Recorded on Tuesday 25 September in the Hallstrom Theatre as part of the Australian Museum's 2018 Lunchtime Conversation Series.

Noel Gordon in conversation with Kim McKay
The final Lunchtime Lecture with Noel Gordon, the co-inventor of Google Maps, in the Hallstrom Theatre. Image: Nick Langley
© Australian Museum

Google Maps began in the spare room of software engineer Noel Gordon’s Sydney apartment in 2003. Today’s instant digital information, directions and street views of almost anywhere on earth has changed our lives, our understanding of the world and how we move and interact within it.

Sue Saxon: Good afternoon. My name is Sue Saxon and I look after programming here at the Museum. I'd like to welcome you to the Australian Museum and to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the museum stands, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and those emerging.

Now, all good things must come to an end—or at least a temporary one, and here we are at the final session of our compelling Lunchtime Lecture series, Exploring Australians Who've Shaped Our Nation. It's been really fascinating gaining extraordinary insights into a stellar selection of Australians: Ita Buttrose, Layne Beachley, Dr George Miller and Dick Smith—and of course our own Kim McKay, who took the stage last week.

These Australians feature in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in our award-winning Westpac Long Gallery. Today we welcome an Australian who has helped us get to where we want to go, and in doing so radically impacted our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world. I'm sure you'll have lots of questions, so please save them up for the end of the session. We'll also be asking you for feedback, as this is the last in our series of lectures. Would you like to have more, and what would you like to know more about? So please keep that in mind when the email pops into your inbox asking you some questions about how you've enjoyed the series.

With no further ado, please welcome Kim McKay, our director and CEO, to introduce our final guest in this first sparkling series of lunchtime lectures, Noel Gordon.

Kim McKay: Thank you so much, Sue, and I should say thank you to you for organising this great series of lectures. It's been fun and I'm sitting here today rather than walking up because over the six weeks my hip's got worse, so I'm limping badly today. But, I still can talk, which is great. So welcome, all of you, to what I know is going to be an amazing discussion with Noel Gordon today. It's sort of ironic that we're in this theatre, probably one of the oldest lecture theatres in Sydney, the Hallstrom Theatre, dating from 1860-odd, so it's had a few coats of paint since then. But this very traditional room as we talk about a cutting-edge technology.

When I was looking at other Australian inventions, and I'm sure you've heard this many times before, Noel: what does Google Maps have in common with these? Well, an Australian invented the notebook. Didn't know that. The surf lifesaving reel, I figured that one. We of course made the first feature film, The Kelly Gang, 70 minutes long. We invented Vegemite—not surprised. Something else that, you know, worn by a former prime minister, we invented speedos or 'budgie smugglers'. Pedal-powered radio, the ute; what would Australia be without the ute, I'd say. The Hills Hoist, of course. The Black Box, for flight recording. Very important one in this day and age, the dual-flush toilet.

I always remember watching the US Today show. I was living in America when the Sydney Olympics were on and Katie Couric, who was the co-host of the Today show, when she came back from hosting the Olympics here, all she kept talking about was, 'Oh my God, they've got these two flush buttons on the toilet.' Ultrasound, did you know that? 1976. The bionic ear, anti-counterfeit technology for banknotes, plastic banknotes of course, being sold around the world now. The CSIRO's backing of the wi-fi networking technology, and of course Google Maps. There are many others, I know, which I haven't mentioned, but it's a quick potted history of some of the innovation that's come out of our country.

So our guest today, Noel Gordon, is listed in the wonderful Treasures catalogue, which is (if you haven't got one yet) for sale in the shop. He's listed in the section naturally called The Innovators. He was born in Bellingen in NSW in 1962 on the north coast, and studied eventually at the University of NSW where he received a bachelor of science degree in theoretical physics and applied mathematics back in '83. And then a bachelor of engineering degree in electrical engineering, majoring in digital signal processing and digital communication in '85, which is amazing because the term 'digital' hadn't really entered the lexicon at that time.

He worked in software development during his undergraduate days for the Royal Australian Navy (I'm glad you're on our side). The CSIRO and the Overseas Telecommunication Commission (there's an old name) as an undergraduate. Post-graduation he worked in telecommunications and digital networking for J-Tech and Digital Fountain Inc.

And of course then there was something called the dot-com boom, which we'll talk about, and crash. And in 2003 he and three colleagues founded a digital mapping company, Where 2 Technologies, which was subsequently acquired by Google in 2004. In 2005, while working for Google then, they released Google Maps. And he currently still works as a software engineer at Google. And no doubt is a great asset still on that team, even though he says he's a baby-boomer in that group, not one of the young people who works there. Please welcome the esteemed Noel Gordon.

Welcome. And take the microphone. And I should also acknowledge that Noel's wife Nicky is in the audience today with us as well. Welcome to you too. There's always a woman behind the man. We know this.

Wow. Well we know, from reading about you, Noel, that you started Google Maps in the spare room of your rented apartment in Sydney at the time, but let's pedal back to the beginning, because through this lecture series we've been very interested in what motivates people, where those little germs of ideas come from and the motivation comes from. So you grew up in Bellingen on the north coast. Why were you there? Why did you grow up there?

Noel Gordon: Yeah, I grew up in Bellingen, but actually just outside of Bellingen, in a place called Gordonville. It's named after my family. We were pioneers in the area in the 1800s. And it's at the foot of the Dorrigo Mountains. It's a river-fronted property, 350 acres, and it was a dairy farm. And so what I remember about it is Dad rustling us out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to go and milk the cows. And these days I'm not fond of getting up that early. And then we'd do it all again in the afternoon. What I remember about that, it was the great sense of freedom and space that we had, growing up as kids.

