Tech Innovation with Google Canada MD Chris O’Neill

By Angus Gillespie

A native of Ontario, Google Canada Managing Director Chris O’Neill brings with him more than 15 years of expertise in marketing, strategy, and partnership development, working with established companies such as HSBC and Oliver Wyman (formerly Mercer Management Consulting). He joined Google in 2005 in California where he held a variety of sales and operations leadership roles, most recently leading Google’s digital strategy as Retail Industry Director in the U.S. As MD in Toronto since 2011, O’Neill is determined to accelerate Google’s already strong presence here in Canada and focus on driving innovation to help fuel growth for Canadian businesses.

During his relatively short tenure at the helm, Google Canada has more than doubled in size and often finishes at or very near the plateau in top named brands in opinion polls. Part of the reason for Google’s success under O’Neill’s leadership has without doubt been his willingness to take calculated risks. It’s a mantra he continues to espouse, feeling it’s crucial to Canada’s competitiveness. While the nation’s low-risk tolerance proved highly successful in the banking sector, it’s evident a much higher degree of risk needs to be taken in other segments of the economy, and most assuredly in technology. O’Neill has often called on businesses to open up and become more amenable to experimentation.

A highly-respected thought leader, O’Neill is a frequent speaker at industry events on the topics of innovation, digital media, marketing, and technology. His message and mission are clear: to establish Canada as an innovative leader in the global digital economy. He sits on the Board of the Canadian Marketing Association and is a Charter Member of the C100, a non-profit member driven organization dedicated to supporting Canadian technology entrepreneurship and investment. He is a former Board Member of

Corporate Origins

Google Canada’s sales office has been operating since 2002 in Toronto with teams focusing on search and display advertising, and enterprise solutions. Google Canada also has research and innovation centres in the Waterloo Region and Montreal, and a small office in Ottawa.

Google’s innovative search technologies connect millions of people around the world with information every day. The company was founded in Silicon Valley in California in 1998 by Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google’s targeted advertising program provides businesses of all sizes with measurable results, while enhancing the overall web experience for users. It now has offices throughout the world.

O’Neill oversees all aspects of Google’s operations in Canada. His mission is to lead Google to earn the love of Canadian users, advertisers, and partners by helping them to get the most out of the web. He is also a key contributor to Google’s Americas Executive Management Group. Under the auspices of his leadership, Google Canada has more than doubled its size in a 12-month span and has been honoured with the prestigious award of being the No. 1 Best Place to Work in Canada by the Great Places to Work Institute.

O’Neill graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a B.A in Economics and also holds an MBA from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two young children, Jack and Molly.

“I grew up in a small town and grew up in a small business family,” O’Neill says. “I specifically grew up overlooking the banks of the mighty Maitland River in Goderich, Ont.

My family had a small Canadian Tire franchise and back in the day it was not much bigger than your local corner store. I remember the day when this big box showed up and my parents were particularly excited and I asked my dad what it was, and he said it’s a micro fiche. He told me it would allow us to look up our product catalogue and it will take us only five minutes. Think about that; five minutes. Can you imagine waiting five minutes to look up a product these days?”

That recollection by O’Neill neatly sums up just how far technology has come in a relatively short period of time. We’re all swept up in this fast moving river of change, akin to navigating white water rapids. The pace of change is nothing short of astounding. Companies that are most successful in negotiating those ever-changing technological rapids are the ones that will remain on course. Those that don’t will capsize and drown.

Office Insight

O’Neill is a firm believer that the most important changes are the ones we have to make within ourselves. He says he’s often asked what keeps him up at night.

“Keeping up keeps me up at night,” he reveals. “Most people think of Google as this cute little search engine, this box on a clean sheet of white paper. But there’s much more.  We have four offices and more than 400 employees, which represents incredible growth compared with just two years ago.”

As O’Neill readily admits, about 50 per cent of the employees are self-proclaimed geeks, those highly intelligent engineering individuals who bring us Gmail, Google Chrome and Chrome Books. There’s also Internet Pixel and Internet Fibre, which is about 100 times the speed of the networking going into residences with high-speed connectivity.

Online ads and Web security tools are also part of the product line. The other half of O’Neill’s team works with businesses of all shapes and sizes in order to make the Web work for them with items such as digital advertising or digital video. More recent additions include consumer insights such as the Cloud, enterprise solutions, Google Glass, self-driving cars, smartphones, tablets and the ability to navigate between any two points on earth be it by foot, bicycle or automobile.

“We’ve been up to the Arctic twice the past year and we even had our mapping software learn Inuktitut,” O’Neill mentions. (Inuktitut is one of the languages of the Inuit in far north regions of Canada above the tree line in Nunavut, NWT, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador).

“If I try to get my head around it all at once, it makes me spin,” O’Neill admits. “But it’s not just about work. If you have kids in your life then you can surely relate to the struggles that my wife and I have over how much screen time to give our children Jack and Molly. Or when – and if – you should give them a smartphone; should you monitor their Facebook; should you let them Snapchat – what is Snapchat and by the way what the heck is twerking?” he laughs.

The lives of Canadians and the rest of the developed world is moving at a crazy fast pace when it comes to the technologies surrounding us and what has become available.

