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5 questions with Uber VP, Google Earth co-founder Brian McClendon prior to his induction into the National Academy of Engineering

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Last weekend when some friends were “Ubering” home after a few beverages on our patio, nobody worried about how the software was designed — only about whether driver Kelly (or whatever her name was) was far enough away for them to have a final final. (At 4 minutes away, it was determined that she was not.)

The behind-the-scenes part of geographical software development, which most users don’t think about as long as it’s working, is landing Kansas University grad Brian McClendon one of the engineering world’s top honors. McClendon will be inducted this weekend into the National Academy of Engineering for, according to KU, leadership resulting in “widespread, accurate and useful geographic information.”

McClendon is vice president of advanced technologies at Uber. Before that, he was a vice president at Google, where he co-founded Google Earth (and made Lawrence the center of it). According to KU, his former Google colleagues nominated him for the National Academy.

McClendon kindly took a few minutes to talk with me Tuesday. Here’s what I asked him.

First, what’s your bio in a nutshell, and what ties do you still have with Lawrence and KU?

McClendon, 51, and his wife, Beth, live in Portola Valley, Calif., (the Silicon Valley area). He graduated from Lawrence High School in 1982 and from KU in 1986, with a degree in electrical engineering. Depending how much free time he has, McClendon said he tries to get back to Lawrence about four times a year. He serves on advisory boards for KU’s School of Engineering and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, visits family and likes going to KU basketball games.

You were with Google more than 10 years before joining Uber in June. Why did you make the move?

“I think the biggest reason is that Uber needs maps even more than Google does, because it’s fundamental to their business. And Uber is doing something that’s going to change the face of transportation, and I think that’s pretty exciting.”

Disputes involving Uber have been in the news a lot nationwide, including in Kansas and Missouri over what type of service it is and how it should be regulated. Do such disputes make you worry about the future of the concept?

“I think they come with the territory when you’re disruptive. And a lot of existing ways of doing business were, I think, effectively inefficient and not providing a great customer experience, and so there’s an opportunity for Uber to change that.”

I pulled up some Journal-World articles about your past visits to town, in which you made these predictions: Over time we’ll have a completely modeled (Google) Earth (2007). The digital divide is real, and children who don't have access to technology at home must have it at school (2008). Cloud computing and mobile Internet is the future, and it’s within reach (2009). Mobile apps are going to be huge for industry, even outside the electrical engineering and programming worlds (2011).

All those came true — so, what’s the next big thing?

“I think that computers and sensors are going to play a much bigger part in people’s lives. They will help assist with recognition and safety, and they will become much cheaper. I think the hardest part of the industry will be trying to organize all of the opportunities into something that real humans can understand.”

What’s your reaction to the award?

“It’s a cool award, the NAE is pretty selective. The only reason that I think I got in is that the people I’ve worked with over the last many years were brilliant as well, and I learned a lot from them.”

Google vice president of engineering, Brian McClendon, right, a Kansas University graduate who co-founded Google Earth, pulls a Motorola Xoom tablet from a cart as he hands it out as gifts to a class of engineering students. He's pictured with Gary Minden, KU professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Google vice president of engineering, Brian McClendon, right, a Kansas University graduate who co-founded Google Earth, pulls a Motorola Xoom tablet from a cart as he hands it out as gifts to a class of engineering students. He's pictured with Gary Minden, KU professor of electrical engineering and computer science. by Nick Krug


Footnotes

• More worry about weapons on campus: At Tuesday afternoon’s University Senate Executive Committee meeting, this subject came up again — as usual these days in university governance. Senate president Mike Williams reported that the weapons committee will have its first meeting this week and has agreed to use July 1, 2017, as the date guns are coming to campus. The date has been a source of confusion for some, but that’s the one the Kansas Board of Regents has settled on.

Guns dominated discussions by faculty from universities statewide attending this month’s Regents meeting, Faculty Senate president Tom Beisecker said. He said the Regents want all state universities to coordinate efforts in developing plans for implementation, through the Regents governance committee. “There is no doubt now ... that everybody on all campuses now is concerned,” Beisecker said.

• Astronaut scholarships: KU on Tuesday announced that two seniors are the first KU students to receive the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation's Astronaut Scholarship. Winners Jennifer Stern, a senior from Lawrence majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Jessica van Loben Sels, a senior from Albuquerque, N.M., majoring in microbiology, each will get $10,000 scholarships.

The Foundation selected KU to join its scholarship program based upon the university's STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs and strong research opportunities for undergraduate students, according to KU. This is hardly the first scholarship for either of these young women — both have a lot of honors on their resumes already. Read more about Stern and van Loben Sels here.


Contact me

By email at sshepherd@ljworld.com, by phone at 832-7187 or on Twitter @saramarieshep.

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