Former Waze CEO Noam Bardin seeks new destination

Noam Bardin Photo: Eyal Izhar

Bardin, a guest at Tuesday's Globes Business Conference, talks about life after Waze and Google, easing traffic jams, and why it's impossible to found a startup in Israel.

Noam Bardin did not found Waze but he is more identified with the satnav app than any other person. He served as CEO for 11 years until January 2021, during which time its user base grew to 150 million.

He led the sale of Waze to Google in 2013 and was appointed a VP of the tech giant until he stepped down a year ago. In a post that went viral he attacked Google's corporate culture and described situations that angered him. For example, when he tried to set up a meeting but encountered resistance from employees who could not take part because of 'a yoga lesson that could not be missed' in the middle of the day. "I was a strange person who wanted to push things through fast and I expected a certain amount of the personal sacrifice that was required," he said.

Since he quit he spends his time 'sitting at home' in New York. He is involved in an online micro-payments for content venture but is still searching for his next major step. Ahead of the Globes Business Conference 2021 in which he will be participating, he talks in an interview about life since leaving Waze and Google, explains why autonomous cars won't solve Israel's traffic jams, and why there is no reason not to be able to get from one place to another within 45 minutes.

"I was naïve when I thought that I could change things"

In Noam Bardin's LinkedIn profile it says 'sitting at home' followed by a smiley. Does this have any significance?

"That's right. I'm sitting at home and thinking what to do in the future, and smiling."

You left Waze and Google a year ago. Have you already cut yourself off emotionally?

"I had planned to leave at the end of 2020 and on the day that I announced that I was leaving, Israel went into lockdown. So I went through the entire 'grieving' stage during that period. When I came out of it, I was already emotionally prepared. I try to talk as little as possible with people I meet about Waze in order to move forward, and I'm now mainly thinking about the next stage."

Looking back do you have any pangs of regret? About the sale to Google? About the corporate culture that you found? You wrote that "I didn't get along so well with it."

"You are pushing me into a corner that I don't want to be pushed into. There is a certain conduct in acquisitions and ultimately nobody can change it.

"My mistake was that I thought I could change this, and that I could create something different and at the same time continue within the corporate structure. In a corporation there is a certain behavior, which is stronger than any individual and it was naïve of me to think that I could change it. Did we need to sell Waze or not during that period? It makes no difference because it happened. I think that my mistake was I thought that I could stay on and grow and build within Google. I should have made a switch and begin disengaging myself from the moment of the sale."

Did it harm the product?

"Not at all. The product grew. When we started talking to Google we had about 10 million users and when I left we were with 150 million. So the company grew within Google in an excellent way. Google gave us all the flexibility we could have asked for. So in the end it is a personal question of what everybody likes. For me personally it was right, in hindsight. But we did amazing things. Google gave us the budgets, and I am very proud of what the team did during that period."

"Israel's traffic jams. Everything is cheaper than building roads."

When we begin talking about the future of transportation in Israel, Bardin has a lot of proposals and recommendations for correcting the current situation and he believes that the jams can be remedied.

When Israel marks its 100th anniversary in another 27 years, will we be able to actually travel from one place to another?

"At the moment Israel doesn't have any policy on transportation, as in most countries worldwide, because to deal with real policies, with facts, is very painful for politicians. There is no simple decision here, or easy decision, or a decision that is friendly to voters. So at a national level, we need to decide what we want. There is no reason that in Israel you cannot travel to any place in the country within 30 minutes, if we leave out Eilat and Metula. It demands a substantial conceptual change for us about transport.

"There are several principles here. The first thing is the concept of people having their own car - that cannot work any longer, and that isn't something unique to Israel. That we build roads creates more demand for cars. Research conducted throughout the world shows that creating roads does not solve jams but the reverse.

"In Israel we're better at sticks than at carrots, but I would recommend beginning with carrots. That means several things, and the first thing is public transport. The concept that a person drives in a car from place to place has to disappear. The second stage - when we have reached the city center how do we get to the outlying areas? And here we have to strive for as many people as possible in a vehicle. Then there are many solutions that we can invest in, whether it is bicycles and bicycle lanes, which is one of the most efficient ways of moving people around in a city, especially in Israel where most of the country is flat and the weather is reasonable. And then there are electric scooters."

We are already flooded with them today.

"Still, they're part of the solution. The question is how we can put more people into every car. We need public transport lanes, lanes for full cars, each one of course with enforcement, and the right pricing for toll roads so that during rush hours it will be more expensive and will be more expensive to drive privately. In Paris they have just decided that they want to make it possible to get between any two points in the city within 15 minutes. It should be the same in Israel - we need to decide that it should take no more than 45 minutes to travel between any two places in the State of Israel - it's possible to plan it, it's not complicated. And everything that must be done to promote it will be much cheaper than building roads."

"The future: In another 50 years people won't drive."

Recently you wrote that autonomous cars are the biggest challenge for the current generation, like reaching the moon once was. Does that mean that it is not sustainable?

"It is definitely possible. In another 50 years people will no longer be driving. People will look on driving like they look at cigarettes. 'You let a person drive a car? That makes no sense.' But it could take a very long time, and it is going to take a very long time for technological reasons. We have a long way to go to reach the breakthrough that a car can drive like a human, in every situation and in all weather conditions, in every city and in every location. There are production problems. You have to produce these cars. We currently produce 70 million cars annually and there are a billion cars worldwide. There is the question of regulation and the question of the business model.

"All these things aren't related to jams because if all the cars today were autonomous there would be more jams not less - because people would drive further. If we are speaking about autonomous cars then the question is whether I would buy an autonomous car and go to work in it and need to park it, so nothing would change in terms of jams. Perhaps there would be fewer accidents but that would not change these traffic jams, which would get worse. But you don't need to wait for autonomous cars in order to deal with the traffic jams."

High-tech has problems: "Israel has been neglecting education for years."

Let's get back to the start of the interview - so what would you do today?

"The tech world today is very problematic. On the one hand, companies are raising huge amounts, and on the other hand there are no more talented employees. It's impossible to hire engineers. In Israel, for example, there are no more engineers. It's impossible to found a startup in Israel on any scale because there aren't any engineers. It's also a matter of policy - Israel has neglected education for decades and has neglected education of other sectors such as Arabs and the Haredim. And because we do not have enough engineers and talented employees, it's impossible to open companies, and most Israeli companies today are opening development centers in Eastern Europe.

"In the US, it's easier today to hire engineers. But overall, the whole world has the problem that there is not sufficient talent and trained people. In all this, I am looking for something to do. My criterion is to do something that I think is important, so that fintech does not interest me. I am looking for something that is a mission, so that I can look at myself in the mirror every morning and say, 'Wow I'm doing something important.' And things like that are difficult to find. So I'm sitting at home and smiling until I find something."

Thanks very much. I wish you well in finding it

"Thanks very much, and I hope you don't spend too much time in traffic jams."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 20, 2021.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2021.

Noam Bardin Photo: Eyal Izhar
Noam Bardin Photo: Eyal Izhar
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