Kim McKay: Did you have siblings?

Noel Gordon: Yes, I had a brother and sister there. It was wonderful growing up there because nobody ever locked the house. The house was always open. Yeah, just completely different. And I went to school in Bellingen, at St Mary's Convent, and I remember that was also interesting, because it was one classroom, and all six grades were being taught in the classroom. The nuns would draw lines down the board and they had Grade 6, Grade 5, Grade 4 to Grade 1. And all 20 children sat in there and learned things. And one of the things I remember is when I finished my kindergarten work, I started on the Grade 1 work. And so it was a wonderful experience having all that extra knowledge being presented before me.

Kim McKay: You could see where you were going, to Grade 6.

Noel Gordon: I knew it was going to be a way, yeah. So I just remember that, that I could always get that whatever work we were required to do done, and then I was curious enough to go and try to do the next bit of work. It was really interesting.

Kim McKay: So at what age did you think you might pursue a technology career, was this in high school?

Noel Gordon: No, it was actually before that. One of the most poignant moments I remember is in that classroom, all the children sitting around on the desks, huddled around a little black and white TV, watching Neil Armstrong take the first footsteps on the Moon.

Kim McKay: I remember that very clearly too, in primary school.

Noel Gordon: It completely stopped everything, and I remember feeling 'I want to be like him.' And it was only later in life that I found out that he was a bit more than just a test pilot, he was a professional engineer.

Kim McKay: So Neil Armstrong was the inspiration?

Noel Gordon: One of them. The other was my dad. He was like Neil Armstrong in lots of ways.

Kim McKay: And in what sense?

Noel Gordon: Well, as a farmer you have to be an innovator. And he could fix anything with whatever's lying around. He was very scrappy in that sense. He could make do with whatever was around him. Typically on a farm you'd go out somewhere and you've forgotten something, and so you made do with what else you found. If there was a fence post loose he'd find another fence post that was lying on the ground, he'd pick it up, break it in half and use it like a hammer to put the fence post back together. Because he mightn't be coming back to that area in the next little while. So I think his ability to innovate, and like kids we followed our dads around and pick up his tools—he'd say, 'Put that down.'

Kim McKay: Did you tinker with him in the shed?

Noel Gordon: Yeah, always.

Kim McKay: I spent a lot of time with my dad in the shed too, tinkering. It was really good fun.

Noel Gordon: Yeah, it was great fun. A great learning experience, for me particularly. So he wasn't an engineer, he was a farmer. But he was very practical. And I think that rubbed off on me a little bit.

Kim McKay: So where did you go to high school?

Noel Gordon: I went to high school, St Pius X College in Chatsworth is where I did my secondary education. And then I moved on to the University of NSW at tertiary level and I started in my first year in mechanical engineering, and I did it for about six months and thought, it's not quite technical enough. They took us to a TAFE college and we made cold chisels. And I thought, 'I'm at a university. This is not quite right.' So at the end of the very first year I swapped courses and I moved into electrical engineering. And once I'd got there that's where I found maths and science at a high technology level. Computers were just starting. It was all kind of fascinating and interesting and dynamic, and that change, of course, once I hit that, that was me hitting my stride. I was totally curious. It kept me enmeshed in the work and led to success, I guess.

Kim McKay: So you've graduated from university, and where did you go first?

Noel Gordon: First of all, after university…it seems like a long time ago now, actually.

Kim McKay: It is, I hate to tell you.

Noel Gordon: It is…the passage of time. I started working for a company called J-Tech, which happened to be an Australian start-up. Very unusual. J-Tech stands for the four individuals that started that business: John, Ted, Ezio and Charles. And they were working in digital telecommunications. They provided telecommunications equipment. Equipment for telephone calling around the country, et cetera. And I started working there, and they manufactured their own hardware, they made their own software, and it was fabulous as a place to work. I spent 13 years there.

Kim McKay: Did you really? So it wasn't really…it might have been a start-up when you started but quite well established.

Noel Gordon: Yes, they got very well established. Eventually they were bought out by Ericsson. I'd left the company by that stage and gone off to do other things. But yeah, it was fascinating there. It was a great company.

Kim McKay: So that's quite interesting, you know, at your age then, even though you'd done these two degrees in the mid-'80s, most young people when they leave university stay for two years at their first job and two years at the second job, so for you to stay for that long period of time, was it just the work, was it no one else was doing that sort of work?

Noel Gordon: I suppose it was the highest technology work I could get my hands on at the time, because they were manufacturing their own hardware—circuit boards and so on—to go in to the equipment. And few companies in Australia were doing that at the time. And then couple hardware with software; to me it's just a lot of fun, you know, getting your software working on a piece of hardware and start flashing LED lights and things…sounds a bit funny when you think about it, but it actually provided the telecommunications network of Australia. We knew when we were working on it that real people were making telecommunications calls over it all the time; just normal telephone calls. So it was practical work and very interesting. A great team there. That's where I met Stephen Ma actually.

Kim McKay: Yesterday I was talking to a man who worked for IBM in the early '60s. He was telling me that the first big IBM computer was in a window across the road from here on William Street. And he was given access to it between midnight and 6am to do his work, because otherwise they were using it for demonstration purposes. And that's where he honed his skills. And I just thought, isn't that extraordinary?

Noel Gordon: Yes, when I started in computers everybody was wearing lab coats and had clipboards.

Kim McKay: Instead of baseball caps turned backwards, yeah.

Noel Gordon: Well yes, and t-shirts and things. It has really changed. But I think what I did sense at that time was that computer technology was just going to take over.

Kim McKay: You had that sense?

