The woman in charge of laying the groundwork for Waymo's self-driving taxis in cities across the US reveals why humility is key to the company's future

WaymoEllie Casson works to keep Waymo humble.
  • Ellie Casson is Waymo’s head of local policy.
  • Her job is to work with local communities and governments to use Waymo’s self-driving technology to solve problems.
  • Casson’s said her background in community organising and her small-town upbringing help her make sure that Waymo bucks a Silicon Valley stereotype and stays humble.

Editor’s note: Business Insider has been talking with Waymo employees from different parts of the company to learn more about their work. What we discovered were some of the coolest jobs at Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company. This is the third profile in the series. To read the others, click here and here. For a brief history of Waymo, click here.

It’s assumed that if you want to work at Alphabet, your best path runs through a computer-science program at a major university.

That’s true – but you could also get to the Googleplex by working on a farm.

Ellie Casson, the head of local policy for Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving division, is proof. After growing up in a town of just 8,000 people in New York’s Dutchess County, she studied urban planning at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.

After graduation, she headed to California, but not to labour indoors at a keyboard.

“I worked on chestnut and vegetable farms, and on horticultural teams at fancy estates,” she said in an interview with Business Insider from Alphabet headquarters in Mountain View. “I thought I’d be here for a few years.”

Read more:
A Waymo employee reveals how the company is putting their self-driving cars to the test

From farmland to the frontlines of self-driving cars

Ellie WaymoWaymoCasson, far left, in action.

Casson has what you might call a front-line role at Waymo, the autonomous-mobility unit that was formerly known as the Google Car project and that was established as a stand-alone company in 2016. Waymo has officially rolled out its first commercial service, called Waymo One, in the Phoenix area, and has been testing self-driving technology in California, Washington, Texas, Michigan, Georgia. (Since 2009, the company has racked up over 10 million self-driving miles.)

A familiar “disruptive” manoeuvre has been to enter a market without first informing municipal authorities that the business is coming to town. Lumbering governments are then forced to play catch-up with the more nimble technology startup and are often forever behind the curve as the company rapidly builds up a customer base.

Casson’s job is to make sure the Waymo doesn’t do that.

Waymo’s goal is to enter markets more ethically, partnering with communities and local governments as it commercializes a ten-year-old effort that Morgan Stanley last year suggested could be worth $US175 billion.

For inspiration, Casson said she draws on her small-town upbringing.

“I come from a community that was a dairy town, and then a hospital town,” she said. “But both went away.”

She said learned that communities could be resilient and adapt. But she also said that she understands that big companies with big ideas and big money need to be careful about imposing change.

Move fast – but don’t break things

Ellie WaymoWaymoEverything starts with community outreach.

“We’re moving faster than anybody thought we would,” she said of Waymo’s rapid progress from a sort of massive Google-sponsored, moon-shot science project to a company using a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans to supply everyday ride-hailing to Arizonans. “So these can’t be throwaway relationships. We wouldn’t succeed if we treated our relationships like that. The average tech company doesn’t think about its footprint in local communities. They think globally.”

Casson started her career with the Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area nonprofit that focuses on sustainable growth in an area whose economy and population have boomed in the past three decades. She later moved on to Airbnb, where she reached out to hosts around the world.

At Waymo, she’s returned to her community-organising background, but on the side that communities often organise against: the huge corporation.

“As head of the policy team, the first person hired was me,” she said. “The autonomous-vehicle industry isn’t regulated at the local level, but from early on, Waymo recognised that local relationships were key to success. My job is to keep track of the pulse of the community.”

Casson, who lives in Oakland and has two young children, spends much of her time at Alphabet in Mountain View. But she manages a team of two field employees and said she does get out to see how Waymo’s business is developing on the ground.

“There’s nothing like being at our hub,” she said. “A deep understanding of the technology is helpful, and I like being with the different teams to soak it up. It’s cool to see cars circling HQ to go out and to hear all the conversations.”

In the field, Casson meets with both community representatives and elected officials, constantly trying to balance stakeholder concerns.

“The field is so new that a lot of information needs to be shared, and we also need to be gathering information from the community,” she said. “I see that as a big part of my job.”

Fixing bugs in the real world

Waymo LaunchWaymoWaymo One has officially rolled out in the Phoenix area.

Her macro responsibilities don’t supersede her micro duties, however.

“I’ll be the person to connect an engineer at Waymo with a traffic engineer in a city to fix a bug in the real world. There’s no playbook for that.”

Casson points to a partnership last year with Valley Metro in the Phoenix area as an example of how Waymo comes in light, not heavy. The public-transit provider wanted to supply so-called “first” and “last mile” options for the rider, who often struggle to get to transit stops in places that lack urban density.

“They identified a need, which was residents needing transit, and we were able to provide a solution. That’s an example of what we’d like our track record to be. We’re enablers, not disrupters.”

If you think that’s an unusual statement for someone working in Silicon Valley to make, you don’t know Waymo, and you don’t know Casson.

“Humility isn’t typically something we associate with tech companies,” she said. “But humility runs through Waymo.”

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