The road from Melfort to Google



Computer Science alumni, Steven Woods (BSc’87)

How does a hockey-obsessed kid from small-town Saskatchewan become senior engineering director at one of the world’s largest tech companies? Steven Woods (BSc’87) has played a lot of roles since graduating from the University of Saskatchewan’s computer science program 30 years ago. He’s been an academic, a semi-pro hockey player, a research fellow and an entrepreneur. Add influencer to the list, and you’ve got his current career neatly summed up. Woods is senior engineering director at Google Canada. He’s responsible for managing overall engineering operations at the company’s base in Waterloo, Ont. He’s also responsible for representing Google in Canada’s tech community and for wooing some of the country’s best and brightest to the Google team.

Living up to expectations

Woods grew up in Melfort, the youngest in a farm services business. He remembers having a natural aptitude for math and sciences, but being obsessed with sports, excelling in hockey and competing nationally as a junior golfer. He credits his parents with giving all this innate potential a focus. “I knew I was destined for the University of Saskatchewan from the time I was five years old,” Woods said. “My father was a Second World War veteran, and when he returned home, he just wanted to get on with life, earn a living and raise a family. I was the youngest by several years, but I remember that things were expected of us—we were expected to do well in school, to participate in sports. And if we decided to do something, we were expected to commit to it.”

When an introductory class on computers in high school sparked his interest, his parents bought him a Commodore Vic-20 computer. “A home computer was still a relatively expensive thing back then, but my parents wanted to foster that interest. I got pretty obsessed with how it worked. I hung around the local Radio Shack, I ordered books and subscribed to magazines—that was the beginning for me,” Woods said. Still, it wasn’t a direct path to a career. Woods enrolled in the College of Arts and Science when he arrived on campus in 1983. If the fact that he brought his Vic-20 with him foreshadowed any career inclination, Woods said he was too naïve to see it. He took an eclectic mix of classes: math, philosophy, psychology and computer science.

“Sometime in the first semester of my computer science class, we took a course that actually streamed us into computer science majors or those just taking a computer science course. So, in a way, I didn’t actually make a decision to major in computer science … it just sort of happened.” The computer science department in the 1980s was a small but closely knit group. Even today, more than 30 years out, Woods still has close connections with former classmates. He plays hockey with one, now a professor at the University of Waterloo, and works closely with another. “Verna Friesen was our class valedictorian. I remember always wanting desperately to be in her lab group; now she’s here at Google.”

Exploring the world outside

Despite being encouraged to pursue postgraduate studies, Woods jumped into the workforce, working as a software developer at SaskTel for several years. By 1989, he was restless and looking for a new challenge. He enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Waterloo. For the next eight years, Woods jumped between academia and work. “I get bored easily, so I would alternate school with work until I basically ran out of school,” said Woods. He did his master's in math and computer science, then went to work for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which is Australia’s national research body. In his spare time, he played semi-professional hockey for the Canberra Knights. He followed this with a year-long stint at Canada’s Department of Defence, before returning to Waterloo to complete his PhD in computer science.

In 1996, Woods earned a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A year later, his PhD was published as a book on constraint-based reasoning co-written with Alex Quilici and Qiang Yang (Woods’ PhD supervisor). Back on the mainland, he spent almost two years as a consultant at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, where he worked on product line development and practical software architectural reconstruction and analysis.

At that time, the tech industry was booming and Woods wanted to be part of the technopreneurial wave. “I was doing interesting work at Carnegie Mellon,” he said, “but I wanted to do something that was my own. It wasn’t about fame and fortune, but about bringing together a team of the best people and working to create something amazing, something that was ours.” In 1998, that “something” turned into Quack.com, the world’s first interactive voice portal. When America Online/ Netscape (AOL) acquired Quack.com in 2000, Woods stayed on as vice-president. He had officially “made it” in Silicon Valley, and during the next eight years, he was involved in a succession of start-ups, including an ingame advertising firm called NeoEdge.

Coming home

“Google had tried recruiting me a few times over the years, but I didn’t want to work for a big company,” Woods said. “They just kept introducing me to people, and the more people at Google I met, the more I saw how passionate, sincere and honest they were. I realized I wanted to be part of that.” Google’s final enticement closed the deal: Woods would move home to Canada. “I’ve been a virulent Canadian for a long time. All my companies were heavily dominated by Canadians. We used to lose people because they wanted to go back home, and I knew, someday, I wanted to come home and do something big in Canada,” he said.

“When Google pitched me on becoming director of engineering in Waterloo, I talked to my wife. She agreed to uproot herself and we moved our family to Ontario. Now, we live on an acreage just outside the city, surrounded by trees and farms. When friends from Saskatchewan visit, they recognize the shared set of values here.”

Nurturing, attracting and retaining talent

Innovation is the common theme connecting Woods’s post-graduate work, his research at CSIRO and Carnegie Mellon, his entrepreneurial successes in Silicon Valley and now his leadership role at Google Canada. But it is intertwined with a passion for bringing together top talent. He’s been a team player throughout his career, and it’s clear he sees teamwork and team building as essential components of growing the innovation economy in Canada.

“Talent is what will drive the future of innovation, and competition for talent is global. I see the flow of highly talented Canadians to the United States,” Woods said. “Even though many come back, the reality is that many don’t. We need to do more to make Canada a place where people want to be innovative, where they want to come and build a company.” Woods is also concerned that our education system is leaving too many people behind. “Our STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs aren’t good enough, but that’s not the fault of educators,” he said. “In England, they’ve done tremendous things in bringing computational thinking into schools at a very young age—that’s brilliant. That is our challenge in Canada. We need to make it clear to kids from a young age that math is not esoteric; math is how you understand computers, how you change the world. We need to convey that excitement.”

Canada has work to do in making STEM careers more appealing to young people, particularly young women. Despite initiatives aimed at recruiting more women, women are still underrepresented in STEM programs. In computer science, the statistical marker is essentially unchanged from Woods’ era. According to a Statistics Canada report, in 1992, 33 per cent of postsecondary computer science students were female; in 2013, 29 per cent were female. “That’s concerning, because we’re moving to a world where computers are making unbelievably good decisions. It’s going to change the way we work and live,” Woods said. “We need to show young women that tech is a welcoming culture, one where they can accomplish great things and help better the world.”

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