Noel Gordon: Oh, I had that sense strongly. Through the '80s, just when computing was starting off, and I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed programming. It was solving hard puzzles and doing things that people hadn't done before. And so I just saw it coming. Mum and Dad weren't so sure, I don't think. Dad encouraged me to join the Navy, of all things. And I said, 'No, no, no, I'll still go with computing.' One thing I do remember about that time was the actual decision to go to university. When we made that decision I had to ask Mum and Dad about it. 'Are you happy with me going to university?' And at that time university education in Australia was free.

Kim McKay: I also benefited from that.

Noel Gordon: I did benefit from it. And I actually think later on that had it not been free I don't think I would have gone to university. And I don't know how the story would have turned out. So I was a beneficiary of the free education movement, yeah.

Kim McKay: So tell me…so suddenly momentum started growing in the space, here and in Silicon Valley. Everywhere. It started taking off. So did you have your eyes on a bigger prize early on?

Noel Gordon: We'd certainly toyed with the idea, around 1990, somewhere around that area. Start-ups and what they were and what they were doing. And yeah, we were curious. But I don't think we got serious about it until the first Web browser appeared. That was Mosaic in 1993, the end of 1993. I think in December '93 we had the first Web server going in J-Tech. I think John, Ted, Ezio and Charles thought we were crazy. What is this newfangled thing that you've brought in here? But we could see the potential of the Web right then. I remember I read every webpage on the Web in a week. And in the next week I couldn't read all the webpages on the Web because they'd just grown so quickly…in a week.

And that was just telling me there was something really happening there in technology, and I used it to put up a phone directory of the company. Everyone else had little phone books on their tables, but we thought no, you just look it up on the computer. It's just there. And so that was inspirational. But we did sense clearly that something was going on. And the technology was really cool. It was really easy to work with at the time, probably because it was so primitive. And…no, we just followed our noses on that. This is working, see what we could do with that. Then the late 1990s began and everything went pretty crazy.

Kim McKay: So tell me about that first start-up you were involved with.

Noel Gordon: Well, I was involved with a company in Fremont in California called Digital Fountain.

Kim McKay: So you moved to Silicon Valley…

Noel Gordon: I didn't move initially. I spent…

Kim McKay: You went on a holiday?

Noel Gordon: No, no. Not to Fremont, I don't think. It was more industrial area more than anything. But that led to cheap accommodation for technology start-ups too. They often happen in areas that have been disused. So anyway, I went to Fremont, California. They were a networking company, and they were a start-up. What I recall about the place is Aeron chairs everywhere. Every engineer had an Aeron chair.

Kim McKay: Comfortable chairs…

Noel Gordon: A very comfortable chair, yes. A very expensive chair, too. And I thought, 'Okay…' And they had lunch coming in at lunchtime.

Kim McKay: You thought I could get me a few of those.

Noel Gordon: Yes, I could. I was just thinking of the cost of them really, at the time. I'm thinking like, well, a hundred-dollar chair would do. Do you need to spend ten times as much on each chair? I guess that was a sign of the times back then. Also they had lunch everyday, which was novel for somebody coming from an Australian company at the time. It was a pretty exciting environment. There were a lot of companies starting up all over the place. The promise of the internet had just been written down finally. The message that we saw in '94 had hit the mainstream. And everybody proposed that the internet was going to disintermediate the way business was done and completely change the world forever.

It was termed during that period, it was described as the 'irrational exuberance'. The new economy was going to change everything and so business was just going to go away. It turned out that that was just a dream. It took something like 20 years longer to do. But everybody was thrilled by it at the time. I was working in telecommunications, networking. And the cables that we stretched between computers is the very conduit over which the internet travels. So companies that were doing networking, they were the—if it was a gold rush they were making the spades and the shovels that got everyone going.

Kim McKay: So what happened to that company?

Noel Gordon: I saw a report recently that they eventually got sold to Ericsson. They'd been at it for a long time. I don't think I would describe it as a successful start-up. They're still alive.

Kim McKay: So what was Silicon Valley like?

Noel Gordon: Oh, mania. Oh yes, mania. Like I said, the new economy had changed everything. People had suggested that the world had—stop having bricks and mortar business, that's going to go away, don't waste your money there. Another thing that happened that prompted the internet revolution or the promise of the early internet was there were a number of tax changes in the United States. Capital gains tax changed where the high tax earners were taxed at 15% if they invested their money for capital gains, and they helped fuel, open their pocketbooks and fuel the internet by investing, because all those bits of cable I mentioned had to be paid for by somebody. And so this mania that took over actually provided the internet that we have today. A lot of people lost their shirts in the process. But it was the fundamental thing that got the entire early internet to where we are now.

Kim McKay: But it wasn't entirely successful for you at that time, because you did come back to Australia.

Noel Gordon: Yes, I did. I was working in Fremont at 3:30 in the afternoon. By 4:30pm I was at San Francisco airport on an outbound flight to Sydney.

Kim McKay: What had happened?

Noel Gordon: The tech wreck had really hit and we were instantly out of work. And wow, no jobs going. The whole market for technology jobs went away and we had to come home.

Kim McKay: All right. So you've taken a bit of a…you've been on the crest of a wave, you're experiencing this bubble, the internet bubble as it was, the dot-com bubble that burst. And then you find yourself out of work. But you knew, obviously, that you could do something else, because you had these skills. So tell me what happened then.

Noel Gordon: Well, what I did was first of all take the wrong approach, and try and get a job in technology in Australia. Now Australia was a bit of a backwater at that time, and I did remember looking seriously for something like close on eight months for a job, and at that time everybody who had a job held on to it very closely. There was no real job security at that time, especially if you were working in technology. Your company could be belly-up in a minute. Most internet companies at that time were surviving on what's called their burn rate, the initial capital they raised and how quickly they were burning through it. Because they principally had a business model that was operational loss for long periods of time: get big, get big fast. And that wasn't a sustainable business model, so many people using it were heading out of business. So we had to decide what to do, and I often think being made redundant, I've said before, is possibly the best thing that could happen to a person.

