Google searches for northern talent

There is one Web site everyone goes to when they need to find something, but recently it has been Google doing the searching, and it’s hoping to get results in Canada.

Ontario’s University of Waterloo became the scene of some unexpected commotion in March when Google sent Craig Nevill-Manning, its chief engineer, to give a keynote speech that was part job fair, part retro-’70s theme party. Banana smoothies were served in place of alcohol, and Lava lamps were set up rather than a tray to collect resumes, but its decision to rent out Federation Hall was seen as a major attempt to attract new talent. The party was open to more than the school’s student body, which also raised questions about how many experienced IT people might seek out the search giant for employment.

Google has a sales office in Toronto, but it made a significant foray into Canada last summer through the acquisition of Reqwireless, a Waterloo-based firm that makes e-mail software for wireless devices. Among the Canadian job listings on its career page is an ad for a mobile wireless applications developer who has development experience with handsets and carriers in the U.S., European and Asian markets. Google is looking for candidates with experience in J2ME, Symbian, Windows Mobile and a number of other languages. Google spokespeople did not respond to interview requests from Computing Canada.

UW spokesman John Morris said it was Google who approached the university about the party.

“Normally there is a job fair held near the campus. That involves a whole bunch of employers. Renting out a hall, that’s new,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest in the company.”

Google, which last year formed a partnership with Motorola, has indicated that mobile clients such as cellphones could become more important than PCs. Its purchase of Reqwireless, which was started in 2001 by UW graduates, has sparked considerable attention since it was officially announced in January.

“We don’t get many $125-billion companies dropping by . . . certainly not with Google’s cachet,” Gary Will, a consultant who works with early-stage companies in Waterloo on marketing and business strategy, wrote in his blog. “Adobe – which is bigger than RIM – has been here for years and hardly anyone knows about it. We had Cisco and AOL and HP here in the past, so it’s too early to speculate on what this might mean long-term.”

Larry Borsato, a veteran of Waterloo’s tech scene who has worked at Nortel, Open Text and other well-known firms, said there are many people in southwestern Ontario who might attract Google’s attention, whether they graduated from UW or not.

“It would nice for them to suck a few people away from RIM,” he said, adding that the best candidates for Google will adopt a Renaissance attitude to their careers. “The people that any company looks for will have broad knowledge. . . the smartest people I know are the ones who dabble in philosophy and literature as well as technology, and Google has a lot of people like that.”

Since its initial public offering almost two years ago, hiring and retention have been a big priority for Google. Like many firms, it is using a staffing agency called ABE Services based in Sonoma, Calif., to fill the gaps. An ad for a data centre technician in Toronto, for example, is being handled by ABE, who will act as the employer on Google’s behalf.

No planned personnel changes
According to labour market statistics released by Ottawa-based Robert Half Technology in March, 84 per cent of CIOs don’t anticipate making any changes to their personnel in the second quarter. Jeff Thomson, a Robert Half branch manager, said the arrival of a Dell call centre in Ottawa created immediate ripple effects that may be similar to what Google is trying to achieve.

“It is going to stir up something within the market,” he said. “Everybody talks Google. When they open up operations, that will cause people to jump ship . . . this is a prominent, healthy, financially safe and secure company, so it’s less of a risk than a dot-com company.”

Carmi Levy, an analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech research, said Google is following in the footsteps of Microsoft, which sent Bill Gates to the campus last year to discuss careers in technology. Even when Microsoft is cutting back on hiring, Levy said, Waterloo is still considered an important place to cultivate talent. Those who want to work at Google, he said, should be wary of focusing too narrowly on a specific wireless or other IT stream.

“If you pick a specification that is not hot, you’re in trouble,” he said. “You need to look at education as education, not as a training. Keep as many doors open as possible, and then use your employer to specifically train on particular technologies that emerge after you graduate. I would worry about focusing too narrowly.”

Borsato agreed, saying Waterloo’s track record of startup success means entrepreneurship will thrive long after Google’s recruiting drive.

“For every guy who goes to work for a company (such as) Google there’s going to be a Larry Page who starts the companies,” he said.

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