Not many people can say they actually changed the world, but Hays High School students heard from a Kansas native Tuesday who has had a hand in doing so.
“My entire career has been building higher and higher 3D resolution maps of the world,” Brian McClendon told students who crowded the school’s lecture hall.
A 1986 electrical engineering graduate of the University of Kansas, McClendon worked in Silicon Valley developing high-end 3D graphics software.
In 2001, he was one of three people who formed software development company Keyhole Inc. The company was purchased by Google in 2004, and its main software became Google Earth, which renders 3D maps based on satellite imagery. To date, Google Earth software has been downloaded 2 billion times.
And while McClendon offered details of how the software came to be, he also delivered messages of the importance of its human users.
“All the map data that Google created is good, it's a good base map. But the stories that you tell with the data on top of the map is what makes maps valuable,” he said.
As an example, he told the students about the genocide that occurred in the Darfur region of Sudan in the early 2000s. The United Nations estimates the death toll of several ethnic groups in that region between 100,000 and 400,000 people.
In 2007, a former Google employee started a project to use Google Earth’s high-resolution images to show what was happening.
“Some folks created a map of Darfur that showed all the burned-out huts and villages around Darfur and showed this is not just a small instance. It covered a huge area and there’s this genocide going on,” McClendon said.
The project helped bring more attention to events in Darfur and eventual intervention.
“Stories like this can change how the world interacts, and there’s thousands of these stories,” McClendon said.
McClendon left Google in 2015 and joined ride-hailing service Uber to direct its mapping and self-driving vehicle projects. He told the students its mission seemed to fit more with what he wanted to do.
“Google's mission was to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Very cool. But I actually saw what Uber was trying to do when I left” Google, he said.
“It's one thing to sort of change the virtual world, it's another if we can really change the physical world, change how people interact with machines and space,” he said.
McClendon acknowledged Uber’s recent troubles — accusations of a toxic culture, legal problems and the exit of other executives — but said it, or a company like it, will change the world of transportation and, consequently, how people live.
He told the students the world’s transportation businesses — from auto manufacturing to gasoline production and everything else related — create a $5 trillion a year industry.
“It’s a deeply inefficient one. Your car is parked 96 percent of the time,” he said.
Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft in the U.S., Didi Chuxing in China, Grab in southeast Asia, and Ola in India will change that, he said.
The more drivers and passengers use these services in a region, the lower the cost, McClenden said. As those costs decrease, it makes less financial sense for individuals to own cars, he said.
Self-driving vehicles and even flying vehicles will come into use through ride-hailing services and drive transportation costs down more, he said.
“It's a bit strange, especially if you grew up in a car culture like I did, thinking about 20 years from now, I don't think people are going to own cars,” he said.
“It's going to change how everybody lives. It's going to change the landscape of cities, the landscape of suburbia, and I think that impact is what I wanted to have in my next company,” he said.
Those companies are growing at more than 50 percent a year, he said, and hiring software engineers and data scientists.
The real job growth, though, is coming from start-up companies, he said.
“Economically, startups are where all the job growth in the entire United States is. All of the existing companies are net zero, so the only way that this country can grow and have jobs and hire you guys in the future is if startups are creating the new companies that are going to hire new people,” he said.