Kim McKay: I wonder if Michelle Guthrie thinks that today.

Noel Gordon: I know it sounds odd, and I often had to think about it a little bit, why I think that way, but my personal experience was it caused me to refocus and rethink my expectations. Say you're a doctor, right, and there's no jobs going for doctors. What are you going to do, sit around and complain about it? The other way you can go about it is sit on the couch and maybe somebody will just come to the front door, knock, and give you a job. I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen, and it didn't happen in my case. I think you need to…if you want to play, get out on the playing field.

Kim McKay: So you actually went to work for your father-in-law's business for a while. Tell us what you were doing there.

Noel Gordon: Yeah, here I was, trained in quantum physics and maths and then I was going to a cutting factory cutting ladies' clothing. He goaded me for a while to come and do something, and I think that change in heart, that reappraisal about what I could do happened during that period. Possibly because of his goading. He said, 'You know computers. I've bought this new machine, it's cost me a lot of money. Come down and teach my people how to use it. Make this thing work for me.' So I went and began working in his little small business, and I started at the lowest level one could possibly start. I started by sweeping the floors.

Kim McKay: It's a good leveller.

Noel Gordon: It was a fantastic leveller. I'd never worked in a little small business before, at least not a family business. And Joe began to teach me and I began to listen and learn about what he had. It was business essentials 101 done as a practical course. Joe would say—he had all these sayings about business, he'd been in business for 20 years or more, running his own business, and he had a lot of experience. And he used to say, 'If there's a problem, there's a solution. If there's no solution, there's no problem.'

The lesson he really taught me was like, let's attend to the problems that our business has today and not worry about the imagined problems that we don't have today. And he taught me about keeping a very keen eye on our costs and to minimise waste everywhere in the business, be it time, money or materials. Just don't waste things.

And when I look back now, that prepared me for what we were about to do next. I'd gained the confidence to run my own business and know what to focus on, really.

Kim McKay: It really does help, I think. I remember going into business on my own back in the '80s, and I was lucky I learned from a man who had been in business for some time. And he taught me about keeping overheads low and you don't need flash surroundings to do your work. And in fact for you, this is where you met up with Stephen Ma and the Danish-born Rasmussen brothers Lars and Jens, and the four of you became collaborators, working out of your spare bedroom.

Noel Gordon: Yeah…

Kim McKay: How did you meet them?

Noel Gordon: How did I meet them? Stephen and I had worked at J-Tech, 13 years together, but then Stephen ran away to the United States and he got a job at Cisco. And then he got a job at Force Ten. And then the tech wreck hit and he had to fly home too. I met Lars and Jens at Digital Fountain. So I was the lynchpin that knew all three people and brought them together. But they had…during the tech wreck I remember spending a time with Stephen where we were thinking we want to work in high technology; there's no jobs, what about if we do a start-up? Why do we have to go to the United States to do a start-up? Why can't we do it here in our own country, in our home?

So we'd already thought about it a little bit. Lars and Jens had been thinking about doing something as well, because they were both out of work. Most people that had worked for Digital Fountain were out of work during the tech wreck. And Lars had contacted me, and he said did I know anyone, or would I be interested. And I thought about it a little bit and I thought, I think Stephen would be interested in coming and listening. He's an awesome engineer and he can ferret out the gold nuggets in amongst the dross pretty well, of a new idea. He was very good at that.

So I said to Lars, 'Come to Australia.' And he said yeah. And so I'd go to work every day in the cutting factory, and when we finished at 4:30 we'd leave and I'd meet up with Stephen and Lars in Newtown, and we'd sit in a coffee shop and talk technology.

Kim McKay: God, I wish I was listening to your conversation.

Noel Gordon: It might have been really boring, I don't know. But I think what we were doing in that time was just feeling out the ideas of maps and how we felt about it and what we could do with it, and more importantly when and how.

Kim McKay: But why maps?

Noel Gordon: Well, it seemed like an area that needed bringing into the 21st century, to us. The world's map data was available, but it was only available at pretty unreasonable terms. It was very expensive to get hold of. We thought if we could get hold of just a little bit of it then we might be able to draw a little bit of it. And we did manage to do that, early on, and that's…we did a sort of initial prototype around maps.

Kim McKay: What first map did you get hold of that you redrew online?

Noel Gordon: Oh, we got a little bit of Berkeley, California.

Kim McKay: Oh, okay.

Noel Gordon: Yes, just the suburb on its own. California was going to cost about $110,000 per month to have the data. It was very expensive at that time, I can tell you. Because the people who had all the digital mapping kept it close at hand, because they had to pay money. They actually had to go out and measure the streets and record the street names and et cetera, and it was a very expensive exercise. So, understandably, you had to pay for it. But we didn't have the wherewithal to pay for it. So we cajoled the company that did have the data to lend us just Berkeley. 'Is that okay?' And they said yes, and that's where we started. We started in Berkeley.

Kim McKay: Wow. So what sort of computers were you using?

Noel Gordon: Ones that we made ourselves. I remember part of deciding was to tell Joe that I'm actually leaving. And he thought we were crazy. 'You have a good job here. What are you doing?' This is madness. He thought I was mad. He must have thought we were incredibly mad the day we came with all these computer bits that we'd bought, the individual parts that make up a computer, and we put it together on the cutting room tables. We built our own computers. That saved us money.

