Steven Woods, engineering director at Google Canada, has deep roots in academia as well as the technology sector. Following undergraduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan, he completed a master’s and a PhD in computer science and mathematics at the University of Waterloo, graduating in 1995. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hawaii and spent time at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Woods is also as entrepreneur. His first company, Quack.com, was founded in 1998. He later sold it to America Online (the terms weren’t disclosed). In 2002, he founded NeoEdge Networks. Along the way he moved to California’s Silicon Valley, and in 2008 was hired by Google to return to Canada and oversee its engineering operations in Kitchener, Ontario. The office, which employs 200 people, is Google’s largest engineering office in Canada. It is located in a sprawling office complex that is quickly becoming a major high-tech hub, just a short distance from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Dr. Woods, who is 47, spoke to University Affairs about Google’s relationship with Canadian universities, what universities can do to foster innovation, and what qualities the search engine giant looks for in new recruits.
University Affairs: Is it a challenge to recruit employees?
Dr. Woods: In my opinion we have the best work environment, the best salary, the best benefits and the best projects. We have a lot of pluses in our favour so we do pretty well on recruiting. Can we find all the people we want in the time we want? Probably not. There are some skill sets in the area that are harder to find than others. The University of Waterloo is obviously a very strong attractor of top engineering and computer science students from the world over so we do well as a result of that. That’s one of the reasons we’re here [and] this has been a very productive place for hiring for us.
University Affairs: Which fields do you mainly recruit from?
Dr. Woods: It is largely computer science, software engineering-style programs. We also hire people from programs like systems design engineering. More recently we have been hiring mechanical engineers, electrical engineers in some of the newer projects we’ve started to work on. We’re always looking for multidisciplinary skill sets. We like to have [product managers] with some business background, often MBAs. We like people who have either started a company or have been involved in startup companies prior to coming to us. The best product managers at Google often have multiple backgrounds in humanities and in a technology area. We have acquired some companies in the last few years here in Canada. Quite often one of the attractors for these … is the talent they tend to attract. Often the founders have experience in user interface, in delivering consumer experiences, in building businesses and understanding what that means as well as a very technical background.
University Affairs: Are you seeing more women enter the field?
Dr. Woods: This is one of our major goals – the last thing we want is a monoculture. My personal opinion [is] that we need to do more in the schools and I don’t mean just in universities and colleges but well before that where we see unfortunate reductions in the number of women [going into] engineering and science programs and math. As a result, at Google we are very involved in the community. I have quite a few people working in high schools, in programs such as FIRST Lego League robotics, that bring a real sense of fun and engagement to engineering projects at a very young age. We have lots of evidence that suggests those types of programs and mentoring early really can help increase those numbers. My daughter is involved in one– she’s 15.
University Affairs: In your current role, what sort of interaction do you have with the postsecondary sector?
Dr. Woods: We spend a lot of time making people understand that if Canadians want to work for Google, they don’t have to move to California, they can come work for us here. As a result, we have relationships of various kinds with most engineering and computer science programs across the country.
With the University of Waterloo, when I came in 2008, I was here about one day before [former U of W president and now Governor General] David Johnston phoned me and said, “I want you to come in and talk to me about what Google is going to do for me.” (He laughs.) And that started a really great relationship. … We’ve done a lot of different things together, from symposiums, we’ve had sabbaticants in, we’ve spent time co-writing research proposals. We at Google have funded one major research grant at the University of Waterloo [$900,000 over three years to support research in context-aware mobile social networking] plus a number of smaller individual research awards. … We’re trying to spend time with startups. We’re trying to make sure we are available to them to talk about ideas or offer our advice or quite honestly take their advice about our products as well and find ways in which we can work together better.
University Affairs: Have you ever worked with the universities or faculty members directly or students on R&D?
Dr. Woods: Absolutely. We are an enormous supporter of the University of Waterloo and its co-op program. The University of Waterloo is one of Google’s largest three or four recruiting universities year-over-year, along with MIT and Carnegie Mellon. This makes Waterloo a very important location for Google worldwide. I personally attribute much of the success of [their] graduates to the strength of their co-op program and the great mix of very strong academic emphasis, great training, great faculty with the opportunity students get to spend time in industry at many companies, whether in California or Seattle or in Canada. Again, credit to David Johnston. He was very focused on ensuring that students had a chance to work abroad as part of their education. He thought that was a core part of educating Canada’s workforce for the next generation.
University Affairs: Canada ranks near the bottom of the OECD in terms of the proportion of businesses that collaborate with universities on R&D. I’ve heard universities say many times that they are ready and willing to do so but companies just aren’t stepping up. They don’t seek out the help and expertise that is available to them at Canadian universities the way their U.S. counterparts do. What do you think could be done about this?
