Steve Woods, Google’s Senior Engineering Director, arrived in Waterloo Region in August of 2008, two years after the company had established a small presence near the University of Waterloo. At the time there were approximately 20 Google software developers and engineers working in Waterloo Region. Today, not 12 years later, Woods oversees 1,000 specialists working out of the company’s 185,000 square-foot facility at Kitchener’s Breithaupt Block.

On Thursday, Google announced plans that call for a tripling of its current Kitchener workforce – 2,000 additional people – who are destined to move into an 11-storey, 300,000-square-foot expansion on the Breithaupt Block site. The company simultaneously announced the establishment of a new in-house startup accelerator that will focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Woods – a University of Waterloo grad – has witnessed enormous growth for Google in Waterloo Region, and of the region’s tech ecosystem, and now will help usher in more of the same. He took a few minutes yesterday with Communitech News to reflect on that growth, and to talk about what lies ahead.

Q – Particularly in the context of Thursday’s announcements and expansion, when you look back 10 or 15 years on Google’s presence in Waterloo Region and where it is now, and what lies ahead, it’s quite a dramatic unfolding of events …

A – It is. You know, I think you could see the potential [back then]. When you look at the density of startups now and beyond the density, the numbers of companies that are are getting way far along in their revenue and their international growth and their impact, it really is just astounding.

Q – With the expansion of the Waterloo office, Google appears to be saying that this region matters to the company and that it has much to offer. Is that a fair way to read it? 

A – You’re absolutely right. And you know, it’s been true for a long time. It’s always these continuous steps. Like, when I arrived we had roughly 20 software developers and engineers, and before I came, [Google] had a much smaller office. We’re always building something. It’s all about succeeding or trying again. We’re working towards these goals and really every Google success breeds opportunity. And so it’s really a testament to Google foresight for picking this region originally, but also to the great teams that we’ve brought on board and risks they’ve taken on the successes they’ve had here. There are almost too many to mention.

There’s some great things happening here. Our community is going great. We have a good relationship with our community. We can do more for it, we can do more for our teams. But it absolutely is a sign that we’ve been successful and Google saying, ‘Hey, let’s do even more.’ I think it’s really exciting.

Q – More specifically can you address ‘why’ and the ‘why now’ piece of the expansion?

A –  We [meaning the Waterloo Region Google office] have worked on a lot of projects that have gone well. We have partnered with a lot of teams worldwide that are building things that are important. For example, we lead Google Cloud Healthcare for the world, we lead Firebase development for the world from Waterloo [Region]. And those projects, particularly in the context of Google’s emphasis on growth, cloud business, supporting its cloud customers and democratizing the services around artificial intelligence and cloud computing, are a huge opportunity for Google. And so I would say that we’ve earned this opportunity and now it’s time to sit up and start executing. 

Q – Adding 2,000 new people is no small task, particularly at a time when tech talent is a scarce resource. How do you manage such aggressive growth?

A – It’s a good question. For us, it’s always been about pace. First off, there’s an enormous amount of talent in the GTA, in our tech corridor in Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto, and across the country and, speaking broadly, there are people who want to stay in Canada, they want to be involved in great projects, they want to work in startups, they want to work in large tech companies, depending on their phase of life. I think the trick for us has always been to grow at the right pace. I was in California, working with some of my peers this week, talking to them about that and we all feel the same way: Let’s build strong base leadership, let’s have  good, diverse teams, but plan for the next thing. Let’s do it in a thoughtful way, and not just rush forward. That’s exactly what we’ve always done. It’s exactly what we’re going to do.

Really it’s just a continuation of our strategy, like when we talk about opening this new [office] space. It’s not like we’re going to just fill it with people right away. That’s not at all it. That wouldn’t be great for the ecosystem, necessarily.

We have to make plans for how we bring people into the country, which is a huge part of our strategy. As a percentage of our growth, we’ve been doing really well with bringing people in through the [federal government’s] Global Skills programs. We’re going to continue doing that, bringing Canadians back from the U.S. where we can. We’ll have the right number of people from our great universities and tech institutions. So it’s going to be a mix. We’re going to do it in a thoughtful way. We’re going to work really hard to not be overly disruptive to anybody as we do so. It’s going to take some time and quite honestly, it will only continue as long as we are successful. And that’s something we always are keeping in mind.

Q – It strikes me that reliable, two-way, all-day train service between Waterloo Region and Toronto would help you …

A – [Pause] I’m sorry. I was laughing because I agree. We had a roundtable here [recently] and I brought up the train, because I can never help it. When we talk train, of course, we mean something broader, don’t we? We’re talking about transit and modernizing the flow of people between this amazing city and one of the largest cities in North America, Toronto.

The fact that we are not well connected with Pearson [airport] and Toronto is really just a horrible disaster. You look at some European cities and you see the kind of quality, of high-speed interaction between cities and how it changes those communities from the point of view of the kinds of industries they can create … It’s something that just has to be solved in Canada, it has to be addressed.

We can, and we do, use remote team building. We’re all very good at using video conferencing and other kinds of digital tools for collaboration. But at the end of the day, you just can’t beat putting people together in rooms to innovate and solve problems. And, you know, we’re gonna keep advocating for [good transportation] because we think it’s the right thing.

Q – Discuss the news of the planned establishment of a Google startup accelerator. My understanding is it will focus on machine learning and AI. How will it differentiate from, for example, programming under way at Velocity or Communitech?

A – So we sat down and talked to Velocity at some length, and with Communitech, too, about the kind of programming they’re doing. We always want to be complementary and work with them both.

In this particular case, we’re going to offer it in our space, and because we’re there we can make our resources much more readily available.

We see it as an additive to the community.

We’ve been so thrilled to be part of some of the great startup successes, like [the Communitech program called] Fierce Founders, and the funding we provided for Google for Entrepreneurs, and we’re continuing those things. It won’t be a replacement for programs under way. This is additive. And so we’re going to experiment together. We’re going to try things. It’s a way for us to bring more of our resources – in this case, people, skills, knowledge and capability – and make them available to companies in a different way. Always, with innovation, you try things in new ways. I hope it goes well. It’s something we’ve talked about for years and we managed to get it to come together in terms of resourcing and opportunity within the new facility.