Q & A with Google’s Chris O’Neill

Chris O’Neill, Google Canada | BCBusiness

Google Canada’s Chris O’Neill on tech entrepreneurship and moonshot thinking in Vancouver

With a packed house at the Hotel Vancouver on May 28, the Vancouver Board of Trade hosted Google Canada’s managing director, Chris O’Neill, for a talk on big-picture tech trends. Born in rural Ontario, O’Neill was introduced to business early, through his parents’ small Canadian Tire franchise, but cut his teeth in Silicon Valley. I sat down with him after the event to discuss the future of technology business and entrepreneurship in Vancouver.

You say you fell in love with Vancouver early. A lot of people feel that way, but how can we leverage that kind of affinity to benefit business here?
In the world we’re discussing borders become less and less relevant, in terms of the ability to work where and when you want. I think the other part is that quality of life is important. You think of millenials and younger generations—those things are more important, rather than less. People place a premium on the ability to head up to Whistler and snowboard, be able to go surfing, go kayaking, the moderate weather, being proximate to lots of cool things up and down the coast, so I’d say investing and leaning into cloud technology, mobility, those sorts of things is huge. And really playing up the quality of life, because in the long term that will win.

Does geography still matter?
There are five billion people coming online all over the world. I think geography is becoming less important rather than more.

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You talk about “moonshot thinking”—do you see evidence of that here?
D-Wave is a perfect moonshot company. I think having a portfolio of D-Waves is the way forward. And have three, four, five of them that truly have a moonshot approach, knowing that not all of them will succeed, but the one or two that do will propel the region forward, much the same way that companies like Lockheed Martin and HP did in Silicon Valley, and much the same way that RIM did in its early days in the Waterloo area. These are ecosystem-defining companies, so picking a few of them and really backing them is important.  

You told a story about the Rolling Stones concert you went to recently where people were disconnected from the experience because they were recording it on their phones. Will Google Glass improve or exacerbate this disconnection problem?
That’s a good question. We’ll have to wait and see. The point I was trying to make is that we have to be thoughtful about technology’s role in our lives, but also honest that it’s here to stay. Whether it’s Google Glass, cellphones, the  “internet of things,” D-Wave and quantum computing, these are just things that are going to be part of our lives and, as individuals, we have to wrestle with it. It’s not for me to say—it’s going to be up to the individual. Technology is neither good nor bad, it just is.

You mentioned the internet speeds Google is working to make possible with fibre. Do you think this kind of technology infrastructure is something government can help build to encourage innovation?  
Government’s role is to organize and encourage—think of open data—and lead by example. It’s really supporting that and being committed, for business but also for themselves, to the privacy and security of things like cloud computing. Those are the sorts of things that they can do to move the ball forward.

Google’s culture encourages risk-taking and a “fail fast” ethos. How can we encourage more of that mentality in our business community?
It’s not easy. I think education around these principles at a younger age. It’s interesting that we talk about these things—we talk about entrepreneurship later in life, but I think getting kids comfortable with these sorts of things at a younger age is necessary. That, of course, means STEM, so, again, getting people involved with science, technology, engineering and math. Those are the sorts of skills that enable people to deliver on the moonshot.

You’re a charter member of C100. What does that experience tell you about the importance of networking, and especially networking across borders?
It’s essential. My friend Anthony Lee, who’s actually from Vancouver, is one of the founding members of the C100. And we drew inspiration from a bunch of different groups. So if you think of the Israeli population or the Indian population in the Valley, they’re very organized and very committed to mentoring, very interested in providing the kind of feedback and funding to help fledgling, small startups to go from early days to scaling them. It’s absolutely essential to provide mentoring and networks for people to learn. Talking about fear of failure, it’s about creating the kind of environment where it’s OK if you fall or you fail, people are going to be there to pick you back up and get you on your way. I think that’s kind of the role I see C100 play.

You’ve pointed out that it’s a problem for Canada that we’re 17th in innovation. How do we fix that as a country?
It’s a big problem. Let’s start with the consumers, focusing on our users right here, but also the next five billion who will give us the clues. I think providing clear and definitive commitment to STEM research in this country is important. We have a good start, to be clear, but we can do more. I think a nice model of this is in Kitchener-Waterloo at Communitech: you see a nice interplay in the region and it’s no accident that they’ve had the kind of success they’ve had.

Do you think the TED conference and other events like it can help brand Vancouver as a place for big thinking?
There’s a great emerging group here that are dreaming big and delivering against that. That’s where we can start here: really celebrate those people and help them scale. That, to me, is an important goal, and that’s big thinking. Go back to the Olympics; that’s big thinking on a global scale. TED is another example. A city, just like people and just like companies, has a brand. I think putting some structure to the brand around big thinking would be a really good idea.   

Why is Google in Waterloo and not in Vancouver?
We acquired a small company many years ago that was in and around mobile technology. The source of world-class engineers has kept us there and we built around that initial acquisition. It was a little bit serendipitous, and then accelerated by the wealth of talent. Why aren’t we in Vancouver? There’s no good reason—I’d love to be here. It’s a world-class city, with great quality of life and great educational institutions (much like the University of Waterloo), access to Silicon Valley, access to Asian markets, so I foresee a day when we are here.