Kim McKay: Maps themselves are a sort of metaphor for society, aren't they, I mean they've been incredibly important since people first started exploring. They've documented human history really, in a way that nothing else quite has. I had great fun the other day, I went down to Kerry Stokes's building and he has an incredible map collection…

Noel Gordon: He has a wonderful map collection.

Kim McKay: …and was looking at some of it and…I don't think I mentioned this the other day, but I was telling you I collect globes. I'm really interested in early maps and mapping, and then of course worked for National Geographic. And I was on the floor beneath the cartography floor. And Nat Geo of course were the mapping authority of record in the United States, and in fact was used as a CIA cover quite a bit during the wars and so forth. But what was it about maps that attracted you?

Noel Gordon: There's something human about maps. I remember rustling around at home with Mum one day. Mum was a map collector. And I remember one day she was mucking around like a silly old woman, as we used to call her, in her box of maps. And I said, 'What have you got there?' And she said, 'Oh, that's my maps.' And she brought this box out and she had so many. I said to her, 'What have you got all those for?' And she said, 'You've gotta have good maps, mate.' I remember that. I remembered it much longer.

Kim McKay: So it was really your mother's inspiration.

Noel Gordon: Yes, she was a smart cookie too. Dad in a really natural, practical way, but Mum was a registered nurse, and trained, and she was a smart lady as well. But she loved maps. But that didn't appear in my life until some 15 years later from that point. The other thing I like, I just think maps are human. The Babylonians were the first to decide in 2300 BC that it might be a good idea to lay out the lay of the land on clay tablets. And they used that to navigate their way around the world. And so maps have been fundamentally human for a very long time. That's what my interest is, anyway.

Kim McKay: So how long did the four of you work together before you established Where 2 Technologies?

Noel Gordon: Well it was probably a couple of months of us just discussing things, and then we had to make the final decision: are we were going to do this—the when, the where and the how. How we're going to do this. And one reason for starting up in my apartment—we were more a bedroom dot-com than a garage dot-com—was it saved us money. And I remember having to ask Nicoletta at the time, we were courting, and I said, 'I'm just going to bring these three people to the house every day, to my apartment, are you okay with that and is that going to work?' And she said, 'Yes, okay, I'll back you 110% on this,' she said. But she put a rule down. She said, 'You have to be out of here by 6 o'clock every day.'

Kim McKay: That was smart.

Noel Gordon: Actually it turned out it gave our little team a lot of work-life balance. Normally you think of a start-up as people working crazy hours and all this stuff. Actually it gave us longevity. It allowed us to have rest time and that helped us even be more creative. And so once the deal was done the three of us got into our apartment and we'd come 9 to 5. We were a 9 to 5 dot-com.

Kim McKay: So this was a 9 to 5 dot-com. That's great. This was 2003.

Noel Gordon: Yeah, late 2003, in the summer of 2003. And it was probably the most productive time in software engineering I've ever had in my career. We had a great team. With Lars and Stephen and Jens, just all very brilliant.

Kim McKay: And then you started talking to Google.

Noel Gordon: Yeah, that was kind of a circuitous way. Once we'd got our software to the stage where we thought it was good enough to demonstrate, we split up as a team. Jens went back to Denmark, Lars went to the United States, and Stephen and I stayed in Australia. We basically split the team across the world. And we started shopping our technology around in Silicon Valley and we were getting introductions to venture capitalists.

And we ran into one that was called Sequoia Venture Partners, and when you ask who they are, they happen to be the biggest venture capitalists in the world. They back companies like Facebook, Google, Cisco, Intel, you know, household names. And we got an introduction there and started talking to them about our mapping technology and what you do there is you meet one partner, then two together, then three, and eventually you get up to something called the 12 partner meeting, where they all decide. And if anywhere along the path one of them says, 'Nah,' that's it. Doors closed all over. But we worked very effectively.

I'll tell you an example. They'd give us an idea, and Lars would send a message to Jens, and then Jens would send a message to Stephen and I and we'd quickly rap it onto software, right, and then we sent it to Lars. So at the very next meeting, Lars could go, 'Oh, that idea you had yesterday, we'd just thought we'd whip that up and just show you what it looks like.'

Kim McKay: Wow.

Noel Gordon: We were a very efficient team, and actually being geographically distributed at that time was to our advantage. Anyway, working with Sequoia, this led to an introduction to Larry Page.

Kim McKay: And then Larry said…

Noel Gordon: I guess Larry was our customer at that time. We had what was a desk-top mapping application, but Google was a Web company, and Larry just said to us, I remember, 'We like the Web,' in our first meeting. And we went back and thought about that a little minute and we said, 'One moment.' And within a week Stephen and I moved the software into a Web browser using something called a plug-in, a little bit of extra software you have to download with your Web browser.

And so we demonstrated that a week later and Larry was impressed, but he right-clicked on it and he said, 'That's a plug-in.' And we again said, 'One moment.' And meanwhile Lars and Jens had been working in parallel to move our software on to the Web using JavaScript, which is the scripting language of the Web. And exactly one week later we demonstrated that in front of Larry Page and the engineering team at Google. And that was a pretty fascinating moment. They couldn't believe that you could do this in a Web browser, and Larry just opened a door and spoke to Marissa Myer and he said, 'Marissa, acquire this company.' And it was like that. It just happened that quickly.

Kim McKay: Were you very excited?

Noel Gordon: I would say yes, 'beside myself' would not describe the situation. We have come from Australia, which was the backwaters of technology, formed a little team that worked really well together; picked a problem that nobody else was looking at, and they weren’t looking at it because it was the tech wreck. Nobody was much interested in the Web at that time. Great time to do it.

