Jeff Huber (BSCompE ’89) grew up on a small dairy farm near Galena, Ill., and has a vivid memory of standing in the cow yard as a young boy, with manure coming to the top of his boots.
“There has to be a better way,” he recalls thinking. “I loved growing up on the farm, but that moment convinced me that I should explore another option.”
That “other option” became computing. Today, this ECE ILLINOIS alumnus recently completed his 11th year as an executive with the search-engine giant, Google, where he has played leadership roles in developing and improving landmark products, such as Google Maps, Google Earth, and Gmail. He also led technology development for Google Ads, the part of the business that transformed the company from a $1 billion business to a $50 billion business.
At ECE ILLINOIS, Huber was inspired by Illinois’ pioneering work on Internet technologies. But his passion for computers goes back to age 13 when his family received its first Apple II computer.
“To the horror of my parents, I took it apart and then put it back together, modifying it, doing anything that could be done,” he says.
Huber is the youngest of five children, and his parents told each of them that the first year of college would be covered, but they would have to make money to pay for rest of their education.
This inspired Huber to be an entrepreneur and start his own computer business at age 14, selling computer supplies and software, as well as developing software. When he came to Illinois, he continued to operate the company full-time at the Business and Technology Center, a business incubator near campus.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” he says. “I learned what it takes to be an entrepreneur, how to create something from nothing, and how to prioritize among the many things you can do.”
This early experience served him well when he worked as a vice president for both Excite@Home and eBay before joining Google in 2003. When he started at Google, the search engine had been established as a great product, but he says the system for how Google was going to make money was still “a bit of a backwater.” With his leadership, Google Ads flourished. “A huge part of the task was defining the strategy and building the team and the culture to make it work,” he says.
Google encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing passion projects, so Huber made bootstrapping Google Apps his side project. He went on to lead development in Google Apps from 2005 to 2010 — a period when one of its most popular apps, Gmail, took off. Gmail set itself apart from other email systems because of its massive amount of storage and ability to run email searches.
As he explains, “If Google could index every page on the Web and give you a result back within 250 milliseconds, why couldn’t people be able to find the attachment someone sent them last week in their email inboxes?”
In 2011, Huber moved to Google Maps, where he already had some involvement. When he first joined the company, he helped Google connect with and purchase a small company, Keyhole, which served as a prototype for what became Google Earth —the system that allows people to view satellite and street-level images just about anywhere in the world.
In 2013, he began looking for new challenges, because as the head of Google Maps and Commerce, he ran a 5,000-person organization in 20 locations around the world, and that meant a lot of time spent on administrative chores.
“I wanted to get back to creating and building,” he says. Therefore, he switched to Google[x], the secretive division that tackles projects that seem more science fiction than reality. Google calls them “moonshots,” and they include such high-profile projects as Google Glass (wearable computing) and self-driving cars. To qualify as a Google[x] project, it has to be something that solves a huge problem affecting a billion or more people and uses breakthrough technology created at Google[x] that might lead to a radically innovative product within five to 10 years.
Huber is a senior vice president in Google[x]’s life sciences area, which has announced several initiatives. One product is a contact lens that diabetics can use to continuously monitor glucose levels in tear fluid. The contact lenses send glucose level readings to smartphones, but a future version may allow wearers to do a “long blink” to trigger a visual display in the lens. Another project includes using nanoparticles to detect disease within the body, with the first target being early diagnosis of cancer.
Google[x] sets its sights high with these moonshots, increasing the risk of failure — but also increasing the rewards of success.
“With the ambitious projects we're working on, there's a 90-percent chance of failure,” Huber says. “But in the 10 percent where we succeed, we can have a huge impact on the world. I'll take those odds any day.”
This story first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Resonance, ECE ILLINOIS' biannual magazine.