“So what is Hugo Barra like?”
If I had a Dollar for every time I have been asked that question from late 2014 till his recent, surprising departure from the company he played a major role in making a household name in India, I would have accumulated a small fortune. They say that no media person should ever get too close to his subject. Well, a reflection of how close I am perceived to be to the former Xiaomi Global Vice President can be gauged by the fact that when he stepped from his post a few days ago, I was being asked: “Do you know what your Hugo has done?” And of course, this has since changed to “So your Hugo has joined Facebook?!”
How close am I to Hugo Barra? I don’t really know the answer. I think he might know it better. But yes, what I do know is that we often end up talking whenever he visits India. And the conversation is less about technology than about other things – tennis, books, people we knew and so on. And every time we ended up talking, there was speculation that I would join the company (one of my esteemed colleagues even alleged I was working on the sly for them – a pity, because he is normally better informed than that). Well, for the record, I never did. We just talk a lot because I guess at some level, we managed to understand each other beyond our professional roles of tech Vice President and tech scribbler. You know something? I have never interviewed him formally face to face. There always seemed something else to talk about. And inevitably it had very little to do with technology.
So what is Hugo Barra like?
The answer is not an easy one. For the man has many shades and some of them seem to contrast dramatically with each other. I have seen him sit patiently through a crowd disturbance (at the launch of the Mi Max) seemingly unflappable and I have seen him lose his cool at a question about a competing product. I have seen him prepare for hours for presentations, and I have seen him “wing” them with a fraction of the preparation at times. I have seen the man pose happily with his teammates and be the life and soul of a party. And I have seen him sit quietly, not saying a word for several minutes. I have seen him get annoyed at certain product reviews and articles (and with me at least on two occasions) and yet treat others that were far more critical of him in a benign manner.
Hugo Barra has the gift of being different persons for different people. Some might call it cunning, some might call it hypocrisy, others still might label it charm or charisma, but I think it is something far more fundamental – somewhere deep inside, he hated annoying people (“He cares,” is how Donovan Sung summed it up – succinct as always). Yes, he can be direct, painfully so, but from what I have heard, his affection is fierce too. Speaking about him on Tech Talkies, Manu Jain, Xiaomi’s India head told us that one of the most important things he has learnt from the Brazilian was the ability to show affection, and of all the senior executives I have seen, he certainly is the most demonstrative when it came to expressing adoration for his team. He is the lord of the team selfie, hugs and always seemed to find time to praise someone or the other from Xiaomi.
How he manages time is also something that always fascinated me. He always seemed to have something to do, and yet he always seemed to somehow do them. And so many of them are the little things – the selfie with a fan, the response to a mail, a quick tweet on Twitter, and a whole lot more. Yes, the man has phenomenal communication skills no doubt, but somewhere down the line, what allows him to build bonds with people is his ability to make time for them – that said, we never did get time for a detailed interview with him. Managing his schedule must be a nightmare but somehow – somehow – things always seemed to work out. Which is why he is always “Hugo” even to the most casual Mi Fan – the friendly chap who always somehow managed to reply to your query or remember you in a crowd. And his social skills are spot on too – he would make it a point to walk you to the door or the staircase. Once when he could not because he was on a call, he asked a colleague to do so. “Why,” the colleague asked. “Nimish knows the way.” Hugo paused and placing a hand over the phone said, “Because it is what we do for our friends.”
He is, of course, best known to most people as a master presenter. And this is because he actually used to rehearse seemingly endlessly and micro-manage details to a level that some people would find ridiculous. I once heard him complaining that a slide in a presentation looked too pixilated. “It will be on screen for a bare two-three seconds. No one will know,” someone remarked. Barra’s response was simple: “Yes, but I will.” Yes, it sometimes made some of his presentations seem over-elaborate but they were never dull – the man seldom misses a line and always seems to have a witty line up his sleeve to make the crowd laugh. He did love crowds, though. Barra in front of hundreds of adoring Mi fans is a very different creature than one in a briefing with “select media.” It is a bit like Batman and Bruce Wayne – he always saves the best for the big crowds. “He is a bit of a diva, isn’t he?” one of my more cynical colleagues had remarked after Barra had imitated Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan at a launch.
And yet somewhere deep inside, I think Hugo Barra is a quiet person. Some might find the notion ridiculous, given his flair for publicity and sense of fun (he danced in a wig and dark glasses at the Mi Pop event in Mumbai) but I always felt that beneath the showperson was a quieter, very intense person. It is a side of him that sometimes could be caught when he was not on stage – unlike some people, Barra does not talk a lot when he works and woe betide they who step into his bubble of tranquility. I once arrived for a brief interaction and saw him sitting on the stairs working on his notebook. I was about to go to him when his friend and colleague Jai Mani pulled me aside and said, “No, man, not now. Let him finish. He is in his zone.” For about fifteen minutes, Barra worked on his notebook and no one came near him. It was the closest thing to regal isolation I have seen in the corporate world. There were people all around him, and he sat quietly by himself, working away. That was when I started calling him Barra Sahib, a name that always got a laugh out of him. Incidentally, he is more of a smiler than a laugher – he often says “Ha!” abruptly instead of laughing.
He loves the crowd, but he is not a part of it.
What is Hugo Barra like?
He reads a lot (he would like to read more, I know), he is good at tennis, he loves the people he works with, he is very emotional, he is a great presenter, has a terrific command of the language (much better than most of the mediapersons who interview him), likes trying different cuisines and of course, has a terrific grasp of technology. He is a quote and pun generator. Pretty much a phenomenon. He is charismatic and is not afraid of change. He could have pretty much walked into any smartphone company but has opted to go for a new role at Facebook, something which has very little to do with making mobile phones. He will carry with him a flair for team building, community nurturing and fantastic presentations. And no, contrary to what a lot of people thought, I had no idea of where he is headed. Indeed, I had no inkling that he was leaving in the first place, although I did find the Redmi Note 4 presentation (his final public appearance in India, it seems) a trifle low-key by his standards.
They say that no media person should ever get too close to his subject. But can I confess something?
Yes, I have always been objective when writing about him (Raju PP would never let it be otherwise). No, I have never let our acquaintance or familiarity get in the way of my work, or writing about Xiaomi. And it will be the same now for Facebook.
But I always felt a twinge of pride whenever someone said “YOUR Hugo Barra…”
Barra Sahib can have that effect.
MY Barra Sahib.
He might be at Facebook. But he remains My Barra Sahib.
(The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and not of TechPP.)