And when we showed it in the centre of Silicon Valley, mouths were agape. They didn't believe you could do this in a Web browser, and we said, 'Well actually you can. I can show you the entire world, zooming in and out, in a fluid movement, in a Web browser.' And that was the game-changer. That was the thing that set us apart from everybody else.

Kim McKay: So listening to you it sounds like you…apart from obviously you're all incredibly savvy and smart, but you were very agile as a team, to respond…and you were listening to the feedback you were getting and taking that on board and coming back as only good salesmen can. You know, you listen to what the customer wants. You were delivering, but very quickly, because of your abilities.

Noel Gordon: Yes. That series of demonstrations we had to go through with Sequoia, that little learning exercise where we would implement their ideas very quickly got us into this mode of doing rapid demonstrations, rapid updates to our software, and the effective communication we had as our team worked really well. And like you say, listening to your customer. Larry just said, 'We like the Web.' And if we had said no, he'd probably wander off somewhere else. And so success in business, to me, is listening to the customer and addressing their needs, and if you don't then they'll go elsewhere.

Kim McKay: Well there's not a day that I don't use Google Maps, and I'm sure most people in the room are like that too, whether it's finding my way around or finding a business, which is nearby that you want to access as well. That amazing monetisation of the technology. But what are you working on now? Because you are now employed by Google, as well as being a shareholder of course. Because I think you joined just before Google went public?

Noel Gordon: Correct. Before the IPO.

Kim McKay: I love meeting people like you. Right place, right time.

Noel Gordon: I think our story is the story of being at the right place at the right time. I know if the tech wreck didn't happen maybe the field wouldn't have been clear for us to play in. We also went to the forefront of technology. Nobody believed you could do this in a Web browser. I think when Google Maps hit, the whole technology industry stopped and took notice that day. I remember Steve Jobs took notice that day. The day we'd launched we were in Building 41 and just after we launched, 10 minutes, there was a phone call for Sergey Brin. And Sergey was with us when we launched and somebody said, 'It's Steve Jobs on the phone.' And Sergey went and talked to him, and Steve was a bit apoplectic about why haven't you released this for the Apple browser. Because we didn't at that time because we couldn't get it to work on the Apple browser.

Anyway, in the excitement of the moment Sergey just said, 'Dude, get a better browser,' and put the phone down. And we were standing there in the middle of that saying, 'Great, we're really in the epicentre of technology now.' When Steve Jobs is calling Sergey Brin. It was like fabulous. Yeah, the Web changed right at that moment. Prior to that no one would touch the Web. After everybody losing their shirts in the first round, no one was going to touch it.

What we did was changed Web development forever, changed the way software was delivered. The age of shrink-wrapped software had completely come to an end, and now after seeing what we did, people started having all sorts of crazy ideas about what you could do on a Web browser. People started making spreadsheets, word processors. Every piece of software that was ever developed.

Kim McKay: Well, not only did you change the way the Web was used, we all got rid of our Gregory's and UBD street directories.

Noel Gordon: I've still got on. I kept one. Like you collect globes, I have a couple of collections. I have a street directory from the United States that I bought just because I thought this would be important to just grab one of these. It's probably a museum piece in its time. The Yellow Pages. We knew it. We knew it was going to go, and all those people working in that industry were going to have to retool and do something. But we were part of what's called the geo-spatial revolution. I think the most extraordinary thing about Google Maps was that we made maps ordinary, everyday, accessible. And it wasn't the insiders who were using it anymore, it was everybody could use maps. And yeah, that changed business, it just changed the way the world did business.

Kim McKay: So have you made the map to find the Moon?

Noel Gordon: Sorry?

Kim McKay: Have you made the map that finds the way to the Moon?

Noel Gordon: Yes, we could have. Actually that reminds me of something. We launched Google Moon. Does anyone remember? If you zoomed right in you turned it into cheese. I remember saying while we were at the epicentre, I mentioned Neil Armstrong before, I remember working with the maps team and we got a message from Neil Armstrong, in our team, in Google. He sent us a mail the day we launched Google Moon. He was really chuffed. Wow! Yeah.

Kim McKay: Isn't it interesting how those things can come back to you. Now, okay, so here you are at Google, which is a company of principally quite young people, and I remember going to their headquarters to give a talk once.

Noel Gordon: And?

Kim McKay: It was really interesting, because I was met by a man kerbside, a young man who I'd been liaising with, who was shovelling his breakfast into his face at the same time as he met me. And I thought, oh, his manners aren't…you know. And we went into the room and I saw my poster up around the campus, and then I sat in this room and all the various staff came in. And the first thing they did was open their laptops. And it was the first time I'd spoken to a room full of people with a barrier in front of them, and they were Googling everything I said to make sure it was accurate. It was the most terrifying experience.

Noel Gordon: I still find that habit of Googlers to be working, however they're working, whether they're Googling or whatever, that still doesn't quite fit with me well.

Kim McKay: It was also Bring Your Dog to Work Day too, I think, and there were dogs…it was the craziest experience.

Noel Gordon: Yeah, it is pretty crazy. I remember when we had Pyjama Day. Everybody came to work in their pyjamas, and it was really a lovely, relaxing day. It really was. Google is just a fabulous place to work. That's why I continue doing it.

Kim McKay: So what are you working on now?

Noel Gordon: So I'm working on the Web browser, Chrome. Chrome came about because of Google Maps. JavaScript had to be faster, Web browsers had to be better, and Google four years later released Google Chrome. It's a great little browser. And I'm also working on something called Chrome OS, which is the new operating system we're developing.

Kim McKay: So what's the future, what are your insights into what we're all going to experience? We read about and we see stories about driverless cars and cars that fly a la the Jetsons, which is my inspiration as a child. So what's coming down the pike?

