Startup News & Analysis

Google Australia’s engineering head Alan Noble steps down to focus on a “moonshot” nonprofit

Dominic Powell /

Google Australia Alan Noble

AusOcean founder Alan Noble. Source: Supplied

Long time advocate for the Australian startup scene Alan Noble has announced he will be stepping down from his current role as director of engineering at Google Australia to focus on his non-profit organisation AusOcean, and has added his voice to many calling for visa reform.

Noble returned to the Australian startup scene in 2002, having previously worked in the Valley for Intellisync which was later acquired by Nokia. Since then, Noble has co-founded startup advocacy group StartupAus, and been an advisor to Australia’s Chief Scientist, and advised and taken board seat positions for numerous Australian startups.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Noble highlighted the decision to step down from his role at Google was a difficult one, but after three years working on AusOcean as a side project, he decided it was time to commit to his passion.

“I’ve been very passionate about our oceans for a long time, and like many people I enjoy them and the marine environment. But it’s become apparent to me that we’re really abusing our oceans in many different ways,” he says.

“I’m an engineer and I have been my entire career, and one of the things I’ve learnt through my 11 years at Google is that tech used properly can be a very effective way to have a much bigger impact, and massively scale one’s approach to solving problems.”

“So AusOcean is a marrying of my first observation with the second, looking at how tech can be a force for good.”

The idea for nonprofit organisation came to Noble in 2015, and it took him a year to incorporate it, enlisting the help of marine biologist Sean Connell. Despite a “whole internal process”, Noble got permission from Google to work on AusOcean as a side project, and in November took three months of leave to focus on the company before deciding it was what he wanted to focus on.

During these three months, Noble enlisted the help of three university interns to build a “low-cost underwater sensor network” to stream data from the seabed to the shore, to be collated and analysed in the cloud using machine learning to create a smarter and cheaper way to monitor our oceans.

“It’s important for me because it’s a big part of a project’s validation. You have an idea and maybe you can make it low-cost, and maybe you can build it, but you don’t really know until you do it,” he says.

“It’s given me the courage and conviction to know I’m ready to do this full time now.”

Noble stresses this is a “very very initial” project, and explains that AusOcean’s approach won’t be to build “cool” products, but instead build products focused on helping and improve the situation in our oceans.

“Most nonprofits really struggle to use tech effectively as they usually lack in either time or expertise, so with AusOcean we’re tech first. Everything we do will be open source or made available through partnerships with other non profits,” he says.

“We’re a nonprofit operating in the mould of a tech startup.”

AusOcean’s next long-term project will be reestablishing and restoring a shellfish and oyster reef off the coast of South Australia, with Noble lamenting that most Australian’s “don’t even realise we had them”, though they were destroyed in the 1800s.

Amazing people and “moonshots” key

Reflecting on his time at Google, Noble says it’s an amazing company filled with amazing people, and when he joined in 2007 he thought he’d do it for a few years and then move on to something else.

“I was horribly wrong, for all the right reasons,” he says.

Speaking of the aforementioned “amazing people” and thinking about what he learnt after 11 years at one of the world’s largest tech companies, Noble reinforces a regular adage told to startups: hire amazing people.

“If you can get amazing people, you can do amazing things. I know this goes without saying, but sometimes entrepreneurs forget that. Dig deep and take time to find and nurture amazing people,” he says.

“This is true for all startups, and it’s something I knew, but working at Google reinforced.”

He also mentions the very Google-esque concept of “moonshots”, an approach to big ideas that the company delves into in a big way. Google is currently researching a way to defeat death, as well as kites that harness energy from the wind.

“Google has always had this idea of moonshots, crazy audacious ideas like self-driving cars. But it made me realise you don’t have to be a Google to have a moonshot,” he says.

“AusOcean is a moonshot, and it sounds crazy to attempt with a bunch of interns and no full-time employees, but you have to start somewhere.”

On that note, Noble also adds that startups should regularly be thinking about hiring interns, saying any company can approach a university, and “if you’re not doing it you’re missing out”.

Startup scene like “night and day” compared to five years ago, but 457 changes troubling

“Australia’s startup ecosystem just five years ago, let alone ten, is night and day,” says Noble.

“In 2002 I was gobsmacked when I returned to Australia. I thought ‘what have I done’ – there were hardly any startups around. But today is very different, in a really positive way.”

Although Noble is pointedly “glass half full” when discussing the startup ecosystem in Australia, he acknowledges the empty half, most notably the current 457 visa debacle which has been a point of contention for local companies for more than a year.

Noble says Australia has a huge opportunity globally as the country is a “very desirable place to live” and the country “can and should” be attracting the world’s top talent.

“There’s an opportunity for us to be much more aggressive in doing that. Startups are always crying out for it, and to get them to the world stage we need world-class talent,” he says.

“The government’s immigration changes of late have gone in the wrong direction, and we need to turn them around quickly.”

But overall, he says, things are trending in the right direction, and Noble hopes to stay involved with moulding the startup scene through his involvement with StartupAus.

New engineering lead Google Photos developer

Noble will be succeeded by current vice president of product at Google Anil Sabharwal who has relocated to Sydney from the company’s US headquarters. Sabharwal led the team that conceived and built the Google Photos platform, and has recently been involved in connectivity projects such as Google’s mobile carrier Project Fi, which he will continue to be involved in whilst he leads the Australian team.

Sabharwal has already relocated to Sydney, and as an Australian citizen said he was “thrilled to be home”.

“The site has grown tremendously in the last five years and I can’t wait to jump in and support the amazing work that’s being done across projects like Chrome, Maps, and our products for the Next Billion Users,” he said in a statement.

“Australia has some of the most talented engineers in the world, and our Sydney office will continue to work on efforts that make big impact at a global scale.”

NOW READ: How two small businesses are diving deep to save our oceans with beer and bikinis

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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