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The Friendly Network
While interactive social networking is a fairly new phenomenon for most Internet users, in an exclusive interview, Jordan Business talks to one of the field’s brightest innovators. Sami Shalabi, a Jordanian graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founder of Google Friends Connect, sheds light on the recent popularity of interactive social applications and their benefits for Internet consumers. Also, with 10 registered patents to his name, Shalabi explains what he believes are the determinants of his success in a fiercely competitive world market.
Mr. Shalabi, your career path to date, and the accomplishments achieved throughout, highlighted by the 10 registered patents to your name and a further 22 in the pipeline, speak volumes about your successes thus far. What would you say were the definitive building blocks of your success up until now? The first and foremost building block is having insatiable passion for what I do. Without passion, it is very hard to keep pushing the envelope of what is possible and what isn’t. When you are passionate, your heart and soul keep you eager to learn and grow as a business leader and innovative thinker, forcing you to never be satisfied with the status quo. When searching for new problems to solve, it is critical to view innovation as a process and not as an event. Every invention I have been involved with so far has been a result of an iterative approach to problem solving. Every attempt at a solution gives me more insight into the problem as well as an additional opportunity to question basic assumptions. New ideas for me have always come from outside my immediate problem domain. I always like to expose myself to many different domains because this is where I get my inspiration. Whenever
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I look at a problem, I start with the assumption that most problems have been solved elsewhere. This helps me focus on the ‘right’ new problems. Next, I look for the simplest possible solution. After all, the best and most powerful ideas are usually the simplest. Finally, I came to realize that in order to be successful I had to constantly seek out mentors. It really increases your odds for success if you have others helping you. Successful people understand this and know they need to give back in order to move forward. In the same way I seek mentors, I now look to help others. Your most recent accomplishment has been the co-founding of Google Friends Connect, which allows users to add interactive social applications to their own Web sites. With the Internet now heading towards an upward spiral of social-networking sites, applications and technologies, what is the main benefit of your latest innovation to the consumer? Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Making the Web more socially friendly helps us drive towards this mission mainly because a large part of the world’s information is still in people’s heads. Social interactions help capture this

tacit knowledge in a way that benefits all those involved. Google Friend Connect is an online service that lets Web masters add social features to their sites by simply copying and pasting a few snippets of code, with no advanced coding or technical background needed. Once a Web site is enabled, Google Friend Connect makes it easy for anyone to sign into a Web site, share a little bit about themselves through a personal profile, discover other people with similar interests, invite their contacts, discuss the site’s content, and interact with friends. Even better, users don’t have to deal with the hassle of creating yet another username and password; Google Friend Connect lets users log in using an existing account from Google, Yahoo, AOL, or OpenID. Similarly, users can choose to either establish a new profile or use profiles and friend sources from other social networks that have opened up their services such as Twitter, Plaxo and orkut. To help facilitate an open social Web, Google Friend Connect uses open standards like OpenID and OAuth, to makes it simple for people to instantly interact with one another on the sites that they already love to visit. Additionally, Web sites that use Google Friend Connect become OpenSocial containers, capable of running appli-

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cations created by the OpenSocial deApart from being able to “soveloper community, allowing the com- cialize on the net,” what are the munity to participate in building new main benefits, in your estimaand innovative social applications. tion, of having social applications attached to Web sites? How With fierce competition from do you think, if at all, they can other heavyweight social-net- be applied to Jordanian and reworking sites such as Facebook gional Web sites and what are and MySpace, what factors did the benefits to be derived from you consider in your endeavor to their incorporation? ensure that your latest innovaSocializing Web sites has tremention was innovative, distinct and dous benefits because it allows for the competitive? creation of an unrealized community If you look at the way social activ- and the authoring of new content ity takes place today, you would notice around a context. For example, I read it is concentrated in social networks. ArabCrunch.com, a blog about techYou have to go to a specific site such as Facebook or MySpace to be social. From a broader perspective, going to a particular destination to be social seems broken. In the real world, you do not go to nology in the region. Adding social one place to be social, but you are so- features to ArabCrunch allows readers cial everywhere you go: at home, at like me to join the ArabCrunch comwork, at school, at a party, etc. munity and interact with other readers. Without social features, I would Having a few destinations to be so- have never been able to discover who cial reminds me of user-generated else is interested in ArabCrunch, let content (UGC) several years ago. In alone interact with them. the early days of UGC, you went to Wikipedia to do UGC. Now UGC is The beauty of an open platform is not a destination, but a concept that that anyone can build social applicaexists everywhere on the Web. Now it tions and use them to socialize online, is commonplace to leave a comment therefore allowing an eco-system to on eBay, Amazon, Maktoob, etc, get created in all regions of the world and users can and do contribute to and across a variety of niches. Local most conversations that occur on the Web sites and local application develWeb. In the same way UGC changed opers understand their markets better from a destination to a ubiquitous concept, we believe social networking is on a similar transformation. Social is a concept that should be everywhere. For example, when you read a merchant’s review on eBay it would be great to see what your friends said about the same mer- than anyone. They can use this unique chant. I also read a lot of specialty knowledge to create more compelling sites, such as ArabCrunch and Mash- social experiences that benefit their able. It would be nice if I could actu- local markets, while openness allows ally have social interactions with peo- innovation to occur everywhere and ple on those sites without those sites by everyone. having to become a social network. Prior to joining the technical Google Friend Connect is about enteam in Google Inc in 2007, you abling this transformation.

