University of Calgary

Stars of Silicon Valley

Submitted by tdroden on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 13:30.

Stars of Silicon Valley

Four University of Calgary alumni are leading the way in California’s tech world
By James Stevenson

Beyond Andrew Pearce’s office window, the massive, abandoned Redwood City salt flats stretch for miles from San Francisco Bay to where the northern edges of Silicon Valley meet distant green hills. This desolate expanse, dotted with pieces of rusting machinery, lends a distinctly sci-fi quality to the place. All of which is quite fitting for Pearce, BSc’84, MSc’88, who attributes the classic films of Alien and Star Wars as key motivators for a career that led him to DreamWorks Animation, where he’s Director of Research and Development.

At DreamWorks Animation, Andrew Pearce has worked on some of the most successful feature-length cartoons in recent times, including the Shrek series. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)At DreamWorks Animation, Andrew Pearce has worked on some of the most successful feature-length cartoons in recent times, including the Shrek series. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)It was actually one of his University of Calgary advisors at the time, former computer science professor Brian Wyvill, who inspired Pearce many years ago with his now-legendary story of sneaking his nickname “BLOB” into the graphics of Alien while doing early computer animation for the film in the 1970s. “I thought that was the most awesome thing,” says Pearce. “It was what really got me thinking: Wow, you mean there’s a path from the University of Calgary to working on Hollywood films?”

Of course animation is only one of many careers that attract techies from around the world to Northern California. Heavyweights like Apple, Google and Facebook continue to drive the fiercely competitive high-tech industry, creating somewhat of a bubble around the region and making it immune to the belt-tightening of the troubled U.S. economy. Those who are good remain in high demand. And Pearce is very good, having made his way to DreamWorks Animation via two other companies that do computer animation and visual effects for movie studios. There are also other University of Calgary alumni who’ve thrived in leadership roles here. Mozilla Corp. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kovacs, BComm’90, MBA’99, Google’s Anand Agarawala, BSc’04, and Java creator James Gosling, BSc’77, LLD’99, together weave an inspirational tale of Calgary grads making it big in Silicon Valley.

“IT SOUNDS HORRIBLE TO SAY THAT SALESMANSHIP IS PART OF WHAT YOU NEED TO LEARN TO BE A LEADER, BUT IT REALLY IS. YOU MAY HAVE THE PERFECT ANALYSIS, THE GREATEST IDEA ON EARTH, BUT IF YOU CAN’T COMMUNICATE IT IN AN EFFECTIVE MANNER TO PEOPLE, IT’S NOT GOING TO WORK.” Spotting Canadian expats in California can be fairly easy. They tend to talk hockey when everyone else is talking football, baseball or basketball. Pearce even created an online hockey pool company, TheHockeyPool.com, as a side-business, initially as a way to track his own picks and get his hockey tickets paid for. In his office, there’s a framed picture of San Jose Sharks captain (and Canadian Olympic hockey star) Joe Thornton on the floor, which if it ever gets hung up, will be the only artwork that makes sense to non-computer scientists.

Currently, the walls are festooned with charts, graphs and calculations. At DreamWorks, Pearce has worked on some of the most successful feature-length cartoons in recent times, including the Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda series. Yet while millions of people worldwide know these films and their lovable characters by heart, they likely have never thought about how much work goes into each movie. Nor would they have a clue about the astounding amount of mathematics and science that Pearce and his team of 65 computer scientists, engineers and physicists use to do their jobs.

“What I do is marshal an awful lot of mathematics in aid of jokes—to make you laugh at what’s on the screen, to make you believe that those characters are real. We have to do an awful lot of simulation, a lot of physics, a lot of math to make the cloth bend properly, to make their hair move realistically in the wind, to have that dust rising from a dirt road or make the trees in the background look realistic with the lighting and shadows.”

Interestingly enough, when DreamWorks did a survey a couple of years back to find out where their R&D employees went to university, the University of Calgary was at the top with eight. This was ahead of all other Canadian schools as well as large American ones like Berkeley, Cal State and UCLA. Sure, Pearce himself was responsible for hiring three University of Calgary grads, but what about the others? “I think there were schools like the University of Calgary that started computer graphics departments much earlier than perhaps other parts of the world and this attracted international experts to come and teach.”