How about this for a mind-blowing statistic: Every day, three times per second, the world collectively produces the same amount of data that exists in the entire Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. which began collecting information as the de facto U.S. national library since its creation in 1800. The computers that put a man on the moon pale in comparison to the super computer most of us carry around in our pockets today, i.e. smartphones.

Slow Business Evolution  

There are about two billion people who have access to the Internet but according to O’Neill the real transformative story of the next decade will be the five billion people that will be joining cyberspace in the coming years.

“If we close our eyes to these changes we will be left behind,” he flatly states. “Right now, Bloomberg ranks Canada, in terms of innovation, a dismal 17th behind – wait for it – Russia. We’ve seen Canada drop to 21st out of 40 in terms of the OECD rankings on private-sector R&D investments. Our (Canada’s) R&D has plummeted from 25 per cent from 2006 to 2011.”

Canadian businesses in many sectors are sorely lagging behind their American counterparts at a rate of about three to one when it comes to embracing and adapting new technologies. While those U.S. companies soar further ahead, Canadian companies are largely left stationary on the starting line.  It’s those same American companies with whom our Canadian enterprises are often in direct competition with for selling their products and services on a global scale. It’s a disparity in philosophy that certainly hasn’t escaped O’Neill’s attention.

“Less than half of our small businesses in this country even have a website,” O’Neill reveals. “We have to change this. We’re being left behind. The world in which we live is so complex and fast moving that we have to let go of the control and comforts of the past and remove the old hierarchies.”

O’Neill provides specific examples of some of the basic fundamentals he and his staff try to live by each and every day at Google Canada.

“The first is collaboration and the second is open information,” he follows with. “The third is articulation of clear, compelling and audacious goals, the last of which is giving ourselves the freedom to fail. All of these are about relaxing control.”

If you were to visit Google’s offices and behind the bean bag chairs and the bright lights and the lava lamps you’ll see offices that are intentionally designed to encourage constant collision in collaboration. You’ll see lots of huddle spaces, not lots of offices or Dilbert-inspired cubicles.

“We don’t have a department of innovation at Google,” O’Neill remarks. “The DNA of the company is all about innovation and it’s in the hearts and minds of all the employees. We fundamentally believe innovation can happen any time and anywhere. You need that child like creativity and curiosity to live within the walls of your company.”

New World of Open Data

Crowd sourcing and the power of open data is transforming technology at an even faster pace than before due to collaborative efforts in building innovative products and services. Historically, competing forces used to guard their information far more vigorously and jealously. It was a direct and recognized source of power. But the Internet continues to change all of that.

“Right now if you were to fly in a plane to Kenya over the Maasai you would see Maasai warriors with a spear in one hand and a mobile phone in the other,” O’Neill remarks.

“That Maasai warrior has access to better mobile communications than did President Reagan 25 years ago. If that warrior had access to Google, he’d have more information at his fingertips than did President Clinton just 15 years ago.”

The core of the technological power base has traditionally been held through the ability to control data, but now it is largely derived from sharing information, as foreign as that concept may seem to so many people. Increasingly, more and more people have a wider access base to information.

As example, O’Neill points specifically to GPS, which was once solely used as a strategic military asset. Then there is weather – the reports of which at one time were nothing more than government collected data. These are just two examples of many that are now completely open source information as opposed to being reserved for the privileged.

Domestically, in Edmonton, they’ve managed to reduce the number of traffic accidents resulting in fatalities or serious injuries by 40 per cent over the course of the past five years through the use of advancements in technology. It’s something O’Neill believes all cities can learn from an open data standpoint. 

“A bunch of enterprising transportation officials looked at the Edmonton data and when they realized that a disproportionate amount of collisions took place at intersections where was a dedicated right-hand turn lane with poor visibility they were able to take action and solve the problem quickly and efficiently in a way that saves lives.”

Google also has something called The People Finder Tool. It’s essentially a Web application tool that allows you to post and track your whereabouts or that of your friends and family. In times of crisis O’Neill says there is no more important information than knowing the local of your loved ones.

“We’ve also launched something we call Crisis Map,” O’Neill continues. “For devastations such as what happened in the Philippines with Typhoon Haiyan, it provides first responders with information they can use to save lives, including evacuation routes, the path of the typhoon, the location of hospital evacuation zones and medical facilities.”

“When we build these crisis maps, such as we did in Alberta after the floods, open data is the lifeblood that allows these things to happen,” O’Neill emphasizes. “My point is that information is the currency of innovation.”

But it’s always more than just about straight information. It’s about granting people the permission to use information. People need the freedom to act in order to be empowered to act in the pursuit of clear and audacious goals.

“The teams at Google are always given big tasks with a very clear end goal to focus on,” O’Neill relates. “There’s no ambiguity about our goals from the CEO on down to the most junior folks, everyone knows exactly what we’re working on. We share our goals publicly and we track progress very publicly every quarter.”

Solving Tech Obstacles

What matters most to O’Neill and Google’s corporate philosophy is where they are going, as opposed to how they are getting there. The five billion people who have yet to come online is a big concern for a company such as Google that lives on the Web. It’s a challenge for humanity according to O’Neill to get those five billion people connected when they don’t have any affordable or logistical access to the Internet.

