Monday, June 20, 2011

Joining Google

Today I accepted a job with Google as a GIS Data Engineer. I will be based in Mountain View California at head office, and involved in various sorts of geodata processing though I don't really know the details of my responsibilities yet.

I have received occasional email solicitations from Google recruiters in the past, but hadn't really taken them too seriously. I assumed it was a "wide net" search for job candidates and I wasn't looking for regular employment anyways. I was happy enough in my role of independent consultant. It gave me great flexibility and a quite satisfactory income.

Various things conspired to make me contemplate my options. A friend, Phil Vachon, moved to New York City for a fantastic new job. His description of the compensation package made me realize opportunities might exist that I was missing out on. Also, with separation from my wife last year the need to stay in Canada was reduced. So when a Google recruiter contacted me again this spring I took a moment to look over the job description.

The description was for the role of GIS Data Engineer it was a dead on match for my skill set. So, I thought I would at least investigate a bit, and responded. I didn't hear back for many weeks so I assumed I had been winnowed out already or perhaps the position had already been filled. But a few weeks ago I was contacted, and invited to participate in a phone screening interview. That went well, and among other things my knowledge of GIS file formats, and coordinate systems stood me in good stead. So I was invited to California for in person interviews.

That was a grueling day. Five interviews including lots of "write a program to do this on the black board" sorts of questions. Those interviewing me, mostly engineers in the geo group, seemed to know little of my background and I came away feeling somewhat out of place, and like they were really just looking for an entry level engineer. Luckily Michael Weiss-Malik, spent some time at lunch talking about what his group does and gave me a sense of where I would fit in. This made me more comfortable.

Last week I received and offer and it was quite generous. It certainly put my annual consulting income to shame. Also contact with a couple friends inside Google gave me a sense that there were those advocating on my behalf who did know more about my strengths.

I agonized over the weekend and went back and forth quite a bit on the whole prospect. While the financial offer was very good, I didn't particularly need that. And returning to "regular employment" was not inline with my hopes to travel widely, doing my consulting from a variety of exotic locales as long as they had internet access. But, by salting away money it would make it much easier to pursue such a lifestyle at some point in the future.

I also needed to consult extensively with my family. It was very difficult to leave my kids behind, though it helps to know that as teens they are quite independent, I am also confident that their mother would be right there taking good care of them. My kids, and other family members were all very supportive.

My other big concern was giving up my role in the open source geospatial community. While nothing in the job description prevents me from still being active in the GDAL project, and OSGeo, it is clear the job will consume much of my energy and time. I can't expect to play the role I have played in the past, particularly of enabling use of GDAL in commercial contexts by virtual of being available as a paid resource to support users.

I don't have the whole answer to this, but it is certainly my intention to remain active in GDAL/OGR and in OSGeo (on the board and other committees). One big plus of working at Google is the concept of 20% time. I haven't gotten all the details, but it is roughly allowing me to use 20% of my work time for self directed projects. My hope is to use much of my 20% time to work on GDAL/OGR.

Google does make use of GDAL/OGR for some internal data processing and in products like Google Earth Professional. My original hope had been that my job would at least partly be in support of GDAL and possibly other open source technologies within Google. While things are still a bit vague that does not seem to be immediately the case though I'm optimistic such opportunities might arise in the future. But I think this usage does mean that work on GDAL is a reasonable thing to spend 20% time on.

I also made it clear that I still planned to participate in OSGeo events like the FOSS4G conference. I'm pleased to confirm that I will be attending FOSS4G 2011 in Denver as a Google representative and I am confident this will be possible in future years as well.

The coming months will involve many changes for me, and I certainly have a great deal to learn to make myself effective as an employee of Google. But I am optimistic that this will be a job and work place that still allows me to participate in, and contribute to, the community that I love so much. I also think this will be a great opportunity for me to grow. Writing file translators for 20 years can in some ways become a rut!