Noel Gordon: I'm pretty sure coming down the pike driverless cars are a thing. And I do actually think they will change society. It's a fascinating area to explore from a technological point of view and I think we can make it work. Further down the track I think the biggest fundamental change I'm seeing in technology has only just started in the last five years. This is what people would call machine learning or artificial intelligence. And the number of results that we're getting in this area in the last few years are absolutely outstanding.

The technology wave that is coming from artificial intelligence is going to be like no other. Currently we look at the growth of things on the internet, and everything has to be a hockey stick; upward and to the right. Well, the number of papers being published, technical papers in technical journals about artificial intelligence is also going through this hockey stick curve right at the moment.

A breakthrough was found five years ago and its applications are just getting everywhere. And I think for example medicine is one area where image recognition, automatic image recognition is going to play an increasingly important role as a diagnostic tool in a clinical situation. Google currently has doctors and engineers working on something called retinopathy. This is where you take a photograph of someone's iris and that's just an image, and we run it through a computer and the computer will spot out any anomalies in your retina and say you might want to point this out to your clinician it's something we might need to look at. So I think the applications of AI are just going to appear everywhere.

Kim McKay: So what are the dangers that you perceive in this?

Noel Gordon: Well, the dangers of putting humans out of business, I think. But I don't think that's going to happen so quick. I think these technological changes I mentioned before when the internet was all full of promise, it actually took some 20 years for that technology to make its way. And I think all technologies…like Google Maps wasn't an instant success or anything, right? Everybody came and used the technology and looked at their street in particular and where they were, but then they all went away. And that's natural with all new technologies. You're asking people to change the way they work. But they're not going to change the way they work. They come and have a look and then they go away. It's not until the technology is accepted and becomes vital and necessary…

Kim McKay: Well, I guess putting it on the device in the palm of your hand, making it so accessible.

Noel Gordon: I remember Time magazine doing a story about the iPhone when it landed. And there was a little quote in there that said, 'The iPhone, the fact that it has Google Maps is worth the price alone.' That was the first time you had really high quality moving maps on a mobile phone. And that's exactly where we wanted to get to. And yes, the iPhone changed everything, having that little powerful supercomputer in your pocket. And I think phones are only going to get more powerful, and probably be the principal way people deal with the networks and computers that society is building.

Kim McKay: Well, Noel, I'm sure that some of our audience have questions for you. I've kept talking because it's been so interesting listening to Noel. So if you don't mind, if we could take a few questions from our audience today.

Audience question 1: Technically is there a difference between Google Maps and Apple Maps?

Noel Gordon: Sorry? Is there a difference? I think the fundamental technical thing there is maps is really hard. Maps is way harder than you think. You can't just waltz into this area and think you know how to do it really quickly. We have I think something like maybe more than 1,000 engineers still working on Google Maps, still pushing the technology in all these directions. Mapping is a really hard problem. And we discovered it and other people have discovered it too.

Audience question 2: Thanks Noel, that's fascinating. I spent my career working for IBM and artificial intelligence was just coming on the… But one of the things I'd be interested in is, you know, Google Maps are fairly static in terms of the way you interface with them. How far away are we from having real-time maps?

Noel Gordon: Oh, that's not far away actually. Maybe in the next ten years. I imagine the time when we can see the world in real time, and present it to you instantly on Google Maps. Yeah, that's coming.

Kim McKay: So all behave.

Audience question 3: This is a bit more of a comment than a question. We all know that men don't like to ask for directions, so I want to thank you, because it's cool to use Google Maps and my husband has a terrible sense of direction, and I think you've saved my marriage.

Noel Gordon: You're not the first person to ever tell me that. The directions thing has all been sorted out. We can push it off somewhere else now, right? I often go to places and I get…one of the things that humbles me most is when I'm out and about, like recently Nicoletta and I went to Europe on sabbatical for a while, and everywhere we look people are using Google Maps and it's kind of like, yeah, look, they're using it, and they're using it. It really shows me how it's moved into society as a general thing now that people rely on. The other thing that happens is I often get scrummed by soccer mums who say, 'Oh, God, you've saved me getting to the park on Saturday.' And I just get that we made something that everybody can use easily, and I'm really happy about that.

Audience question 4: Thanks, it was a great talk. I've always wondered, how does Google Maps work out congestion on roads? They'll say this is the best route because there's less congestion. I can never work that out. How does it know that?

Noel Gordon: Okay, say you share your location with Google. It's quite a privacy sensitive thing, right? So you opt in to share it. But if lots of you do, we can see where you cluster on the roads. It's really simple. It doesn't look simple, but yes. Location is really key to what you're doing and what other people are doing around you. Say we want to fly drones over the city, for example. We have to work out where people are so we don't fly drones above them, because there might be a crowd. So clustering is the answer.

Audience question 5: Hi, I have the same question but the opposite scenario. I was once driving through the mountains in Costa Rica and there was no clustering. I saw the map on paper, but when I actually got to the area, it was a forest, there was no road, there was like mud that went everywhere, but Google Maps directed me on how to go through literally a river and get to where I had to go to. So how did that work technically?

Noel Gordon: So you may have noticed on Google Maps a couple of options, like 'avoid tolls', 'avoid swamps' and so on. Yes. The world's mapping data is quite huge. And at the time we started, only the United States and England had really accurate data. And progressively the world has jumped on the bandwagon and we've got really accurate data. Strange things happen in the world when we're trying to, say, give you directions. How do you get to a particular street number in Japan? Well the first thing you find out about Japanese streets is the street numbers are non-consecutive. It seems weird, but that's what they do. It's based on the date. In India there aren't any street signs, everybody navigates by landmarks, like go down to the big temple, turn past the elephant and go into that place. And that's how they do it there. And so we've had to adapt Google Maps to that particular…sorry, in India, just to make directions work there.