After more than a year at the helm of Mozilla Corp., Gary Kovacs says he’s still in awe of the unrelenting pace of change. (Photo courtesy of Gary Kovacs)After more than a year at the helm of Mozilla Corp., Gary Kovacs says he’s still in awe of the unrelenting pace of change. (Photo courtesy of Gary Kovacs)Continuing southwards towards San Jose, on quaint Castro Street in Mountain View, Calif., Mozilla’s head office is tucked into an understated office building with no outside signage or blatant branding. As such, it stands in direct contrast to some of the vast high-tech campuses and compounds scattered through Silicon Valley. Yet it belies the fact that Mozilla’s Firefox is the web browser of choice for 400 million Internet users around the world. At the helm of Mozilla sits Chief Executive Officer Gary Kovacs. After more than a year on the job, Kovacs says he’s still in awe over the unrelenting pace of change in the Internet.

One of the major things Mozilla is grappling with is the fact that the world is rapidly switching to mobile Internet use with at least 50 per cent of the world going online with something that doesn’t look like a PC—whether that’s a smartphone or a tablet computer. That’s a sea change from only about three years ago. What this means for a company known for its desktop web browser remains an open question.

“THERE ARE PLACES AND TIMES IN OUR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL EVOLUTION WHERE WE HAVE A PLATFORM TO DEVELOP LEADERSHIP SKILLS. AND I THINK THAT UNIVERSITY IS ONE OF THOSE FUNDAMENTAL PLATFORMS. YOU HAVE UNIQUE OPPORTUNITIES TO PARTICIPATE IN DIFFERENT STUDENT FUNCTIONS AND GREAT OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN HOW TO BECOME A STRONG, COMPETENT LEADER.” “From a leadership point of view, I’m having to learn a whole new set of skills and lessons because change is no longer measured in years, but in months,” says Kovacs. “You somehow have to align this new reality of constant change with the fact that the human search for certainty is an overwhelming need. No one can tell you a year from now what the next mobile breakthrough will be. So as a leader, you have to create hope based on the belief that you can execute on your strategy, versus the clarity of what that actually looks like.”

Kovacs says his two degrees at the University of Calgary—particularly his MBA—were integral in forming his leadership skills. “In a university setting, you have an opportunity to play ahead of your competency level, either leading a group or leading a project.”

“What struck me as critical, and it’s often understated, is the skill of finding a way to negotiate where both sides come out successful in their own terms. There were many of those opportunities at the University of Calgary to hone this skill because the group-work in an MBA forces that behaviour. I remember many a late-night group project where everyone was tired and cranky and over-caffeinated, and having somebody to pick up the group and drive a decisive set of actions was crucial.”

Being interested in technology and software, Kovacs initially moved to New York after graduating from the University of Calgary, but headed to Silicon Valley a year later. “I knew intuitively that I’d have to get into the fastest moving part of that stream to really have an opportunity to expose myself to the challenges that would excite me. What that naturally meant was the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley was going to be too strong to resist.”

After selling his start-up Bump Technologies to Google in 2010, Anand Agarawala now works for the technology giant as product manager for the Android operating system user interface. (Photo by Dave Chan)After selling his start-up Bump Technologies to Google in 2010, Anand Agarawala now works for the technology giant as product manager for the Android operating system user interface. (Photo by Dave Chan)Anand Agarawala, BSc’04, also knows about gravitational pulls. After finishing his undergrad degree at the University of Calgary, he moved to Ontario to get his master’s in computer science at the University of Toronto. Agarawala’s thesis was based on new touch-screen technology that allowed users to interact with their computer files more like they would in real life. Users could rifle through papers, pile and sort them and have cool effects like bumping and tossing for a more realistic experience. The product, called BumpTop, formed the basis of the start-up company he founded while still in school. Bump Technologies quickly began to attract the attention of some big players in the industry.

Sure enough, in the spring of 2010—less than four years after it began—Bump Technologies was bought out by Google. As a good Calgary-born Canadian, Agarawala’s quick to roll out his hockey metaphors to explain how it all felt. “When we got acquired, I told my staff: ‘Guys, we’ve just won the nerd Stanley Cup. This is the biggest thing you can do in your field. You built the company from scratch, and we sold it to Google, the best company in the world to work for in tech.’”

“LEADERSHIP IS LIKE BEING A HOCKEY COACH. A GOOD COACH DOESN’T TREAT YOU LIKE A DICTATOR—IT’S MORE LIKE A PEER RELATIONSHIP. WHEN THE TEAM IS DOWN IN THE DUMPS YOU NEED TO MOTIVATE THEM TO GET THEM GOING. WHEN THEY’RE UP TOO HIGH OR GOING OFF IN THE WRONG DIRECTION, YOU’VE GOT TO GET THEM BACK ON TRACK. AND YOU’VE GOT TO LEAD BY EXAMPLE.” Afterwards, Agarawala moved to Northern California to become part of Google’s ever-expanding workforce. He’s now product manager for Google’s Android operating system user interface. What that means is he’s in charge of all the things that touch the user, whether it’s the system bar, notifications, settings or how the home screen looks.