Dr. Woods: In the world of science, engineering, mathematics – the world I live in – this university here and some other Canadian universities, the University of Toronto comes to mind, are very highly regarded. Kitchener-Waterloo for example is one of the top 10 worldwide areas for successful startup activity. Certainly Silicon Valley is the leader in all of these things, but I think we are starting to see that Kitchener-Waterloo is mentioned in the same breath as places like Boston or Seattle. So when it comes to name brands – the University of Waterloo, the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto – I think you would see that smart organizations are very well aware of the talent, and I don’t just mean of the students, I mean the faculty, and are very well aware of the value of joint research efforts. If one was to suggest what we could do better, I think there’s a certain degree of responsibility on both parts [to improve how we] organize and project manage. What’s the coordination point between a university and an organization like us? We both have to find ways to work together structurally day to day. There’s a fair bit of overhead in organizing meetings and creating reports and summaries and presentations. It just takes time and effort. And both universities and corporations have a responsibility to find ways to create structures to make it possible.
University Affairs: What else do you think that universities can do to foster innovation?
Dr. Woods: I’m a big fan of intellectual property freedom. I think this attracts a very interesting, different kind of graduate student and faculty member. I seem to be pushing the University of Waterloo more than I need to, but they are a great example of this. Their researchers and in fact their grad students, of which I was one, are the sole owners of the intellectual property they produce. The university has no specific rights to it. They have the opportunity to provide you with supporting services if you wish in exchange for some of it but the reality is you can walk off campus and create a startup and many faculty members from the University of Waterloo have been heavily involved in startups. I myself at the end of my PhD worked for my supervisor’s startup for a while on some work that we had jointly done. So I think this is a great thing. It spins out companies. It creates a dynamic interaction between faculty members and industry as they look for partnerships in the community. It attracts a very entrepreneurial type of student.
As for other things, I think you can argue that lots of universities are trying incubators and spinoff organizations with varying degrees of success. … There’s some successful companies in town, small and growing, that have come out of [the Velocity program at U of Waterloo] in just a few years. We recently acquired a company called BufferBox which actually was a company spun out of a fourth-year engineering project. Three fourth-year [students] in mechanical engineering had an idea about improving the way consumers receive packages. It is a really cool product. They managed to get it to market themselves. They went down to the U.S. to raise money … then they moved their company right back here. [At] a student symposium where they were presenting … I talked to them and left them my card, and sort of kept in touch and tracked their progress. We were fortunate enough to acquire them about a year and a half after they got their company going. But I think none of that would have happened without the open exchange between the university and the industry. Also, it wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t able to take that intellectual property and create a company.
University Affairs: Companies also play an important role in mentoring young graduates. How does Google do this?
Dr. Woods: We see a lot of co-op [students] every year both here and other Google sites around the world, and we encourage the graduates we see in an interview to go wherever they think they are interested in going, whether it’s California or Zurich, to get a different experience and come back here later. One of the reasons we are looking for new ways to mentor is that not everyone wants to work for Google and that’s fantastic. We still want to be involved in the communities. This morning Mike McCauley, who is one of the founders of BufferBox, and I spent the morning looking at the new startups coming into town trying to get funded by the incubator next door. So the incubator [HYPERDRIVE, a division of Communitech] asked us to come down and listen to some of the pitches and give our input, so we spent about four hours of our time doing that. And in the coming weeks we will spend one-on-one time each of us with some of these startups talking about their idea and how it might go further.
University Affairs: Are you finding that the graduates are well prepared when they come to you? Are universities training them well?
Dr. Woods: We’re a pretty picky company so we take the absolute best talent we can find. I would say Canada does very well in this regard. Students that come out with industry experience are more valuable to us as an approximate rule than those that don’t. And students that come out with a broad perspective are more valuable to us than those who don’t.
University Affairs: Is there something they should be doing to prepare students differently given the technological and digital changes that we’re seeing?
Dr. Woods: Breadth of experience … has been a big thing for us. It’s wonderful to have someone who has a strong math background and can write software – this is the core of what we do. But at the same time we need people who understand the way people think, the way people interact with one another, people who understand and design user interface and the psychology behind these things. Visual design matters a lot in the way consumer products are experienced. These are very important things to us. So people who have more than just one of these things are enormously valuable and I think they are enormously valuable for the country. …
I spent some time in Vancouver a little while back going to some of their software design schools which are focused on game development. These are interesting places and they have a lot of people who think a lot about how people interact with digital objects and the way people interact with machines, so we had some really interesting conversations. We don’t have as much of that skill set in Ontario and I think it’s something Ontario could use. Wilfrid Laurier University produces strong business graduates and they are looking at a new program now in combined business and computer science [offered jointly] with the University of Waterloo. I think that will produce a whole generation of very interesting people with business backgrounds and software development backgrounds. And now [U of Waterloo] has started [a Stratford campus with a focus on digital media] which is more about the human side of this. It is really focused more on how people use and experience technology, and we recently brought on several interns from there … They’ve been just a wonderful set of younger, brilliant people from a slightly non-technology background but more from the humanities side of technology. I like the diversity, and this area happens to have a lot of it.