Sometimes we don't have all the data, but there's a bug link on the bottom with a little bit of feedback. You could say, 'Hey, you drove me into a swamp here,' and we could do something about that. Now we allow people to update Google Maps itself. It's a little bit scary. Do we trust you all to do it properly and not drive everybody into swamps? Again, we can use clustering. It's like the way Google works out how to spell correctly. Google doesn't know how to spell correctly—that's fact number one. But many of you tend to correct a word and spell it this way if we offer you two options. Most people go this way, some people go this way, and that might depend on their locality, how they spell a particular word.

Kim McKay: So do people go right or left?

Noel Gordon: Well, we don't care which way you go, but what we will do is dynamically build a model of probability to say where are you likely to go based on your locality and a few other things.

Kim McKay: So I can tell you something about museums. When people walk in to a museum room, 70% of people go to the left.

Noel Gordon: I'd go left.

Kim McKay: It's really interesting. In fact it's different, the opposite way, in the northern hemisphere.

Noel Gordon: Turned around? Yeah, I would expect that.

Kim McKay: It's quite interesting. Another question down here?

Audience question 6: I just wanted to say that I remember the day my brother bought a TomTom navigator for his car. And I just thought, biggest waste of money, because I knew you were coming to my phone. And it wasn't long.

Noel Gordon: Yeah, actually in-car navigators sort of came and went really quickly. What's going to happen next in your car? I think Android is coming to your car now. That means Google Maps is going to be built in to every car, and those problems that you had will just completely…will just be listening to that, provided the data's right.

Kim McKay: So long as you get the voice right.

Noel Gordon: Well, in Australia you get an Australian voice. Yes, we do localise the voices. If you're using Google Home, now we have an Australian voice. Localisation is an important issue.

Kim McKay: Big thing. It was always a big thing in television.

Noel Gordon: I remember, when we first launched Google Maps there was a lot of discussion on the internet and I remember one of these persons, I don't know if it was Redhead or somebody else said, 'Google should not be allowed to do this. You should release the entire world in one go.' And we were like, 'How many hours in the day are there? We've got a lot of work to do.' It was interesting seeing people's opinions about what we should have done and shouldn't have done.

Audience question 7: Noel, notwithstanding the rate of change in the world that we're seeing, schools don't seem to have moved along very much, so I brought my teenager today because I wanted him to hear your story, for me a fantastic story of adaptability. And sure, he has a laptop that he takes to school, but really schools are still predominantly teaching kids information so that they can spit it back out in the exams. How are we going to teach our kids to be more adaptable, because you know, sadly, I also grew up on a farm and attempted to tinker in the shed but of course I was a girl, so I wasn't welcome there. But there's not a lot of that sort of learning for most kids these days. How do you think we can do this, because at the moment they're not really being groomed for the kind of workplaces that we now have.

Noel Gordon: I think in life if people aren't curious about something or passionate about that thing, they should probably go and find something they are passionate about. So I think all we can do with children is put the range of human endeavour in front of them, of all the things that they could possibly be interested in over the period of their education, which is long, and hopefully a passion within them will come to the fore. Somebody likes to paint, somebody likes to do mathematics, somebody likes to do X. It's not important. I think what is important is finding that thing within them that really…if you gave them that task to do they'd sit in the corner and quietly do that for hours. I think if you find that you're on a winner.

Inspiring passion is the most important thing. My parents didn't inspire me in the sense of like, 'Here's all the great things you can do.' They just let me follow my passions, and if I was interested in a thing, allowed me to do it. But they weren't overly protective. They weren't wrapping me up in cotton wool so I wouldn't hurt myself or if I fell over or made a mistake. I've failed a number of times in my life in business. And these were great learning experiences for me, as any time we fall over. People often ask me, what do you like to see in children, and I say, 'I like to see them fall over.' And they go, 'God, that's mean.' And I said, 'No, it's not. Have you ever noticed how they get up smiling and get on with it? I wish adults were more like that.'

So I think with the technological change you mentioned, that's happening at an increasing rate. And lifelong learning appears to be the necessity for society to adapt to this continuous changing in the goalposts. It's moving very rapidly. I don't think legislature can catch up as quickly and I don't think it should. It should be in place later but it should come later. Some technologies come and then they go. We don't really need to worry about those. But the technologies that stay and become part of our everyday lives we need to think about a bit more in terms of privacy and various other things.

The world I see coming before me is one of a massive technological change continuously. Work is just going to change irrevocably from what we remembered before, that you would get your job, and 40 years, and get a pocket watch, gold pocket watch and that was it and you could retire. I don't think it's going to be like that anymore. I think I've had…let me count them…ten different jobs.

Kim McKay: Well, that's quite a good thought on which to close today, Noel. I think the impact that you've made, not just in Australia but around the world, is quite phenomenal, and I just want to ask you one last question as we close this series, because you've mentioned a few things that have been common amongst all of our guests in the Treasures series. The need for curiosity, everyone's had that, and they've all been passionate about what they do. I don't think you can do anything if you're not passionate about it anyway, it's a waste of time. But what would you like…thinking a few decades down the track now, what would you like your legacy to be?

Noel Gordon: That's a very hard question which I've thought about a little bit because I had to because I didn't know what I was going say to you. But when I thought about it a little bit more, I think fide et labore. In faith and good work you can make great difference to the world, and I think that's the thing that might define me. Faith and good work.

Kim McKay: Good on you. Please thank Noel Gordon.

Lunctime Lecture Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is a series of talks with six distinguished Australians who are shaping the nation across science, sport and the arts running from 21 August to 25 September 2018.