The Conversation: Does the battle for cloud services keep Google VP and Canada country manager Sam Sebastian up at night?

The long-time executive took up a role with Google Canada in 2014 and hasn’t left the country since

Sam Sebastian started with Google in 2006. In 2014, he moved to Toronto to serve as the company’s managing director for Canada. He left for a stint as CEO of Pelmorex Corp. (which runs the Weather Network) but came back in 2022 to serve as vice-president and Canada country manager for Google Cloud.

BCBusiness met up with him after he took the stage at InnovateWest in Vancouver to pick his brain about AI, the cloud computing battle and running Google Cloud’s Canadian operations.

What’s a typical day in your life? Is there one?

[Laughs] No, not really. It’s a combination of internal and external [operations]. We have thousands of people around the country, so I spend a lot of time leading and developing our team. I’m also back in the U.S. quite a bit because we’re headquartered in the Valley so a lot of our product and technology starts there. We have a lot of cloud engineers in the Kitchener-Waterloo area too, so I’m there a lot. No one day looks like another, but it’s a blast.

How many employees do you oversee?

We probably have 500 or so in our cloud business on the go-to-market side in Canada.

You’re American, Google brought you to Canada originally.

Yeah, I’m a dual citizen. I moved up here 10 years ago. I was with Google in the U.S. for eight and a half years, then came to Canada for three and a half years. I left to run the Weather Network for five years and now I’m back.

What was that change in countries like?

Well, the best jobs at Google in my opinion are the country manager jobs. Because they’re the only GM-type roles that you get a chance to have. When given the opportunity to be that for Canada, I jumped at it. My kids were 12 and 10 years old at the time. It was before high school, so it wasn’t too much of a jump for them. One is graduating from Laurier University next week and the other is at TMU in Toronto. So they’re full-blown Canadians now.

What was behind the move to the Weather Network?

I always wanted to be a CEO, it was just a goal of mine. The founder, Pierre Morrisette, was a customer of mine when I was at Google. We got to know each other. He said, “Listen, I need someone to take the reins when I retire and become executive chair.” It seemed like a good opportunity and I loved it. The biggest honour of my career was getting that company through COVID and to the other side of it.

Would people get mad at you for the weather? 

They would, yeah. It was the first thing they’d say. And Canadians have strong opinions about that.

No kidding. What drew you back to Google?

Google reached out and wanted to see if I had interest in coming back to scale and watch over the growth in its cloud and AI business. I had the opportunity to come back right at the beginning of a whole new revolution again. When I started at Google 18 years ago we were 6,000 employees. It was a rocket ship back then. The opportunity to come back and go through another rocket ship moment was too good to pass up.

And that rocket ship is AI?

Yeah. It’s been chaos for the last year and a half since I’ve been back.

What are some of the bigger success you’ve had in that time, things you’re proud of?

A couple things. Internally, most of our growth happened during COVID. Many of our employees hadn’t gotten the chance to connect with the Google culture because they were working from home. Many hadn’t met each other. The thing I’m most proud of over the last year and a half is helping embed that original Google magic and culture of working inside this company, especially when you’re face-to-face in an office. Many folks that came on board weren’t experiencing that in the early days of when Cloud was starting to blow up.

So that’s one, making sure we have the right connectivity as a team. The second thing is making sure that the largest customers in the country, the public sector agencies and the startup environment, understand the Google Cloud vision and the Cloud products and are willing to work with us or lean in with us over the next phase of growth.

And they are. We’re number three in the cloud wars, and we’ve only really come on in the last four or five years. That’s a testament to the team that came before me. But now we’re in the conversation. We have to show up to all these customers ready to compete with the likes of Microsoft and Amazon, and I think we’re doing a good job. I’m very proud of that.

How different was Google when you came back?

Pretty different. Cloud is a B2B business enterprise. Google is 25 years old and the first 20 was all B2C. And so the DNA required to build a B2B business is unique. Our CEO Thomas Kurian had that at Oracle, he brought that in. It was one of the reasons I decided to come back. I knew it would almost be a different company working inside of Google. In many ways, it looks totally different from Google and in many ways it looks exactly the same. We’ve got great people, we innovate, we move fast. That blend was one of the reasons I wanted to come back. I knew I was going to learn a bunch of new things, that Google would feel different from before but that the core principles of Google would still be there and that’s what I fell in love with 20 years ago.

Do you think businesses are ready to take on the challenges that AI presents?

I do. What’s most interesting, with this AI shift, is that it’s more a conversation with the board and CEO than anything else. Often, with advertising or in the early days of tech, you were talking to a technology officer or a chief marketing officer, someone who was an internal champion and would push things forward to try to disrupt. But now, we’re getting CEOs or boards coming to us saying “We know we need to move faster, help us.” So that’s great for us.

Does it ever keep you up at night trying to compete with these other tech giants? It’s such an intense race.

It’s always on. When I interviewed for the position, our CEO said, “What you have to remember is that right now there’s at least one company, probably multiple, making their choice of who to go with on cloud. Once they make that move, it’s going to be hard to reverse it. So we have to be out there 24/7—always on and making sure they’re looking at us when they’re making those choices. It’s a huge responsibility and the most intense job I’ve had. But the folks we have inside the business love it, they thrive on it. I came back to that stress because I wanted to be in the belly of the beast and be in the middle of everything, and so far it’s played out that way.