In June of last year, Google launched something called Project Lune in New Zealand. It consists of giant balloons floating up in the stratosphere at about twice the height of a typical passenger aircraft – or roughly 70,000 feet. These solar-powered balloons are steered by using open data to make sure they stay on course and remain in the proper latitudinal and longitudinal location coordinates.

“Today, lots of farmers in New Zealand – and probably even more sheep – have access to the Internet,” O’Neill laughs. “This Google team was given a very big goal. How they got there was up to them, including innovations in high-altitude balloon engineering. You can’t be nimble when you’re trying to steer in these white-water rapids.”

According to statistics from The Conference Board of Canada, only 10 per cent of Canadian businesses are truly focused on a commitment to aggressive innovation. Most are focused on small, safer, incremental change. That type of overly cautious approach is something that makes people like O’Neill cringe.

“I see first hand working at Google the benefits of articulating big goals,” he submits. “The first is, to reach their scale, they demand collaboration. The second is they focus on ways that unleash creativity. They galvanize people and communities to do wonderful things. Last, and probably most important, big goals attract the most talent. The biggest and the best don’t want to tinker around the edges. They want to work on the biggest and boldest problems of society today. Those are the people I want to work with.”

Accepting Failure

Having said all that, O’Neill also admits it can be extremely daunting to think about conquering such overwhelming concepts and ideas. Almost by definition, certain conceptual ideas in the technology field are set up to fail. Nonetheless, he takes the approach that we always need to push ourselves to the maximum limit. Aim high and achieve what is possible and the focus on failure will be greatly reduced.

“Fear of failure is natural; it’s human,” O’Neill says.

An intriguing aspect of innovation is that it can happen anywhere, top-down or bottom-up and sometimes by chance. Simply put, Google designs and builds products and services that connect people and then thoroughly test the products to ensure efficient delivery on their promises.  But O’Neill says their first question isn’t “can we make money?” If any great tech company is creating a disproportional amount of value for its customers that user base will grow and only then do you ask, how do you make money to sustain it?

By no means does everything Google touch turn to gold or become a money maker. One need only point to Street View cameras that were installed in the Arctic. It provided a link to a large part of the northern section of the country that has not existed on detailed maps before, but it came at a heavy financial cost.

“I spent about 12 years of my life in Silicon Valley and it changed my outlook on life in many ways,” O’Neill states. “When it comes to failure, I believe they’ve got it right and the opposite of most places. There, failure is viewed as this Boy Scout badge of honour because you have to have failed at least once in your career if you’re going to be taken seriously.”

Google celebrated its 15th anniversary last year but it’s had its share of growing pains since launching in 1998. For every wonderful success such as Gmail or Google Maps, there has been a Google Buzz or Google Wave that were nothing short of disastrous flops.

“In the last 24 months we’ve sunset more than 70 products, so we now about failure,” O’Neill mentions. “It’s part of the growing. Google is still young and I believe we’re having a renaissance. My job as a leader at Google is really not about preventing failure or mitigating risk but rather to build a culture of resilience so that when we dream big and aim big and fall short, we are able to get up, dust ourselves off and get going again. That’s how I value my success.”

Looking to the Future

Incredible technological advancements have been achieved within our nation’s borders, but O’Neill is of the belief the business community needs to enhance the level of nurturing even further in order to ensure that the brightest and the best remain in this country.

“We need to recruit the best and do a better job of nurturing our hometown talent,” he implores.

It’s not enough to know how to use a certain technology anymore. The next step in the evolution process will be learning to code on such devices as tablets or PCs.

“We have this wonderful heritage of world-class engineering, great educational institutions, health and human services, fast broadband infrastructure and the list goes on. We have all the pieces of the puzzle; we just need to put them together and really to clear our Moon shot and really get after it.”

Wisdom and learning is something that can originate from all ages. O’Neill encourages people to embrace the idea of reaching out to a reverse mentor; that is, someone who is quite likely much younger than you but is more likely tuned in to the digital technological age in many instances.

“I don’t care if it’s a 20-something year old in your office, your son, your grandson, niece or nephew or the neighbour down the street, just find a reverse mentor to teach you about the wonderful world of the Internet.  They’ve grown up along side of it.  To them global is the new default and it needs to be for all of us as well.”

Speaking of the future, O’Neill was asked directly as to what he envisions regarding Google’s direct competitors, such as Yahoo! and whether or not there will ultimately be consolidation and one major search engine that is the de facto solution.

“We don’t think about competition that much,” he replies. “We focus on our users. Larry and Sergey when they started Google they wrote 10 things we know to be true. At the very top of that list is an expression that says to focus on the user and all else will follow and that guides us to this day.  We obsess about the users. We don’t think about the industry and where we fit in terms of competition.”

The aim is look past incremental thinking and open our minds to ideas of what may be possible. If we don’t dream about it and dare to fail, then there’s not a whole lot beyond the horizon – and we all know that’s just not how it’s going to be.  Keep up, or be left behind.  It’s as simple as that.