garage, playing with Legos, corralling their small children, all while trying to maintain their increasingly popular online word processor – which is, naturally, always a couple weeks away from crashing.
Claudia Carpenter: It just got exhausting because when you've got a startup... Keep in mind, I still have two little children. They actually had little kids too at the time. We were all about the same, our kids were all about the same age. It was a lot. It was exciting. It was really fun. We loved it, but it was exhausting.
Ilana Strauss: And then Google decided to try them one last time. And third time's the charm.
Claudia Carpenter: So when Google called again, we said, "We'll take the meeting," and we decided to go with them. At that time, we did have other offers on the table, but it felt like the right match was Google because that's who we'd originally designed the software for.
Ilana Strauss: Google acquired Writely around the same time that they were picking up other browser-based apps that worked like other Microsoft Word applications, like spreadsheets and slides. The idea was to launch
what we now know as Google Drive: Docs, Sheets, Slides. They also picked up Google Maps around the same time, but that's another story. Anyway, the Writely acquisition was a big deal.
Claudia Carpenter: We came in there, and we were secret and no one could know about us. It was this big deal for Google that they had bought us. Again, I think they were thinking about competing with Microsoft at the time. So we came in, and they introduced us at one of their TGI Friday's. It's this company-wide meeting. And we gave a demo of Writely, and it was a big deal. And at the same time that was announced internally, we had to shut off all registration for Writely because it immediately was completely overwhelmed as soon as you get any kind of Google thing.
Ilana Strauss: As the product formerly known as Writely continued to be developed at Google, some functions were added, some features were streamlined, and it started to become the Google Docs we know today. Now,
let's talk about one of those things that you probably take for granted while you're typing in a Google Doc: Type, type, type, brilliant idea, type, type, type, another brilliant idea. Wait, did you just hit control S? Muscle memory, right? But you don't need to. Your Google Doc saves automatically after every single keystroke, and that auto save function was part of Writely from the start.
Claudia Carpenter: But we knew that that auto save was so critical for reliability. And then it actually became this really cool thing that you didn't have to save. Only other bit with that is that people still expected to save, and this is something you run into all the time with new paradigms.
Ilana Strauss: Nowadays, we take that stuff for granted. But early on, Writely, and then Google docs, had to make their users comfortable. So they included a save button, but...
Claudia Carpenter: It didn't do anything.
Ilana Strauss: And as the auto save function became even more fluid and effective, it seemed like a no-brainer to just get rid of the save button.
Claudia Carpenter: The truth is we just didn't need a save button.
Ilana Strauss: But users definitely don't think that way, especially not at first...
Speaker 5: I'm trying to save a document using my Chromebook. I clicked on files at the top. In Word, this list would have save or save as, and I can't find the save button.
Speaker 6: I want to know how to save a document. Please tell me how to save a document.
Speaker 7: I don't see a save button so have not tried anything.
Speaker 8: Can't find the save button.
Ilana Strauss: Those are all comments from Google message boards from frustrated users. There's even a wikiHow article called Three Ways to Save Your Google Doc. Spoiler alert, it's really one way, and that way is wait for it to auto save. So what do you do? How do you reassure your users that even though they don't need to press a button, their work is actually safe? Sometimes you just have to give people a placebo. Here's Claudia again.
Claudia Carpenter: So accommodating the control as the auto save and the little reminder was something that we ran into ourselves when we were using it. So even though we'd created it, you still have this muscle memory of the command S or the control S to save things, or least I do. And it's like whenever I'm using the software and it doesn't do exactly what I expected it to do at that time, then I don't change me, I change the software. So having it tell you what was going on was critical because you don't have the control. And you need that sense of control. So, for me, that just means letting people know what's going on. So you got to say, "Auto saved" and let that be a positive thing as opposed to, "Oh no, you just did something wrong."
Ilana Strauss: Years of Web 2.0 have finally retrained our lizard brains away from this emotional dependence on an obsolete button. And a lot of that training has happened so seamlessly that lots of us haven't even noticed.
Claudia Carpenter: Honestly, a lot of software design is the stuff you just don't notice. And when you get it wrong, people notice it. So just the fact that it just seemed to work gives you the impression that something is just very easy to use, which is what we were going for. We wanted anybody to bring it up and be able to do stuff. And you can see it now with people who were raised on Google Docs is that's just the way they expect things to work. It's like, "Wait, I have to save it" when they're using something else or "I have to take some other step," because the idea was to be as low friction as possible, make it as just trivial as possible and train people who have been used to the other slow, what we thought was, less effective way to interact and train them in a different way of doing things.
Ilana Strauss: And who knows what buttons we're taking for granted today that are just going to become obsolete. The next revolution could be right around the corner. Ultimately, as much as Google Docs has changed over the years, Claudia is still proud of Writely's legacy.
Claudia Carpenter: Oh yeah, Google Docs absolutely changed everything in the office software world. These days, pretty much every group I work with, whether it's volunteer things, kids at school, our company, everyone uses Google Docs. So I have no idea what that did to the Microsoft Office business, but it must be enormous. So, to me, Google Docs changed so much. And I meet people now that, when they know what my background is, they'll actually thank me, which is a really weird thing. It's like, "Oh, thank you, thank you. It's helped me so much." And I think part of what they're thanking me for it's free maybe. It comes from Google. Obviously, I don't work on it now, so it's like, "Thank you. I don't have anything to do with it now." But it has been so impactful for so many people.
Ilana Strauss: And remember Joe, that guy who was using Writely in high school? Well, guess what he's using nowadays to collaborate?
Joe Burgess: Google Docs all day long.
Ilana Strauss: And when he is working on a Google Doc today, can he still see Writely's roots?
Joe Burgess: Absolutely. Whenever I'm in Google Docs and I see someone else's cursor, right, that was Writely.
Claudia Carpenter: We changed the way people collaborate. We made it friction free. Now, is that good? Is that bad? I don't know. It really was about collaboration and how people work together and lowering the barrier to entry to that. I also really loved that it was free. It was so cool. We had people in Africa using it. We were really into the... This sounds corny now, but we were really into the democratization of the internet at the time. Access to the data was all so noble.
Ilana Strauss: You've been listening to When It Clicked, an original podcast from ClickUp. I'm Ilana Strauss. Thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard, leave as a rating and a review in Apple Podcast, and don't forget to subscribe in your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. This week's episode was all about how Google Docs changed the way that people collaborate. And ClickUp continues to do just that. Google Docs even integrates into the ClickUp platform. Visit clickup.com to learn more.