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Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)
Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)

ROB Magazine

Lessons from Canada's Silicon Valley diaspora Add to ...

Googlers tool about on banana-seat bikes painted those primary Google colours; by a door, bags of local produce wait for staffers. In a courtyard, a mock-up of a T. Rex skeleton is being attacked by lawn flamingos. In another display of Google’s particular species of wit, a wall of photos shows distinguished visitors—Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Gwyneth Paltrow—all next to the same informally dressed, mid-level engineer, Chade-Meng Tan.

It’s an acknowledgment that it is engineering brainpower that makes Google go. “I thought I was a master in JavaScript before I came to Google,” Ottawa-bred programmer Neil Fraser says. “I’d always been the geek at whatever company I worked at. Here there’s always someone smarter in the room. Always.”

The goateed 37-year-old’s resumé lists his facility with various codes—from Ruby to C/C++, from Pascal to Python—and documents his roles at Industry Canada (setting up an ask-and-answer computer program for its youth employment strategy), the Department of National Defence (whose website he helped launch), AXA Sun Life (“the success of the CD resulted in the closure of AXA’s internal support department”), and Carleton University, where he logged five summers instructing computer camp. He may not be the smartest guy in any given room here, but he’s plenty smart, and, impressed with some of his online work, Google came looking for him. This from a company that receives more than a million resumés a year.

He arrived here during the Christmas season in 2006, and spent much of the holidays on his own poring over documentation to get up to speed. It doesn’t sound like he was at all lonely. Early on, he was walking with a fellow staffer when a bird suddenly flew out of a trash can. “Imagine that,” his colleague deadpanned. “Someone throwing out a perfectly good bird.” The joke made him happy, really happy.

Here, Fraser says, programmers are encouraged to move about frequently, at least every two years, switching their projects—he recently worked on the site for the free word-processing program Google Docs. “That way, there’s not one greybeard who knows everything, whom you can’t afford to lose.” The techies also all get to use 20% of their work time on a project of their own devising. “We custom-make everything program-wise—we’ve reinvented the wheel many, many, many times.”

It’s nearly November, and Fraser is worried that the hundreds of Canadians at Google won’t be able to get their supply of faux poppies for Remembrance Day. (The company recruits directly from Waterloo, and five of its top executives are Canadian, including CFO Patrick Pichette and David Lawee, vice-president of corporate development, who travels the world acquiring companies.) I comment on the United Nations of people eating at the various organic, ethnic and theme lunch restaurants on site. “Yes, everyone’s here,” Fraser says quietly. “With one exception.” And it’s true throughout Silicon Valley that there are few African-Americans participating in this boom.

Fraser spent last weekend trolling the Bay in his kayak, towing behind him a homemade sonar pod. After he returns from a conference at MIT, he plans to process the sonar data to see if he can discern the outline of the Trans-Bay tunnel. That morning, his office-mates were enthusiastic about the project, but then someone wondered aloud if the lava lamp in reception would work on Jupiter. Everyone dashed to a keyboard.

This is the real revenge of the nerds, not a blonde by the pool. Your smarts and hard work mastering various codes get you to California. At this office, at last, you are not ridiculed for your abstruse concerns, your intense and odd and effortlessly intelligent take on life. “I arrived here, and I felt at last I’d found my species,” Fraser says.

But others here increasingly question the company’s bona fides—I hear an experienced Valley hand tell a young Canadian entrepreneur to be careful how much he discloses in the presence of Googlers. “They’ll steal your idea,” he says. “All that ‘don’t-be-evil’ stuff—that’s a thing of the past.”

Fraser earnestly defends the company. “Before I came to Google, I thought ‘don’t be evil’ was a marketing mantra. But the more I see of this company, the ethics behind so much of it—it’s fundamentally, basically, a force for good. Mind you, I’m not a Google spokesperson. I don’t speak for anyone else, not even my goldfish.” The company could do worse.



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