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Technology trailblazer

A Q&A with Alumna of the Year Catherine Courage

Campus and Community

By Dave Penney

Courage. A perfect surname for Memorial’s 2017 Alumna of the Year.

During the course of an outstanding career, Catherine Courage has emerged as a leader in the high-tech world.

Catherine Courage

Ms. Courage, who is currently the vice-president of ads and commerce user experience at Google Inc., has risen through the industry ranks, taking on roles of progressive responsibility with companies such as Oracle, Citrix and Salesforce.com. The St. John’s native has received many accolades and is widely recognized as an expert in product design who transforms tech-based corporate cultures to focus on creativity and customer-focused innovation.

Ms. Courage also shares her knowledge on the boards of several companies, non-profits and early stage startups and is a mentor to women in technology through a range of organizations, including Memorial University.

DP: Tell me about the journey from St. John’s to Google.

CC: After I did my B.Sc. in psychology at Memorial, I knew that I wasn’t interested in clinical or academic work, so I did some research on what the alternatives might be. I went to the career centre at Memorial and it was literally flipping through books there that I discovered a field called human factors – which is really about designing things for people. In the past, we would design systems and expect people to learn and be trained how to use them, but in today’s world, we expect things to be easy to use. They should be designed to respond to the way people live and work. It sounded like a fascinating field so I went to study at the University of Toronto and completed my master’s degree. I had a job lined up in Toronto after I finished but that was the time of the first internet boom in Silicon Valley and the recruiters were relentless, so I decided to go out to San Francisco in 2000. I figured it would be a 3-5 year adventure and now it’s 17 years later. My first job was with Oracle and I’ve worked for a number of different tech companies since then — and ultimately because of my experience in the enterprise field, I went to work with Google to design their Search, Advertiser and Publisher products.

DP: What is a typical work day for you?

CC: I lead a team of about 350 people who are globally distributed, so I spend a lot of time on the road visiting various subsets of my team. I am responsible for design for about 40 different revenue driving products. I am overseeing those products through the stages of concept design to release. I also spend a lot of time with my business partners, who are product managers and engineers, defining the strategy for  the next innovation. I also spend a significant amount of time hiring. The pace of the jobs being created is much faster than our capacity to fill them.

DP: What motivates you?

CC: I always like to be challenged. If I’m in a role and it feels like I’m doing the same things over and over again I get bored. I think in large part that’s why I’ve transitioned to different jobs at different points in my career — because I was ready for the next challenge. It’s a bit odd, but I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, whether it’s a personal challenge, like sports, or a professional one, like a stretch opportunity. It’s about putting yourself in a position to question yourself. Am I ready for this? Can I do this? Is this too big for me? It moves me forward.

DP: What about your experience at Memorial? How has Memorial influenced you?

CC: I have a long family history with Memorial, so the university is kind of in my DNA. My grandfather, Harry Renouf, was the registrar many years ago and my mother is currently the dean of science. She and her three sisters have all been faculty members at Memorial. So, the importance of university and college education was paramount in my household. Maybe one of the most important things I took away from those early years was that I really struggled with what I wanted to do. A traditional field like business or engineering wasn’t the right fit, and it was at the encouragement of my family to do an undergraduate degree that fit my interests and do it well — that it was okay if I didn’t have it all figured out on day one.

DP: What advice would you give to students today?

CC: I think that very same advice, to work hard at something you’re interested in and trust that path. If you come out with any undergraduate degree with good grades, it will position you for the next step, whatever that might be. I took a big pivot and went into a school of industrial and mechanical engineering, so that certainly wasn’t a straight line. There are careers ahead that are yet to be defined and certainly things that students aren’t thinking about or have been exposed to at this point. Do your own research and discover what matches your interests. There are so many options outside the traditional careers that we immediately think of.

DP: You are a strong advocate and role model for women, particularly in the high tech industry. Tell me about that.

CC: I think a lot of women shy away from roles in tech because of the misconception that you need to be a computer scientist to work in this industry. Of course that is one great option, but there are countless other roles that require business and arts degrees. You can have a great career in this industry. It’s incredibly interesting and dynamic, fast paced and challenging — very well-suited to women. It’s interesting to note that most big tech companies are aware of the hiring gap and actively seek to change that by hiring smart, talented women, so in some cases it’s an advantage to be a woman and starting a career in tech at this time.

DP: There is a lot of discussion in this province about innovation and the need to diversify our economy. How would you speak to that?

CC: If there’s one thing I love about Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s the resilience of this place. Despite the challenges, the people here continue to emerge stronger and I think that’s important to remember, to remain encouraged. I think part of what’s important about innovation is helping foster new ideas and remind people that it’s not just Silicon Valley where big ideas and new technologies can be developed — it can happen right here, as well. However, a key to that is always be thinking about the long-term game. Launching a new idea or product can start local, but the vision for a market should ultimately be national and global. I would also say that innovation is not just about new businesses and startups; it’s also about teaching existing companies to constantly change and evolve. Supporting existing product lines or services is important, but you must also innovate and grow. That means always thinking about the next new idea, or finding ways to radically improve the things that you have. Today’s pace of change is rapid, so we need to teach companies how to keep up.

DP: How does it feel to be named Memorial’s Alumna of the Year for 2017?

CC: It is an absolute honour and I am humbled to be selected. I am grateful for the education I received at Memorial University. I gained great knowledge, but also the confidence and courage in myself and my abilities. Memorial created a strong foundation in making me the person and professional I am today.

Ms. Courage will be honoured during the 36th annual Alumni Tribute Awards on Thursday, Sept. 7, at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland in St. John’s. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased 
online. For any inquiries, please email or call the Office of Alumni Affairs, Public Engagement at 1 (877) 700-4081.

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