Noble ideas: Google Australia's engineering director

An interview with Google Australia's engineering director

Google Australia’s engineering director, Alan Noble, talks to Kathryn Edwards about the building businesses, following your own path and why government transparency is so important in the world of the participatory Web.

What was your first job?

Alan Noble: I had some pretty weird jobs early on. I didn’t have to work through high school though because my parents were somewhat old fashioned and actually wanted me to study. So my first job was during first year university working on railroads on a gang repairing tracks.

I had was a more professional job at the University of Adelaide physics department, working on maintaining and repairing the equipment in the lab. A year on, I worked for what was then Telecom Australia, which was my first job doing software.

What did you study at university?

I studied electrical engineering at the University of Adelaide from 1978-1982.

How did you get to where you are today?

It was a 25 year progression. I studied electrical and electronic engineering which means I was learning how to design circuits and essentially create hardware systems. But early on I became quite interested in software, even before it was called ‘software engineering’. It was basically programming. The first job I took after graduation was in Tokyo as a computer programmer and I guess it was my first professional job from an IT standpoint. It was a small company which was doing what they called ‘office automation software’. I was a software jack of all trades, programming anything they’d throw at me! One of my early projects was programming Japanese pinball machines. Another project was for a restaurant chain which wanted a menu management system.

One thing led to another and a few years later I moved to California in the US to attend Stanford University and study a masters degree in computer science. That’s what really formalised my training. After that I lived in Silicon Valley for 16 years, working in a variety of jobs, large companies and small companies. I did a number of start-up companies — some I joined and some I started — and I returned to Australia with my family in 2002. I did another couple of start-up companies in Australia and then Google recruited me two-and-a-half years ago.

What’s the difference between the education system in Australia compared with the US?

I can compare the undergraduate experience at an Australian university, with the post graduate experience at Stanford. Studying engineering was incredibly constrained. You needed to study x units of math and y units of circuit design. It was very prescriptive and, I think, you ended up with an incredibly deep and broad engineering knowledge base. But I was blown away by how much freedom you had to study in the US. Yes, you had your core subjects, but I also studied volleyball, karate and wilderness survival skills. These weren’t all for marks, but the fact that they even offered these courses was something of an experience. I enjoyed that free graduate study environment, but as an undergraduate I’m not sure it necessarily would have suited everyone.

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