Now firmly part of the Silicon Valley crowd, Agarawala enjoys going to parties, mixing ideas and mingling with some of the tech industry’s biggest names. He believes his broad undergrad education played a key role in broadening his mind. “The University of Calgary is great that way—I was able to take courses in art history, music and a whole host of other things while working on my computer science degree. And that’s what Apple’s Steve Jobs always said: all the interesting stuff happens when you combine the liberal arts with technology. His initial team was all artists, philosophers and poets, but who could also code.”

The inventor of Java, James Gosling recently joined start-up Liquid Robotics as chief software architect. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)The inventor of Java, James Gosling recently joined start-up Liquid Robotics as chief software architect. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)Of all the University of Calgary alumni leading the way in Silicon Valley, there are none more venerable than James Gosling, BSc’77, LLD’99. Gosling has been in California for 30 years after leaving Canada when he was 22. Yet he remains a Canadian citizen and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. Known far and wide as the inventor of the Java programming language that revolutionized the use of daily computing, Gosling is often held in the same regard as Jobs.

Gosling spent 26 years working for Sun Microsystems, a length of employment with one company completely unheard of in Silicon Valley. He left the company in 2010 and in the summer of 2011 joined start-up Liquid Robotics as chief software architect. The company makes unmanned ocean vehicles—basically general-purpose sensor platforms that can do anything from monitoring weather and water chemistry to counting fish, helping in global warming studies, or even patrolling areas around oil platforms or monitoring for poaching fishing vessels.

“The thing about Liquid Robotics is it’s got a confluence of interesting technological problems, has a really solid economic model with a very good chance of being a very successful business, and it does genuine good,” says Gosling. “For me, it’s always been this combination of fun and technical challenges that actually do something useful to make the world a better place. If I can help people figure out whether or not Greenland is going to melt, now that’s a big deal.”

It should surprise no one that Gosling’s trajectory at the University of Calgary was “somewhat odd.” It actually began when he was still in junior high and a friend of his dad’s took him on a campus tour. “We were walking through the computer centre and I just thought it was the coolest freakin’ place on the planet. And because we only lived a couple miles from the university, I started getting on my bike and going over there.” He hung out at the library, reading and poking into all kinds of stuff. He started writing code when he was in Grade 9 and through his high school years was actually employed by the university’s physics department to write software.

“WE’VE BECOME RATHER BAD AT TEACHING KIDS LEADERSHIP, IF ONLY BECAUSE OF THIS EMERGING TREND OVER THE LAST 20 TO 30 YEARS OF BEING HYPER-PROTECTIVE OF KIDS. WHEN PARENTS ARE KEEPING THEIR KIDS IN A BUBBLE, THE KIDS DON’T ACTUALLY GET TO MAKE A DECISION BECAUSE THE PARENTS MAKE THEM ALL FOR THEM. LEADERSHIP IS ABOUT A LOT OF SMALL THINGS THAT ADD UP. IF YOU’RE NEVER PUT IN A POSITION WHERE THERE’S RISK, WHERE YOU COULD SCREW UP, THEN HOW CAN YOU EVER LEARN SELF-DISCIPLINE?” “I became a kind of general purpose code monkey for scientists. And half the reason I took my current job is that I get to be a code monkey for scientists again, which is just a lot of fun.” By the time he enrolled at the University of Calgary as a computer science student, Gosling had been a regular fixture on campus for at least three years. After Calgary, he went on to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., and earned his PhD in computer science.

One of the things that troubles Gosling these days is the bleak outlook that students have on the world. He says it began around 10 years ago between the dot-com bust and the outsourcing phenomenon when thousands of good paying jobs left North America for cheaper locations elsewhere in the world.

“Enrolment in science and engineering really started to plummet as a direct result of kids believing there was no future in it. And it got to the point where the reason people were outsourcing was not for the salaries but because you just couldn’t find trained graduates here. And it’s doubly maddening now because salaries in the rest of the world have gone up to the point where the economic justification for a lot of the outsourcing has been gone for years.”

“It’s important to get past all that to see the stuff going on in science and engineering—practically in every direction you can think of—is incredibly cool. There's just amazing stuff to be done in this world, and completely ordinary people can really move the needle in great ways. All they’ve got to do is be positive about it.”