Former Uber exec and KU grad Brian McClendon joins university as research professor

Brian McClendon talks with the Lawrence Journal-World on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, at the News Center. McClendon, a Lawrence native and University of Kansas graduate, was previously a vice president at Uber and Google, and co-founded Google Earth.

Brian McClendon, who recently left his post as a vice president at Uber, has joined the University of Kansas as a research professor in electrical engineering and computer science.

McClendon, 52, said he hopes his experience and connections in the tech industry can help students and researchers at his alma mater. McClendon, a Lawrence native, earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1986.

“I’ve toyed with the idea of coming back to Lawrence for 20 years, because living in Lawrence is more pleasant than living in Silicon Valley, but the employment opportunities in Silicon Valley are just hard to argue with,” he said. “It’s good to be back where I belong.”

The KU job is a part-time appointment that began this week, McClendon said. He said he’ll work with the department of electrical engineering and computer science, as well as KU’s Information and Telecommunication Technology Center — a research center with the stated purpose of innovating technologies in telecommunications, information systems, bioinformatics and radar.

Brian McClendon talks with the Lawrence Journal-World on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, at the News Center. McClendon, a Lawrence native and University of Kansas graduate, was previously a vice president at Uber and Google, and co-founded Google Earth.

“Brian is an extremely talented engineer with a remarkable vision and tremendous talent,” said Michael Branicky, dean of the KU School of Engineering, in an email. “We look forward to his contributions in a variety of areas, including machine learning, big data, innovation and entrepreneurship. We’re thrilled to welcome him home and excited to have him working with our students and advancing the school’s research goals.”

McClendon said he doesn’t expect to teach classes, at least not in the near future. He plans primarily to collaborate on research efforts and help make connections between KU and the tech industry.

He said the state needs more engineering jobs and that KU and other universities should play a role in filling them.

“I think we absolutely need more STEM-educated Kansans working in Kansas,” McClendon said. “I left the state because Silicon Valley was where the jobs were. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t want to leave the state.”

McClendon’s last day as vice president of advanced technologies at Uber was March 28. He said he is staying on with Uber in a part-time advisory capacity, for an undisclosed length of time.

McClendon said he’s on advisory boards for several companies, some in and some outside Silicon Valley, and that he’s in discussions about serving on the boards of directors for several others. He and his wife, Beth Ellyn McClendon, also continue to be involved with angel investing, he said.

Prior to joining Uber in 2015, McClendon was a vice president at Google. He co-founded Google Earth — initially as a company called Keyhole that later became Google Earth — which is why Lawrence is the center of it.

From left, Brian McClendon received a Doctor of Science for outstanding contributions to fields of electrical engineering and computer science from Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little during KU's 144th graduation on Sunday, May 15, 2016.

Through the years he remained involved with KU. KU awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2015, and he’s been an adjunct professor of the practice at KU for the past year, since being named to the National Academy of Engineering.

McClendon moved to the Silicon Valley area a couple years after graduating from KU, he said, and had been there nearly 30 years.

A desire to get involved in Kansas politics was a primary driver in his decision to move home, McClendon said.

Now back in Lawrence, McClendon’s overarching goal is to apply his unique expertise and connections to help his home state, he said. He said his top priorities are technology, engineering and jobs.

McClendon said he’ll split his time between Uber, KU, his other tech-industry involvement and politics — but details about the politics part are yet to be determined.

A self-described Democrat “barely left of center,” McClendon said Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies left the state’s economy “stagnating” but that Kansas has the potential to do better.

McClendon’s next political step?

“Continuing education,” he said.

He’s not saying whether he plans to run for political office or get involved in other ways (McClendon did informally volunteer with Democrat James Thompson’s campaign for the U.S. 4th Congressional District special election, which Thompson lost Tuesday to Republican Ron Estes). McClendon said he plans to read a lot, talk to people, figure out what Kansans are most concerned about, then figure out where his experience and interests could help.

“I’m still trying to figure out the landscape,” he said.