“When searching for new problems to solve, it is critical to view innovation as a process and not as an event.”

co-founded Zingku, a company that was successfully acquired by Google after receiving major funding for the innovative technologies you had a first hand in architecting. Assuming that you would consider this a significant personal success, what, in your belief, are the pre-requisites to successfully transitioning an innovative theory into an applied reality in such a competitive commercial world? Early on in my career I learned that when you do anything it is important to be able to measure and report success. Therefore, everything I have done must have a success metric tied to it. This allows me to ensure that I can identify successes when they do occur. When we started Zingku, we built a service that allowed for the multi-channel (mobile, IM, email, Web) exchange of data (message, photos, etc). We had a collection of services to offer (sharing media, mobile flyers, polls, invites, etc). We did not know which were going to be the popular services and were constantly dreaming up new services to build. However, as time progressed, we found that our service was really popular among musicians, causing us to focus more on that niche. We would have not been able to figure this out unless we kept iterating and tracking success metrics. Second, it does not matter how innovative your work is if your clients are not using it. It was critical for us to listen to our users and understand the problems they wanted solved. In the consumer space, you always start the day with zero users. Every day your users can move to use another competing service. To keep your users, you need to identify their needs and keep solving their problems; otherwise they will not come back. A rapid iterative approach to development was, therefore, one of the most important principles we had at Zingku and now at Google Friend Connect. It is only through
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“Socializing Web sites has tremendous benefits because it allows for the creation of an unrealized community and the authoring of new content around a context.”

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rapid iterative development that you can learn and adapt. Third, the success of any business is directly tied to the quality of the people working on it. It is always a team that is executing an idea, not an individual. A team that complements and works well with each other is critical. When we were hiring at Zingku, we had a principle to only hire and keep A-plus players, both in skill and attitude, for A-plus players feed off each others’ creativity, drive and passion. As a scientist of Jordanian origin, you are what many, including the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship, would consider an “exodus Arab scientist.” Regional statistics suggest that over 33% of the total brain drain heading westwards originates from the Arab world and that approximately 45% of Arabs who complete their higher education abroad do not return to their country of origin. As an MIT graduate, you seem to fit the category. What, in your perspective, are the main reasons behind this phenomenon? Which of the factors you outlined played into your decision to remain in the US? I believe the exodus now is driven by the lack of awareness of opportunities in the region. Western institutions spend a huge amount of time, energy, and money recruiting the best and brightest. When I graduated from MIT, the presence of Arab institutions was non-existent, in contrast to the numerous attractive offers I received in the US from organizations based there. Now things are a little better in some fields, such as management consulting, but are still far from ideal. Once you join a Western institution, there are well-established retention and growth programs that make it unattractive to move within the country, let alone to another country. Finally, it is a strategy for some developed countries to put the best and brightest on a path to citizenship, helping them plant deeper roots in their new home.
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“I am so excited about how multi-nationals are looking at the need for establishing themselves in the region, validating it as an important market.”
All these played a role in my decision position as a host country? to stay in the US. I am so excited about how multinationals are looking at the need for Recruiting top talent requires more ac- establishing themselves in the region, tive engagement from the region. If we validating it as an important market. I are going to retain our best and bright- can only see good coming out of this. est, the region needs to go after them, It is not only good for the local econootherwise others will. This involves a my, in so far as attracting more foreign strategy that not only includes recruit- investment, but in helping transfer institutional knowledge and best practices. The osmosis effect that comes from these entrants will be far reaching. They will improve the overall business climate, provide ment, but requires offering more in the better opportunities for educational areas of recognition, rewards, incen- institutions to engage with industry, tives and societal integration. help other multinationals make similar entries, get talent coming back, Moves to attract large infor- and change business and intellectualmation-technology and com- property laws to be more businessmunication giants to Jordan, and entrepreneurial-friendly. through initiatives such as the El Hassan Science City and others, Jordan is at a key advantage point behave gained momentum within cause of its central location, outstandthe country recently, with re- ing and cost effective high-end talent ports that Microsoft, Cisco and pool, and stable political climate. Google have all signed on. What What is exciting about the El Hassan benefits do you think the entry Science City, in particular, is that it deof these multinationals will have clares Jordan’s commitment to science on the overall Jordanian econo- and technology, making the Kingdom my? What comparative advan- an obvious home in the Arab world tage does Jordan have to sell its for science and technology.

“…it does not matter how innovative your work is if your clients are not using it.”